The Difference Between Hummus and Pizza
All pizza is beautiful.
Well, not all pizza. But all the different and varied styles of pizza can be wonderful. Naturally, not all versions of a form are as good as others. Just like there are crappy New York style places in Manhattan, there are crappy deep dish parlors in Chicago.
Over the years I’ve come to soften my narrow-minded approach to evaluating pizza. For years, I insisted on judging the quality of a place based on its plain cheese offering, with the notion that if a pizza maker couldn’t do the basics well, then nothing else mattered.
All that resulted in was the loss of a lot of joy. I learned this lesson the hard way, many times, as I tried to choke down an unsatisfying cheese pizza while drooling over the specimens a couple tables down covered with gorgeous chunks of sausage and crisp discs of pepperoni.
So what does this have to do with hummus?
Well, it turns out that I have yet to give up my preconceptions on what makes a good hummus. I learned this over the weekend after a visit to the Schenectady Greenmarket.
Every week that I visit the Sunday Schenectady market, I pass by the hummus table. And every week, I give it a glance and walk right by. I’ve never given it a second look. I don’t know the provenance of their ingredients. I know nothing of the process in which it is made.
All I need to know, I can tell from ten feet away. The hummus is lumpy.
Admittedly, I’m prejudiced when it comes to hummus, especially after my year in New Jersey. There, my Israeli friend R, whose love for food was infectious, sold me on the supremacy of super smooth hummus.
Fortunately, I can now make it myself, since pretty much all commercially available hummus is awful. But the secret to great hummus is good tahini, properly cooked chickpeas, and a balance of seasonings.
There’s no cumin. It’s just nailing the point where earthy beans, nutty sesame, fruity oil, hot garlic, and bright acid come together with enough salt to make it all sing. This is no easy feat. When spinning it in the food processor, I can hear when it has reached the proper consistency. But it’s imperative to keep tasting to make sure the seasoning is correct.
Well, yesterday, a friend of mine was standing at the hummus table in Schenectady, and he told me that I had to taste this locally made hummus.
While that could have been an awkward situation, I chose to be honest about my prejudices.
Now here’s where things get interesting. Because you might imagine that it might even be more awkward to tell the hummus guy that his product is too coarse, and doesn’t quite rise up to your personal standard of identity for hummus.
It turns out the hummus man has heard this all before.
Israelis, like my friend R, love their hummus to be smooth. But apparently, there are other middle eastern cultures who also have a hummus heritage, and they prefer a chunkier spread. So this locally made dish of coarse beans, oil, garlic, and lemon was reportedly beloved by Tunisians who claimed it tasted like their grandmother’s recipe.
Of course, that makes perfect sense. What I don’t quite know how to do now is get a deeper understanding of different hummus styles. I’m not going to be taking any trips to Lebanon or Syria in the near future. But maybe I can find some ethnic markets in the region where hummus is made in-house.
The key, I think, is in keeping an open mind. And while I may still not have loved the Schenectady hummus, I’m very glad that I spoke up and had a frank conversation with the hummus man.
Sometimes we can have mind-expanding encounters in the least likely of places.