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Arguments over food usually adopt one of two possible tracks. The first often has to do with the question of origin, as in which culture, nation or ethnic group invented a popular dish or its progenitors. The second track is by necessity a more puritanical exercise, which has to do with which group of people make the best version of a food, which also often becomes an argument over the most authentic or unadulterated version of a dish. An example of this is the question of whether deep-dish Chicago-style pizza or New York-style pizza is the superior version (the answer of course is neither, because deep-dish pizza is a misnomer — it is a kind of giant quiche that carries a far greater heart attack risk, whereas New York pizza is simply Italian pizza).
When it comes to hummus, the venerable Mediterranean side dish made of chickpeas, olive oil, lemon, garlic and tahini, the answer to the second question is whatever version of the dish that actually includes hummus, literally chickpeas in Arabic, and is devoid of synthetic and sugary additives introduced by the despicable American food and foodie industries, such as marshmallows, chocolate, marmite, pineapple jalapeno, etc. This incorporates a wide array of regional and local takes on the dish, such as the Syrian and Antakyan variant that includes sauteed meat, pine nuts and ghee instead of olive oil. The question of which version is superior is really a matter of whether the hummus is a main dish or a side one. And it’s a matter of taste rather than a matter of fact — such as the fact that chocolate hummus is an abomination.
The first track is one that has often gone unsettled, largely because it is almost impossible to untangle all the regional influences on various Mediterranean and Middle Eastern staple dishes and drinks. Most Mediterranean countries have their own version with slight variations in preparation or ingredients of what many of us have come to call Turkish coffee, a name that can elicit hostility in some quarters. (I once accidentally ordered a Turkish coffee while in a remote town in Greece, and the elderly waiter came back with a cup of tea and told me, “Here we call it Greek coffee.”) Northern Syria, Armenia and southern Turkey all have versions of the same dishes that are sometimes identical or have subtle influences on existing dishes, such as Aleppan cherry kebab, which blends elements from Hatay and Armenian cuisine with the sour cherries that Idlib is known for.
A New Lines scoop (pun intended) has now fired the latest salvo in this debate and placed the magazine squarely in the middle of an historic tug-of-war over the origins of hummus. It turns out that the earliest mention in the fascinating world of medieval Middle Eastern cookbooks of hummus is a 13th-century work attributed to the Aleppo historian Ibn al-Adeem (but that may alternatively have been written by an Ayyubid prince).
The strongest evidence now points to Syria as the origin of hummus.
This discovery was part of a fascinating essay written by Mahmoud Habboush, a Palestinian author and journalist (and food aficionado) based in the U.K. The essay was published in the first print edition of New Lines earlier this year — its imagery is just as succulent as the text and the recipes that came with it.
Habboush’s essay begins with his search for medieval Arabic writings about food, borne out of a fascination with the knowledge that was lost during the Mongol invasion and destruction of Baghdad in the Abbasid era. That fascination gave way to musings over what the caliphs and ordinary people of that time ate, which led the writer to acquire copies of eight of the surviving nine Middle Eastern medieval cookbooks.
What follows is a journey through that medieval cuisine, the intimate style with which the era’s intellectuals, poets and writers described food, its role as a luxury and reflection of the rise and decline of empire, and the philosophical exploration of why the artisans of the time bothered to write about food — perhaps as a perpetuation of their own creation or an embodiment of food as an aesthetic, a concept many of us regard as cringeworthy every time someone pauses before digging into a meal and then snapping a photo and posting it on Instagram for posterity.
Habboush’s exploration (both intellectual and in the kitchen) of many of these medieval recipes leads to a rather startling discovery — the first mention of the equivalent of today’s hummus appears to originate in Syria.
The mention comes in “Al-Wusla ila al-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wal-Teeb,” a 13th-century cookbook that was translated by the culinary historian Charles Perry as “Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook.” The hummus recipe here predictably incorporates tahini, chickpeas and lemon, another vindication of what hummus actually includes (notice no mention of marmite, chocolate or vanilla bean).
The debate itself will of course live on. Just like the question of which sub-Saharan African nation makes the best jollof or which Arab country makes the best kunefe/kunafa or shawarma (the answer of course is Egypt and Palestine), largely because such questions transcend factual reality to encompass everything from one’s childhood memories to one’s particular epicurean tendencies, as well as nationalistic vigor. It won’t stop American food manufacturers chasing after the latest health food trend from inventing new and terrible forms of Franken-hummus. It won’t hinder the fervent reclamation of food as a solid cultural product in which the memory of a place or nation lives on, as with Palestinian cuisine.
But perhaps the heartening message of the essay is the diversity within that corner of the world, both in its composition and the knowledge lost to the ages — and the power and allure of a glorious past. Habboush writes: “The lesson learned from these books is that many of the dishes we savor today throughout the Arab world are steeped in the region’s history. The vermicelli known as shairiyya and other types of pasta make a good case in point. But these books are also a testament to the great wealth of classical works, both published and unpublished, which beg us to explore and enjoy.”
He adds: “The Umayyads who established the first Muslim dynasty after the early Rashidun era were no match for the extravagance and sophistication of the Abbasids who came after them. The latter’s Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Mamun became famous for their sumptuous tables, complete with the scent of saffron, oud, musk and roses. The dishes came in all colors and designs — meat carved like sparrows and candies shaped like animals. There were cookies baked in the form of breasts. Indeed, while the second caliph Omar might have traded luxuries of the palate for promises of the afterlife, later caliphs aimed to re-create Eden here on Earth.”
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