A dish of pharaohs, warriors and sultans - just what makes hummus so special?

From pharaohs, warriors and sultans to dining tables across the UAE, there is an interesting story behind the humble hummus.

Musabbeh Al Kaabi, executive Oriental chef at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, says once you’ve learnt how to make hummus, it’s easy to modify with ingredients such as chilli, avocado and pesto. Reem Mohammed / The National
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A dish consumed by pharaohs, warriors and sultans, with nutritional values noted by great philosophers such as Plato, the humble hummus has come a long way to become the traditional and symbolic dish in Arab and Turkish cuisine.

Roughly translated, hummus means “chickpeas”, but the dip we eat today is more accurately known as hummus bi tahini or tahina.

With Turkish, Greek, Egyptian and Levantine claims on its origin, the history of hummus is shrouded in mystery and there are many legends tied to it. One of the more popular suggests it was first prepared by the 12th-century commander and leader Saladin, the first Ayyubid sultan of Egypt and Syria.

“The Arab cuisine is one of the biggest kitchens out there, with many traditions and historic ties, where every dish has a story,” says Emirati chef Musa­bbeh Al Kaabi, the executive Oriental chef at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel. “Hummus is one of the most famous and most recognisable dishes around the world.”

Chickpeas were one of the earliest crops in Mesopotamia and a common food on the streets of ancient Rome, so it is befitting that this year hummus gained recognition, along with other pulses, when the UN declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. The initiative aims to raise awareness of the health benefits associated with dried beans and peas, boost their production and trade, and encourage new and smarter uses.

“Pulses are important food crops for the food security of large proportions of populations,” says José Graziano da Silva, director-­general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). “They have been an essential part of the human diet for centuries. Yet, their nutritional value is not generally recognised and is frequently underappreciated.”

Pulses include lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas, and are a vital source of vitamin B, plant-based proteins and amino acids. They can prevent and help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer.

The FAO website describes pulses as “leguminous plants that have nitrogen-fixing properties, which can contribute to increasing soil fertility and have a positive effect on the environment”. With hummus widely consumed around the world, it is perhaps the pulse’s greatest ambassador.

For the uninitiated, traditional hummus is made by blending cooked, mashed chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) with tahini (a paste made from sesame seeds), lemon salt and salt. Olive oil, cumin and mint leaves are added on top of the creamy dip, and some people also add garlic to the mix.

“The important ingredient is ice, which gives it the lighter colour. The temperature of the mix is what makes the diffe­rence between creating a great hummus dish and a bad one,” says Al Kaabi.

As someone who has a Bedouin background, the Hatta-raised chef appreciates the fact that simple dishes can be the most fulfilling.

“It is not just delicious, it is healthy. You get vitamins, protein, minerals and fibre from hummus, and it fills you up,” says Al Kaabi, who has been a chef for more than 17 years and was the UAE’s first Emirati professional chef.

Each country and culture has developed its own variation of hummus. For instance, “Beiruti” hummus has parsley and pine nuts in it, the Iraqi version has meat added and the Turkish one is crunchier and less creamy. Egyptian hummus has garlic in it, as “Egyptians worship the garlic and put it in everything,” says Al Kaabi.

“From saffron to pesto to beetroot to paprika to chilli and even avocado, once the foundation is there, one can gently add other ingredients to create a new take on hummus.”

Dating back to 1469, hummus that was served to sultans in the Ottoman Empire was more “sweet”, with cinnamon, currants and pine nuts.

“The Ottoman Empire cuisine has these as the core: garlic, onion, tomato, hummus and olive oil. Every dish has all of them, or some of them,” says Al Kaabi.

In 13th-century Arabic cooking, hummus recipes used vinegar instead of lemon or garlic. The Emirati version of hummus is called nakhi. In this version, the chickpeas are not crushed, but left whole and combined with dried chilli, salt and some vinegar. It is a traditional dish served during Ramadan, and usually eaten before starting the day’s fast to help keep the stomach full.

Al Kaabi quotes a famous Arab proverb to show the significance of hummus: “Iza rah anak Al dhani, alek bel hummosani”. It loses its rhyming singalong sound when translated into English: “If you have no meat, go get hummus.”

Besides its taste and nutritional value, one of the reasons hummus has endured the test of time and crossed borders, is its affordability. “It is a dish that anyone can buy or make,” says Faysal Younes, chief exe­cutive of eathos, the food and beverage company that brought the Lebanese Kababji food chain to the UAE.

A hummus dish can cost any­where from Dh10 to Dh40, depending on what ingredients have been added.

“Being Lebanese, I took hummus for granted,” says Younes. “We don’t realise how special it is as it is always there. So with initiatives like the UN one on pulses, it helps promote the importance of this dish and many others that are made from pulses.”

It also inspires a sense of “togetherness”, says Younes. “When you sit with family and friends and share a hummus dish, and we all dip into this dish together, it cultivates a sense of collectiveness and togetherness,” he says. “Hummus brings joy to those who eat it and share it.”