The Great American Hummus Revolution Goes Upmarket

Mashed chickpea spread is making serious inroads into the diet of health-conscious people, and also increasingly being served in high-end eateries – not at little holes-in-the-wall as in Israel.

A serving of hummus, a Middle Eastern dish made of mashed chickpeas, at the Hummus Kitchen restaurant in New York.
Tim Knox

NEW YORK – Hummus is conquering America. This Middle Eastern delicacy made of mashed chickpeas has joined a host of other foods that have become popular because they are deemed to be healthful – like kale, farro, chia and quinoa – and which are being served at many restaurants, including high-end ones. In addition, supermarkets are full of hummus in a variety of brands and flavors.

And this isn’t just happening in the Big Apple. In Maine and New Hampshire, you can also find hummus in the supermarkets, including the Sabra brand made in the U.S. by Israel’s Strauss Group and a division of the multinational PepsiCo corporation.

Ori Apple, who originally hails from Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Beit She'an valley, will likely be remembered in the history of American hummus as the person who tried to set up the first real hummus joint in New York a decade ago. For a few years things went well; at the peak in 2009, he owned four such small eateries under the name Hummus Place.

But as time passed, it became clear that a little hummus joint isn’t exactly the kind of place that suits America's gastronomic culture. Over the years, Apple has been forced to close two of his branches, and a question mark hovers over the future of the two remaining ones.

It’s not that one couldn't find hummus in New York before Apple came along. But he was the first person in the city who managed to replicate the taste of the hummus one eats in Israel and to bring it into the Manhattan mainstream. The future looked promising, but the promise never fulfilled itself.

“Reality has taught me that it’s hard to maintain a restaurant based solely on hummus when the costs of running such a place, with rent and wages, are so high here,” Apple tells Haaretz. “Today, everyone makes hummus. You have hummus at exclusive restaurants – like, for instance, Boulud, owned by the well-known chef Daniel Boulud. There they serve very expensive hummus that isn’t terribly tasty, in my opinion, with a ton of cumin."

“On the other hand," he adds, "I think a little of the positive feeling that once surrounded it has been lost. In the East Village, where we opened first, people today are looking for more sophisticated food than mere hummus.”

After Apple shut down his eatery in the East Village, he opened the Timna restaurant, with Israeli chef Nir Mesika. It serves more sophisticated, modern Israeli-Mediterranean food, and in just six months has become trendy and successful.

“Hummus is seen differently in the United States than in Israel,” says Sharon Hoota, an Israeli who owns three branches of the Hummus Kitchen and a fourth eatery called Zizi Limona. All four serve very high-quality hummus that is made fresh every two hours – but hummus definitely isn’t the main attraction here. Hoota's dream was to set up a chain of hummus restaurants throughout the United States, but six months after he opened his first one in 2008, he realized that the dream wouldn’t come true.

“In Israel, people go out to eat hummus as a meal,” he explains. “For Americans, it doesn’t work that way. There isn’t very much demand for going out to sit in a restaurant that only serves hummus. They won’t make a meal of something that looks like a paste.

“In Israel, hummus is viewed as a man’s food, and as a heavy food,” Hoota continues. “In the States, hummus is viewed as a healthful food that women eat as a side dish along with a meal. We continue to serve fresh hummus, but it’s no longer the centerpiece of the meal here.”

Other local establishments have had similar experiences. Nanoosh, which was founded by David Kostman, formerly an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, began with hummus as its main dish. Since then, the restaurant’s emphasis has shifted to salads, soups and health food. Hummus is still there, but as one dish among many.

At Maoz, a chain of falafel and salad joints in New York that also has branches in Europe, the emphasis is on falafel. The same goes for SoomSoom, a small chain owned by Ron Braverman, also a one-time Wall Street worker: There too, falafel and salads take center stage, while hummus is at best a side dish.

It’s very unusual for someone to walk in and ask for hummus with pita, Braverman says. Unless, of course, that someone is Israeli.