translating hummus

It’s been happening again.

 

Over the past several weeks, in various corners of my social media world, there has been an uptick in posts about the latest deplorable concoction that someone is passing off as “hummus.” From a “cake batter” hummus I glimpsed on Facebook to this tweet of CBD and Hemp Hummus, my online community has let out a series of collective chickpea-related groans. This latest wave of food fusion outcry brought back memories from the end of last summer when I tasted, improbably, IPA-flavored hummus at a brewery in West Virginia.

Despite the resurgence of these experimental chickpea creations, it seems that the tide may finally be turning and dessert hummus, at the very least, might be on the way out. Bon Appetit named it one of “14 Food Trends We Hope Disappear in 2019.” So there is, perhaps, a light at the end of the brownie-batter-legume-mashup tunnel.

But for years now something has been bothering me about the way we talk about hummus and dismiss these hybridized variations: we never really get at the reasons they’re so egregiously bad or the stakes involved. Instead we get headlines that reduce analysis of hummus to “feelings” or articles that obsess about “firsts” and “mosts” and offer a laundry list of what a dozen different people have to say on the subject. The question of whether something qualifies as hummus gets reduced to a tautological assertion: if enough food writers or historians or culinary professionals pronounce that x is obviously ridiculous/disgusting/appalling/wrong, then x is not hummus. But even if a critical mass of us agree on what is not hummus, how do we get from there to a consensus on what hummus is?

I don’t consider myself a purist. And I also accept that the concept of “authenticity” can be a bit of a blunt weapon in discussions about food. At its best it is a fraught and debated term, and at its worst it can imply an unhelpful notion of culture as stagnant and unchanging. And yet I think it does matter what we do and don’t refer to as hummus. Keep reading for some thoughts about why (also, a recipe).

1. Translation

I think a lot about the relationship between food writing and translation, partly because when I’m not writing about food I do a lot of translation, and partly because I think translation as a concept is “good to think with” (see what I did there). Put simply, what if we think about introducing a new dish or recipe into our food culture as analogous to bringing a new word or phrase into our language? This is what theorists of translation refer to as “foreignization,” and it’s a wonderful way to infuse a language with novel ideas and perspectives.

But it also matters how this type of translation takes place and to what end. For instance, some people insist on using the word Allah (the Arabic word for God) in English prose––not to expand English vocabularies of the divine, but rather to imply some kind of fundamental and irreconcilable difference between Muslims and other kinds of believers. Along similar lines, adopting and even mainstreaming new dishes into American food culture can be a wonderful thing––but depending on the conditions that inform that adoption and flow from it, it can tread a fine line between expanding our palates and exoticizing or appropriating other cultures.

Within a translation framework, what does it mean to bring hummus as both an Arabic word and an Arab dish into the largely Anglophone food culture of the United States?* I would argue that there are good reasons and positive potential outcomes from doing so. But they do not include profiting off the exotic appeal of the vaguely foreign or capitalizing on a denaturalized conception of a healthy Mediterranean fantasia.** I think that’s what is at work in a lot of the marketing of dessert-themed and CBD-type hummus varieties, and it helps explain why it just doesn’t sit right with so many of us: at the end of the day it’s a clumsy, and I would argue irresponsible, translation.

Sara Yasin put it best in a recent Tweet:

 

In other words, if you’d like to make a vegan dark chocolate brownie batter chickpea dip, fantastic. Whatever. But don’t call it hummus.

As a translator who is also a cook (to be precise, an American cook raised in North Carolina who cooks a lot of Arab foods, often for people who do not identify as Arab) I find it useful to think carefully about the weight that the word hummus brings with it. What does hummus signify in the linguistic and cultural contexts where it is rooted, and what is the history behind its meanings? How have they changed over time? If, as a translator or cultural mediator, you choose to disregard those aspects of hummus, then you are cheapening someone else’s culture or ignoring centuries of history. Or both.

2. History

Speaking of translation, the most basic meaning of word “hummus” is “chickpeas.” So what historical transformations were required to transform that primary meaning into the contested (and delicious) dip it is today? Put another way, how does the historical record define what hummus in the first place? What has changed and what has remained constant over time?

As a historian, let me say, I am so glad you asked. Happily, hummus is easy to find in the historical record thanks to a slew of medieval cookbooks that were written in Arabic between the tenth and fourteenth centuries (probably after, too, I imagine, but let’s just say there is some work to be done on early modern Arabic manuscripts. You can read more about that history here, and more about recent translations of those cookbooks here). Cookbooks from 13th-century Syria (translated as Scents & Flavors) and 14th-century Egypt (translated as Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table) both include several versions of hummus and its related forerunners, which I suggest offer historical context for the emergence of the contemporary collocation hummus bi-tahini (chickpeas with tahini, which is how the dish is often referred to in Arabic today).

The medieval recipes for the dishes that bear the most similarity to contemporary hummus refer to hummus kissa’ or himas kassa (حمص كساء، حماص كسا) meaning mashed or pounded chickpeas. These recipes include chickpeas and a number of other common elements (which I’ll discuss below), and they’re the earliest versions of the dish signified by today’s Arabic word hummus.

My reading of these cookbooks (which others may certainly contest, ahlan wa sahlan) is that these chickpea and tahini dips can be understood in the context of a broader trend: the use of tahini, or sesame paste, to produce dishes of a particular consistency that lends itself to be scooped up with flatbread. There are more than a dozen recipes for tahini-based dips between the two cookbooks discussed here, including some (like the one adapted below) that appear in both. They do not all include chickpeas but they do feature a similar consistency and flavor profile. And they appear in a number of different culinary categories: one is sahna (صحنة, which Nawal Nasrallah, the award-winning editor and translator of the Egyptian Treasure Trove text, notes is a kind of condiment often made with “salt-cured anchovies”), bawarid (بوارد, or cold dishes), and sals (aka صلص, aka sauces, and yes, there is probably a connection with the word salsa! Someone could/should write a dissertation on this link…).

These dishes vary widely but they share a number of key characteristics:

    1. they get their smooth texture and dip-worthy viscosity from sesame paste
    2. they have some kind of sour, acidic agent (lemon juice, vinegar, preserved lemons, sumac, etc.)
    3. they are savory (that is, marked by an absence of sweet ingredients. This is significant because sweet and salty were much more casually mixed in medieval Arab cuisine, but that this a story for another day. Or another dissertation!)

You’ll notice that these three elements are consistent with the hummus that is eaten today from Syria to Egypt, which is made with chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice and flavored with salt.

I would like to humbly submit, therefore, that in order to responsibly translate hummus into English and/or into present-day food culture, it ought to be savory, chickpea- and tahini-based, and feature an acidic or citrus tang. This is the historical grammar of hummus, and yes, I will die on this hill.

On a side note it’s also interesting to note how much beyond these core elements did change in hummus recipes. Medieval recipes for hummus-like and tahini-based dips were spiced with all kinds of interesting things (rosebuds, mint, rue, cinnamon, caraway, ginger, you name it) and thickened not only with sesame paste but also, variously, with crushed walnuts or hazelnuts too. In a way this variety makes it easier to pick out a pattern in the common denominators that various recipes share. The story of how the flavor profile of Middle Eastern chickpea dips became simplified over the course of the early modern period is another fascinating and underexplored story (and if some hiring committee or other would be so kind as to offer me a faculty position, I pledge to recruit a number of enterprising students to look into this matter along with the subject of sals).

If you’d like to try your hand at tasting the differences and similarities between these medieval dips and today’s hummus, a recipe for a tahini-based dip that crops up in both Scents & Flavors and Treasure Trove is included below, and you can also try this recipe adaptation I posted last year. I’ll post another in the coming weeks. But I digress.

3. Culture

What, ultimately, is the virtue of all this historicizing? Well, it can help us to think about the kind of food culture we’d like to create and participate in, wherever we are and whatever our cultural background. The implications for making hummus today would be a commitment to including the titular chickpeas, but not only chickpeas, and ingredients that acknowledge the historically persistent inclusion of tahini, savory flavors, and acidity in the dish called hummus. Hummus has always included other things, but if these core elements aren’t at the heart of a dip––if the dip isn’t created in the spirit of this combination––I would argue that it just isn’t translatable as hummus.

Such a framework gives credit to the origins of the term and family of recipes it signifies, but without insisting on a rigid understanding of a One True Hummus. It’s flexible enough to admit variations (like the tasty, tangy pomegranate hummus I once tasted at Azkadenya in West Amman) but within limits. And it explains why the wide range of versions of hummus currently served up throughout the Levant all qualify as hummus.

This is how I see historical research, coupled with an ethics of translation, as offering a balance between respecting a dish’s origins––the culture and labor of the thousands who created, perfected, and passed it down over the centuries––on one hand, and an openness to creativity and innovation that is an essential component of any cuisine on the other. I honestly think this makes for tastier food. But just as importantly it implies an accountability to the people and cultures that gave us a particular dish or recipe or cuisine––ultimately enriching far more than just our plates and palates.


Sahna with Sumac

Adapted from Nawal Nasrallah’s translation of Kanz al-fawa’id fi tanwiʿ al-mawa’id, p.206. A similar version can be found in Scents & Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook.

Medieval Arabic recipe often do not include measurements, and when they do they are obviously different from today’s standard weights and measures. The amounts given here are from my own experimentation and only suggestions.

Nasrallah notes that sahna is often, but not always, made with salted fish. This recipe is one of the exceptions. It’s rather light on the tahini, so it’s as much of a walnut dish as a sesame-based one (although the use of sesame oil contributes significantly to the sesame flavor).

Ingredients:

1/2 cup sesame oil
Teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons sumac (the original asks the cook to grind sumac berries)
1/2 tablespoon dried thyme
2 cloves of garlic, minced or chopped
Pinch of salt
1/6 cup of chopped walnuts
2 pieces of mastic gum
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon caraway
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons tahini
Juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil

The recipe has a particular order for preparing and combining these ingredients, including toasting the cumin seeds in oil and adding both to the mixture while the oil is still hot.

While I did toast the cumin this way, I then placed all the ingredients in a food processor and blended till smooth (don’t @ me, I warned you I’m not a purist). The original does suggest letting the dish sit for a while to take the edge off the garlic and says to “serve it between courses.” Also the original states: “It is superb.” (You really ought to get a copy of this book from the library or, if you can afford it, buy it. It’s so delightful.)

*I don’t want to imply that food writing happens only in English or that this issue only comes up in the United States, as obviously neither is true, but for the sake of argument I’m addressing the world I inhabit myself: I write in English, about food, from within the U.S.

**I’ve found Harry Kashdan‘s work especially helpful as I think through the relationship between “Middle Eastern” or “Arab” food and “Mediterranean” food.

Postscript: By happenstance, the contours of this essay reflect the themes of a research project at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts in Culture, History, and Translation that I am very happy to be part of this year. It’s the reason I’ve had the time and space to finally put these thoughts into essay form!

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