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History of Hummus

Photo by Steve Johnson

All we know about Hummus suggests that it is ancient. But finding a single place and time of invention has evaded historians, except that it is in the Eastern Mediterranean area of the Middle East. Today, hummus is central to Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian cuisines, just to name a few.

Part of the reason for the mystery is how do you define Hummus. Hummus only means “chickpea” in Arabic. What Westerners think of as Hummus is actually called “Hummus bi tahini” in the Middle East. It’s name suggests that the two necessary ingredients are pureed chickpeas and sesame-seed paste (tahini).

Defining What Hummus Is


If those are the only two ingredients that are needed to make real Hummus bi tahini, then it’s orgin goes back to at least 13th century Cairo, when it appeared in a Medieval cookbook called Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada (Arabic for ‘The Description of Familiar Food’). However, in that cookbook, it is called “Hummus kasa.” This recipe uses vinegar and no lemon or garlic. If, in your definition, Hummus doesn’t even need tahini, there is a recipe from a Syrian Medieval cookbook Kitāb al-Wusla ilā l-habīb (also 13th century) that has pureed chickpeas and lemons.

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Neither of these two recipes would have the taste that we call Hummus because they don’t have all of the four ingredients that are the hallmark flavors of today’s Hummus: chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon. If your standard is something that would taste similar to today’s Hummus, the first written record of modern Hummus bi tahini comes from 18th century Damascus, in what is now Syria. It suggests, however, that Hummus bi tahini is unknown outside Damascus. As recipes centuries older are quite close to Hummus bi tahini and the ingredients were around for a millenium, that is hard to believe.

Incomplete Records


More likely is that Hummus bi tahini only became a cultural staple with its current ingredients in the last couple centuries. But it was probably made outside the notice of cookbook writers beforehand. The Medieval cookbooks are not comprehensive. With slow transportation systems and no advanced communication systems, it was impossible to amass all the region’s recipes. At that time, regional food variations were much greater, and recipes were more reliant on what was available and affordable. Hummus bi tahini could have well existed but never entered a cookbook (few could write besides). As the main ingredients were used all over the Middle East and in Turkey, it could have been invented, forgotten and invented all over again.

You need only look at how old the ingredients are to see that Hummus bi tahini has an unwritten history that we may never fully understand. The ingredients have been in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East for thousands of years. The last major ingredient to arrive in the Middle East was lemons in 700 CE, but the primary two, chickpeas and tahini, extend back to the beginnings of civilization. From archaeological digs, we know people have eaten chickpeas in the Middle East longer than there has been pottery, or approximately 10,000 years. That predates writing too. The tahini part of hummus, made from sesame seeds, has also been in the Middle East since ancient times. Sesame seeds were used to make sesame oil in food in Mesopotamia since 2500 BCE, so tahini is likely to be about that old. Nor was garlic preventing the creation of a food similar to modern Hummus, as it is as old as the ancient Egyptian pyramids of Giza.

Hummus was the perfect food for arid, rugged climates as it filled almost all of a person’s nutritional needs while still being exceptionally flavorful. In fact, hummus has enough protein and fiber to keep our bodies healthy for long periods of time. Also, this relatively simple food is amazingly rich in minerals and vitamins.

A Delicious Mystery


As the first creators of hummus lived near and traveled through some of the most inhospitable regions of the world, they clearly had an understanding of hummus’ health benefits. Besides, no one undernourished can survive a long trek through the desert. And it is no surprise that this tasty solution to our basic nutritional needs has made hummus’ popularity spread all over the world.

It seems unlikely that it would take a millennium (since the arrival of lemons to the Damascus recipe) for someone to make Hummus bi tahini. As most of the people in the world, including the people of the Middle East (although generally more advanced) and Turkey, didn’t know how to write or read until the last few centuries, we will likely never know what happened. But an accurate history doesn’t change how great Hummus is, nor the great variety of Hummuses. Instead, the mysterious origin of Hummus makes you marvel at how a food now loved all over the world seemingly came out of the desert and left no trace behind. As a strong source of protein and fiber, as well as being rich in vitamins and minerals and it’s numerous health benefits, it’s no wonder that this delicious food has made a resurgent comeback over the years.

Creative Commons Photos from Flickr