A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who invented hummus?

March 21, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Who invented hummus? Many cultures claim it's their recipe, I just want to know who or what culture invented this tasty treat.

Sadly enough, the answer is that we just don't know, exactly. Hummus has been around for too long, in too many forms, and the origin is lost in antiquity. First, however, let's clear up some vocabulary: hummus is actually the Arabic word for chickpea, called garbanzo in Spanish, ceci in Italian, gram in India. The chickpea is a type of bean whose official name is Cicer arietinum. Hummus bi tahina is probably what you're thinking of, though--that pasty appetizer, commonly used as a dip for bits of pita bread, although sometimes used as a dip for veggies or as a sauce on meats and fish.

Hummus is used throughout the Arab world.  There's no way of knowing where it started--presumably somewhere in the Middle East. That's not quite as facetious as it sounds, since hummus is popular around the Mediterranean and as far away as India.

The chickpea was used as food by our hunter-gatherer ancestors tens of thousands of years ago and was cultivated around 7,000 years ago in the Middle East. This is pretty much pre-history, so details are not clear. The Phoenicians are credited with bringing the chickpea to western Europe, but there is some dispute over that. Certainly by Roman times the garbanzo had become entrenched in the Iberian diet. So there are lots of versions of hummus, "invented" in lots of places.

To make hummus bi tahini, the chickpea is cooked and pureed, then mixed with tahini (sesame seed paste) to make a rough paste. Then you add olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. There is some variation by recipe, such as garnishing with paprika or parsley. The Egyptians tend to add cumin.

As an aside, the chickpea is also the basic ingredient for felafel, and sometimes is used in cous-cous.

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