Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hummus, a Food of Many Faces

Spell it "hummus", "humus", "hommos", "hoummos", or "humous", in several languages of the Middle East from which the word comes, it means "chick peas" or, another English term for the same legume, "garbanzo beans". Transliterating words of Middle Eastern origin into English is seldom a smooth or straightforward process. Despite these vexations of spelling, and after a mere few hundred years, hummus (pronounced WHO-muss) has become a popular dish in North America and Europe, especially among vegans and vegetarians.

The full Middle Eastern name of this dish, hummus bi tahina ("hummus with tahini"), reveals its second major ingredient. Tahini is a "butter"— in the same sense that peanut butter is a butter— made from sesame seeds. Tahini and garbanzo beans eaten together constitute a complete protein, so a fine substitute for meat. They are also believed to provide numerous other health benefits, including helping to prevent a variety of cancers, cardio-vascular diseases, and spina bifida in infants when consumed by their pregnant mothers. This is food that does what food should do.

Depending upon the amount of lemon and garlic it contains, hummus can be variably neutral, lending itself to use as a "background" around which the flavors of spices and other eatables can rally. Altering the ratio of hummus to tahini can vary its feel from airy and light to generous and full. Considering that this dish has been made and served by thousands of people for hundreds of years, it would be difficult to assert that there's only one, correct hummus recipe. The recipe below, then, is more a set of guidelines than a rigid and precise set of instructions. Feel free to sample during preparations and adjust to your diners' sensibilities.


  • 3 cups dry, uncooked garbanzo beans (also known as chick peas) cooked to very tender in a pressure cooker with 9 or 10 cups of water and a few sprinkles of salt.
  • 1 cup tahini (sometimes called sesame seed butter)
  • ½ cup lemon juice (one juicy lemon), or to taste
  • 3 to 5 cloves of garlic, or to taste
  • ½ cup canola or olive oil


Cook garbanzo beans in three times their volume of water— so three cups garbanzos with nine cups of water— with a pinch or two of salt if you wish, in a large pressure cooker letting the top dance for about 50 minutes. After this fifty minutes and then letting the pot cool by itself, the garbanzos should be moist all the way through. I generally start up the pressure cooker the evening before and, after cooking time, leave it on the cold stove overnight to cool. Be sure to follow general directions that came with your pressure cooker.

If you don't have a pressure cooker, let the garbanzos soak overnight in the pot in cold water three or four times their volume. The next day boil them for four hours or until moist through to their centers.

After they've cooked and cooled, put the garbanzos and other ingredients (except for garnishes) in a food processor. Blend thoroughly until smooth. If too thick, gradually add small amounts of water until scouping it with a spoon (or a finger, if no one's looking) makes it mound but not break. Be aware that hummus may stiffen a bit after a time. For a sandwich spread, which hummus can also be, this is fine. If you'll be dipping with with vegetables, and more so with chips, you'll want a looser hummus, so mix in a small amount of water— preferably the leftover cooking water— for a less resistant consistency.

Due to its smaller capacity, if using a blender, cut this recipe in half, or else blend half the ingredients at a time and then pour the blended ingredients into a large bowl and stir together thoroughly by hand.

Let stand an hour or more if possible to allow flavors to permeate and penetrate.


  • paprika or red chili pepper or cumin (optional)
  • extra virgin olive oil to dribble on top
  • raw salad style vegetables, chopped just small enough for spooning.

Suggested presentations

For a sit-down meal, serve in small bowls and lightly sprinkled with a colorful spice, then garnished with parsley and/or sliced or diced pieces of raw vegetables such as tomato, carrot, broccoli, onion, cucumber, green or red pepper... just about anything you'd put in a salad. Dribble a tablespoon or so of extra virgin olive oil over the top. Provide your diners pita or some other kind of bread for scooping.

As a main dish this recipe serves six. Smaller portions are fine snacks or side dishes and of course serve more people. The whole of the hummus in one bowl with garnishes or chips or sliced bread around or alongside brightens a buffet and perks up a party. Hummus of a thicker consistency makes a fine sandwich or wrap, especially when accompanied by fresh cucumbers, sliced or diced tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, and perhaps a thin schmeer of cream cheese or Marmite™.

Hummus is one of those flexible foods, an actor that can play many roles. If you're a single, you can have it multiple times in a week, changing the garnishes and bread and other peripherals for variety. Charmed by the same sleight of cuisine, families and other groups can dine on it regularly without boring the palate. Hummus can be a main dish, side dish, sandwich, or snack. It's inexpensive, yet healthy, easy to make, and tasty all at the same time. There's not a whole lot more you can ask of food.

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