Take a walk on the bustling beachfront promenade of Tel Aviv and your eye will inevitably be drawn south, to the cascading pale stone walls of Jaffa’s old town. Built high on a rock and a few millennia older than anything around it, Jaffa is a peculiar place, blessed and cursed to be at a crossroads of cultures: a historic, once-Arab port town now swallowed up by the young Euro-Jewish hybrid of Tel Aviv, an oasis of crumbling stone mansions and cobbled streets within a city of skyscrapers and seaside rollerblading.
It is unquestionably Israel, but somehow, the flavour of its otherness clings on — in the broad-hulled fishing boats that bring in the morning catch under escort of seagulls, the candy-coloured Coptic church, the chatter tumbling off communal balconies, the bougainvillea-shaded courtyards that magically appear when, dazed by the white heat, you take yet another wrong turn in the maze of its streets.
Gentrification is moving fast in Jaffa, both relentless and politically significant: Palestinian families are steadily supplanted by Israeli hipster couples, metalwork yards and weaving shops close down to be replaced by delis, off-beat designer boutiques and wine bars. In many ways, the town’s history reflects the course of Israel itself: a contested geographical space with ancient beginnings that has become a frontline for demographic and cultural politics between Arabs and Jews. A place always in flux, never at peace.
Yet for me, and for many Israelis walking with purpose towards the beaconing tower of St Peter’s Church, politics is irrelevant: Jaffa is not a battleground for hearts and minds, but a battleground for stomachs, and the weapon of choice is hummus.
Smooth and comforting on the palate and the perfect blend of savoury and creamy, hummus simply means ‘chickpea’ in Arabic. Some form of pureed chickpeas has been eaten by the Arabs in the region covered by present-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel for centuries — and living alongside them, the Mizrahi Jews also had hummus on their tables in Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut. When they came to their new homeland in the late 1940s, they brought it with them, its favorable price-to-protein ratio and kosher credentials making it a natural favourite for the motley groups coming together to build a new nation. While in its Arab neighbours hummus comes as a side dish even late into the night, in Israel it became a main course to be had early, substantial enough to set you up for the long day ahead.
Israelis consider hummus a national dish.
Israelis now consume more hummus per capita than any other nation in the world: they consider it their national dish, and those who feel very strongly about its Jewishness are even digging into biblical texts to put forward their own claim to its creation back in the mists of time.
The disputed ownership of hummus, as well as the verdict on who makes the definitive version, have inspired countless internet feuds and polemic articles (including one of Wikipedia’s most absurd edit wars, two serious documentaries (‘Make Hummus not War’ and ‘The Hummus Wars’), one spoof short film (‘The Hummus Enforcement Agency’), as well as the race for the Guinness World Record crown, currently alternating between Lebanon and a Palestinian village in Israel.
There are hundreds of recipes, some dogmatically orthodox in their simplicity, others pushing the limits of fusion and good taste with flourishes like sundried tomatoes, beetroot and wasabi. There’s even been an attempt at an ice cream incarnation, as part of the rotating specials at Israel’s Leggenda gelato parlours. (Spoiler: they’ve skipped the garlic and added honey, producing a taste similar to caramelised halva. I was less than impressed.)