Chumous, A Story

My Israel-born son claims I never make it right. Too rough, he says. Chumous must be smooth, easy to spread on pita, like what you buy in the store.

I don’t think so.

I decided to make the best chumous he ever tasted, a prize-winning chumous, one that’ll make everyone at the table swoon and reach for yet another warm pita to mop up the last delicious smears on the plate.

Now here I am, staring into a bowl of chickpeas I’d set to soak. 250 grams of tooth-breakingly hard yellow beads that swelled and softened in water overnight. They look manageable now.

I put them on to boil.

What kind of masochist cooks chumous from scratch these days? The supermarkets are full of chumous, maybe twenty brands, all in their chilly little plastic tubs. If you must make chumous, says common sense, start with canned chickpeas.

But no. I committed to making this chumous from raw materials, like they do at chumous joints in the open-air market.

I’ve peeked into the tiny kitchens of those places. There’s an enormous pot of chickpeas cooking on a gas flame, and someone sitting in a corner peeling garlic or squeezing lemons, and there’s an industrial-sized food processor set up on the work surface.

They load you up a plate with warm, fresh chumous and spoon tahini over it. A good dollop of white beans on top, and a generous dollop of olive oil. A hard-boiled egg on top to make it a full meal. For relish, some sliced onion, and some fiery hot peppers, and olives.


You sit down at the long table where the other customers move over and make room for you. The owner’s son or daughter brings two or three soft pitas, which you tear apart with your fingers and use to wipe up a mouthful of that delicious house chumous, the working man’s staple all over the Middle East. So good.

I say, “I’m going to make chumous that good.”

I boil the chickpeas until soft, then cool and drain them. Three and a half cups. My cookbook casually says, “Blend the chickpeas, husks removed.” Cooks in online food forums also advise you to remove the husks. It makes a smoother chumous, they say.

Smoother, okay. But do you know what a pain it is to stand and remove the husks from cooked chickpeas? I’m about to find out.

My husking operation sits on the counter: a mixing bowl with the unhusked chickpeas, and another bowl to receive the naked chickpeas. The transparent, yellowish membrane slips off easily when I press the soft grain between thumb and forefinger. The problem with that system is that I shoot chickpeas all over the kitchen. I eventually figure out that when I rub a handful of chickpeas between my palms, the skins detach themselves and I can pick them off.

I rub chickpeas, sighing and shifting from one foot to the other. My thoughts drift, and I recall discussions on the dreary subject of culinary cultural appropriation; a hot topic in some places.

Here I am, an American Jew living in Israel, cooking chumous. Is that a reprehensible theft of North African food identity?

Ridiculous, I think, shaking husks off my hands into the sink. How about Tex-Mex food? Or Cuban-Chinese? Or my own Russian great-grandmother, and her buckwheat kasha and beet borsht – whose recipes did she steal, the Czar’s? Maybe, I think gloomily, someone will make a rule that only Italians can eat pizza, God forbid.

I tip the chickpeas into the food processor, adding ¾ cup of raw tahini, two teaspoons of salt, the juice of two lemons, and three chopped garlic cloves. There could be Culinary Cultural Appropriation Police, I muse, pouring a quarter cup of chickpea cooking water through the feed tube. Should I add a little olive oil?

Olive oil never hurts.  I dribble some in.

I imagine walking up to a man waiting to be served at a kosher deli.

“Excuse me sir, do you have a license to purchase gefilte fish?”

I flash my badge, which has the letters CCAP printed over a drawing of a bagel loaded with cream cheese and lox.

“Culinary Cultural Appropriation Police, Jewish Division.”

The man goes pale and protests, “It’s for my wife, Zelda, she’s Jewish.”

“Just come along quietly, sir,” I say authoritatively….

The dream fizzles out. Better to send Gal Gadot, she’d fix him. Although I doubt Gal Gadot eats chumous, it’s pretty fattening.

The food processor whirls. Is the chumous getting smooth? I let it go for long minutes, gazing at the particles of chickpeas in the bowl getting smaller and smaller as the mix smooths out and becomes a paste. I open the lid and scrape a little out. Take a doubtful taste. Pretty good, actually; pretty damn good. Although the texture is still nubbly.

My chumous is never going to have the slick, mayonnaise-like texture of the commercial stuff. But it tastes – well, how does it taste, compared to supermarket chumous?

There’s some supermarket chumous in the fridge, unfortunately.

I stick a finger into the plastic container and lick it off. The full flavor of cheap oils, garlic powder and citric acid hits my palate. Hah! My pungent, home-made chumous, with the flavors of real chickpeas, fresh garlic and lemon juice squeezed only moments ago – my chumous – is a thousand times better.

Forget smooth as mayonnaise.

Mine is better.

It’s full of real ingredients. And triumphant mother love.

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