At Inti Humussia, a tiny restaurant in Israel’s Negev Desert, we sat down at a long table with local students, laughing and shouting and digging into colorful bowls of hummus, drizzled with olive oil, complemented with varying combinations of chopped olives, chunks of chicken, paprika, pine nuts, onion, garlic and parsley.

To me, hummus had always been an appetizer or a side dish. In Israel and other parts of the Middle East, however, it’s a versatile carbohydrate platform, kind of like mashed potatoes, upon which one can add proteins and vegetables and…whatever. All around me at the little restaurant were platters of hummus looking better than hummus ever looked before, and this hummus – studded with olives and other condiments – was not an app or a side: it was the main course.

Hummus remains a hot menu item in the Holy Land. A recent survey found that 93% of Israelis eat hummus at least once every week and sometimes much more frequently. In Israel, you see platters of hummus everywhere, breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s delicious, filling, and pound-for-pound it has two-thirds the protein of beef.

Though the dish’s origins are difficult to determine, the recipe is probably thousands of years old. Some believe that the “hometz” mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Ruth is, in fact, the hummus that’s so popular today. Indeed, hummus is believed to have been eaten in Egypt over 7,000 years ago. And the popularity of this fundamental Middle Eastern foodstuff is still going strong.

Hummus is best when made fresh, and there are many hummus recipes online. You basically put the cooked chickpeas through a food processor with garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. You can use canned chickpeas, but if you want to make truly fabulous hummus, start with good quality dried beans.

David Hammond’s homemade hummus Photo credit David Hammond

We dribbled the hummus with Novello extra virgin olive oil, which has a deep green, pepperiness that plays off the subtle flavor of the chickpeas. Next time around, I’m going to hit the hummus with enough evoo to create a light green pool in the center, just as they do at Inti Humussia. More oil means more flavor and a smoother, moister plate of hummus.

Making pita is also a relatively simple task for anyone who knows how to bake bread. And homemade pita is much, much better than the preservative-heavy versions at most grocery stores. In Israel, hummus is sometimes served warm, and with pita, it’s quite welcome on a chilly night in Chicagoland or the Negev Desert (where nighttime temps can sink to 25F).

We served our hummus and pita with a big bowl of fresh cut veggies for dipping. In this season of feasting, having a super-healthy veg-forward dinner feels really good.

Don’t care to make your own hummus and pita? Go to Jerusalem Café (1030 Lake St.) and order hummus, served straight or topped with beef or chicken shawarma, or whatever else you care to add-on. Hummus is versatile, ancient, delicious, and good for you. Happy holidays!

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...