The International Relations of Hummus…Seriously

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

There’s a war brewing…a war over hummus. That creamy delicacy of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice is at the heart of a dispute between Israel and Lebanon, both seeking to assert their claim over the dish.

Actually, there are two issues at stake. The first is simply a matter of international rivalry. For the past several years, both Israel and Lebanon have been seeking to outdo the other to claim their place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest hummus. The most recent effort, made by 300 chefs in Lebanon on Saturday, resulted in a batch of hummus that weight ten tons (22,046 pounds). In perspective, that’s about ten automobiles worth of hummus. (Video of the effort is available at the Telegraph’s website.)  

Saturday’s effort by Lebanon took the record back from Israel, which had made a four ton batch of hummus in October, an effort which had taken the back from Lebanon, which had taken it from Israel, ad infinitum. On the surface, this is simply a matter of international pride and rivalry. And the peaceful expression of the rivalry through cooking (or sport) is preferable to its expression through armed military conflict, as was the case in 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon in an effort to seek out Hezbollah militants firing rockets into Israel.

But there’s another element as well. The origins of hummus are disputed. Today, the dish is widely consumed around the world. Although the earliest verified reference to the dish dates to the eighteenth century, many assert it’s one of the world’s oldest foods. There are references to similar dishes in the Middle East dating back at least to the twelfth century. Records of chickpeas and sesame (the main ingredient in tahini) cultivation can be found dating to at least 2500 BC, and olive oil is discussed in the Bible.

The origins of the dish, though, are disputed. In 2008, the government of Lebanon petitioned the European Union to classify hummus as a uniquely Lebanese food, granting it protected geographical status. Dishes like feta (Greek cheese) and Champagne (sparkling French wine) receive this protection. Other foods including Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Melton Mowbray pork pies, and Asiago cheese, are also protected. The mark is intended to offer a form of intellectual property protection for the label, promoting the product by giving consumers specific information regarding the origin of the product while simultaneously providing a mechanism to facilitate rural development.

According to the Lebanese government, humus is a uniquely Lebanese dish and the name should therefore be protected.  Like with feta cheese, which can only be called feta if produced in Greece and which must otherwise be called “Greek-style cheese” or something similar, the Lebanese government is asserting its claim that only Lebanese hummus is really hummus. At stake is a $1 billion international market for the product.

But there are also questions of nationalism and of national pride. The Lebanese claim that Israel is “stealing” their country’s national dish…along with several other national dishes, including falafel, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj. The success of Israeli-manufactured hummus in European Union markets likely led to the assertion of Lebanon’s claim. But the specific manifestation of the claim, particularly in the context of the longstanding military tensions between the two countries, takes on a much deeper and more powerful meaning.

Think about that next time you have that hummus.

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