Year of Grace, Day 230. Hummus – badge of a tolerant society or just a passing fad?

While eating my pan-Mediterranean breakfast of hummus from the local Mercadona (a supermarket chain), harissa from a Moroccan food shop, Catalonian escalivada — a salad of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet red peppers — and locally baked bread, with a lacing of local green olive oil from this year’s first pressing, I pondered on the ubiquitousness of hummus in lands where it is far from an original staple.

Bottom left — escalivada, a Catalonian dish of charcoal-grilled aubergines and sweet peppers; top right — harissa, a Moroccan hot chili and lemon condiment; middle right — hummus, flecked with wild thyme flowers and leaves.

Hummus, as everyone knows, is a very simple paste of boiled and mashed chickpeas, sesame paste or tahini/tahina, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic (and other condiments to personal taste), usually eaten as a dip for pita or other unleavened or leavened bread. All of these ingredients are common throughout the Mediterranean and widely eaten by poor and rich alike from Lebanon and Syria to Israel and Palestine and less so in Egypt.

So what is it doing in a supermarket in a small fishing village in Southern Catalonia? Where there are not just one but two varieties available – a plain one and a paprika-flavoured one (we prefer the plain).  And moreover, what was it doing in chain supermarkets (Tesco and Sainsbury, and the upmarket Marks and Spencer) in the small town of Leamington Spa in the heartland of England (where one could have a bewildering diversity of varieties)? One could argue that L’Ametlla de Mar has become multicultural, though this is not borne by the current faces I see as I walk around this village of 6000 souls (in the summer the population does triple however). The permanent foreign contingent is largely Western European – Germans, French, English – with a sprinkling of Asians (me and the staff at the Chinese stores and restaurant) and a few North Africans (but then again hummus is not a North African staple). So who are the beneficiaries of this light-meal staple and dip more commonly seen throughout the Levant and supermarkets in England?

I contemplated this as I happily dipped my locally baked circlet of bread into the hummus, sprinkled with the new flowers and minuscule leaves of aromatic wild thyme, that I had picked from a sun-drenched hillside facing the sea in El Perello just two days ago. And I compared hummus’s fate as a global food with that of sushi.

Who could have foreseen that sushi, which used to provoke (and still does) shudders among non-eaters, would become a permanent staple of sandwich, salad, and light-meal food chilling cabinets throughout Bonn, Germany? (Or in England and elsewhere all over the world too?) And yet it has – within the space of 11 years, since I first came to live in Bonn.  It has certainly captured the hearts (and stomachs) of many a Bonn Feinschmecker. It does cause me a great deal of dismay, however, to see it being thoroughly impregnated, or more to the point, drowned, in soy sauce before being conveyed to conspicuously appreciative mouths. (Can one still detect the subtlety of fresh fish thus?)

If sushi has made tremendous inroads into the Bonn gastronomic scene, hummus has not. Or at least as far as I had seen from three months back when I left Bonn in October 2015. And Bonn bills itself as an international city. Bonn lost its status as the capital when it was moved back to Berlin after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, and consequently its international diplomatic community.  Years later a marketing agency thought up a campaign to shore up the city’s sagging international character. And the resulting slogan? “Bonn – Stadt, Ville, City.” I cannot help but point out the obvious: it is a markedly restricted view of “international.”

It does come as a huge surprise to me that despite the predominant Turkish and other Mediterranean (Spanish, Greek, Syrian) residents of Bonn, swelled by international students of Bonn University and the staff of numerous UN agencies that have relocated there, hummus is not a regular offering in any Bonn supermarket. Not even in Turkish or other ethnic food shops. And yet, here it is, very much a staple in this humble Catalonian fishing village whose population cannot compare to Bonn’s hundred thousands. And there to be found as well, in Middle English towns such as Leamington Spa, Kenilworth, Warwick, and Stratford, with populations no greater than Bonn’s, albeit similarly endowed with an international citizenry through the universities of Warwick, Coventry, and Birmingham.

Could hummus then possibly become like sushi in the near future, with the influx of refugees from Syria into Bonn? Can exotic foods like sushi and hummus, as they become culinary staples to be found in the smallest of supermarkets far from their native lands, become indicators of multinational tolerance, badges of multicultural harmony in a global society? Would someone who readily takes to foreign and exotic food heartily take an outlander for a neighbour? Accept him or her a friend? Consider and respect him or her as a fellow human being?

Or are sushi and hummus just passing food fads, made popular to the wider world outside of their homelands, by celebrities and/or gourmets, as has happened with sushi? Are marketers, always on the lookout for trends, simply following the latest ones by welcoming sushi and hummus into their ready-to-eat food chiller cabinets?

What do you think? Would you say that hummus in the local supermarket is a gauge of social tolerance? There are other ethnic foods that have gone global – hamburger, pizza, spaghetti. Have they contributed at all to our acceptance of the stranger in our midst? A bit heavy to consider first thing in the morning, perhaps, but you see what happens when you have hummus (unexpectedly found in a local supermarket) in a tiny Catalonian fishing village for breakfast.

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