Claimed by all, owned by none
Hummus is a fixture in cuisines throughout the Middle East, yet its exact origins are impossible to pinpoint. Said to have been first mentioned in a 13th-century Egyptian cookbook, today, most nations in the region have attempted to claim it as their own, from Israel and Lebanon to Syria and Turkey.
Charles Perry, an expert on medieval Arab food and president of the Culinary Historians of Southern California, told the BBC that Damascus, Syria, is the most likely origin of hummus. Giving credit to the Lebanese, he believes Beirut is the second most likely origin of the dish, due to its status as a sophisticated city in the Middle Ages with a bountiful supply of lemons.
Oren Rosenfeld, an award-winning Israeli filmmaker who recently wrote and directed Hummus! The Movie, told Culture Trip that the dish is likely to have originated from Nepal and northern India.
Some Jewish Israelis claim credit for the dish, citing a passage from the Book of Ruth in the final part of the Hebrew Bible: “Come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the hometz.” Yet, it is difficult to verify whether or not hometz refers to hummus, despite the similarities.
One thing is for certain, however: the lemony, garlicky chickpea dish is a source of national identity and pride and occupies a central role in the cultural and culinary heritage of numerous Middle Eastern countries. This laid the foundations for the gastronomic battles that would ensue.
Indeed, the Jewish State’s perceived appropriation of the dish and the marketing of it in the west as an Israeli cuisine caused the president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists to sue Israel for breaking food-copyright laws. This failed – as did the attempt by the Lebanese government to petition the EU to recognise hummus as Lebanese.
From this point onward, the issue developed into a passionate and unintentionally comical saga that is today known as the “Hummus Wars”. In 2009, Fadi Abboud, the Lebanese minister of tourism, decided to take matters into his own hands: Lebanon was going to make the biggest bowl of hummus ever, so large that it would be recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records.
His plan worked; Lebanon set the world record with a gigantic plate of hummus that weighed roughly 2,000 kg. Now, the whole world would recognise their prowess and ownership of the chickpea dish. Or so they thought.
Jawdat Ibrahim, a renowned hummus restaurant owned by Arab Israelis in Abu Ghosh, Israel, retaliated with a satellite dish, 6.5 metres in diameter, filled with roughly 4,000 kg of hummus. Advantage Israel – until four months later when the incensed Lebanese counter-attacked with a staggering 10,452 kg of hummus. Israel did not respond and Lebanon has preserved their record since 2010.
So, what should we make of the “Hummus Wars”? Were they something light-hearted or an extension of the deep-rooted tension between Lebanon and Israel? For Rosenfeld, who interviewed key figures of the chickpea battles on each side, the answer is both.
Nevertheless, with Israel currently locking horns with Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanon-based terrorist organisation and with two bloody conflicts between these countries in the past, perhaps the “Hummus Wars” is something we can look back on wistfully.
As Rosenfeld concludes, “I’d rather have all the wars over food – the biggest hummus, the biggest falafel, the biggest shakshuka, than anything else”.