Americans really love hummus, and our love is growing in leaps and bounds: 20 years ago sales of ready-made hummus were at $5 million annually. Today, sales hit $725 million per year. We love hummus in infinite variation—as a dip, in a sandwich, or even as a snack bought at the airport before a flight.This love is so strong that we decided to take a look at the oldest hummus recipe in the world.
Nawal Nasrallah, an award-winning researcher, food writer and author of “Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine,” discovered this recipe while doing research for her cookbook, translating it from the 14th-century Egyptian cookbook “Kanz al-Fawa’id.” We asked Nawal about how she found the recipe.
“I came to know of these recipes while doing research for my book on Iraqi cuisine, as I tried to probe for the origin of such dishes. It turned out—to my surprise—that many recipes for such dishes were included in the Arabic medieval cookbooks. The 14th-century Egyptian cookbook ‘Kanz al-Fawa’id’ (my English translation of this book has recently come out, under the title ‘Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table’) has the ‘mother lode’—11 recipes no less. The dish was called himmas [that’s how it was pronounced] kassa. Kassa means ‘mashed’. All the recipes call for boiled chickpeas to be mashed, and they all use tahini.”
As to the very first documented hummus recipes, Nawal says “They were all made more or less the same way, mashed chickpeas and tahini, with souring agents, olive oil, and spices and herbs and some with nuts, all pounded together to result in a smooth texture. What I find most interesting is adding preserved lemon to the mix of some of them. Some recipes call for lemon juice, others for vinegar; a recipe calls for a generous amount of herbs, like parsley and mint, along with pistachio, so that the hummus looks green.”
To find the oldest documented hummus recipe, Nawal researched and translated numerous texts, noting that the hummus recipes she found “were all written in Arabic, and they come from Egypt and the Levant.”
In today’s home kitchens, if someone wants to make hummus it’s likely they’d find a recipe with precise measurements and exact directions. Was that so in the oldest hummus recipe in the world? “No, the original recipes do not provide measurements as we use them today,” she says. “Cooks measured by their eyes and taste buds. However, in these recipes we do have directions, which give us the needed clues regarding color, texture, and flavor. According to one of the recipes, for instance, the finished hummus should be thick enough to hold its shape when picked up by a piece of bread. In another one, the herbs added should be enough to give the finished hummus a green color. The perfect texture is always compared to that of ointment.”
And who made the hummus, back then, and how? Nawal says “it depends on the households. It could have been housewives or slave girls. I should say it was a familiar dish. I mean, it was not a staple, but it was enjoyed frequently. Judging from the number of recipes given in the Egyptian cookbook, it must have been popular.”
We asked Nawal how the hummus would have been eaten. “They were communal dishes, which necessitated some important table manners, such as meticulous washing of the hands before the meal and avoiding double-dipping.” In the recipe for the oldest documented hummus, an included ingredient is simply “atraf teeb (spice blend).” Since spices so clearly define the flavor of a dish, we were curious if Nawal knew a recipe for this particular combination of spices. “Yes, we do. Luckily one of extant medieval cookbooks, ‘Al-Wusla ila l-Habeeb’ (a 13th-century Syrian cookbook) provides one. It includes spikenard, betel-leaves, bay leaves, nutmeg, mace, green cardamom, cloves, rosebuds, fruit of Syrian ash tree (lisān al-‘asfour), long pepper, ginger, and black pepper.”
More about the oldest hummus recipe in the world, as well as much more on the world of Iraqi foods can be found at Naswal’s blog In My Iraqi Kitchen and in “Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine.”
Header image courtesy of In My Iraqi Kitchen.