Black Mar­ket Hum­mus

Around the world, un­der­ground deal­ers are spring­ing up.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Devra Ferst Devra Ferst is an as­so­ciate edi­tor at Eater NY. She is the for­mer food edi­tor of the For­ward.

I’ve never bought il­le­gal drugs, but I imag­ine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buy­ing hum­mus un­der­ground in Brook­lyn. Pe­ri­od­i­cally I re­ceive an email from “Brook­lyn Hum­mus” with the mes­sage that the fol­low­ing day there will be ei­ther hum­mus, masabacha (chick­peas swim­ming in a rich tahini sauce) or both for sale. Or­ders must be placed be­fore the day is over; the hum­mus can be pro­cured any­where along the 2 or 3 sub­way line from Prospect Heights in Brook­lyn to Chelsea in Man­hat­tan the next morn­ing. The email is signed “Noam,” no last name.

Last sum­mer I met Noam Bon­nie, a 40-year-old Is­raeli ex­pat soft­ware de­vel­oper, out­side Brook­lyn’s Boro Hall. He unzipped a small cooler and handed me a white plas­tic bag filled with warm Tup­per­ware con­tain­ers of hum­mus and

masabacha, as well as pita. He in­structed me to eat the hum­mus soon and not to re­frig­er­ate it. I paid him in cash — $7 for each container — thanked him and slipped the goods into my can­vas bag.

Bon­nie has been sell­ing his hum­mus like this for seven years. “Be­fore I moved here I knew I was go­ing to miss it,” he told me. An­tic­i­pat­ing his long­ing for the dish, he learned to make hum­mus be­fore he moved to New York, ex­per­i­ment­ing at home and talk­ing to tal­ented hum­mus cooks. Once Bon­nie ar­rived in New York, his Is­raeli col­leagues and friends quickly caught on to his skills and asked to pur­chase the dip. A side busi­ness was born.

Lo­cal Is­raelis were grate­ful for a taste of home. “The first time he ar­rived at my place, I cried,” Naama Shefi, an­other Is­raeli liv­ing in New York who works on var­i­ous culi­nary projects, told me. Sim­i­lar un­der­ground hum­mus op­er­a­tions have popped up in Berlin and New Jersey, feed­ing ex­pats as well as those like me, who once called Is­rael home.

“In Is­rael, hum­mus is a re­li­gion,” Bon­nie said. More than a bowl of ground chick­peas, it pro­vides ex­pats with a cul­tural and emo­tional con­nec­tion to home. The dish holds a unique place in the Is­raeli imag­i­na­tion; there is an en­tire cul­ture of cus­toms, eti­quette and tra­di­tions that sur­rounds it. “The ex­pe­ri­ence of eat­ing hum­mus is the ul­ti­mate free­dom: You eat it with your hands, out­side, and with your friends. It’s very spon­ta­neous. All of these char­ac­ter­is­tics are so typ­i­cally Is­raeli. So it’s not just the fla­vor that’s so hard to bring to life [out­side Is­rael], but also the ex­pe­ri­ence of eat­ing it,” Shefi said.

In Is­rael, freshly pre­pared hum­mus bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the Sabra-brand spread found at Amer­i­can gro­cery stores. At the best hum­mu­si­ahs — shops that spe­cial­ize in the dish — small chick­peas are boiled and mashed with rich and nutty tahini, gar­lic, olive oil and lemon. Heap­ing scoops are slung into shal­low bowls and topped with ground meat, fava beans, stewed chick­peas or sim­ply a pud­dle of fra­grant olive oil and a sprin­kling of smoky pa­prika, sour sumac or the spice blend za’atar. The hum­mus is made early in the morn­ing, and the shops stay open un­til they sell out, typ­i­cally in the early af­ter­noon.

These tiny restaurants, many of which con­sist of just a few plas­tic ta­bles and chairs, also pro­vide a meet­ing ground for un­likely din­ing fel­lows. De­spite the heated de­bates over who owns hum­mus (Pales­tini­ans, Le­banese and Is­raelis all claim it as their na­tional dish), hum­mu­si­ahs are one of the few places in Is­rael where “Jews and Arabs co-ex­ist and in­ter­act on a truly hu­man level,” Shefi said. “You see ev­ery slice of cul­ture” in a hum­mu­siah, said Michael Solomonov, an Is­raeli chef in Philadel­phia.

This spring, on a trip to Los Angeles, I wit­nessed one such shared culi­nary space at Car­ni­val Restau­rant, a Le­banese-owned eatery pop­u­lar with Is­raeli ex­pats and Arabs alike. The restau­rant wel­comes guests in He­brew, Ara­bic and English on a green sign that is so old the phone num­ber listed ap­pears with­out an area code. My din­ing com­pan­ion was Ba­tia Beckerman, an Is­raeli ex­pat who moved to the United States 40 years ago and, like many din­ers, has made a rit­ual of com­ing to Car­ni­val for hum­mus.

In­side the restau­rant, which has mu­rals of Mediter­ranean cities on the arched walls, the owner and sev­eral mem­bers of the wait staff stopped by to say hello. With only a glance at the menu, Beckerman or­dered us heap­ing plates of Mid­dle East­ern sal­ads, roasted lamb chops, chicken shwarma and, of course, hum­mus. The hum­mus was smooth and in­tensely lemony — a clas­sic Le­banese prepa­ra­tion. The plate came with thin Le­banese-style pita and a side of olives, pep­pers and pick­led turnips.

Later that evening I went to Hum­mus Bar and Grill, an Is­raeli-owned restau­rant nearby that draws reg­u­lar din­ers from as far as an hour’s drive. Six va­ri­eties of hum­mus — all clas­sics — were listed on a tall, lam­i­nated menu in both English and He­brew. My bowl of hum­mus was still warm when it reached the ta­ble. It was rich and thick with tahini and topped with whole chick­peas and olive oil, as it would be in Is­rael. An­other bowl was topped with stewed fava beans and a boiled egg. Here the hum­mus is served with freshly made laffa, a flat Iraqi bread pop­u­lar in Is­rael.

When I asked my waiter, Amos Hilel, why Is­raelis love hum­mus, he told me how it is in Is­rael: “You wake up, you have hum­mus; you have lunch with hum­mus; you sit down to din­ner and you have hum­mus.” Hum­mus eat­ing ex­tends be­yond the hum­mu­siah; tubs of store-bought hum­mus are a con­stant on Is­raeli kitchen ta­bles, used as a condi­ment or side dish the way kim­chi is in Korean cui­sine. In the Is­raeli palate, hum­mus goes with nearly ev­ery­thing.

This sum­mer, Solomonov, who owns the pop­u­lar up­scale Is­raeli restau­rant Za­hav, will open Philadel­phia’s first hum­mu­siah,

It’s not just the hum­mus that is hard to repli­cate out­side Is­rael, but the ex­pe­ri­ence of eat­ing it.

Dizen­goff. The shop will op­er­ate like those in Is­rael, sell­ing lit­tle more than bowls of freshly made hum­mus. The top­pings will be slightly up­dated — Solomonov is still work­ing on the menu — but they will be “in the spirit” of tra­di­tion, he said.

While Is­raelis will ar­gue ve­he­mently over the best hum­mus, most ex-pats will al­low for a small vari­a­tion from what they grew up with, like Solomonov’s gourmet take on a Le­banese recipe at Car­ni­val. The search for a taste of home — for au­then­tic Is­raeli hum­mus abroad — is as much about the dip it­self as it is about the com­mu­nity. While eat­ing hum­mus can be a soli­tary act, it rarely is. Hum­mus is a dish that is meant to be shared by friends and fam­ily, scooped up with fluffy pieces of hand-torn pita from a com­mu­nal bowl.


Dip It: A bowl of Is­raeli style hum­mus at an event hosted by EatWith, a plat­form for shar­ing home-cooked meals.


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