In 2014, Makenzie McPherson, a holistic health coach from Ohio, brought “cookie dough” hummus to a Super Bowl party. She was familiar with savoury hummus and surmised that chickpeas, given their fairly neutral taste, could serve as a canvas for other flavours. The Seattle Seahawks triumphed that day, and so did her blend of chickpeas, oats, coconut sugar, and vanilla extract.

The following year, McPherson launched Delighted By, a dessert hummus company. In place of the smooth, creamy chickpea dish beloved for centuries, McPherson’s sweet variations of hummus—with flavours that eventually included vanilla bean, snickerdoodle cookie (cinnamon and sugar), key lime pie, red velvet, mint-chocolate fudge, and brownie batter—began selling out at farmers’ markets. By early 2016, her products were picked up by the US supermarket chain Wegmans. In 2017, she appeared on the business-pitch TV show Shark Tank; Mark Cuban offered $600,000 (US) for 25 percent equity. (The two later parted ways without a deal.) Within a few years, major retailers that carried McPherson’s product, including Walmart and Target, were selling their own versions—or other newer, cheaper brands—of dessert hummus. Clearly, it had found a mainstream market. It also had its critics.

“From day one,” McPherson says about the moment her company began attracting publicity, “we were getting attacked on Twitter”—largely for cultural appropriation. To this day, online reactions to various brands of dessert hummus typically range from comically resigned to ferociously opposed. It’s a crime against humanity, declare Twitter posts, accompanied by photos of supermarket tubs cheerily labelled “chocolate,” “pumpkin spice,” or “apple pie.”

For hummus devotees, the bottom line is that the real thing is a dip made with chickpeas, tahini, some kind of citric acid, like lemon juice, and maybe a handful of other acceptable ingredients. Cocoa, vanilla extract, and pumpkin spice are not among them. Similar objections apply to dips that eschew chickpeas entirely, as in black bean or cauliflower hummus, but are labelled as such—especially given that hummus is the word for chickpea in Arabic. To many, it’s not that those products shouldn’t exist at all; they simply shouldn’t be called hummus.

“I totally get it,” says McPherson, who is now based in Hawaii. “And I’m really unattached. I wasn’t ever defending us and being like, ‘No, this is hummus.’” In 2018, Delighted By even tried rebranding its product as dessert “dip,” dropping the h-word altogether. “I don’t know . . . if that worked well,” McPherson says, “because then it also didn’t differentiate us. It was calling it a dessert hummus that got us all the media.”

McPherson was eventually priced out by larger retailers that entered the market with their own spectrum of varieties.

“I was essentially pushed out of my own category that I created,” she says. The criticism she experienced is emblematic of the ongoing squabbles that hummus can’t seem to shake off. When enthusiasts aren’t objecting to the dip’s North American makeover, with retailers and recipe blogs hawking everything from beet to butterscotch hummus, they’re often arguing about its origins and which cultures get to claim it as their own.

I’ve eaten hummus, classic hummus, all my life. My family rarely made it at home in Damascus, Syria, where I grew up; we usually ordered it as part of a mezze spread at restaurants or bought it by the kilogram from hummus vendors. When I moved to Montreal for university, in the 2000s, grocery store hummus was still a novelty to me. I occasionally bought it and, out of curiosity, tried some of the common variations—roasted red pepper, roasted garlic, olive. I preferred making hummus myself; I go through those little tubs embarrassingly fast. In my student years, homemade hummus became my party trick. To my non-Arab friends, hummus wasn’t necessarily exotic, but my blender recipe still retained a bit of an edge. That’s possibly how I gained a reputation among friends and acquaintances as a bit of a hummus connoisseur.

Nowadays, friends routinely send me links and social media posts about some of hummus’s bizarre incarnations, from chocolate hummus to kimchi hummus, as if to cue my outrage. There are plenty of abominations being created in the name of remaking globally popular foods (see: cheeseburger sushi, s’more tacos, Hawaiian pizza). They can feel inevitable, driven by a retailer’s need for a new product line, social media influencers’ desire for fresh content, or just the natural human urge to overcome monotony. To me, transformations like these are stripping hummus of its origins. Maybe some things just don’t need to be altered or updated.

I confess that I cling to my cultural bragging rights and scoff at the likes of banana hummus partly because it’s fun—a bit of lightness during bleak times. But, when I appealed to chefs and other hummus connoisseurs, hoping they’d bolster my case for leaving hummus alone, my quest took an unexpected turn. Our conversations forced me to think about what we’re really fighting about when we fight about hummus.

The origin of hummus is a touchy subject, perhaps not surprising for a part of the world with perpetually contested borders. According to the 2021 book Hummus: A Global History by Harriet Nussbaum, there is no recorded date or location of its invention. Hummus bi tahina, or hummus with tahini, is thought to have first been made in the Levant in the eighteenth century, during the time of the Ottoman Empire, before many of today’s national borders were drawn. It became a staple, with regional variations, in what is modern-day Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, among other places.

Given its ubiquity across the Middle East, you’d think hummus would be a unifying force, a delicious paste cementing regional ties. Instead, it became a symbolic battleground near the end of the twentieth century, a time when Israel began adopting hummus as a national dish. Dafna Hirsch, a professor in the department of sociology, political science, and communication at the Open University of Israel, has documented that history as well as the nearly simultaneous rise of industrial hummus following the Second World War. In a 2013 paper, she and her co-writer, scholar Ofra Tene, note that the dish was little known to many Jewish immigrants arriving in Israel from Europe in the newly formed state’s early years. During the period of postwar austerity, nutritionists and NGOs in Israel promoted hummus and other Palestinian foods as healthy and affordable. Jewish immigrants to Israel from the Levant brought their hummus know-how with them, further exposing other citizens to the dish. In the 1950s, immigrants from Yemen, Iraq, and some North African countries sparked a boom of what became known as “oriental” restaurants, which served hummus—though, as Hirsch notes, it wasn’t commonly found in their cuisine. In 1958, industrialized hummus entered the scene. Telma, a brand owned by Eretz Israeli Food Produce, introduced canned hummus that year, marketing it as an Israeli food—a symbol of integration as immigrants from diverse regions adapted to a new homeland. Several competitors followed suit, and store-bought hummus became a staple in Israeli households.

Today, write Hirsch and Tene, many Israelis acknowledge that they’ve only adopted hummus and that the best place to get it is Arab-owned hummusiyahs, or restaurants that specialize in hummus. But, for many Arabs, that acknowledgement doesn’t make up for what they see as Israel’s co-opting of the dish. While there are plenty of Arab-owned restaurants and brands selling hummus around the world, Israeli companies, primarily, have profited from its industrialization, including several that played a significant role in promoting it worldwide.

Estimates of the value of the global hummus market vary, but all indicate that it’s growing. In the US, for example, where store-bought hummus was introduced in the 1980s, consumption of retail hummus quadrupled between 2008 and 2018, according to the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council. (America’s hummus market is ten times the size of Canada’s, although appetites for hummus have grown here in recent years as well, according to data from Pulse Canada, an association representing the industry that grows and processes beans, dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas.) It has also gone mainstream: in 2013, Sabra, which is co-owned by Strauss and PepsiCo, became the NFL’s official dips sponsor.

In 2008, Hirsch and Tene write, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists urged the Lebanese ministry of economy and trade to file a request with the European Commission to have hummus recognized as an exclusively Lebanese product, much like feta cheese, which can be labelled as such in the EU only if it is produced in Greece. But, Hirsch and Tene write, “to the best of our knowledge, such a request has not yet been filed.”

The rivalry took a turn for the absurd, with Lebanon and Israel trying to one-up each other in a battle for the Guinness World Records entry for largest hummus dish. The back and forth included a 2,056-kilogram plate in Lebanon in 2009, followed by a 4,087-kilogram dish in Israel the next year. A few months after that, Lebanon shot back with 10,452 kilograms of the stuff—a figure representative of the country’s surface area of 10,452 square kilometres. As of this writing, that record hasn’t been broken. This particular spat may have ostensibly been about cultural claims to hummus, but Hirsch and Tene point out that some of the main players, including manufacturers, had business interests to protect.

For many Arabs, claiming hummus isn’t just a political, economic, or even cultural matter: it’s deeply personal. Appearing in an episode of the CBC’s Unforked alongside Hirsch last summer, Laila El-Haddad, a Palestinian activist and co-author of the cookbook The Gaza Kitchen, calls Israel’s claim to hummus “a slap in the face.” For a lot of early Jewish settlers in Israel, she says, adopting foods such as hummus was “a matter of wanting to put roots on the ground and culturally kind of immersing themselves in the land of Palestine but rejecting the people behind the culture.” Now based in Maryland, El-Haddad notes that she and many Palestinians are restricted from travelling to some places in Israel that are their ancestral homelands. “So that sums up why we can’t all sit together and eat hummus,” she says in the episode, “and pretend like there was no borders or no problems or no occupation.”

For chef Elias Hashem, hummus has always been a constant. It’s breakfast with family on Saturday mornings. It’s the ritual of soaking chickpeas overnight before boiling and blending them. When it comes to hummus, he says, “We treat it with a lot of respect.” Hashem, who is Palestinian, moved to Toronto from Haifa, Israel, in 2021 for a job at Parallel, a restaurant serving what its owners describe as modern Middle Eastern food. He had found it unsettling at first to see hummus topped with mushrooms, soy, and truffle oil on Parallel’s menu. “But then I tried it,” he says. He admits it tasted good.

Hashem came around to the idea of playing with toppings to suit the eclectic Toronto palate. He recently developed mashwiya hummus with the vegan crowd in mind. The dish features a base of classic hummus topped with roasted vegetables, garlic, a mango condiment called amba, a spicy herb sauce called schug, parsley, and a sprinkling of sumac. (The name mashwiya refers to the grilled vegetables.) “You’ll never see a dish like that back home,” says Hashem. Toppings and similar flavour combinations aren’t completely foreign to hummus: pickled vegetables are often served alongside hummus, and in some places, it’s common to top hummus with meat or fava beans, among other possibilities. Some Middle Eastern chefs have even toyed with hummus-based desserts: Karim Haidar, a Paris-based Lebanese chef, has a recipe for hummus ice cream.

When I ask Hashem for his thoughts on dessert hummus, he grins. “I think you just gave me a great idea,” he says. The restaurant sells tubs of chocolate-flavoured tahini, which could be a stepping stone toward chocolate hummus. But where does Hashem draw the line? Would he do away with chickpeas entirely, as in, say, edamame hummus? “I think it’s a very cool idea,” he says. But it’s not hummus: “It’s like calling a vegan burger a burger. Right? It is a patty, it is in a bun. It is the same idea, but it’s not meat.”

Hashem didn’t grow up intending to become a chef. But, as he discovered an interest in cooking, he also found it helped him connect with his heritage. “I did have some identity issues trying to figure out who I was, what am I supposed to be, what do people expect me to be,” he says. “But, honestly, I think I found peace with my identity once I started cooking and once I started dealing more with Arabic food, Palestinian, Lebanese food.” Questions of identity are also among the reasons he left Haifa. His family is Christian; his partner of eleven years is Jewish.

Neither of them is religious, and he describes their families as accepting of their relationship. Back home, he says, “people really want you to define what you are and identify and just pick a side.” He didn’t want his future kids to have to go through that, so he moved away. It’s perhaps why he’s reluctant to wade into arguments around who owns hummus or what constitutes “authentic” hummus. He sees nothing wrong with change or experimentation. “I wouldn’t call it cultural appropriation, necessarily, because it’s just reinventing something, and that’s fine,” Hashem says. “Whether it’s good or not, it’s about each individual’s taste.”

At the National home show in Toronto in April, Yohannes Petros hands out samples of his company’s hummus: his Moroccan seven-spice hummus, his roasted garlic and dill flavour, and his spicy, date-sweetened version. Try them in that order, he instructs passersby. Petros and his family came from Eritrea, via several countries, to Canada in 1980. Hummus was never part of their repertoire at home. He started selling it in Saskatoon at a local café, then at the Greek pavilion in the city’s annual folk fest. In 2015, he started his company, Hanes Hummus, and since then has made it his full-time business.

He is careful not to paint the hummus he makes as culturally authentic. When his critics contend that his product isn’t real hummus, he says, “To a degree, they’re right. It’s not traditional.” He’s never been to the Middle East. The hummus he makes, he says, reflects his surroundings instead. “I can really appreciate somebody from Jordan or from Israel or from any country from that region of the world who would say hummus has become bastardized,” he says. “For them to come and see peanut butter hummus or chocolate hummus, I can understand why they might feel that this is not taking . . . a part of their culture seriously. But we’re not in Israel. We’re not in the Middle East. We’re in Saskatoon.”

Noura Salah, an Egyptian photographer now based in Mississauga, stops by Petros’s booth at the trade show; she’s been fasting for Ramadan, so she can’t sample Petros’s hummus right away. She takes a tub of each flavour home and tries them after she breaks her fast. Her favourite, she later tells me, was the roasted garlic and dill—probably because it reminded her of bissara, a North African dish made with fava beans, garlic, and herbs. “It felt familiar,” she says. To her, traditional hummus isn’t just the spread I grew up with; it’s also halabessa, a hot drink commonly served in Egypt in the winter and made with chickpeas, garlic, and tomatoes.

Growing up in Canada, Salah’s children might develop a completely different notion of hummus, she tells me. As much as she tries to teach them about Egyptian culture, she knows they won’t have the same relationship to it that she does. And she has accepted that. “The culture here is a mix anyway,” she says with a laugh. “It’s like you put someone in a blender.”

In 2014, Sabra filed a citizen’s petition with the US Food and Drug Administration, calling for standards to be set around the composition of hummus. According to the petition, chickpeas, aside from water, must comprise the dominant ingredient by weight. Hummus must also consist of at least 5 percent tahini, with a prescribed list of optional additional ingredients, including spices and garlic. “The marketing of a ‘hummus’ product made from legumes other than chickpeas is akin to the marketing of guacamole made with fruit other than avocados,” the petition states.

Creating a standard for hummus would support consumer recognition of products labelled “hummus,” the petition argues, maintain their nutritional quality, and support a “level playing field” for producers. (According to a 2020 Forbes article, Sabra controls 60 percent of the US hummus market.) The FDA still hasn’t reached a decision.

Even if the use of the term hummus is regulated in the commercial food sector, it may be too late to change its expanded definition in the popular imagination. According to Tanya Der, the director of diversification and market insights at Pulse Canada, market research shows that those who prefer flavoured hummus are part of a niche but growing sector. But, she adds, sales of classic hummus still top those of any flavoured variations.

I’ve always liked associating hummus with my roots, given that much of the world knows modern-day Syria mostly as a place of war and devastation. Hummus has become one of the few tangible connections to a home I can’t return to. I can’t fault chefs and entrepreneurs for experimenting with what is admittedly a very versatile dish. But, when hummus is sullied with chocolate chips, usurped by edamame-shaped impostors, or trussed up with benign labels such as “vegan” or “Mediterranean,” obscuring its Middle Eastern background, I also can’t help feeling deflated. Maybe, when fights and fierce reactions to the latest hummus trend flare up, I just feel a duty to preserve what it means to me.

The hummus I grew up with was always affordable and accessible. (It’s also fairly easy to make, though I can’t expect everyone to boil and shell chickpeas whenever they need a snack.) I’ve come to love hummus even more, now that I’ve learned that chickpea cultivation can be sustainable when done right. Chickpeas can fix low nitrogen levels in soil, enriching the farmland they’re grown in and leaving the soil more nutrient dense for the next crop. Instead of fighting over hummus, we really should be fighting for it and for what it represents: nutrition, affordability, sustainability, even creativity. For some, it’s also a way to move forward without losing sight of the past.

Raghda Hasan, a Syrian woman from the northwestern city of Latakia, came to Vancouver via Turkey as a refugee in 2016 with her husband and four children. She shares her anniversary of landing in Canada with the founding of Tayybeh, a catering company, where she now works, that employs newcomer women to prepare Syrian dishes. (In Arabic, tayybeh means “kind.” In reference to food, it also means “tasty” in the Syrian dialect.) I assume that, as a fairly recent arrival to Canada, she must be a steadfast purist. But she doesn’t mind hummus variations, she tells me, and she even makes beet hummus, which is part of Tayybeh’s catering menu. It has become popular with customers, she adds, but it’s still not as popular as the original.

When I mention dessert hummus, Hasan has trouble fathoming it; to her, it’s a confounding pairing of savoury and sweet. “When you say, ‘Chocolate hummus,’ I say, ‘Question mark, exclamation mark,’” she says. She has never tried it. She calls me out because I’ve never tried chocolate hummus either. “The more you’re exposed to new flavours, the more you start to accept them,” Hasan says.

I’ve fed my baby daughter hummus since she was old enough to eat solid foods, and she’s already a fan. But she won’t grow up knowing hummus the way I did, scooping it onto her plate from a clay bowl at a restaurant table long enough to fit the extended family, surrounded by the scent of grilled meats and Arabic music blaring from the speakers. When she’s older, she probably won’t bat an eye at sweet potato hummus. And I’ll have to live with that.

I did eventually try chocolate hummus. I made it at home, blending boiled chickpeas with chocolate-flavoured tahini, and found that the resulting mousse tasted neither like chocolate nor like hummus. Perhaps my reaction can be best summed up by Hasan’s diplomatic stance: even if she liked a particular hummus variation, she had told me, she probably wouldn’t eat it regularly. At the end of the day, she’d said, “if I want hummus, I eat hummus.” 

Samia Madwar
Samia Madwar is a senior editor at The Walrus.
Janice Wu
Janice Wu counts the New York Times, Reader's Digest Canada, and New York magazine among her clients.