Super Bowl XLVIII Kicks Off New Hummus Spat

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

“Dip life to the fullest,” the TV advertisement entices viewers. Sabra Hummus is the “official dip of the National Football League,” pushing salsa (the previous “official dip”) out of bounds for the opportunity to advertise their dip-spread at the Super Bowl, the United States’ leading spectator sports event.

And thus, the war of the chickpea continues long into overtime, as the shriveled-looking legume continues to play in the serious game of the Middle East conflict.

In the United States, sales for hummus total about $315 million (according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal Report). Sabra Hummus is produced by Sabra Dipping Company, a joint venture of PepsiCo, Inc. and the Israel-based Strauss Group, which holds the controlling interest. The Dipping Company accounts for about 60% of refrigerated flavored spreads in the U.S. market.

Back in the Holy Land, Jews and Palestinians alike would quickly agree that the packaged, paste-colored chickpea spread marketed in plastic tubs in the United States and Britain tastes nothing like their beloved comfort food. And they would most likely share a shudder at Sabra’s newest taste-tempters, which include Buffalo and Chipotle-flavored versions.

But that might be all they agree about − especially when it comes to hummus.

“This really infuriates me,” says Bassam abu-Baqr, a 28-year-old education student at al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. “Hummus isn’t Israeli − it’s Arab.”

He adds, without any trace of humor, “As we say around here, ‘First our land, then our hummus.’ I don’t even feel like watching the game.”

Referring to the Super Bowl, Meir Aronovitz, a 26-year-old sociology student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says, “This is really cool. In spite of all the boycott hype, we’re making it in the big leagues. I’m going to watch the game with some friends and have fun, because hummus is our national food.”

Middle-Eastern cuisine

Actually, experts differ as to where hummus − which is made of mashed or pureed chickpeas, tehina sauce and seasonings − originated, although in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” noted historian Jared Diamond writes that the chickpea was an important crop in the ancient Fertile Crescent that enabled entire civilizations to develop and thrive. And with their high nutritional value, chickpeas quickly spread eastward as far as India, westward to Spain and southward through northern Africa.

Hummus has been eaten by the Arabs in this region for centuries. And when the first waves of Jewish immigration came to the prestate Yishuv, they quickly adopted hummus − as well as other indigenous foods and symbols − as their own.

Throughout history, explains food critic and author Gil Hovav, immigrants usually tried to use food to teach children about their heritage and traditions. But as part of their attempts to put roots in the land and become local, the first Zionist pioneers abandoned many Diaspora traditions, replacing Yiddish with Hebrew (with some Arabic thrown in), Eastern European dress with local styles, and cholent with hummus.

Eventually, notes Hovav, the nearly hegemonic Ashkenazi culture created a new Middle-Eastern cuisine. The food sold in fast-food joints is now considered local, “authentic” Israeli food.

In terms of popularity, at least, hummus may indeed be Israel’s national food. Israeli Jews are obsessed with hummus and devour it by the kilogram. They argue vehemently and constantly about the best hummusia (the local equivalent of a pizza joint) − which, it just so happens, are most often owned by Arabs.

“Food is about much more than great taste or nourishment,” says Hovav. “Food is about memory and identity. Claiming ownership over a food is a way to assert a nation’s narrative. Israeli Jews have made hummus their own.”

It is that claim to authenticity that galls Palestinians like Laila al-Haddad, author of the cookbook-memoir-manifest “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey” (coauthored with Madrid-based researcher Maggie Schmitt and published by Just World Books in 2013).

“Of course we know that Jews ate hummus in the Arabic-speaking countries before they came to Israel,” says Haddad in a Skype conversation with Haaretz. “Food is shared everywhere. But that doesn’t make hummus Israeli. By appropriating Arab food − and hummus is just one example − Israel has tried to erase the memory and origins of the Palestinians.”

Yet if languages like Hebrew and Arabic take words from each other, why can’t they take food from each other? After all, Haddad herself writes that Palestinians love schnitzel, which they adopted from the Israelis, who adapted it from the Viennese (and replaced the veal in the classic Wiener Schnitzel with much cheaper turkey or chicken.)

“Throughout the world, minorities do absorb parts of the dominant culture,” responds Haddad. “But we can’t ignore the fact that food is also about who has access to land and water, and who is putting their name on the food ... As long as Israel occupies Palestinian land, even something like hummus has symbolic meaning.”

Haddad and Schmitt are not the first to think of food in terms of ownership and appropriation. In 2008, The Association of Lebanese Industrialists filed an international lawsuit seeking protected status for hummus − similar to the protected status of French champagne and Greek Feta cheese − and accusing Israel of “stealing” Lebanon’s cuisine. The courts rejected the suit.

In 2010, Lebanese chefs set a Guinness World Record for the largest serving of hummus − which weighed 23,130 kilograms (59,992 pounds). This broke the previous record, held by a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, the Arab village about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) west of Jerusalem (which had, in its turn, broken the previous record held by Lebanon).

On the eve of the national event, Ramzi Nadim Shwaryi, a Lebanese TV chef, told the Lebanese press that he and his allies were in it for Lebanon’s honor. “We will stand together against this industrial and cultural violation and defend our economy, civilization and Lebanese heritage,” he was quoted as saying.

In 2010, Palestinian students at both Princeton and DePaul Universities put up referendums calling on their universities’ dining services to provide “an alternative brand of hummus in addition to Sabra.” Both referendums were voted down.

At the time, Michael Kotzkin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund, issued a statement saying that the anti-Sabra campaign revealed “deep anti-Israel sentiment.”

“It is clear that this action, following on earlier boycotts of Israeli culture and Israeli academics around the world, is but one component of a global assault on the legitimacy of the State of Israel itself,” Kotzkin wrote.

On the more hopeful side, there’s even been a movie about hummus, a documentary entitled “Make Hummus, not War,” which won the Special Jury Award and the Peace Award at the 2013 Indonesian International Film Festival and held a sold-out screening at the 63rd Berlinale. On his website, director Trevor Graham refers to his hopes for “chick-peace.”

“If it’s good for business − who cares?” says Sami Abu Shukri, owner and chief hummus-maker at the small, crowded Abu Shukri restaurant in Abu Ghosh (one of three competing restaurants with the same name in the same village). “Of course it’s an Arab food. But I don’t care if the Jews call it their own − as long as they cook the hummus like I do, slowly and with love.

“Like cholent,” he adds with a wink, referring to the classic Ashkenazi dish.

And in 2010, Kervork Alemian founded Chefs for Peace, a nonprofit organization that includes nearly two dozen Israeli and Palestinian chefs who dream of setting up a joint cooking school in a village near Abu Ghosh.

“Great minds eat alike,” quips Hovav, but Haddad and Schmitt disdainfully refer to these efforts as “hummus kumbaya.”

“Nothing is exclusive to one nation,” Alemian retorts. “Not food, and not dreams for justice and peace. Just imagine − Israelis and Palestinians work together, in a crowded kitchen, wielding knives − and just make good food.”

A bowl of hummus.Credit: Dreamstime
Lebanese chefs break the world hummus record, May 8, 2010Credit: AP