PROPERLY served, hummus is a grand thing to see. A cook scoops pale yellow paste into a shallow brick-colored bowl and then stirs it madly with a mortar, forcing it up against the sides of the bowl in a thick, luxurious coil.
Ostensibly, this is for your convenience, because you can scoop genteelly from the wall of hummus erected for you. But it also shows off the quality. If the paste is too thick, it won't form that glamorous coil. Too slack, and it slumps shamefully.
There's a lot of hummus in our town, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, which has seen wave after wave of immigrant nationalities. How does Valley hummus stack up, as it were? I recently checked out 30 restaurants and cafes to find out.
The Valley's hummus scene is based on three main Middle Eastern ethnic clusters. A lot of Armenians live in Glendale and Burbank. Many are from the Republic of Armenia, where hummus is scarcely known, but others are from western Armenia, often by way of Syria or Lebanon, and they have clear-cut hummus tastes. There are a few Lebanese places in North Hollywood and Valley Village. Israeli restaurants cluster on Ventura Boulevard in Encino and Tarzana. Half a dozen more Armenian places are scattered through the mid-Valley, from North Hollywood to Sherman Oaks, along with two Lebanese places, and there's an Israeli nightclub in Studio City.
Here's where I'm coming from as a hummusivore. I first tasted it back in the '60s when I was studying in Lebanon, a very quiet place at the time. In principle, none of the ingredients was exotic -- I'd certainly tasted chickpeas (though not pureed), sesame seeds (though not ground to a paste called tahini), lemon juice and garlic -- but the combination seemed original and gratifying.
AND there was more to hummus than those pureed ingredients. When the cook was done stirring it around, the bottom of the serving bowl was nearly bare, leaving room for a garnish. Different Middle Eastern cities, I found, had different tastes in the garnish department.
Beirut had a rather classical preference, just a couple of whole chickpeas and a spoonful or two of good local olive oil (I understand that Beirutis are tending to finish if off with a sprinkle of paprika these days), or maybe toasted pine nuts. In Tripoli, they would substitute toasted walnuts and melted butter. Some restaurants (too pricey for the student's budget I was on) were reputed to top hummus with richer things such as roast meat.
A few years later, health foodies discovered hummus and popularized it far and wide, just as they did with falafel and tabbouleh. Its attractions for them were obvious. Hummus was a vegetarian source of protein, it had a rich flavor, it was exotic.
As a result of their efforts, you can now get hummus -- or something like it -- at lots of restaurants and snack stands, even in supermarkets. But it's still hard to find good hummus.
The problem, I think, is that health foodies were dazzled by the nutritional value of chickpeas and sesame seeds and went overboard on those two ingredients, doing violence to the aesthetic of the dish. Health-food hummus has nearly always been too thick with chickpeas, with far too much tahini flavoring and nowhere near enough lemon juice. It tends to scant the garlic flavor too, though there's difference of opinion about how much garlic to use even in the Middle East.
Hummus really needs a sharp note of lemon juice to counteract the flat, faintly bitter effect of the chickpeas. And too much tahini not only overwhelms the other flavors, but also makes the hummus heavy and gummy.
Crossover hummus ignores the garnish aspect of the Middle Eastern dish while the culinary avant-garde seems to feel unfairly constrained by the traditional recipe. Now some fusion restaurants are giving us edamame hummus or sun-dried tomato hummus -- undermining the whole idea because hummus is the Arabic word for chickpea -- while commercial producers are adding flavors such as horseradish and kalamata olive. Some of these experiments are interesting, but I suspect if they ever tasted the real thing, most chefs would reconsider messing with the fine balance of flavors and texture that is the classic hummus recipe.
On my hummus quest in the Valley, I was looking for rich-textured hummus with a good balance of chickpea, lemon and sesame flavors, preferably with a subtle note of garlic, though I was OK with variations if the cooks seemed to know what they were doing. I didn't bother with many Greek or Iranian places, because in my experience they tend to be unclear on the hummus concept (one prominent exception: Raffi's Place in Glendale).
To tell the truth, though, Middle Eastern ancestry doesn't necessarily mean you make good hummus. According to its website, the Zankou Chicken chain, which was founded in Beirut, puts no lemon in its boring hummus. Maybe it's afraid of upstaging its roast chicken.