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Food in the 'Hood

The Battle Over the Bean: the Curious Chickpea — Part II

In addition to tracing the history of chickpeas, Part I covered the quarrels between Israelis and Palestinians over who had the most authentic claim to falafel.

The true parents of falafel, the Egyptians, have been bystanders in the culture wars over the fritter. Nonetheless, Egyptian purveyors of falafel, I learned from visits to their shops, are quick to remind you that you are actually eating ta’amiya, even if it is bereft of the requisite fava beans.

The Lebanese have pursued another tack. Their falafel sandwich is a compromise, a bridge between the Israeli and Lebanese version. It is a combination of chickpeas and fava beans.

My old friend, George Rababy, the Lebanese owner of the King of Falafel in Georgetown, always expressed enormous pride in his country’s product. The onetime car salesman and airline ticket agent emigrated from his homeland in 1974. He took over a Georgetown luncheonette called “Jack’s Steaks” after stints as a waiter, captain, and maître d’ in area restaurants. The aspiring businessman had been searching for a “busy place to show his experience.” He kept Jack’s drawing card, a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, while also converting the shop into an Arabic lunch counter selling hummus and baba ghanouj, grape leaves, kibbe, and, of course, falafel. His specialties were perfectly suited for customers hunting for quick foods and carryout.

One afternoon some years ago, I watched as George put his Lebanese stamp on the falafel. After soaking his chickpeas and fava beans in water for two days, he ground up the legumes and added red pepper, cumin, onions, and garlic to the mix. Falafel, George said, must have bite. “If it’s not hot, don’t eat it.” For more verve, he sprinkled parsley and coriander from a mountain of greens on his basement worktable.

George, the consummate showman, performed his falafel cooking ritual for his lunch counter audience. “If it’s not cooked in front of you,” he remarked, “it’s not falafel.” Nibbling on a plate of tart olives and slices of tangy red turnips that were marinated in beet juice, hot pepper, vinegar, and salt, I watched the master at work. After dipping what looked like an ice cream scoop into the falafel batter, he dropped the patty into the fryer. He took care not to over fry his product. Taking the fritter out of the fryer, George rested the falafel so that it remained crunchy and moist. He then mashed his creation on pocketless pita bread and garnished it with lettuce, tomato, parsley, and turnips. Finally, he rolled up the pita to make a sandwich and squirted tahini sauce made from a paste of crushed sesame seeds on it.

Another classic chickpea-based appetizer has also precipitated a food fight. Both the Lebanese and the Israelis have staked their claim to hummus. In 2008, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists asserted their legal right to “protected status” for the dip. The group based its argument on a ruling by a European Union court that only cheese produced from Greek goat and sheep milk could be called feta. What was good for feta should be good for hummus. By branding hummus as Lebanese, the association calculated, their rivals would be prevented from promoting it as an “Israeli” product. “If we don’t tell the Israelis that enough is enough, and we don’t remind the world that it’s not true that hummus is a traditional Israeli dish, they (Israelis) will keep on marketing it as their own,” association executive Fadi Abboud declared.

Hummus has also functioned as a chess piece in Middle East conflicts. During a dispute over a nuclear reactor in Syria, President Bashur al-Assad, it was rumored, sent fresh hummus to Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a gesture of good will. Seemingly undeterred, the Israelis went ahead and bombed the reactor.

The hummus competition has also broken out on another battlefield. The chefs of both Lebanon and Israel have been vying over who can make the heftiest hummus. The victory, each hoped, would be marked in the Guinness Book of Records. The 2009 contest was billed with the slogan, “Come and fight for your bite, you know you’re right.” The Lebanese triumphed with a spread that weighed over two tons.

Both sides have summoned strong arguments to make their case. “We were the first country in the world to industrialize the production of hummus and export hummus when Israel was barely five years old,” Lebanese spokesman Abboud asserted. The chickpea dip, Israelis have responded, is too ancient and widespread to be appropriated by any nation. ”Trying to make a copyright claim over hummus is like claiming for the rights to bread or wine. Hummus is a centuries old Arab dish —- nobody owns it, it belongs to the region,” Israeli journalist Shooky Galili contended.

It is easier to determine the genealogy of the chickpea than it is to trace the origins of hummus. The dip we know, a luscious chickpea purée suffused with the flavors of lemon, garlic, olive oil, and, most importantly, sesame tahini, is markedly different from the nutty, herb-laden dish of the first recorded recipe from 13th century Egypt. The instructions for making Hummus Kasa (chickpea blanket) calls for the cook to pound the beans “fine” after boiling them. Then vinegar, pepper, mint, parsley, thyme, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, caraway, and other ingredients are to be added.

Whatever its origins, hummus was probably perfected by the Lebanese, the Middle East’s consummate restaurateurs. With culinary flair they elevated a basic food into something grand. Hummus metamorphosed into a convivial dish to be savored as part of the mezze, an elaborate assortment of appetizers ranging from tangy eggplant salads and creamy yogurt spread to grilled beef and lamb sausages, offered at restaurants. The mezze blossomed with the rise of open air cafés in Zahle, a mountainous region of northeastern Lebanon known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” As the renowned Middle East food writer Claudia Roden tells the story, “Zahle, the resort where Lebanon’s favorite riverside restaurants are situated, acquired a mythical reputation for gastronomy. In 1920, the first two cafés opened by the river. They gave away assorted nuts, olives, bits of cheese, and raw vegetables with the local arak. Gradually, the entire valley became filled with open-air cafés, each larger and luxurious than the next, each vying to attract customers who flocked from all over the Middle East with ever more varied mezze. The reputation of the local mountain village foods they offered spread far and wide.” In time, restaurants throughout Lebanon adopted the winning formula.

From the beginning, as Roden points out, drinking arak, an anise-flavored liqueur brewed in the valley in which Zahle was located, was an integral part of the mezze experience. There was no alcohol taboo for the largely Christian patrons. Arak helped lubricate gatherings where people gathered to enjoy each other’s company and to relish the conversation.

American hummus makers have altered the traditional blend to appeal to the country’s varied tastes. Food journalist John T. Edge discovered the Holy Land Company in Minneapolis turning out tubs of hummus for grocery stores in jalapeno and guacamole flavors. “I’m making an American product,” the Kuwaiti-born executive told Edge. “And this is what Americans want. Flavors and varieties and guacamole.”

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Tasting Chickpeas

Astor Mediterranean (1828 Col. Rd., NW; tel., 202-745-7495). The Egyptian-owned eatery offers customers a tangy chickpea salad and sells hummus and baba ghanouj, among other appetizers.

George’s King of Falafel and Cheesesteak (1205 28th St.; tel., 342-2278). The lunch counter-restaurant dishes up hummus, falafel, ful, and other Arabic snacks.

Jolt ‘n Bolt (1918 18th St.; tel., 232-0077). The coffee shop makes one of the new breed of hummus sandwiches, the hummus garden special, pita bread spread with the dip with slices of avocado.

 

 

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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