Financial Times Magazine (July 1, 2011)
Let it never be said this column ducks controversy. Is the currently popular dip called hummus or houmous? (A few even speak of humus but, technically, that's rotting vegetation such as leaf mould, less successful as an hors d'oeuvre.) Among the 17 products we tasted there was a clear division into two factions. The pro-houmous group was led by three FTSE 100 supermarkets and two other major store groups. Formidable. They were opposed by the pro-hummus party, mostly a collection of small, independent delis. This included the emphatically named restaurant and deli chain Hummus Bros.
It sounds rather like a variety act ... "tonight, and for one night only, the fabulous Hummus Brothers." In fact, it's owned by an unrelated pair - a former marketeer and a foreign-exchange trader who fell in love with chickpeas. And they say it's hummus. Let's call it "H" till we resolve the question.
The basic recipe for this eastern Mediterranean staple is chickpeas, roasted sesame paste (tahini), garlic, lemon juice and salt. Some countries also add olive oil, herbs and spices. We had samples ranging from pale khaki to vivid green, depending on the ingredients.
Our panel was led by that Levantine authority, the Lebanese Gastronaut (LG), who has some clear views about H. She believes oil is unnecessary if there's a generous quotient of tahini in the mix and that a lighter version with fromage frais can also work well. Joining her were the Discerning Litigator (DL) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP).
Every single product we tried tasted different, affected by the level of tahini, the presence and strength of oil, and the quality of the ingredients. There were certainly some dodgy deli attempts. In a couple the lemon juice was probably elderly and oxidised: "tobaccoey" (GP); "what have they done?" (DL). In another there was almost certainly pungent, Greek-style olive oil: "a hint of petrol" (DL). Two of the Hs looked most unappealing because of an overdose of oil: "badly mixed household paint" (GP). Overall, if there was too much chickpea and not enough tahini it could be dull and a bit cabbagey, like the echo of a long-forgotten school lunch. We'd recommend buying products with tahini at 12-15 per cent or more to avoid this. The higher the level of sesame, the richer and smoother the emulsion - closer to the luxury of peanut butter. Tahini is more expensive than chickpeas, so there's always the chance manufacturers will skimp on it.
An honourable mention for Tesco, which stocks two products that did well. Its own-label Chunky Houmous has a rougher-than-average consistency: "satisfying" (LG); "good, bog-standard" (DL). And Tesco also sells the Israeli brand Yarden Houmous De Luxe: "smooth operator" (DL). It uses a few E numbers to give it a longer shelf life but tasted comforting owing to its high levels of vegetable oil and tahini. At this point, as you can see, houmous was winning our spelling competition. But it's not over till it's over ...
The runner-up in our blind tasting came from our favourite double act, Hummus Bros: "indulgent, delicious" (GP). Hummus Bros has three restaurants in London, where it claims to be the first eatery in the UK to use hummus as the standard base for its main courses. It even holds special dinners for hummus bloggers. Finally, our winner came from the Turkish deli EV Bakery: "highly pleasing" (LG); "luxurious" (DL); "a seductive hint of caramel - you old smoothy" (GP).
So there you have it ... let's hear it for hummus, a clear winner over houmous. And we'll avoid humus altogether, unless it's a spot of gardening we're after and the herbaceous border is looking a bit undernourished.
1. EV Bakery and Delicatessen, from £1.35 (price by spoonful)
2. Hummus Bros, from £2.05 (small tub)
3. Yarden Houmous De Luxe 500g, £3.29 available in Waitrose and Tesco.
4. Tesco Chunky Houmous, £0.95 for 200g
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