Hummus as a Lifestyle: Meet the People Behind Israel's Best Hummus

A female Muslim business owner, a Christian Arab hipster and a Jamaican Jewish rapper - a new documentary focuses on the personalities behind Israel's most interesting hummus restaurants.

Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad
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A still from the movie "Hummus!"
A still from the movie "Hummus!"Credit: Screenshot
Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad

As things stand, Lebanon is currently the winner in the third Lebanon War. That’s right, the one over hummus - Lebanon currently holds the Guinness record for the largest bowl of hummus ever served, a 3.5-meter diameter bowl that contained some 240 kilograms.

Israeli director Oren Rosenfeld sought to break that record last summer, during work on his documentary, “Hummus!” He partnered with hummus restaurants and food companies in a bid to make a 15-ton bowl of hummus, a project that drove the hummus chefs to look into cement mixers.

But at the last minute, the representative of Guinness declined to come, citing security considerations, leaving the Lebanese record intact.

The tale is just one of many that worked its way into the documentary, which was screened in Jerusalem last week.

Rosenfeld and producer Michal Sapir met me at a hummus restaurants. The two are Jerusalem natives; Rosenfeld is a news photographer and producer for foreign news outlets, while Sapir was a producer for Israeli news on channels 2 and 10. They are currently working on two more movies.

The movie “Hummus!” doesn’t address the crucial question of who serves Israel’s best hummus. Where did you eat the best hummus while working on the movie?

“The best hummus we ate was from Hummus Abu Suheil in Acre, but while working on our investigation we met hummus shop owners who stated that they’re in the hummus business purely for the money, and that the hummus itself doesn’t interest them,” says Rosenfeld. “We ate lots of mediocre hummus with watery tahini. When you start to probe, you find that there are lots of interests involved in the fight for the title of best hummus.

“We decided not to get into the question of best hummus, but rather to look at the people who make the hummus, for whom hummus is an ideology.”

Sapir: “Some of them say their hummus is like Coca-Cola - the recipe is secret. Our interviewees said that the secret to good hummus is in the quantities and the quality of the tahini.”

The main characters in the movie are Suheila al-Hindi, the Muslim woman who owns the award-winning Abu Suheil hummus restaurant in Acre and the only Muslim female business owner in the heart of Acre’s Arab market; Olivier, a Benedictine monk who lives in Israeli hummus capital Abu Gosh with a mission to find the perfect hummus; Abu Shukri, the owner of Abu Gosh’s most famous hummus restaurant, who says that hummus is an affair for men only; and Jalil Dabit of Ramle’s restaurant Hummus Samir, who organizes acoustic rock concerts at his family’s hummus restaurant and travels to Berlin in search of love, where he decides to launch a restaurant with an Israeli business partner. Last but not least is Jamaica native Aluf Abir, also known as the rapper Nigel the Admor, of the Hebrew-language song “Hummus makes you stupid,” the spiritual mentor behind the Yokneam-based hummus chain Hummus Eliyahu.

“In his song and in the movie, Aluf Abir argues that it’s the bowl of hummus we eat each morning that makes the residents of the Middle East stupid,” says Rosenfeld.

Of all the hummus restaurants in Israel, why did you choose Hummus Eliyahu?

“I heard that there’s a Braslev hasid who is growing the chickpeas on his own and using water from a Galilee well to make amazing hummus,” says Rosenfeld. “I wanted to find out if it’s true. We got there and found out that neither of the stories were true, but that he is investing his soul in hummus, and you can tell. The hummus was really good, and in the kitchen we found an amazing person who gets the freshest pitas and the best olives he can find.”

Sapir adds, “He makes every serving individually, blending it in a blender to order. This is the only place we found that works this way. He offers all customers refills, all they can eat. The record was 10 refills. He says that his success is due to the fact that this is the only kosher hummus restaurant on the road between Tel Aviv and Haifa, so soldiers, religious Jews, Arabs and kibbutzniks and Braslevers all sit there together.”

Suheila is the only woman in the movie who isn’t a waitress or a customer. Was it hard to find women working in hummus?

“Generally you don’t find women working at Arab restaurants,” says Rosenfeld. “In Abu Gosh, they told us that this is a profession for men only, and that’s true for Acre’s other hummus restaurants, too. Aside from Suheila and her sister, all the other workers there are men. It’s amazing to see this woman in Acre whom everyone respects - the women, the suppliers and the customers.”

Sapir explains the history: “Her father died, and Suheila, as the responsible sister, took over the business after her siblings fell into debt. It’s amazing to see her work - she’s a very feminine person in all the good ways. She speaks quietly, she draws respect, she’s assertive and successful. It’s clear she’s in charge, and she doesn’t need to yell at anyone to prove it.”

Why did you ask your interview subjects to speak in English?

“You can’t tell the Israelis anything new about hummus, since everyone here considers himself an expert,” says Rosenfeld. “So we decided to export the Israeli hummus story to the world - particularly to places that don’t know anything about hummus. Just last week, U.S. Republican presidential contender Ben Carson confused hummus and Hamas.”

Rosenfeld continues: “It’s easiest to market a movie that portrays the situation in Israel in a critical light. The last movie about hummus in the Middle East was ‘Make Hummus Not War,’ an Australian production, entirely political. It opened with soldiers shooting at Arabs at a roadblock outside Jerusalem, and Arabs throwing stones. Every liberal film festival around the world screened that movie, for obvious reasons.

“It’s hard to make a movie that’s not like that. We found a strong, single Muslim woman who gave us hope for coexistence and shows a different side of Israel, and a Christian-Arab hipster from Ramle. Ultimately, we’re presenting a picture of Israeli multiculturalism where the common denominator is hummus.”

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