It is my third day at Sharjah, the cultural capital of United Arab Emirates. Each day has left me awestruck with the surprises ranging from culture to history and adventure to food. However, one thing remains constant — Hummus. Whether I am having a modest breakfast at Ramada, enjoying a royal lunch at Royal Tulip or relishing a romantic dinner at Emirgan Sutis, the ubiquitous Hummus always makes its presence felt. Even at the splendid ‘Gala Dinner’ in a dreamy desertscape, Hummus turns out to be a showstopper. No, it’s neither as expensive as Almas Caviar nor as rare as Bird’s Nest Soup. In fact, it is as common as table salt. Yet nobody gets bored of it.
So, what makes it so popular?
Hummus is Healthy
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away. But in the Arabic world, Hummus does the job,” says Mohamed Sobhy, the manager at Royal Tulip Hotel. He further explains, “It is scrumptious and a nutritionist’s delight — packed with protein, fibre, iron, vitamins and potassium.”
Vegan, vegetarian, or non-vegetarian — everyone loves it. While the core of this nutrient-packed dish remains the same — chickpeas, sesame paste, lemon juice and garlic — it offers nuances like pine nuts, pesto, basil, veggies, or even meat, depending on where you are and who is making it.
Wars are fought over Hummus
A spread whose popularity broke geographical barriers also started now legendary ‘Hummus Wars”. I comb through the history books to investigate the ownership claims. But alas! I reach nowhere. Claimed by all and owned by none. Everyone from the Lebanese to the Turks to the Syrians have tried, but the proprietorship is still disputed. Hummus has been around for so long, and in so many different variations, the exact origin has been lost in antiquity. Though the earliest mention of the spread dates to the 12th century.
My tour guide, Shada Mekazi, throws some light on its origin. “Hummus is the quintessential food identity of Levantine cuisine. Traditionally a starter dish and a universally accepted favourite of everyone with Arabian or Levantine heritage,” he says.
As I dig deeper, I find out how each and every country in the Middle East has happily adopted and adapted hummus into its native cuisine, giving rise to subtle differences in the recipe.
Pervasive love for Hummus
To understand why Hummus is cherished by one and all, I visit places from swanky five star hotels to dingy lanes of Sharjah and Dubai. My exploration leads me to Shangri-La Dubai, renowned for its award-winning multi-cuisine restaurants.
“Hummus is the most popular pass-around food and is a perfect ice-breaker. It is the first thing I offer to my guests or students. A dish no one can say no to,” says Asaad Alabbar, the Masterchef at Shangri-La. He is a food connoisseur, who adds magic to the Arabic Cuisine and represents his hotel at international food festivals.
As we start talking, I realise Hummus has a much deeper connection with him. “I come from Syria, where things changed for worse in the last half decade. I haven’t seen my family for years. Whenever I miss my mother (which is usually daily), I make her favourite dish — Hummus — in exactly her style. That is my way of feeling closer to my mother,” says Asaad with teary eyes.
A friend in a foreign land
Assad’s story inspires me to visit a restaurant that is the first pit-stop for anyone entering Dubai from Syria in search of a better life. My local friend, Ryan Gazder, who has been a regular at this restaurant for 15 years, volunteers to be my guide. At 11.30 pm, we walk into the neon-lit patio of Aroos Damascus restaurant in Deira that has been serving Syrian food since 1980. Nothing fancy, just good, cheap food and fast service. We order a traditional Hummus with pine nuts, which comes with a basket of freshly baked Pita bread and a green salad. Interesting conversations and gluttony force me to have the second dinner. After all, you can’t say no to fresh Hummus served in a traditional red clay bowl drizzling with olive oil. As Ryan beautifully summed up, I too had forged a lifelong friendship with the humble Hummus.
“The real appeal of Hummus lies in the fact that it’s an easy-to-make, easy-to-serve tasty dish, affordable for everyone. Hummus is almost always our first taste of Arabia and the first culinary welcome to the Middle East. It is the first friend I made in Dubai. Fifteen years on, the friendship is still as strong as ever,” Ryan says.
Aren’t you craving for Hummus after reading this?