From Mundane to Macho: In Israel, Hummus Makes the Man

How did a vegan spread made out of legumes become such a significant component of Israeli masculinity?

File photo: Hummus plates at Hummus Elsham, Haifa, October 6, 2018.
Rami Shllush

A bunch of guys with puffed-out chests enter a hummus joint, sit at a tablecloth-less table and order the full-deal meal. The plate arrives, containing all the fixings, a world of its own. The guys lean over the hummus lustily, pouncing on it as on a desirable woman. With circular wiping motions, equipped with torn-off bits of pita and pieces of raw onion, they clean the plate with gusto.

Before going on, let’s remember we’re talking about a vegan paste made of legumes – a pasty spread, served with olive oil, chickpeas, parsley and maybe a touch of tahini. Sometimes, an egg is added and, more rarely, some meat, but the classic dish contains nothing from the animal world. Yet, there is perhaps nothing more closely associated with masculinity in Israel than hummus.

Anyone who really likes hummus also likes to talk about it. “There’s nothing like the hummus at Abu-X ...,” one will say. “Naaah, you don’t know anything. I haven’t set foot there since I went to Abu-Y,” his nemesis will reply.

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Such an exchange could happen in the office coffee corner, the line to a movie or at another restaurant that has nothing to do with hummus. At any moment we can find ourselves in the middle of a spirited hummus-related brawl, involving consistency, alliances and betrayals. On the scales are the reputations of hummusologists – one camp will fiercely defend its favorite eatery to the death; the other will declaim authoritatively why its spread is superior.

“Over the last decade, hummus in Israel has been elevated from a mundane food to something almost sacred,” says Haaretz food editor Rotem Maimon. “This is the answer to the growing power of junk food, like hamburgers and pizza: Local food is returning to people’s awareness. Falafel is also popular, but doesn’t evoke such emotions. The arguments around hummus are fierce and passionate. It’s a veritable war.”

Obviously, not only men eat hummus, and they don’t eat it to feel more masculine. But in a reality where mention of vegan food or of a meatless wedding arouses contempt or revulsion among males – the masculinity and toughness of someone expiating about hummus is not challenged, but empowered.

In this country men don’t hang with the guys at a gourmet restaurant or over brunch. They sit around hummus. Between us, how masculine does it sound to make a reservation at vegan eateries in Tel Aviv like Anastasia, Bana or Nanuchka – compared to a meal at Jaffa’s Abu Hassan?

In an article in 2016, Open University sociologist Dafna Hirsch does not claim that men eat hummus to appear masculine, and it’s clear that she doesn’t think there’s just one manifestation of local masculinity. However, she emphasizes that the connection between masculinity and hummus is outstanding and closer than that of any other local dish.

In her research, Dr. Hirsch found that, in response to the question “How much do you like hummus, on a scale of 1 to 5?” – the average for men was 3.63, as opposed to 2.97 for women. Men consumed hummus at an average of 7.4 times a month, versus 5 for women; and 53 percent of the male respondents said wiping a plate of hummus with pita was their favorite way of eating it – versus 32 percent of women, with the majority preferring to spread hummus over a bread or inside a pita. In general, Hirsch discovered, wiping a plate at a hummus joint is much more of a male-gender marker than consuming industrially made hummus at home.

Another factor she notes in her research is tradition. Try to think of a hummus eatery you went to that was owned by a woman – surely a very rare occurrence. No, this is a classical male domain.

“Traditionally, in Arab society, cooking in the public sphere is done by men,” the sociologist says. “Hummus eateries were always male institutions, and that’s been maintained in Jewish society – the owners and operators are mostly male.”

In any case, as mentioned, the maleness here is not just about the plate-wiping, it’s the talking about it. According to figures Hirsch obtained from Shuki Galili, author of the “hummus for the masses” (Hebrew) blog, based on a two-month period in 2014, 78 percent of those commenting on the blog were male, and 90 percent of all responses were written by men.

When Hirsch asked in her survey “How many times over the last six months were you witness to a conversation in which hummus eateries were compared?” – 26 percent of her male respondents answered in the affirmative, while only 11 percent of women did. Obviously, it follows that men were more familiar with the names of those establishments. Hirsch determined that expressing knowledge of and discussing hummus joints can be identified as masculine cultural capital.

Moreover, she stresses, “there are also the physical aspects of eating hummus. You eat, with your hands, often from a communal plate, consuming a heavy and filling food that induces flatulence – these things are perceived as non-feminine. Much like shawarma or hamburgers, hummus is food you stuff in your mouth, not take delicate bites of.”