baba ghanoush and hummus: a spiritual, and chickpea, center.



I feel that I should share some Middle Eastern style recipes to commemorate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewing the building projects in Jerusalem (on land that is regarded by Palestinians as their future capital). 

Go peace! (pitiful cheer) 

If you know me personally (though there won't be many of you out there reading this blog, considering I didn't really make it widely known, if known at all - honestly, I'm really just writing to myself) then you will remember that I completed my undergraduate thesis concerning nationalism and gender in the occupied territories and was recently in Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. Or, I really know how to utilize photoshop to fake some photos and I was really hiding in a basement in Langley for three weeks. You choose what you want to believe - either one is a good conversation starter. 

After traveling through this contentious region of the Middle East, and filling my mind with so much of the scholarship concerning both parties, it just baffles me that Netanyahu would continue with these building project. I realize that he has to appeal to the orthodox right, but even as my Israeli friends pointed out while we were traveling through the West Bank - they are a small minority in a vast majority that wants peace (or at least the younger strata does). I'm not trying to belie their beliefs, or their representation of the greater population - they are not completely passive in this for they, while wanting a two-state solution, continue to think that they have an utterly legitimate right to the land. It is within that context that they want peace, but it is the extent of their claim to the country that they question. I question it as well. If Netanyahu wanted peace, he would stop building in Jerusalem all together. It is a contentious area, the center of the three main monotheistic religions, and any action taken concerning the city will not lead to peace but to strife.

According to the NY Times, Limor Livnat said on Israel Radio that “the expectation and demand that there be no more construction in Jerusalem is unreasonable” and  “it is an expectation that the Israeli prime minister cannot accede to.” Perhaps he is afraid of being assassinated by the right-wing as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was. Maybe he recognizes that if there is ever peace, what will hold such a diverse country together. Without the 'other' (the Palestinians), what unites Israel? The country is full of political, religious, and cultural factions - many who still hold on desparately to the core of their beliefs, brought to Israel from all over the world. The population ranges from Russian to Ethiopian to American origins, yet they are only united by being Jewish - whether culturally or religiously.

  Anyways, that is tangental. Anything in the New York Times concerning Israel always interests me - I guess I could list that conflict as a passion along with photography and food. Its not one I could ever steadily blog about though.

But while traveling through a part of the Middle East, I was not only able to witness the politics of the region, but also their culinary traditions. And I was the only one of my group not to get food poisoning - which I think might be one of my greatest accomplishments. 

While I will not go into the details of Koshary (which appeared to be Egypt's most popular dish) or Shwarma (which was my traveling companion's most popular dish), I will applaud the virtues of two small, yet staple dishes which accompanied almost every meal: baba ghanoush and houmous (hummus, hummos, hom . . . there are way too many variations for this word).

Here in Canada, hummus (the arabic word that literally means 'chickpea') has been bastardized. It is usually sold in the deli section of the grocery store, next to the pre-made seven layer dip (which looks so odd that I'm not even sure what each layer is supposed to be - it ain't Mexican, that's for sure) and powdered Parmesan cheese (the way I look at it is: if a cheese is powdered, its really no longer cheese). Here, in North America, hummus is grainy and lackluster - on occasion, other flavors (such as roasted red pepper) are added to try and give it some zing. It never works.

In the Middle East, it is a fluffy, light dip that is so heavenly, it feels as if you are eating a substantial cloud. The same can be said about the baba ghanoush. I used to think that there was just a different breed of blender that resided in Israel, deep in the recesses of each restaurant, that was devoted to only making the two spreads and kept away from foreign eyes. They have amazing military technology - wouldn't they apply the same devotion and skills to their national spread?
I was wrong. Hummus isn't just fluffy in Israel, in fact, the dip isn't only amazing in that country, or Egypt or Jordan - it pervades throughout the region. And not only is is supposedly good everywhere, it supposedly originated everywhere: the ground chickpea dip is claimed by most countries in the Middle East. 

Wow, hummus gets around. 

Every restaurant that I went to while traveling had hummus. One of our friends, Elisha, on our last day in Jerusalem, even took us to a eatery devoted to the dip. He gestured fervently at me and then at the restaurant claiming, "this is the best hummus you will ever eat!"

(Note: He says it with a bit of a roll in the back of his throat when pronouncing the beginning of the word - in Egypt, they pronounce it completely phonetically, which I was happy about because I have a tenancy to spit a bit when I'm trying to roll my words. It is such an odd word anyway - why not just say it the way it is spelt? Tangential, but true.)

Again, in Cairo, men in the street would claim (and right to your face too, for several minutes, until you ate there or bought a knock-off watch) their establishment had the best hummus ever. In Jordan, however, where people are a bit more reserved, only the menus claimed it rather than the servers themselves. 

But it is Lebanon, the small country to the north of Israel that is legally claiming the dip - it has even gone to the European Commission to seek acknowledgment for a number of traditional dishes, including hummus, that the country claims. Of course, their major contender is Israel, which currently has about 40% of the packaged hummus market (yes, there is a market for the chickpea dip, and yes, these producers sell real hummus, made with the military-grade blenders in Israel and a bit of Jewish love - it is definitely not the mystery dip in the North American super markets). If you care to know more about the tiff, you can read the London Telegraph's article

Needless to say, both dips are good. And good for you. And please, make your own, instead of buying mystery pastes. 

Even though Israeli restaurants don't have secret military-strength blenders that turn out the creamy goodness, a decent blender is still needed to make this dip fluffy. Tahini can be found at most grocery stores in the health food section.

1 16 oz. can chickpeas (reserve about 1/4 c. water, and 1 tbs. whole chickpeas)
1/2 c. tanhini
2 garlic cloves (minced)
1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1 tsp. cumin
3 tbs. olive oil (as well as extra for serving)
juice from one lemon

1. Put all ingredients into a blender and blend until you achieve the texture you want. If it is too thick, use the reserved liquid from the can of chickpeas.

Serve with a well in the middle - pour olive oil in the well, sprinkle chickpeas, then parsley in the middle. Dust the outside with a bit of paprika for colour. Serve with pita, and figure out what all the fuss is about.  

Baba Ghanoush
The smaller the eggplant, usually the less bitter they are. However, I find it easier to find medium eggplants. If you are lucky and find small ones, use 3 in this recipe.

2 medium eggplants
1/4 c. tahini
juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 garlic cloves (minced)
3 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. cumin
salt to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.* Put slits all over the body of the eggplant with a small knife.

2. Put eggplants on a roasting pan (line it with foil to save yourself clean-up in the end!) and roast them until they collapse in on themselves - about 40 minutes (you can also turn them over after about 20 minutes during this time, for an even cook, but I rarely bother). Remove from oven and allow to cool enough for handling.

3. Cut the eggplants in half and scrape out as many seeds as possible. Put the rest of the eggplant innards into a blender with the rest of the ingredients, except for the parsley. Blend until you have the consistency you desire.
Chill for a couple of hours before serving. Garnish with parsley. Serve with pita. Enjoy!     

       * A grill can also be used for this process, as the weather permits. Or a gas stove - turn on one of the burners and, using tongs, char the eggplants all over - they should be black all over when you are finished.

These dips only deserve the best. Hard stale bread doesn't do them justice. And making a good, fluffy, pita bread isn't really that hard. I find the pockets in homemade ones are are big and easy to open - the pocket is created by steam while baking them. Pita literally translates as 'bread' in Aramaic.   This pita recipe is fluffy and thick, while others (especially the ones in Egypt and Jordan) tend to be large and thin. This is the bread that almost everything is eaten in in Israel - I cannot remember a meal where I was not given a pita alongside.

Pita Bread
(adapted from

1 1/8 c. warm water
1 1/2 tbs. olive oil
3 c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. white sugar
1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
**2 tbs. minced garlic (optional)  

1.  Put all ingredients in your bread machine (according to your manufacturer's instructions, or in the order listed) and select dough setting. Sit back for around an hour, watch some TV, knit some scarves, or make the dip for your pita!

2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll it into a 12" long log. Divide into 8 pieces and make each into a ball. Roll each with a rolling pin until 7-8" circle. Set aside on surface (hopefully its warm enough so they begin to rise!), and cover with a towel. Let rise for about 30 mins (they will be slightly puffy). Preheat oven to 500 F - about halfway through the rise.

3. Put 2 - 3 pitas on a wire cake rack (you can also use a lightly oiled pan, but the racks allow the heat to circulate better) directly in the oven. Bake the pitas 4-5 minutes (if using the pan, flip them halfway through the baking time). Remove them from the oven and immediately put them in a brown paper bag or cover with a damp kitchen towel.

Serve with baba ghanoush or hummus.