Traversing Taste

On the Hummus Route takes readers on a thoughtful journey through regional fare. 

Areen Abu Hmid Kurdi

Every morning, Areen Abu Hmid Kurdi sets a large saucepan on the stove in her restaurant by the lighthouse in the old city of Acre. She fills it with chickpeas, covers them with plenty of water, bringing the pot to a boil, gently simmering the golden legumes for several hours until they are smooth as silk, soft as butter, and ready to serve.

“Hummus is the base point,” Areen says, “all the rest comes after”. Unlike the smooth hummus served in Acre’s famous hummus joints, Areen sets her hummus apart by insisting on preserving her family’s traditional recipe, “even at the cost of losing customers”. Hers is ground to a coarser texture, with tahini added as seasoning and not so much as a main ingredient, like in most other hummus establishments.

“They told me I was crazy to open a hummus joint in Acre, filled to the brim with so many others that have gained near mythological status. But, I knew what I had to do and what the right path was for me. When you believe in your dream, god is with you. It wasn’t an easy road, but it is the one that gives me joy, pleasure and satisfaction.”

Areen was born and raised in Acre and as the youngest daughter of five she grew up in the ancient city’s narrow alleyways, dividing her time between her mother’s souvenir shop and her father’s restaurant ‘Migdal Or’, named after the adjacent lighthouse tower. Opened in the 1950’s, the restaurant, one of the first in the area, specialized in grilled meat skewers served alongside a wide array of salads. Every day after school Areen would go straight to the restaurant, her second home.

Upon graduation she decided to follow her passion, to help Acre’s broken families and struggling youth, and she went on to study criminology, sociology, and advanced facilitation, wanting little to do with the restaurant. In 2000, after five successful decades, Abu Hmid’s poor health forced the family to close the restaurant’s doors, barely making ends meet from her mother’s souvenir shop.

After 12 years of social work and having witnessed firsthand the hardship of the city’s broken youth, Areen found herself worn out, depleted, and in desperate need of a change. In 2015, several months after her father’s passing, Areen opened her very own hummus eatery near the sea and by the same lighthouse, which she named ‘El Abed Abu Hmid’ in memory of her father.

Areen’s decision to re-enter the kitchen stemmed from a positive space which needed to be filled with creativity, optimism, pleasure, and comfort. She decided to prepare Acre’s traditional recipes, indigenous dishes that have been prepared the same way throughout the city’s Arab kitchens, yet are rarely known to the outside world. Dishes like tridi; made up of grilled pita, cooked chickpeas, yogurt, garlic, toasted almonds, and samneh (clarified fermented butter), passed down in her father’s family for 300 years.

Areen’s eatery is a one woman show. Everyday she gathers all the ingredients for the day, buying fresh fish from Acre’s fishermen at the harbor and vegetables from the market. The spices and blends are sourced from her husband’s spice shop and the olive oil is produced by a friend in the nearby town of Rameh. At four in the afternoon, after cooking, serving, and clearing up she hangs up her apron and calls it a day. “Food is life,” she says, “but life is also too short to be working all day every day.’’

About On the Hummus Route

On the Hummus Route is the ambitious brainchild of three creative individuals: they call Ariel Rosenthal, The Magician (HaKosem), but his is not the rabbit-out-of-a-hat kind of magic, but rather the magic of a wizard concocting alchemy from the most basic of ingredients. Take his eggplants, fried to crispy golden perfection or the shawarma, roasting on a spit with just the right meat-to-fat ratio. But it’s the chickpeas, or rather their transformation into creamy hummus and crisp falafel balls, for which people flock to his corner, from the far reaches of the world.

Rosenthal wanted to share his passion for the chickpea and so a dream was born – to tell the world the story of hummus. Once he got together with food writer and chef Orly Peli Bronshtein and creative director, Dan Alexander, it was only a matter of time until that dream, an ode to the local legume, was realized.

In the Levant, hummus is mostly considered masculine territory and a hummus restaurant run by a woman is rare. Traditionally and to this day, a bowl of nutritious  and hearty hummus is the region’s breakfast of choice, providing a person the energy required for a hard day’s work. Yet, in the ancient harbor town of Acre in the north of Israel, two women have broken the glass ceiling hanging above all hummus eateries.

The book traces the lineage of a golden legume in what is essentially a perpetually disputed part of the world, along a Levantine route stretching from the bustling streets of Cairo through the narrow alleyways of Gaza, to Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Beirut, and Damascus. It is a collection of recipes, stories, memories, essays, odes, drawing, painting and street photography, contributed by a diverse list of chefs, cooks, food writers, photographers, researchers, philosophers, historians, and scientists from a plethora of nationalities, faiths, and backgrounds, all keen to share the impact and importance of hummus on the local food cultures, history, traditions, politics, nostalgia and nationalism.

To say this was no easy task would be an understatement as the charged chickpea is a notorious culinary landmine, if ever there was one, equipped with the rare ability to evoke strong emotions that reach far beyond the dining table and into political disputes, cultural appropriation, and ownership. But, the end result delivers a love story of an ancient bean that managed to capture hearts, imagination, and rumbling bellies all across the region against all odds and regardless of nationality, age, faith, gender, or political opinion.

Souheila

Born in Acre in 1957, Souheila dreamt of becoming a teacher. Her father opened Abu Sohil Hummus in the 60’s and following his death in the early 80’s, her mother and two brothers took over the family business. Following the loss of a sibling and an injury her mother sustained in the kitchen, Souheila stepped in and took charge of the kitchen in 1993.

“It wasn’t my plan,” she stresses, “but it had to be done as the eatery was providing for the family and someone had to make sure it kept going”. She never thought she’d be running a hummus eatery, let alone one of the finest of its kind.

As a young man, Souheila’s father worked at Abu Brahim Hummus, where he learned the secrets to making good hummus. That exact recipe has remained unchanged ever since. Every morning at around five, Souheila cooks 25 kilograms of chickpeas, adding nothing but water, until they are velvety soft, and creamy. Along with her sister and nephews, she prepares the hummus in small batches throughout the day, ensuring every customer is served a freshly whipped bowl of warm hummus. She sources all of the ingredients from nearby Haifa and uses only high quality, rich and flavorful tahini produced in Nazareth by Al Arz Tahini, yet another successful local culinary enterprise led by women.

With the first customers walking through the door at around eight in the morning, and some even earlier, there is often a line outside leading to the eatery. In addition to hummus, the menu offers all the dishes that compliment it so well: tahini, shakshuka, kibbeh, falafel balls and an assortment of salads. Souheila prepares all the food right on the spot, in front of the hungry customers’ eyes and rumbling stomachs of Arabs and Jews, locals and tourists, men, women, and children. Everyone lines up for the prized paste, and by five in the afternoon, all the food is gone and another day has passed.

When I asked Souheila how her hummus compares to others, she confided in me that she never eats out and enjoys cooking traditional Arabic cuisine including: maqluba, stuffed vegetables, fatayer and yes, hummus.

Crowned ‘Acre’s King (and not the queen) of hummus’ in 2003, Souheila hasn maintained her father’s legacy for several decades with an underlying passion for making people happy through good hummus.

If nothing else, this is the power of hummus and the part it plays in making the world a better place.

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