The Hummus Diaries


There are few secrets in New York City, but the proportion of mashed chickpeas to tehina is held tightly by the city’s growing number of hummus outposts. Some add lemon, cumin and garlic, mineral water instead of urban tap, a touch of baking soda.

New York hummus is healthy, dairy-free, gluten-free, flavorful, filling and meant to be shared. In search of great Israeli hummus in the city, I encountered a Chinese aficionado, a Palestinian woman working the counter, Mexican chefs, a pair of African-American sisters, a Thai waitress and a kibbutznik-turned-entrepreneur. A hummus tour of New York is as much about the stories swirling around the chickpeas as the hummus itself.

My main informant is my cousin David Wachs, an information technology director of a hedge fund by day, who enjoys exploring New York’s food culture and maintains an impressive database of best places. After a trip to Israel a few years ago when he drove around the north in search of the best hummus, he was inspired to turn his eye and palate to New York. His personal favorite is Taim, chef Einat Admony’s downtown chain of two lively locations and a truck. For atmosphere, he prefers Taboonette near Union Square, an airy place that’s a sibling of Taboon in Hell’s Kitchen, specializing in “Middleterranean cuisine.”

I covered most of his Manhattan list and more, adding New Jersey to the mix (Brooklyn and Queens next time), dipping, or as the Israelis say, wiping (linagev), pita into mounds of homemade hummus, some thick and grainy, others silky smooth. As for my own favorite dish, I’d say it was usually the one I was finishing at the moment.

Israelis in New York seem to have an idealized version of hummus, dating back to teenage adventures or their mothers’ kitchens. It’s hard for them to find that blend of nostalgia and flavor in any food made outside of the Land of Israel.

A friend who prefers to be anonymous recalls his most memorable serving: In the late 1970s, he was stationed in the Jordan Valley with the IDF. The soldiers weren’t allowed to go into Jericho, but almost every day he and his buddies would travel there by armored vehicle to buy hummus and pita. “If we got caught, we would have been court-martialed.”

Vardit Buse, whose Upper West Side hair salon is called Vardit, is mostly disappointed by local hummus; it’s not up to her Israeli standards — she finds many places water it down. The best hummus she’s ever tasted comes from a guy called Gingy who sells his homemade version from a truck parked near her hometown of Rosh Ha’ayin, from early morning until whenever he runs out.

A New Yorker for 27 years, Buse is likely to initiate conversations when she hears others speaking Hebrew, and is even more likely to do so in the small hummus places where she sometimes meets friends.

“I can credit a long relationship to a hummus place. After an Israeli concert, an Israeli man asked if I would like to join his friends’ table for hummus, and I said sure, ‘for the hummus.’” She then went on to date that man for seven years.

These days, new humasiyas, or hummus joints, keep opening. They’re modeled after simple Israeli places where the hummus is homemade, the recipes handed down and the clientele including politicians, construction workers and families. The chefs praise the quality of the sesame seeds as key to fine hummus; they use no preservatives, no short cuts.

In a 2012 documentary film that will send you searching for the real thing, “Make Hummus Not War,” a Tel Aviv taxi driver heads to his favorite humasiya regularly. “It puts me in a mood of ecstasy,” he says. “I forget about the taxi. I love the atmosphere, the noise, it’s like poetry.”

In a 400-square foot brick-walled storefront in Hell’s Kitchen, Gazala Halavi graciously serves the food of Daliat-el-Carmel, her native Druze village in the north of Israel. She is the only woman of her generation to leave the village, let alone open up a business in New York. When she first came to the city, she cooked Druze specialties at home and, as though she were still in the village, shared with her neighbors. That led to catering, which led to Gazala’s Place, opened in late 2007.

Her parents’ photo is on the cover of the menu, and a photo of her grandfather and the village elders hangs inside. In an oven up front, Halavi bakes her own pita, in a style thinner than a crepe, midway between soft and crisp. Her hummus is light and more delicate than most; she overcooks the chickpeas to achieve the perfect consistency. No garlic in her hummus. When she first opened, the majority of her customers were Israeli Jews, and she credits them for getting the word out.

Last week, Michael Solomonov, the award-winning chef who runs Zahav and other restaurants in Philadelphia, and his partners opened Dizengoff in Chelsea Market; the spot is plastered with Hebrew billboards recalling Tel Aviv. They make their own pita in a taboon oven, and top their hummus with a creative and changing array of toppings (avocado and peanut harrisa, roasted asparagus, fresh corn when in season over the summer). For chef Emily Seaman, a partner, “it’s all about the texture and the seasoning.” They whip the tehina so that it’s like buttercream.

“Hummus is one of those dishes that can be eaten at any meal, at any time of day,” Solomonov says. “I think there’s really something just primal about eating hummus with pita.”

Ohad Fisherman is also making a name for himself in the hummus scene: A real estate broker who grew up in his family’s Tel Aviv restaurant, Mifgash HaSteak, he started producing the restaurant’s recipe here three years ago, and now uses the kitchen of Chabad House Bowery. He had been making 500 containers a week and after a recent New York Post story, he’s up to 1,000. His Hummus Joonam is sold at Holyland Market in the East Village — people send car services to pick it up on Friday.

By coincidence, I ran into Fisherman at Holyland as he was about to schlep a large bucket of tehina back to Chabad for production. In an interview in the back seat of a taxi, he shared his simple list of ingredients — chickpeas, tehina, lemon, sea salt and water — and the fact that he plans to open a stall in the New Gansevoort Market. Back on the Bowery, he offered tastes of hummus to the members of a film crew working on the street. Also connoisseurs, they approved.

Before hours, I meet Zwika Pres, a partner in the Nanoosh restaurant chain, in its Upper West Side spot, which features a chickpea chandelier. The Nanoosh concept is to combine hummus with an organic kitchen, offering salads and grains. When I ask Pres, who grew up on Kibbutz Dorot in the Negev and worked in diamonds before quitting his job to open the first Nanoosh, whether he had expected to be doing this, he says, “Not in a million years.”

Sharon Hoota, who opened his first Hummus Kitchen in 2008 and now has two others, grew up in Kiryat Bialik, near Haifa, and learned to cook “between the pots with my mom.” But it was tasting hummus made by an Arab woman in Acco — the best he ever tasted — that made him want to learn to make it. His place is rustic, stylish and kosher, serving meat dishes along with hummus.

Hoota, like most of those interviewed, isn’t caught up in the debate over who “owns” hummus, whether Jews or Arabs, and who made it first, often a point of contention in Israel.

“You cannot say that someone owns it. Maybe they did it before. But if you go back in history, the Greeks made hummus too,” he says. “It’s food. They make it. I make it.”

A couple used to come into Hummus Kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen weekly before leaving New York. When Hoota asked where they were from, they said, “We’re neighbors.” Turns out the couple was from Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon. “I’ve been there many times in my life,” Hoota said, recalling his days in the IDF. “Maybe we saw one another. We wanted to kill one another just a few years ago. For nothing. Now we are eating hummus together.”