Tourist Tip #201 / Eating Hummus Like a Local

Hummus is serious business in this country. Before you dig in to the nation's favorite spread, make sure you understand the basics.

Tourists to Israel know that no visit is complete without eating plenty of hummus, and that nearly every local has an opinion on where the absolute best chickpea blend – the Holy Land Holy Grail, if you will – can be found.
But it’s not just about where you eat your hummus, but how. Before you grab a pita and slather it with Israel’s national dip, make sure you know the basics of an Israeli hummus meal.

Rule number one: Hummus is a main course, not a condiment.

Yes, technically, hummus is a dip, which means that its many bastardized forms that fly off the shelves of American and European grocery stores appear as an appetizer, as ready for the plunking of carrots or tortilla chips as your run-of-the-mill salsa or guacamole. In Israel, though, hummus is much more serious and much more substantial. If you go out for hummus, be warned that the creamy good stuff will be served hot and it will not accompany your main dish, it will be your main dish.

Rule number two: Hummus is versatile.

When you order hummus at a real Israeli hummus joint, you will be asked what type you want. Israeli hummus is traditionally served up in three different varieties: Plain, otherwise known as just hummus; hummus tehina, which comes with a healthy heaping of sesame seed paste; and masabacha, a variation on ground hummus where the chickpeas are cooked longer and remain whole.

Rule number three: Hummus has toppings, and they should be respected.

Forget about the abominable American flavored versions of hummus that proffer the chickpea dip with outrageous additions such as guacamole, roasted red pepper, or cheese. Here, such tampering is strictly off limits. Instead, take a chance on the traditional hummus toppings, which (unless you are noshing at a new-age, hippy-dippy, anti-establishment hummus joint) are limited to:

-ful, cooked fava beans
- basar, ground meat (generally beef, sometimes lamb)
- pitriot, sautéed, intensely flavored mushrooms
- beitzah, a hard-boiled egg

Most places will let you get more than one topping in your hummus, but if you’re just starting out and hesitant to overcrowd you plate (and your palate), hummus ful is a beloved local standard and an excellent entry point.

Rule number four: Carrot sticks are a no-no, but you can dip more than pita.

One reason a meal of hummus is so filling is that it is generally eaten with a massive serving of bread (at least one whole pita, usually two, is required to truly sop up the delicious mess in your bowl). But real hummus joints often serve up a few other fun little snacks to accompany your meal, namely tangy olives, brine-soaked pickles, and slices of raw onion. The raw onion, as sharp as its bite might be, is an excellent medium for getting hummus into your mouth, and its clean, crisp taste contrasts beautifully with the creamy hummus. Grab a swig of soda after your first mouthful and congratulate yourself. You’ve now eaten hummus like a real local.

Rotem Maimon