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Hummus brings Israelis, Palestinians to the table

Foodies from both groups say that their love for the savory spread forces them to meet.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2007



Abu Gosh, Israel

Every weekend, this quiet Israeli- Arab village in the Jerusalem hills becomes snarled with the traffic of hungry Israeli day-trippers.

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They come here in search of hummus, and hustlers from rival restaurants ambush motorists with directions to famous eateries. Describing Abu Gosh as a "good hummus pit stop," Rami Dourant explains why he visits the village even though he can eat the chickpea dish in any Jewish city in Israel.

"We need to stick with the Arab tradition," says the Jewish organizational psychologist as he left Abu Gosh's Haji restaurant. "Jews sometimes come up with gimmicks for hummus that don't work."

While foreigners know it as a dainty Mediterranean dip found in boutique delis, hummus for Israelis and Palestinians is a savory sustenance devoured by the vat everywhere from dusty refugee camps in the West Bank to yuppie hot spots in Tel Aviv. Both staple and delicacy, it's a culinary icon that's a prism of the complex nexus between two neighboring peoples in constant strife.

Critics consider Israeli interpretations of hummus as merely byproducts of decades of Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land. But some see the spread as a glimmer of hope for reconciliation despite grim political prospects for peace.

"For me, hummus is a cultural place where Israelis and Arab cultures communicate and cooperate," says Shooky Galili, the editor of a Hebrew weblog entitled "Hummus for the masses." "There is no separation for me between Israeli and Arab food. I eat what's tasty." Galili's blog offers food reviews for the sort of Israelis who are willing to drive hours – usually to remote Arab villages – in search of the obscure "humusiya" restaurant rumored to serve up the best version of the spread. Indeed, in a place where Arabs and Jews are mostly segregated from one another, the dip is one of the few things that brings them together.

Among Palestinians, the food is eaten for breakfast. Israelis who got hooked on hummus as a snack and appetizer elevated it to become a national food symbol and now boast more than twice as much hummus consumption as their Arab neighbors, according to Tsabar Salads, Israel's leading hummus manufacturer.

Hummus has made Abu Gosh perhaps one of the most heavily visited Arab villages in Israel, but it wasn't until the 1990s that a hummus restaurant in the village named Abu Shukri became legendary among Israelis.

Explaining Abu Gosh's hold on tourists, Raed Ibrahim, a waiter at Haji restaurant, says Jews are drawn to Abu Gosh because of "its atmosphere. It's the mosques and minarets."

When challenged about Israelis' emotional baggage from their conflict with Palestinians, he explains, "Here, it's different. Israelis love Abu Gosh. The hummus draws people here, and they see it's not scary."

A dish that originated among the peoples of the Levant – Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan – hummus is ubiquitous because it's both cheap and filling.

Though contemporary hummus is thought to have been popularized by the Arabs of the eastern Mediterranean, evidence of chickpea cultivation stretching back to the 7th century BC has been found in excavations in the West Bank city of Jericho.

The first record in the region of a dish that resembles hummus dates to the Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. But an Israeli author, Meir Shalev, recently argued in an article titled "Hummus is Ours" that references to the food can be found in the Book of Ruth.

The irony of two conflicted peoples sharing the same cravings was the backdrop of Ari Sandel's Oscar-winning West Bank Story, about a cross-cultural romance amid the heated rivalry of Middle Eastern fast-food restaurants.

But for some Israelis, hummus actually symbolizes reconciliation. A team of researchers from Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University has concluded that the high levels of trytophan – an amino acid – in chickpeas stimulates the production of the "feel good" nerve reception agent serotonin.

Hummus is the one thing which unites everything around it," says Dudi Menovitz, chief executive at Tsabar Salads. "When a group of buddies is sitting in a restaurant, one person orders a beer, another a steak, a third, some fish, but everyone dips into the same plate of hummus. There's a lot of symbolism in that."

Habeeb Daoud, chef and owner of Ezba, a Palestinian-Lebanese restaurant in northern Israel , defines his culinary identity as Lebanese, his national identity as Palestinian, and his civic identity as Israeli. Mr. Daoud says he sees the food as a common denominator between the Jews and Arabs.

"It forces the two nations to cross boundaries," he says. "Because in the hummus restaurants, there is little room and Jews and Arabs must sit at the same tables. It forces people to meet."

But Liora Gvion, an Israeli author of a socio-political study of Palestinian food is less sanguine about the prospects for reconciliation over hummus.

"It's chutzpah to think about it as a meeting place between the two. Because it was appropriated by the Israelis, so now after they appropriated it, they want to return it and say 'let's call it a meeting place?' No self-respecting Palestinian would buy it," she says.

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