In a country that can’t agree on much of anything, where everyone claims to be the best at whatever they do, and where people are so passionate about hummus, if you ask 50 different Israelis where to get the best hummus, you will get 50 different answers. The title of best hummus is hotly contested and there are as many styles (Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Druze, etc., etc.) as there are opinions. But, somehow, there seems to be some sort of consensus that the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, just outside Jerusalem, is the hummus capital of Israel.
This, in fact, is the town’s claim to fame. OK, so they have a few Christian pilgrimage sites, including a monastery from the Crusader period and The Church of Notre Dame de l’Arche d’Alliance (Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant), which is recognizable by its huge white sculpture of Mary holding the baby Jesus. We tried to find the former and couldn’t, and found the latter to be closed midday, perhaps for lunch, or a siesta. There is also a candle shop that smells like curry, two ice cream parlors, and a cute store selling blown glass and ceramics. The town has a long and interesting history, worth reading about (although I will not be going into it here).
But people really come for the hummus. For such a small town (according to a 2008 Haaretz article, Abu Ghosh has 5,500 residents) there are a large number of restaurants, most of which specialize in hummus. If Abu Ghosh sounds familiar to you that may be because in January, 2010 Abu Ghosh Restaurant won the world record for the largest bowl of hummus ever made, weighing in at 4 tons. Yup. This victory was short-lived, however, as Lebanon retaliated with an even larger bowl of hummus in May of the same year. (For more on the so-called “hummus wars” check out Ben Brewer’s blog.) Further proof that hummus is a matter of national pride.
So, spurred by the fact that we (Beth and our hubbies) had a rental car for the weekend, knowing we’d been talking about going to Abu Ghosh for some time, and the recent NY Times article my father sent me, we headed off Saturday morning from Be’er Sheva to Abu Ghosh. What’s nice about setting out to visit Arab villages on weekends is you know they will be open (as opposed to much of the rest of the country that shuts down on Shabbat). From Jerusalem it’s a 20 minute excursion; from Be’er Sheva it’s a three hour round-trip commitment. But we didn’t care. Visions of hummus danced in our heads.
We’d heard about two places in particular: Lebanese Restaurant and Abu Ghosh Restaurant (they’re not very creative with their naming in Abu Ghosh). Unsure which to go to we decided it would be whichever one we saw first. As we turned into Abu Ghosh, Lebanese Restaurant was one of the first things we saw, and so it was. At noon on a Saturday it was not crowded as we were afraid it might be and we were seated immediately in a back, partially outdoor area with large, beautiful trees growing through the floor.
As soon as we sat down they plopped a plate of crispy falafel and another with olives and pickles in front of us. Sustenance to help us decide. We ordered a hummus with meat and one with fuul (stewed fava beans), plus labne with garlic and lemon. My conclusion, I’m afraid to say, is anti-climactic. Blasphemous, even. Can anything ever live up to such hype though? Don’t get me wrong, the hummus was good. Far better than anything you’d find in America. But the best in Israel?
The meat, mixed with pine nuts and spices, on the hummus was perhaps the best I’ve had but, as Evan said, it was hard to judge the hummus beneath it. The fuul was good, a little watery but tasty. To me the texture of the hummus was too thick, a little pasty. Perhaps my hummus palate has been formed by my local joint in Be’er Sheva, whose silky, smooth, tahina-rich hummus – that still stands up to toppings – is now my favorite. The falafel balls were good, the pickles excellent. To me the biggest disappointment was the pita, which tasted store-bought, not fresh and fluffy.
The best part of the meal, surprisingly, was the labne with lemon and garlic we’d ordered almost on a whim. Dense and thick in texture yet somehow airy at the same time, it had the characteristic tang of labne with the brightness of lemon and sharp addition of garlic. Drizzled with just a bit of olive oil, this was worth traveling for. And truly it was all worth the trip, to see what the fuss was about. I’m not here to take away their crown as hummus king, and our experience (which I must reiterate was good, just not revelatory) was based on one restaurant. There are many more to try. If you are in Jerusalem, do stop by and taste for yourself.