In Israel hummus is a religion. There are books dedicated to hummus, guides for hummus restaurants, hummus blogs and hummus fan clubs. There is hummus aristocracy – half a dozen places enjoying national acclaim and worthy of a special trip (Said in Acre, Ali Karawan in Jaffa to name a few) as well as "regional" hummus spots known only to locals. There are upscale restaurants serving hummus with fancy toppings and run down holes in the wall with seating arrangements on the sidewalk. If you are a real Israeli you must love hummus. At the age of 16, when I immigrated to Israel, I wanted nothing more than to be a real Israeli, and yet, my first encounter with hummus didn’t go too well.
I was in my senior year in high school, hardly six months in Israel with a vocabulary of 500 words in Hebrew. Together with my class I went on my first ever tiyul shnati (annual outing) to Eilat and had my first kumsitz (Israeli style get together by the campfire). The menu consisted solely of canned foods, one of them a particularly vile version of hummus spread, now luckily off the market. One tentative bite was enough to clarify that hummus was not for me.
A year later, on another tiyul shnati, this time to the Golan Heights, I chanced upon a restaurant in the Banias nature reserve, where I witnessed the following scene: long rows of tables filled with customers who with rhythmical circular movements mopped up a whitish paste using chunks of pita. "What are they doing?" I asked my classmate. "Eating hummus … duh"
At this point I already knew about 1000 words in Hebrew, but decided to keep them all to myself, and not to share with my classmate my thoughts about the level of local culinary finesse.
Another year passed and I was already a student at the Hebrew University, almost an old timer, with an extensive vocabulary of 2000 words, but still a hummus virgin. A bunch of friends were going to a famous downtown Jerusalem hummus joint Ta’ami. For obvious reasons I wasn’t keen to join but they talked me into it. And, god, was I glad that they did.
My first taste of real hummus was a revelation. The spread was airy as a mousse and yet filling, flavourful yet subtle. The warm whole chickpeas added texture and the garlicky sauce provided the kick. I later learned that particular style of fluffy light hummus is typical of Jerusalem. The owner, famous for his bad temper, stood in the middle of the restaurant urging customers to finish and vacate their seats for the next wave of hummus lovers. "Don’t eat, swallow," he spurred us on, "and don’t even think of ordering coffee…."
Ta’ami closed down a few years later and the legend has it that the owner’s children brought about its decline. "Instead of yelling at customers, why don’t we enlarge the operation," they suggested to their father, and pointed out that the adjacent store had recently been vacated. Their father went along with the idea, and suddenly there were enough tables for everyone, no need to yell, and no hungry crowds at the doorstep. The magic was gone. Another version of the story is much less dramatic, although probably more precise: the quality went down and hummus lovers found another place in which to worship the chickpea deity.