Crimes Against Hummus-manity: Or Why Most Hummus In LA Is So Terrible
Hummus is to Israel as tacos are to Los Angeles.
Go to any stand on any street corner in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Haifa and, chances are, you'll score better-than-average hummus. Easy access to high-quality ingredients and a populace with a discerning palate (they've been eating the stuff for generations) means standards are high. Sadly, that hasn't translated to the United States — at least not to the masses.
In the past two decades, the humble chickpea spread has gone from fringe foreign food to vegetarian favorite to Super Bowl party staple (to quote the Washington Post, "Stop trying to make "mus" happen!). Along the way, we've seen an inverse ratio between the popularity of hummus and its quality. We are drowning in hummus yet most of us have never eaten a decent plate of the stuff.
This is an especially strange turn of events in Los Angeles, a city of culinary adventurers who will spend hours debating the best birria and cut you if you choose a crappy congyoubing spot. And yet. Here we are. Living in a world of culinary abominations.
Pumpkin spice hummus (blame Walmart). Chocolate hummus (blame Trader Joe's). Edamame hummus (I've tried it; it's dry and bland). Hummus milkshakes (no words). Mango sriracha hummus (too many words). Bacon hummus (just because you can, doesn't mean you should).
Oh, the hummus-manity! How did we get to this place?
While some outlets try to help you navigate this world of bastardized, barely edible supermarket hummus, I am here to tell you that this insanity must stop.
Full disclosure: As an Iranian American, I didn't grow up in a home where hummus was a native food. Unlike so many Persian dishes, it's not a recipe that was passed down to me through generations. But much of my dad's family lives in Israel, so I've been visiting the country since I was a baby. There, along with the rest of the Levant, the Mediterranean and North Africa, hummus was a culinary stalwart long before it became A Thing in the United States. When I was back in Israel last fall, for the first time in 14 years, I was struck anew with how casually mindblowing even their most basic hummus is — and how truly wretched most of ours is.
On this trip, transcendence happened at a Palestinian-owned roadside restaurant next to a gas station (and not much else) about an hour's drive north of Tel Aviv. As soon as we sat down, the staff laid our table with a colorful spread of salatim — cold appetizers like tabbouleh, stewed eggplant, kohlrabi and dill salad, and red cabbage slaw. But it was the creamy hummus, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a silky blob of whipped tahini, that I kept going back to. I couldn't get enough. I felt like the clouds had parted and the heavens had opened, like someone had flipped a switch on the black-and-white TV I'd been watching for decades and it suddenly turned to color. After countless bowls of grainy, muddy hummus flavored with all manner of strange additions, I was reborn.
I'm convinced that if Americans understood how excellent traditional hummus is — its luscious texture, its balanced flavor — we'd never eat those gritty, lumpy versions most of us buy at the supermarket.
What is it that makes this humble dish worthy of adulation? It starts with texture. Yes, there are regional preferences but the platonic ideal of hummus is creamy and smooth — and that's hard to achieve. It's a small act of genius to transform two ingredients as dense as cooked chickpeas and tahini into something as light as a top-notch hummus. Chefs take great pains to achieve a smooth texture.
They start with dried chickpeas, never canned, and cook them until they're as soft as buttah. Some people will painstakingly remove the skins, which can add grit. Others sprinkle baking soda into the cooking liquid, which helps break down the chickpeas. Then, they add liberal doses of tahini, a rich, pourable paste of toasted and ground sesame seeds. They mix it all together, usually with a food processor, bringing whipped airiness to the thick paste and lightening its color to a beautiful pale cream rather than the dull beige of most supermarket hummus.
Then there's flavor. Soaking dried chickpeas overnight, boiling them until they're ready to fall apart and adding some of the cooking water as you whip them up produces a depth of flavor that you can't find in a can. That earthiness is balanced with garlic and lemon juice but the proportions have to be just right. These pungent ingredients should never stand out or overpower the dish. Rather, miraculously, they make a dish based on boiled beans taste bright.
Density is also important. Hummus shouldn't pour. It needs to hold its shape when you swoop a spoon through it, just before serving, to create a reservoir for a drizzle of grassy olive oil. I've enjoyed hummus as a dip for baby carrots and a condiment for veggie sandwiches but, historically, hummus's perfect partner is a warm, fluffy pita. Tear off a piece and run it through the communal dish for the perfect bite.
Excellent hummus isn't the norm in Los Angeles but you can find it.
People swear by Hasiba, a kosher vegetarian restaurant in Pico-Robertson, and Hummus Bar and Grill in Tarzana, an Israeli spot known for its variety of grilled meats. If you're feeling extravagant, reap the benefits of chef Ori Menashe's years of R&D with a trip to Bavel in downtown L.A. His fantastic version is topped with a scoop of musabbaha, a chunky hummus that Palestinians often eat warm for breakfast or as a snack. But my favorite L.A. hummus eschews all that glitz.
At Marouch, an elegant Lebanese Armenian restaurant in an unassuming East Hollywood strip mall, the hummus hits all the right notes. Creamy, pale and so smooth it's almost fluffy, it arrives at your table topped with a drizzle of olive oil, chopped tomatoes and a sprinkle of fresh herbs. I've been coming here for decades, since a friend discovered it on her search for the flavors she'd tasted while living in the Middle East. I've been enjoying their ample mezze combinations ever since. Marouch is in a heavily Armenian neighborhood, so there's plenty of tasty hummus to be had nearby, but this spot remains my standby.
Sure, you could show up at your next potluck with a tray of celery sticks and some unholy mash calling itself "taco-inspired hummus" and watch as your host forces a smile and mutters "bless your heart." Or, you could get the good stuff. Yes, you might be ruined for the supermarket stuff, but is that such a bad thing?