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The Fight for Hummus

It is almost noon in Tel Aviv and Abu Dubi (A-bu Da-bi), the little hummus place on 81 King George St. is packed. As Israelis say, the real battle in the Middle East is finding a free table during lunchtime in Tel Aviv, especially at one of the 70 hummus restaurants. “Try to find a place to sit and you’ll see what war is,” says everyone in the city called the Big Orange.

Hummus is a local delicacy with Arab roots, made from cooked and mashed chickpeas mixed with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt. It is a cheap meal — not even $6 for a plate that includes pita bread and pickles — and vegetarian-friendly. While it’s something of a national dish, “In Tel Aviv most of the people who eat hummus are from the Facebook generation,” says Shuki Galili, an Israeli journalist who publishes The Hummus blog. “These people are mostly young, well-connected and educated, students who know what is going on and are quite cosmopolitan. This is the hummus generation who built the ‘tent city’ on the fancy Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv this summer. They called for social justice after the Jewish state became one of the most expensive places on earth.”

Only a few guests used to come to Abu Dubi from the tent city, a five-minute walk from here. The hummus shop — hummusi-ya in Hebrew — sent a big bowl of their chickpeas deep into the tents (which have been dismantled) every day.

The food of the Middle East’s Everyman

“Hummus is the fuel of the revolution,” says Gal Eilam, 38, one of the owners of Abu Dubi. “Hummus was always the food of the working class. Our neighbors, the Palestinians, wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and eat a plate of hummus before going out to the field. When I was a student, I had no money in my pocket, so I had hummus for breakfast and it was enough for me till dinner.”

You make hummus with love or you don’t make it at all, as an Israeli advertisement once said. Eilam, a Jewish Israeli, and his partner, Samir Ayub, 34, a Muslim Arab Israeli, opened Abu Dubi in November of 2006 after working together at another restaurant. They decided to create a place that combined their loves of hummus and reggae — the music that decorates the atmosphere in Abu Dubi (Dubi — for “Dub music”). “Hummus has no borders,” declares Eilam. “It is apolitical, it connects people. I feel much closer to an owner of a hummus place in Cairo or Beirut than to any other politician.”

Tons of hummus to love

Nonetheless, this tasty chickpea delicacy was at the center of a battle between Israel and Lebanon. The countries vied for the title of the World’s Largest Hummus Plate. Early last year, Israel won with a four-ton batch, but a few months later, in May, Lebanon took over the title, with an 11.5-ton (23,042 pounds/10,452 kg) entry. “Let’s hope it will be our only war with them,” says Eilam.

“It was so important to the Lebanese to win this battle so the world would see that they are the best as the inventors of hummus,” said Claudia Roden, one of the most important Middle Eastern food writers, during a recent visit to Israel. This desire for hummus supremacy would not bring peace to the region and might even make it more elusive, she continued.

At Tel Aviv’s Abu Dubi on any given day, nobody cares who first made the internationally chickpea dip that elicits such passion. As Bob Marley’s lyrics “One love, One heart, Let’s get together and feel alright” waft over the diners all anyone cares about is having finally found a seat, and the bowl of hummus in front of them.

Ofer Vardi, a Tel Aviv-based journalist, is the author of Going Paprikash, a best-selling Hungarian kosher cookbook. After years as a television journalist and editor, Vardi is now the Lifestyle editor of Israel Hayom daily newspaper, and the owner and editor in chief of LunchBox Press.

Photo: Hummus and accompaniments at Abu Dubi. Credit: Assi Haim