You Can’t Have Your Hummus and Hate Arabs Too

Chickpeas Photo: Mona Shand

One raw November evening just days after the 2016 election I stood with my husband and three kids in the crowded waiting area of our local Middle Eastern restaurant. As I inhaled the pungent, garlicky aroma that would later cling to our clothes and hair, I looked around the packed room. Virtually everyone, save for me and some of the wait staff, was Caucasian. Diners were greedily tearing into the fresh, warm bread and dipping pieces into plates of thick, creamy hummus.

Meanwhile just a few miles away, in the very same town, a man was making headlines for the sign he posted in front of his home. It read: “It’s Time to Play Cowboys and Muslims”.

As the daughter of Egyptian immigrants, I remember a time when hummus was still largely unknown in America. Now, it’s a restaurant delicacy and a grocery store staple, welcomed into homes across the country. Did you know that hummus is now the official dip of the NFL?

But what has not changed (at least not for the better) is the way many Americans perceive the people and the culture from which hummus originates. In the wake of a national election that stirred up a new wave of anti-Arab sentiment, this is now impossible to ignore.

When I was a child, my parents prepared hummus by the vat at home. But let’s just say the humble spread — made from cooked and smashed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice — was not exactly a familiar sight or smell in my elementary school cafeteria in suburban Detroit.

The early 1990s marked the first time I found hummus in an American grocery store, but it was labeled: “Hummus (Israeli Dip).” No doubt someone thought that would make it more palatable. (Fun fact: Israel has only existed since 1948, but the earliest mention of hummus dates back to 13th century Egypt).

By the time I finished college, hummus had graduated to the mainstream, thanks in large part to companies like Sabra, which convinced Americans that hummus was new (ha!), healthy, and just ethnic enough without being too weird.

But along the way, Americans committed the crime of hummus-cide, white-washing my family’s comfort food into a grainy glob containing everything from roasted red peppers to cannellini beans. (Pro tip: “Hummus” is the Arabic word for chickpea, so if you’re eating “spicy yellow lentil hummus” or “zesty Sriracha black bean hummus,” you’re not actually eating hummus at all).

Today, I can count 14 varieties of prepared, packaged hummus in my suburban Midwestern grocery store. And hummus sales in this country are skyrocketing — up from $5 million annually 20 years ago to more than $700 million per year in 2016. Unfortunately, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims are also on the rise — up by a whopping 67% last year.

As I waited for our table that night, I thought back to the time a co-worker raved about the baklava I brought in, made from an old family recipe. Later, he referred to Arabs as “dirty towel heads” on my Facebook page.

I thought about the day my oldest son, who was just eight at the time, asked me what a “terrorist” was after a neighbor told him that’s what Arabs are. I remembered the terrified look in my daughter’s eyes the day after the election, when she asked how her “Gido” (Arabic for “grandfather”) would get his wheelchair onto an airplane, after a fellow second grader told her everyone from the Middle East would be sent back. I wondered how many of those kids had hummus in their lunch boxes.

Read more in our online magazine Immigrants, Food and America’s Culture Wars

Out of habit, I fidgeted with the crucifix around my neck and thought about how many times I’ve been asked when I converted from Islam, and the incredulous look I inevitably receive each time I have to explain that Christianity actually originated in the Middle East.

A waiter rushed by, delivering a plate of hummus to yet another table, and I felt sick to my stomach. I love this community, but it’s not exactly diverse. I’m one of the darkest people in it, and I’m barely beige. Donald Trump won Livingston County, Michigan, by a huge margin, and virtually every political office is held by Republicans.

But the people here sure do love hummus.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Americans shouldn’t embrace foods from other cultures. I’m just asking that you dip a little deeper (pun intended).

Maybe then you’ll see what I see, and taste what I taste: A plate intended to be shared, its overflowing edges a testament to the hospitality and generosity of the hands that prepared it.

In Arab culture, betrayal after breaking bread with a person is inconceivable. There’s an old Arabic proverb that roughly translates: “There is bread and salt between us, now we are like family.”

I share my family’s recipe for hummus here, in the hope that we might go beyond breaking bread and begin to break down barriers and stereotypes. Now that would be truly delicious.

Hummus Recipe 

Noah, Eli, and Cecilia Shand eating their mom’s hummus; photo: Mona Shand

1 cup dried chickpeas
2 teaspoons baking soda (divided)
Juice of 1½ large lemons (about 1/3 cup), more to taste
2 to 4 cloves garlic, grated
1¾ teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste
1 cup sesame tahini
½ teaspoon ground cumin, more to taste
Paprika, for serving
Olive oil, for serving
Chopped fresh parsley, for serving

1. The day before you want to make the hummus, place the chickpeas in a large saucepan and add enough cold water to cover by about two inches. Add 1 tsp of baking soda and leave to soak overnight (uncovered), at room temperature.

2. The next day, drain and rinse the chickpeas, return them to the saucepan and cover with more water. Add the remaining 1 tsp baking soda, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the temperature to low and simmer for 1 to 2 hours — until the chickpeas are soft and shedding their skins. Drain and allow to cool.

3. Place the chickpeas in a food processor and blend until soft and creamy. Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, and salt and blend again until the mixture is smooth. Scoop onto a serving plate and make a well in the center. Pour the oil into the well and sprinkle paprika and parsley on top.

4. Serve with fresh pita and enjoy. This recipe yields 2 to 3 cups of hummus and serves 8 to 10 people as an appetizer.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.