Houmous is a true staple of the bourgeois diet. It is to the middle-classes what gasoline is to automobiles, and what pastry, coal and batter are to people in the north (presumably). No dinner party warm-up, picnic or fully loaded trip to the local racecourse would be complete without this most ubiquitous of dips. So when we set forth to sample Oxford’s finest non-essential lifestyle foods, the ol’ chickpea paste seemed as good a place as any to start.
Like most influential world religions, Houmous was invented in the near east, under Egyptian influence, by people living somewhere between the desert and the sea. Nonetheless, it soon spread to all surrounding regions, and has been at the heart of Mediterranean dipping culture for centuries. Naturally, it was adopted by the British middle class near the end of the last century.
Like most aspects of life in this volatile and contested part of the world, houmous has never been far from controversy. Precisely which people invented it remains the subject of brain-achingly convoluted debate. How best it should be served, whether it should be smooth or grainy in texture, whether it should ever be used as a paste, or eaten with raw carrots; all are questions over which gallons of scholar’s ink have been spilled. Most controversial of all however, is the question of who makes the best houmous. Greek vs Turk, Jew vs Arab, Sunni vs Shi’ite, the French vs almost everyone, no rivalry in the eastern Mediterranean has yet to be touched by houmous’ sticky and slightly aromatic embrace. In the ends of resolving conflicts as old as civilisation, (and finding a decent dip to sit alongside salsa and guacamole at our next canapé sesh), we set out to find the best houmus in Oxford. Belt up.
Hummus #1: G & D’s Big, Fat, Greek Hummus
Lewis: Not the best texture: harsh, and reminiscent of an under-done Stifatho. A pleasant flavour, subtle as an Aegean breeze, but with a slight kick, like spending five minutes in Kavos then being air-lifted out. 7/10.
Katie: A mouthful of sand, redeemed by some lemon and a couple of chickpeas. Should we blame offshore thrift or longshore drift for Greece’s national crisis? 3/10
Hummus #2: Taylor’s Turkish Delight
Lewis: Horrible. This is probably a bit like how Albanian peasants felt when they were kidnapped for the Ottoman Sultan’s armies- robbed of all life’s pleasures. Lacking flavour, and with an unpleasant, buttery consistency. Beware of Turks bearing chickpea pastes. 2/10.
Katie: Horrendous. As seemingly innocuous as the Turkish command structure at the siege of Vienna, this textureless, odourless substance came with a nasty gustatory surprise: porridge. After thoroughly washing my finger, I announced that this houmus would not be making it to the falafel test. 2/10
Hummus #3: Franco-Israeli Jewmus
Lewis: Confused provenance probably accounts for limited resemblance to actual houmus. A weak, Gallic imitation of houmus, trying to be a cheese. I don’t want to stick my finger in this one. 4/10.
Katie: A strident substance that unashamedly breaches the spread/dip divide, landing very creamily in the former category. Pleasant in taste to begin, it hits with a dry aftertaste of sesame. Although tempting in its own right, this multinational spread has little to no resemblance to houmous. 5/10
Hummus #4: Tesco’s ‘Made in UK with Lebanese chickpeas’ surprise
Lewis: A solid option, acceptable to bourgeois sensibilities. Authentic texture (I think), and a multi-layered flavour. Yields hidden delights, like the world food section of Tesco itself. Aftertaste too creamy. 6/10
Katie: International relations at its finest. A delightful Middle-Eastern texture matched with an ingenious kick of red pepper. Abandon the weekly M&S shop and venture down the road to try this hidden gem. 8/10
Hummus #5: Chez Hassan’s ‘Assyrian’ morning-after cure
Lewis: The surprise King of Oxford Hummus, a perfect accompaniment to inebriation, vomiting and nocturnal misadventures. Good, thick texture and a flavour that can punch above the inevitable, lingering taste of Jagerbomb. Probably not actually from ancient Kingdom of Assyria (sadly). 8/10
Katie: It does exactly what it says on the tin. Which, in this case is a lurid, paper box. Dry and cement like, the stodgy texture was only outdone by its viciously pungent flavour. Like cockroaches, this substance has somehow survived the test of time, and, having brought about the decline of the Assyrian Kingdom is back and ready to plague naïve, drunken students. 1/10
Lewis’ conclusion: The old ways really are the best, at least when it comes to hummus.
The Assyrians, it would seem, did three things well: 2-dimensional stone carvings, genocidal campaigns of conquest, and hummus. We can only thank Hassan and his team for their superb archaeological work in uncovering this genuine ‘fossil-food’. (I think he meant ‘Syrian’- Ed.).
Katie’s conclusion: Step back and relax.
Too busy competing for idiosyncrasy, the celebrated houmous-bearing nations were all unfortunate let downs, with (As)Syria and Turkey producing shameful, and potentially dangerous, products. Britain, in its splendid position of isolation, had the nous to survey the available options and, albeit in Tesco, came up with a majestic, all-conquering substance. Rule Britannia!