Editor's Note: Read an entire chapter about tehina and so much more in Michael Solomonov's first cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 6, 2015.
When I eat hummus, I am like a vortex. I eat it very fast and very silently. I have to hold my breath and eat as much as I possibly can. And Jerusalem Hummus is my favorite way to consume it, because when you have hot ground beef or lamb on top of it, it's magic. I eat at least a quart a week. I think I've consumed over 500 gallons over the course of my life thus far.
In Israel, the phrase is always, "Let's go wipe some hummus." So in typical Israeli fashion, it's important to load up with as much of it as humanly possible. What you don't want to ever do, though, is spoon some off onto your plate. That's a bit strange. You should use the bowl as the vessel to eat it, but there's no real common thread to hummus etiquette.
There's no wrong way to eat hummus, but sometimes I see people take pita or laffa and dip it into the bowl as if they're dabbing tissue paper into water to wipe something off your face. In those moments, I think to myself, The expression of hummus is hitting a wall with you right now. You need to really get in there and wipe it, clean it off, and make a little canoe out of the vessel (the pita) to hold as much hummus as humanly possible. But eat hummus however you want to.
You need to really get in there and wipe it, clean it off, and make a little canoe out of the pita to hold as much hummus as humanly possible. But eat hummus however you want to.
And there are a lot of variables to hummus. In summertime, it can start to ferment at room temperature or seize up in wintertime. Late fall is the perfect time to eat it, but then again, we're in Philadelphia, not Israel. There are no tricks to making it, so you just have to make it very well. The tehina, for example, has to be seasoned perfectly and needs to achieve a certain consistency. There can't be too much lemon or garlic in it, and making anything consistent has no bells and whistles. Consistency is an incredibly hard thing to pull off, because there's nothing that you can hide it with.
Our restaurant usually goes through a gallon of hummus in under an hour, and on any given day, five gallons.
At Zahav, there's an everyday ritual around soaking, cooking, and draining chickpeas that involves more chickpeas than you can possibly imagine. It's this boiling cauldron of legumes. They take up a lot of space. There's something very prominent about their presence in our kitchen. We have a giant Robot Coupe dedicated to blending hummus with a motor like a Corvette—it's super-heavy, loud, and could crush human bones in a matter of seconds.
Here in Pennsylvania, it's all about making do with the local ingredients that we do have and figure out how to apply Middle Eastern cooking to them.
At Zahav, we don't have the luxury of actually being in Israel to source ingredients. Here in Pennsylvania, the climate is very different than in the Middle East. It's all about making do with the local ingredients that we do have and figure out how to apply Middle Eastern cooking to them.
Local kale is a very important green for us that we use to cook with almost all year long. Kale tabbouleh is more relevant in Philly than it would be over there. It's what our customers expect, and as a chef, I need to be creative. Looking back on the first year that we were open, we tried to mimic classic dishes that you'd find in Israel and it didn't translate.
When Israel was founded, there was no money for anything. My parents couldn't afford butter, so they got margarine. Everyone was on food rations. It wasn't like it is today. It didn't seem very Western and everything was subsidized by the government. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, had to deal with things like figuring out a way to get an affordable rice equivalent into Israel. The way that they got around it was by making little pasta pearls, Israel couscous, instead.
I feel like the very easy way to represent Israel is through food, and the luxury of talking about food is a way to talk about people without necessarily having to discuss politics. And that's my responsibility—to support a country that is often misunderstood. And to consume a lot of hummus.
As told to Helen Hollyman