A Woman in a Man's World of Hummus

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Al-Abed hummus, a dish of warm whole chickpeas with samna (clarified butter) and baharat – a spice mixture fragrant with cinnamon.
Al-Abed hummus, a dish of warm whole chickpeas with samna (clarified butter) and baharat – a spice mixture fragrant with cinnamon.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The blue hummus shop next to the lighthouse in Old Acre bears a man’s name – Al-Abed Abu-Hamid’s Hummus – but it’s a woman in an apron who stands behind the counter and makes the hummus. High above her head are the 99 names of Allah, written in a lovely hand in black marker on the ceiling of this 19th-century structure, which was built as part of the lighthouse compound. “A person needs to constantly know and understand his place in the world,” explains Arin Abu-Hamid Kurdi with a sweet smile.

Take a seat on one of the low wooden stools in this Acre hummus place and see the world through blue-tinted glasses: the blue of the sea just a few meters away, stretching out to the horizon; the blue of the floor and wall tiles; and the dishes in varying shades of blue. The light blue menu offers hummus, ful, and masbaha, all made fresh by Arin, to order. But the eye is drawn to the typical specialty of Acre cuisine that is not so well-known outside this ancient port city.

Al-Abed hummus is what Arin calls her dish of warm whole chickpeas over which she pours samna (clarified butter) and baharat – a spice mixture fragrant with cinnamon. (This item is a modern echo of the blend of warm, seasoned chickpeas that used to be a staple of the menu in local hummus shops.)

Arin Abu-Hamid Kurdi, right, and a plate of Acre-style thiridi.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Ful al-Abed consists of warm fava beans seasoned in the same way. There is mufarakeh, a salad of hard-boiled eggs, olive oil, slices of raw onion and parsley. It goes perfectly with the various types of hummus or makes an ideal starter on its own for a lazy morning by the sea. Also on the menu is Acre-style thiridi, a marvelous Ramadan treat. Acre thiridi, the modern version of the Muslim thiridi that appears in manuscripts more than a thousand years old, is comprised of pieces of bread dipped in liquid. In the Acre version, and in Arin’s version in particular, pieces of toasted pita are served with whole chickpeas, garlic-seasoned yogurt, warm samna and almonds.

Men, women and hummus

In local Arab culture, and also in Jewish-Israeli culture, hummus joints have long been considered male domains. Women make hummus, and hummus is also eaten at home, but as part of a Mediterranean meze, alongside tahini, babaganoush, pickles or vegetable salad – not as something that stands on its own, an entire meal in a dish. The traditional hummus joints that sprang up in the big cities supplied food to laborers setting out on their workday, or as a takeaway to bring home. Hummus was the province of men. Arab women would only sit in such places with their husbands. And much could be written about the Israeli male’s obsession with hummus. Very few hummus places are owned by women like Arin Abu-Hamid Kurdi, or named for women.

Suhela from Acre is another exception. Although the hummus place she runs is officially named for her father, who founded it (Abu Suhel), most people refer to this popular place by the name of the daughter who ended up carrying on the business.

A year ago, Arin Abu-Hamid Kurdi opened her hummus shop next to the lighthouse, but she chose to name it for her father, Abed Rahman Abu-Hamid.

Mufarakeh, a 
salad of hard-boiled eggs, olive
 oil, slices of raw onion and parsley. Credit: Gil Eliahu

“My father was one of the first restaurant owners in Acre,” she says. “Abu Christo opened the first restaurant on the sea wall in 1948 and my father opened Hagalil restaurant in 1958, in Saladin Square at the entrance to the shuk. In 1977 the restaurant moved to this location, next to the lighthouse, and was called the Lighthouse restaurant. I grew up in the restaurant. My mother had a souvenir shop next door, and life for my three sisters and me revolved around this area, around the restaurant and the lighthouse. I started working in the restaurant at a young age and I worked my way through every job – from dishwashing to peeling vegetables to cooking. It was one of the best-known restaurants in the area, and the restaurant business in Acre flourished until 2000. Since then, it’s been on the decline.”

Arin, born in 1979, did not plan on taking her father’s place, despite the passion he instilled in her as a child for food and the restaurant business. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology and sociology and a master’s degree in group instruction and worked for 12 years with at-risk youth in her hometown. That was, she says, “until I got worn out emotionally and burned out. I worked with very difficult cases – youths who killed or were killed – and I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt that these kids had to be reached when they were younger, just four or five, but the system isn’t built that way. I wanted to open a restaurant with my father, but he died in 2014 and we weren’t able to realize that dream. I opened my own place in April 2015 and named it after him. People said Al-Abed Abu Hamid’s Hummus was too long and not catchy enough, but I didn’t care.”

The first Arab restaurants that opened in Israel in the 1940s and ‘50s, were referred to as “Oriental” restaurants and were started by men. In the 1950s, Arab women were confined to the domestic sphere, and men who opened restaurants served the kinds of things they knew how to make, and which were considered essentially masculine – like grilled skewers of meat, fried fish and hummus. For years, many of the more intricate home-style dishes of local Arab cuisine were nowhere to be found on the restaurant menus. The menu at Arin’s place includes specialties like thiridi and mufarakeh, which until now were found almost exclusively in women’s home kitchens.

Three years ago, Arin married Marwan Kurdi, a native of Acre and a member of the fourth-generation of a local family of spice vendors. The son of a Danish mother and the late Hamudi Kurdi, Marwan stepped into his father’s shoes a year ago when the latter died suddenly and bequeathed him his famous spice shop in the Acre shuk. (That shop is decorated with a jumble of gourds, fishing nets, model ships and antique spice grinders.) The marvelous spice mixtures prepared by Arin’s husband are used to season the dishes at her restaurant. On Fridays and Saturdays, there is an additional daily special, for example sayadiyeh, a typical fisherman’s dish of rice with fish and turmeric. In addition to the various types of hummus, there is always a selection of delicious omelets (such as omelet with fried potatoes, or omelet with meat), along with fresh salads.

Al-Abed Abu Hamid Hummus, at the Old Acre Lighthouse, 050-659-3985 (open daily except Monday)

Taboun al-Balad in Kafr Yasif.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Intoxicating aromas

At the bakery opened by Sausen Biber in Kafr Yasif, women are responsible for preparing the baked goods in a large taboun oven set into a brick wall. The tiny place, no bigger than the average room in an apartment, is always filled with the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked goods filled with za’atar, wild spinach, cheese, meat or mashed peppers. Biber, who comes from Jatt, got into the bakery business almost by accident. Eleven years ago, she was renting a space for her hair salon in Kafr Yasif; the landlord proposed that she take over the shop of a baker who was leaving. When her husband died eight years ago, the bakery, specializing in pita and cookies, became the main source of income for Biber and her children. Two months ago, she opened her home-style taboun bakery next door. Word of her delicious fatayer, manakish and other goodies, made from either white or whole-wheat flour, quickly spread throughout the area.

Taboun al-Balad, Kafr Yasif, 050-543-7916 (Set Waze to navigate to the Nasib Restaurant on the main road, then turn onto the road that leads eastward into the village. Continue for about a kilometer until you see the bakery on the right.)

Za’atar fatayer at Taboun al-Balad in Kafr Yasif.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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