1,001 Arabian Bites: When it comes to hummus, I’m a purist at heart

It helps to have blueprints in life: templates and heroes to point at and say: “That’s the direction I’d like to move in.” Recipes aren’t usually written to serve as templates, but the insurgents among us may choose to see them that way. We find ourselves attracted to dogmas more suggestive and less set in their principles, such as “taste for seasoning” rather than “half a teaspoon of salt”. After all, you can’t revamp a classic without deviating from it.

I’ve eaten a lot of mediocre Middle Eastern food in the United States and hummus is the most predictable offence. Real hummus, as recognised by anyone who has spent more than five minutes in an Arab house or homeland, is plush but not heavy; decadent but not rich. It goes with almost everything and I want it all the time.

Silvena Rowe, formerly of London's Quince at The May Fair and now of the burgeoning Omnia by Silvena in Dubai's Downtown Boulevard, has a hummus recipe in her book Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume. In the introduction, she explains why the world needed yet another hummus recipe added to the heap: her method, taught to her by a Syrian chef, converted her from a lifelong devotee of chickpea-peeling into a cook now freed by a process both quicker and superior. Having attended the school of chickpea-peeling as well and having spent many hours of my life on a task so tedious it has kept me from making hummus as often as I'd like to eat it, I had to give it a try. Rowe's is the same method promoted in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's book Jerusalem, in which eight pages are dedicated to the topic of hummus. Both recipes require cooking the dried chickpeas in baking soda after a soak and emulsifying the purée with ice or iced water.

Rowe was right about her method – the results, as promised, were very light in both texture and colour. The alkalinity created by baking soda breaks down the pectin in the cellulose skins, dissolving them into a gelatinous membrane that either disintegrates and is rinsed away when the chickpeas are drained, or gets whipped up with the chickpeas without turning the hummus grainy, as skins normally would. But it had a fluffiness that turned me off. I’m looking for the silky texture of softly whipped cream. And neither Rowe nor Ottolonghi and Tamimi blend olive oil into their hummus, so I missed the grassy top-notes that exalt tahini’s earthy density.

Then I read about another idea that gave me pause. Purists might be scandalised, but open minds end up with better food. Chana dal is a type of chickpea – and probably the earliest type – that has been hulled, or polished, and split, so they have no skins to shed. Eaten mostly as a spiced Indian stew and widely available worldwide, chana dal is small and sweet, with an incredibly low glycaemic index and high fibre content. Some believe they make a superior hummus. My consensus after trying this was that they make a tasty bean purée, oddly reminiscent of sweetcorn, but it missed the mark on my craving for the real deal.

I’ll go back to my original method. Not out of old habits or fear of change, but because some classics don’t need revamping in the first place.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico


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