Food and Travel, Ingredient, International Food
on August 30, 2012
Mark Boughton

A thick, Middle Eastern sauce made from mashed chickpeas, hummus (HOOM-uhs) is traditionally served as a spread for pita. Less traditionally, it makes a terrific dip for raw veggies. It’s seasoned with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil and is frequently enhanced with tahini (ground sesame paste), in which case it’s properly called hummus bi tahina.

The word “hummus” comes from the Arabic word for “chickpea,” a lentil that’s been grown since at least 8000 B.C. The Phoenicians may have been the first to distribute the chickpea, and from early times, it’s been an important foodstuff in the Near East, North Africa and the Mediterranean.  In Spanish-speaking countries, the chickpea is called the “garbanzo” bean. In Italy, it’s “ceci”—so named because the fabled orator Cicero had an ancestor whose facial wart was said to bear a striking resemblance to a chickpea.

In India, chickpeas appear as “channa dal.” In Israel, they’re ground and fried for the fritter known as “falafel,” the de facto national dish. In modern Middle Eastern cities, they’re toasted and sold by street vendors. Chickpeas have long been important as a Lenten food. In Jewish culture, they’re traditionally served at Shiva, the seven-day mourning period following a death; their round shape symbolizes the circle of life and death.

Chickpeas are a good source of iron, vitamin C, protein and dietary fiber. Hummus can be flavored with anything from red pepper to cilantro, and it’s a great choice for vegetarians, vegans and anyone who wants to limit their intake of meat.

—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.