Bruno and the World’s Best Hummus

July 17, 2009

If you can get past the thousand swinging penises, bare bottoms and endless dildos that fill most of the screen in Bruno, you can appreciate creator Sacha Baron Cohen’s genius for wrapping biting social commentary in fully-realized comic moments.  What I’m talking about is hummus.

About 100 naked penises into the movie,  fabulously gay Bruno decides he must do something major to become famous.  So he jets off to Israel to make peace in the Middle East.  Cut to Bruno/Baron Cohen sitting between former Mossad officer Yossi Alpher and Palestinian negotiator Ghassan Khatib.

Bruno takes advantage of their kindness by purposely confusing hummus the dish with Hamas the Palestinian terrorist organization.

A lot of stories quote a line or two from the exchange to show how Cohen duped the former Mossadnik, but the entire scene, in context, shows Cohen managed to make a much more important point.

“Why are you so anti-Hamas?” Bruno asks. “I mean, isn’t pita bread the real enemy here?”

“You think there is a relation between Hamas and Hummus?” Khatib asks.

“Hummus has nothing to do with Hamas,” Alpher responds “It’s a food. We eat it, they eat it.”

“You think there is a relation between Hamas and Humus?” Khatib asks.

Bruno looks confused. “Was the founder of Hamas a chef? He created the food and got lots of followers?” 

Alpher begins to lose his patience.  “Hummus has nothing to do with Hamas. It’s a food, okay?  We eat it, they eat it—”

—“It’s vegetarian, it’s healthy, it’s beans,” Khatib says.

Then Cohen goes in for the kill: “So you agree on that,” he says.

Underlying these cultures,  both locked in a vicious war, is a commonality that is perfectly symbolized by a bowl of “healthy, vegetarian” beans.

Cohen, you have to understand, has an Israeli mother. (His dad is from Wales, which I guess doesn’t lend itself to as many funny food scenes).  When I met him two years ago, we spoke almost entirely in Hebrew.  He lived on a kibbutz for a while, and he has a degree in political science from Oxford.  I’m going to posit that in a serious conversation about the Palestinian Israeli conflict, he would astound Alpher.

But by playing the hummus card, he made one of the most powerful points he could about Jews and Arabs, and about food.  People who share the same food usually share the same fate. That’s true whether they know it or not, whether they act as if it’s true and learn to cooperate, or strive to ignore that truth, and turn their knives on one another.

The columnist Tom Friendman has famously written that countries with McDonalds never go to war with each other.  His point is that spreading democracy and free markets spreads peace. But Friedman’s McDonald’s theory begs a question: how can people who eat the exact same foods kill one another?

They can and do. 

On an unmarked street in the Christian Arab part of the Old City of Jerusalem, find Lina’s.  I go there on every visit to Israel.  Seven tables, no fan.  The owner stands in an alcove by the entrance, pounding a wooden pestle into a simmering vat of garbanzo beans.  He pours in fresh ground tehina, he sprinkles in lemon salt and garlic, and all the time he keeps moving that stick-sized pestle,  until the mixture is smooth and almost white, and fluffed with air. There’s no menu.  You sit, a young man puts a slice of onion, a pickle and a tomato wedge in front of you, some warm pita, then the owner ladles some warm hummus onto a plate, drizzles it with olive oil, and sends it over.

It’s not 100 percent safe for anyone who looks too Jewish to get there—Jews have been attacked walking the Old City alleys, and Israelis will tell you it’s too dangerous—but there are always Israeli Jews in Lina’s.  If you want the best hummus in Israel—I believe it’s the best I’ve had in the world—you have no choice.  So what does that mean?  Israelis will risk their lives to eat hummus with Arabs—they just can’t seem to make peace with them.

When I returned from my last trip to Israel, I decided I needed to recreate Lina’s hummus, or a close facsimile, in my kitchen.  Rule number one is: no canned chickpeas.  To make good hummus, you need to soak your own garbanzo beans.  For great hummus, make it and serve it warm.

Almost Lina’s Hummus

1 cup dried garbanzo beans

1/2 cup good quality tahina

2 cloves garlic

1 T. plus 1 t. baking soda

1 t. cumin

Juice from 1/2 lemon

1 t. salt

1/4 c. olive oil

Paprika and Chopped Parsley

1. Rinse beans well and cull any dark, broken ones, and any pebbles, too. Soak beans overnight in water with 1 T. baking soda.  Drain beans, soak in fresh water for an hour.

2. Put in saucepan with water to cover by two inches, with 1 t. baking soda.  Bring to boil, skimming foam, then simmer and cooking til very soft, about an hour.

3. Remove from pot (do not drain away cooking water) and place in blender or Cuisinart with a 1/4 cup of the liquid, the garlic and cumin. Blend until smooth.  Let cool 5 minutes, add the rest of the ingredients and enough of teh cooking liquid to make a very smooth mixture, the consistency of soft sour cream (it hardens as it cools). Taste for seasoning.

4. To serve, pour onto plate, drizzle with more olive oil, sprinkle with paprika and chopped parsley, and serve with warm pita bread.

5. Now go make peace.

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