Forget news of Brexit and the Trump presidency – all that future generations will want to know is how you coped during the great hummus shortage of 2017. For those spared the horror, I refer to that difficult week in April when the space between the taramasalata and the tzatziki in most UK supermarket chains stood sadly empty, save for short notices announcing a temporary lack of stock “due to a production issue”.
According to social media, the mass recall – “taste issues” were blamed – signalled “the end of the world”; or, at the very least, a pressing issue for the next election. “If the Lib Dems don’t make the hummus crisis a centrepiece of the campaign they don’t really care about Remainers,” as one tweet put it.
Though it sounds like the stuff of right-wing parody, the hummus war is real. Hostilities began in 2009 when a Lebanese delegation at a French trade fair claimed to have heard Israeli exhibitors promoting the dish as an old Israeli speciality. Enraged, they organised an assault on the world record for the largest dish of hummus.
“We want the whole world to know that hummus [is] Lebanese, and by breaking [into] the Guinness Book of World Records, the world should know our cuisine, our culture,” the then minister of tourism declared at the ceremony where Guinness presented Lebanon with its award.
The record didn’t stand for long: a furious Arab-Israeli restaurateur hit back early the following year with a four-tonne response – and though there has as yet been no comeback to Beirut’s successful counterattack four months later (“Whether it’s with hummus, tabbouleh or weapons, our struggle continues,” as one participant put it, somewhat ominously), the war goes on. At one point the Association of Lebanese Industrialists even announced plans to apply for protected status for Lebanese hummus within the EU (status of the kind that prevents English winegrowers from calling their fizz champagne, or German cheese producers using the name feta). But these plans never got off the ground – probably for the best, according to the Middle East historian Ari Ariel, given the “huge legal battle” that would result.
Ariel is not entirely sure that the hummus war is the light-hearted antidote to deeper divisions it is often painted as. “It is part of the military conflict, in a way,” he told Heritage Radio Network’s A Taste of the Past. “There’s this idea that by sharing foods we can reconcile . . . but it doesn’t seem to be true.”
The matter is divisive even within Israel. Early Jewish settlers were slow to develop a taste for the Arab speciality, and though wartime rationing forced them to adapt to more local ingredients, it was still often sold as Mizrahi Jewish fare, though that community largely originated in North Africa, Iraq and Yemen – places with no great hummus culture.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the dish’s Arab identity began to be acknowledged and celebrated. But these days, according to the Jerusalem-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi, “When push comes to shove, nobody seriously challenges the Palestinian hegemony in making hummus, even though both they and the Jews like calling it their own.”
Instead, the debate now is over who makes the best: “Jews in particular, and even more specifically Jewish men, never tire of arguments about the absolute, the one and only, the most fantastic hummusia [hummus café],” he says.
They can all agree on one thing – you definitely won’t find it at the supermarket. l
Next week: Nina Caplan on drink
This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning