The Lebanese counterattack on Israel was carefully planned, precisely organized and ruthlessly executed by an army of 300. The mission: Unseat Israel as the hummus champion of the world. On May 8, 2010, 300 Lebanese chefs armed with state-of-the-art spatulas achieved a new Guinness World Record by whipping up a 10-ton batch of the chickpea spread, history’s largest.
A “hummus war” has been waging since 2006, when Sabra, the hummus company whose name is Hebrew slang for “Israeli-born” and which is partly owned by the Israel-based Strauss Group, served up the first Guinness-worthy batch. The feat inspired chefs in both countries to one-up each other in a series of chickpea smash-offs. Silly as the competition sounds, it unearthed a passionate debate about who invented the ubiquitous Middle Eastern dip.
Although few Israelis would go so far as to claim national ownership, the food’s association with the country is undeniable. Adam Sandler’s caricature of Israelis’ obsession with hummus in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, in which characters use hummus for everything from toothpaste to hair dye, is not far off the mark. Hummus-only restaurants serving the spread as a main course have recently become all the rage in Israel, which consumes twice as much hummus as its Arab neighbors.
But the Lebanese love hummus as well, and consider it a national dish. Lebanese chefs subtly dubbed one food gala the “Hummus and Tabbouleh Are 100 Percent Lebanese” festival. May’s eye-popping 10,452-kilogram vat of hummus contained a coded message: It symbolized Lebanon’s area of 10,452 square kilometers.
The Lebanese victory overturned a record set by Jawdat Ibrahim, an Arab-Israeli restaurateur in the hummus haven of Abu Gosh, an Arab town outside of Jerusalem. Ibrahim responded to his unseating as the hummus king by telling The Jerusalem Post, “I’m going to double it. I’m going to show who hummus belongs to.” Ibrahim’s first batch was so large that he had to borrow a satellite dish six-and-a-half meters in diameter from a local broadcast station to contain it. Hundreds of Arab and Jewish spectators gathered around the dish, singing about their love for the chickpea. Since then, Ibrahim has extended an olive branch, suggesting a joint Israeli-Lebanese effort.
Despite the passions evoked by this debate, the origin of hummus is unknown. The chickpea was first domesticated thousands of years ago in Turkey. A 13th- century cookbook called Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada contains a recipe for “Hummus Kasa.” In a 2007 Yedioth Ahronot article entitled “Hummus Is Ours,” Israeli writer Meir Shalev argues that hummus has biblical roots, appearing in the Book of Ruth. According to the story, Boaz invites Ruth to dip her bread in hometz, typically translated as vinegar, an unlikely choice after a long day working in the field. In Shalev’s view, it is more likely a reference to hummus, traditionally a nutritious, filling and inexpensive meal for those who could not afford meat. There may be good reason for the mix-up: The “Hummus Kasa” recipe called for vinegar instead of the lemon juice commonly used today.
James Grehan, a history professor at Portland State University in Oregon, believes hummus was first made in 18th-century Damascus, although he is unaware of any contemporary Syrian ownership claims. Grehan finds the debate moot, since hummus was created when “none of the nation-states of the contemporary Levant existed or were even imaginable.” Even Shalev has recently come around, calling the hummus war “a repulsive, vulgar competition.” Yet many still take it seriously: Saudi writer Muhammad Diyab has accused Israel of “carrying out a psychological war in order to…preoccupy [Arabs] with marginal issues.”
Another motivation may be fueling the conflict: commercial interest. Shooky Galili, author of The Hummus Blog, calls the controversy “a very clever act of PR by Lebanese food manufacturers…attempting to enter the huge American market of ethnic food.” In 2008, Fadi Abboud, then-president of the Lebanese Industrialists Association (ALI) and current Lebanese minister of tourism, announced the ALI’s intention to sue Israel for marketing hummus as Israeli. The ALI cited the 2002 “feta cheese precedent,” in which Greece won exclusive rights to label its cheese “feta.” If Lebanon were to win exclusive rights to “hummus,” non-Lebanese hummus manufacturers would have to call their product “Lebanese-style spread.” Such a turn of events could hurt companies such as Sabra, whose 2010 sales exceeded $177 million, making it the top hummus seller in the United States.
The feta cheese precedent, however, may not apply to hummus. A food qualifies for geographic identification if its defining qualities or production methods are unique to one locality. Feta gets its distinct color and flavor from particular breeds of sheep and goats that feed on Greek plants. At the time of the suit, other European countries were producing “feta” made from cow’s milk and dyed white. It would be difficult to build a similar case for Lebanese hummus.
Galili emphasizes that variation is part of the hummus tradition. “The hummus in Jaffa is very different than that of Haifa, Acre, Jerusalem or the Galilee,” he says, but none is a bastardization of one traditional recipe. Until the hummus warriors accept his conclusion, Galili is praying that their rivalry will not spark similar skirmishes over shawarma, baba ghanoush or falafel.