At MIT, students experiment with hummus

MIT students (above) line up to taste hummus recipes. Below: freshman Victoria Cheng samples Picante Soy hummus. MIT students (above) line up to taste hummus recipes. Below: freshman Victoria Cheng samples Picante Soy hummus. (Photos by Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Clara Silverstein
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - During MIT's midsemester Independent Activities Period last month, many students decided to exchange their test tubes for measuring cups. The subject was hummus and there was no credit given. But the The Hummus Experience @ MIT is one way to take a fun break from the books.

Clad in a white T-shirt emblazoned "Hummus Junkie," Eliad Shmuel, program director of the university's Hillel organization, is urging students to "make it funky, but still edible." The hummus taste-off attracted four teams of cooks and about 100 student tasters. Each group has a basic hummus recipe with the directive to add whatever extra ingredients they choose. Teams comply, and even extend creativity to recipe names such as Yes We Can . . . Make Hummus.

Students aren't just throwing ingredients into a blender and starting the motor. "They did experiments," says Shumel. "They made small batches to get the flavor they wanted, and then made a larger batch." Once teams are ready, all the hummus samples are set on a table in the student center and tasters get to vote on a favorite. In the group, along with Yes We Can are The Zinger, Picante Soy, and Shamrock. Dozens of tasters line up, spoons in hand.

Some contestants had never made hummus before. Alex Speltz, a freshman, signed up with his girlfriend, Deepa Rao, also a freshman. "We thought it would be a fun night out," he says. Their Picante Soy entry wins the competition - but just by one vote. Its name comes from soy sauce and jalapeno pepper juice. Both lemon rind and juice figure prominently. Liz Washburn is the third team member.

The runner-up is a green-hued Shamrock hummus flavored with lime juice, jalapeno peppers, basil, and parsley. "I wanted a green theme," says one of its creators, Nikolay Zaborenko, a graduate student in chemical engineering. He never even saw, much less tasted, hummus when he was growing up in Ukraine, but now likes it. "I thought I'd give it a shot," he says. His co-creator is Isaac Asher.

Votes split evenly between Yes We Can and The Zinger. Yes We Can is smoother than some of the others, with a strong cumin flavor. "I'm from California, and it reminds me of the homemade hummus I used to have there," says Lauren Berning, a staff member in the nuclear science and engineering department. Her favorite entry is Shamrock, which she describes as having "a nice kick at the end."

Israeli native Yoav Danenberg, whose wife, Amit, attends the Sloan School of Management, says the thick and garlicky Zinger seems most authentic. "It reminds me of the hummus I used to prepare at home."

On the opposite side of the room representatives from Cedar's, Sabra, Joseph's, and Tribe pass out free samples of commercially made hummus, along with pita and crackers. This gives students a chance to compare the homemade creations with factory spreads.

This is the second year that Shmuel, representatives from the MIT Israeli Association, and others have organized the competition. Last year's version pitted commercial varieties of hummus against each other but "they were statistically equal," says Shmuel, so the students' inventions were added this year. This year's activities also include a basic hummus-making workshop and a tour of Cedar's factory. The company will be making a batch of Picante Soy for the winners with the label "Alex, Deepa, & Liz's Funky Picante Soy Hommus MIT 2009 Limited Edition."

Alex Speltz seems nonplussed by his team's win. "I guess my partners have good taste buds," he says, shrugging. For Speltz and the rest of the students, now it's back to the books.