Michael Karam: Politics of hummus sparks lively debate in New York
And so it was to a panel discussion at the Lebanese American University in Manhattan entitled “Food and Identity: Celebrating Lebanese Cuisine”. I expected the usual desperately serious and well-intentioned crowd but was pleasantly surprised. What was meant to be a conversation on immigration and identity through the prism of food was rapidly ground down into an enjoyable dialogue on hummus, the dish that, it appeared, was the uber-embodiment of Lebanese fare.
Who made the best chickpea dip was the running gag of the evening. Manal Kahi, the co-founder and chief executive of Offbeat, a “social business” that offers refugees jobs as chefs, said that it was the frustration at having to eat substandard US hummus that drove her into the arms of the catering business.
“No one,” she said, “made it like her grandmother”, except of course everyone else’s grandmother and celebrated restaurateur and fellow panellist Philip Massoud, who told of the mind-boggling precision with which his is made.
Charlie Sahadi, a fourth-generation Lebanese, whose great- grandfather, Ibrahim Sahadi, in 1895 founded A Sahadi & Co, now Sahadi Fine Foods, in what was then known as “Little Syria” around New York’s Washington Street, went one better by telling us that one of his customers said he made the “best hummus in the universe”.
It brought the house down but I guess you had to be there.
The last panellist was Matthew Jaber Stiffler, a likeable academic, who reminded everyone that when the Syrian and Lebanese arrived in New York they were roundly portrayed as “vermin” but who, through a rich and unique culinary heritage (“Who doesn’t like Lebanese food?” interjected Sahadi with wounded candour), were able to shape a more charitable narrative.
And herein lay the essence of the debate.
For while the talk of hummus, fatoush and baba ghanoush (Mr Massoud changes the texture of his aubergine dip according to which time of year he sources his ingredients) ramped up the sense of nostalgia and longing for the mother country, there is still a very serious side to the role food plays in the ongoing pursuit of projecting a national identity.
Mr Sahadi gave us a glimpse of the tough Levantine businessman that lay under his bluff New York exterior, reminding the audience that Sabra, the world’s biggest manufacturer of hummus, has a 70 per cent share of the $1 billion US hummus market and has, in the process, globalised what is a Syrian/Lebanese dip through clever packaging – the logo on the tub is a simple sun – and that we were in danger of losing ownership of an important culinary icon.
Sabra, as the Americans like to say, “has the horses” for world domination.
The New York-based company began life in 1986 but was bought by Strauss the Israeli (you were wondering whether they’d pop up, weren’t you?) food company in 2005.
Three years later, Strauss entered into a 50-50 joint venture with Frito Lay, part of PepsiCo, the multinational with a market cap north of $140 billion. Today Sabra is turning over close to $700 million.
Around the same time as the Strauss-Frito Lay deal, the Lebanese made a half-hearted stab at owning the dish.
In October 2008, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists asked the then Lebanese ministry of economy and trade to request that the EU confer Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) upon hummus in the same way the Greeks had done with feta.
It didn’t wash and the response from the Israeli media was typically mocking: “Hummus,” it said, “is a regional dish; no one owns it, so you Lebanese can get back in your box”.
Does it matter? Well, yes and no. Yes, because food can go a long way in forming opinions and banishing misconceptions about a country or its people, making it, and them, more appealing.
Lebanon has few assets at its disposal and it’s a shame we have allowed the global food business to dilute the origins of a hugely popular – not to mention healthy – culinary tradition.
And no, because I went to D’Agostino on Greenwich Street and bought a tub of Sabra hummus. It tasted nothing like my mother’s.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton