Anissa Helou, like any Lebanese, has a special attachment to chickpeas. They are an indigenous vegetable all over the Mediterranean. We know this because early Greek poetry refers to them, and they are the essential ingredient in the most fundamental food of the Levant, the tahini-flavored puree known throughout the world as hummus.
Chickpeas start out looking a bit like garden-variety peas. As Helou writes in Lebanese Cuisine (1998): “There is a short moment in early summer when chick peas are available fresh. Green bunches laden with the peas still in the pod are sold by street hawkers, usually to children who spend hours squeezing each pod open to extract and eat the green chick peas. A very healthy snack.”
Chickpea flour is a traditional staple in Nice and elsewhere, all the way to India, where it is called gram. But the world recipe is hummus. It is everywhere now, in degraded industrial, flavored hummus products that give no inkling of the “smooth ivory” texture Helou talks about. And, almost as important as the basic preposition of the puree, is the ingenious traditional method of serving (see steps 5 and 6 below) in which hummus spread out on a shallow plate is mounded slightly at the edges and the center, creating a natural receptacle for olive oil and a platform for displaying a few whole chickpeas.
This arrangement was clearly designed for a circle of people all scooping up hummus and moistening it in oil with a little pouch of pita bread held in the right hand. It also looks beautiful, and it inspires thoughts of Arab hospitality going back centuries.
Tahini is the other crucial ingredient, a thick “cream” made from pressed, roasted sesame seeds. Quality varies greatly among brands; Helou favors imported tahini from the eastern Mediterranean. You can easily test this proposition by staging a blind tahini tasting. Then serve rosewater-tinged martinis and make hummus to go with them from the tahini brand you have picked.