That’s Not Hummus

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A middle-aged man wearing a kippah places pita dough to go into a stone oven.

Nothing surpasses dipping a warm, fluffy pita into perfectly smooth and creamy hummus after a long day of playing matkot (Israeli beach paddle ball) in the salty, sandy air of Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv. The entire family is together on the couches under the umbrella. The children are bright red and burned from the hot sun, but they are still running wild and carefree. The sound of laughter rings through the air, and no one cares that the couch is covered in sand because everyone is together, happy, and satisfied, enjoying warm pita and hummus.

My father moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from Ra’anana, Israel, when he was thirty-three years old. Because hummus is such a core part of Israeli cuisine, the dish naturally became a significant aspect of my father’s childhood and adult life as a native Israeli. Hummus is a dish that is typically seen as a side or an extra, but for my father, it’s front and center. My father eats a sandwich of pita, hummus, pickles, and Israeli salad at least twice a week. Sometimes, he adds a hard-boiled egg. Occasionally, a chicken cutlet (aka schnitzel). But always hummus. And since he moved to the United States, my father has been struggling to find “the perfect hummus”—not Americanized hummus, just plain, normal, authentic hummus.

Hummus is a Middle Eastern dip made from ground chickpeas, garlic, and cumin. It is typically served with a “well” made from the back of a spoon in the center. Inside the “well” are pine nuts, olive oil, paprika, and maybe fava beans. The dish is placed in the center of the table in a small decorated bowl for all to enjoy. Hummus is associated with the entire Middle East. In Israel, hummus can be found in shuks (street markets), inside sandwiches that children take to school, at schnitzel stands, as a salad dressing, and in every Israeli refrigerator.

In middle school, I would see my classmates eating the Sabra hummus and pretzel snacks, and I would sit there longing for one of my own. But I wasn’t allowed to buy them because, to my father, Sabra was “not real hummus.” In the snack aisle of the grocery store, he would tell me and my younger brother, “Ze lo choo-moos!” (“That’s not hummus!”) We only buy hummus from Achla, the brand he claims is the closest packaged hummus to Israel’s. Even though my middle-school self would have loved to enjoy the hummus snacks like the rest of my peers, I understood where my father was coming from. I had to admit that the hummus from Sabra was nowhere near as tasty as the hummus from his home country.

Hummus is a dish that much of the Middle East has in common: each country has its own way of making it, and they all claim ownership of the delicacy. Here in America, though, people have started putting weird things in it. The idea of Buffalo-style, birthday cake, or peanut butter hummus boggles my father’s mind. How could someone ruin his beloved hummus so brazenly? Perhaps these transgressions stem from Americans’ mispronunciation of the word: “HUM-mus? No. CHOO-moos.” That guttural “CH” sound should be your clue that Buffalo sauce and peanut butter have no place here. And a pita chip? Further sacrilege.

Thanks to my father’s hummus fanaticism, I have become hyper-aware of the different tastes of different types of hummus. As a result, my American friends always ask me: “Hey, Israeli, is this hummus authentic?” Sighing, I reply to them: “No, it’s too dry.” “No, it’s too grainy.” “No, it’s too chunky.” The closest we’ve found to the real thing was at the NYC branch of Michael Solomonov’s Philadelphia-based restaurant, Dizengoff. But, alas, it closed in 2018.

For my father, hummus is not just a dip that you order at a restaurant to try something “ethnic.” It is a taste of home. My father wants “his” hummus. The one that transports him back to the beach with the sounds of seagulls squawking and children playing, the smell of the salty Mediterranean Sea, and the feeling of sand on your feet after a long, hot day. The whole family gathered around one table, enjoying the one dip that everyone loves. My father finds warmth and safety in those creamy, perfectly blended chickpeas, the hint of cumin, the “well” sprinkled with pine nuts and paprika and filled with olive oil and maybe fava beans. Hummus is not just any side dish—it’s a comfort food, a reminder of home and happiness.

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