Having lived in the Middle East for so long and traveled widely and written about the food, we have to admit that we consider ourselves to be something of connoisseurs of the cuisines of the region – often very mistakenly reduced to just being called ‘Lebanese food’. We love a great hummus and nobody does hummus better than the Syrians and Lebanese, although you can get an equally good hummus in the Gulf region, especially in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Another admission: we’re purists to some extent too. The silly hummus restaurants and hummus culture we saw in New York (such as the stuff mentioned in this story) made us cringe. What would our friends back in the Middle East think, we wondered? To them – and us – hummus is essentially a chickpea dip, consisting of chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini (a sesame seed paste), garlic, salt, and olive oil. And nothing else.
For many years, our weekend breakfasts would consist of freshly-made hummus, scooped up using a piece of torn, still warm, Arabic bread, along with some tangy olives, white cheese, and strong Arabic coffee or mint tea. Breakfast was one of our favourite weekend rituals in the UAE. When we’d stay in and order home delivered ‘Lebanese’ food for dinner, we’d get falafel or kibbeh, salads such as tabbouleh or fattoush, and a mixed grill, and hummus would always be central to that scrumptious spread.
When we spotted these crazy coloured dips at all the deli counters at Vienna’s Naschmarkt, at first we thought the pink dip was tarama or taramosalata, the Turkish/Greek fish roe dip, and that the orange dip was some sort of Mexican chilli dip, but then we realised they were different flavours of ‘hummus’!
Considering we’d been hearing stallholders and shop-keepers’ conversations in Turkish and German (Turkman? Germish?) as we wandered around the Naschmarkt, it made sense that Turkish immigration, which began in post-war Austria, would have had a profound influence on local food culture.
But coriander hummus? Seriously, presenting these dips at a traditional Turkish restaurant in rural Turkey would cause a riot. Lara had to buy some. Pretty colours and food? She couldn’t resist. So we took some home for a taste test at the apartment…
We tried the curry, chili, wasabi, and beetroot flavours of ‘hummus’ and while they were all tasty, frankly, they weren’t really hummus. They didn’t taste anything like hummus as we know it. In this case, the relatively anodyne base of the hummus is used in much the same way as someone might make a dip from cream cheese or sour cream. It’s a base and has no resemblance to the heavenly hummus we know and love so well. I’m sure it’s a far healthier alternative to creamy dips you buy in the supermarket and we recommend you try it, but think of it as a healthier beetroot dip or wasabi dip and so on, rather than a beetroot ‘hummus’…
Serve them, but just don’t expect to get a positive reaction to them if you serve them at a shindig with Middle Eastern guests and call them ‘hummus’. Maybe just call them dips and leave the name ‘hummus’ to, well, hummus.
As with pizza, some traditional dishes, traditional methods of production and ingredients lists that can be codified, need to be protected. In the same way that sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne is no longer labelled as ‘Champagne’. It won’t make consumption of it any less enjoyable, just less misleading.