A disclosure: I recently spent two weeks in Jerusalem, where I made it a point to have hummus each afternoon. This confounded my hosts, who struggled to comprehend my desire for the chickpea-based dish.
Since returning, I have glumly observed the mass-produced, preservative-packed plastic hummus containers lining refrigerated supermarket shelves. To know good hummus is to understand that there is no such thing as a shelf life. Rather, it is part of a natural cycle: Chickpeas are soaked for 24 hours, boiled until they grow tender, and then ground and mixed with tahini, lemon, salt, and garlic. For hummus purists across the Middle East, there is no such thing as a batch to be saved for the next day. Enough is made for a person, a family, a village. And then the next vat is prepared.
There are few Middle Eastern restaurants locally, and the quality of the hummus ranges from excellent to awful. I’ve decided that White Dove Market, with its thick, lemony Lebanese blend, has ascended to the top level of hummus purveyors.
While White Dove is the antithesis of the white-glove dining-out experience, it has a certain charm that will make you return. The place offers real insight into the belief that good, home-cooked food does not need to be prepared on a slate counter or heated on a Viking range.
Run by Rabih Chaghouri, a big-hearted man who grew up in a small village outside of Tripoli, White Dove represents the melding of a restaurant and convenience store. When Chaghouri purchased the business 15 years ago, it was a White Hen Pantry, and he quickly changed the name to White Dove. While he kept the convenience aisles intact, he added Middle Eastern fare such as hummus, falafel, tabouli, and grape leaves — labor-intensive food he learned to make in his mother’s kitchen.
Now 48, Chaghouri assumed much of the cooking for his family when he was 16. At the time, his mother had a bad back but was known for her recipes in the 400-person village of Kaftoun. “She recorded all of her recipes on a tape, and I listened to them over and over,’’ Chaghouri says, preparing a fresh container of hummus.
There are four aluminum tables near the cashier and another eight stools by the window. When you arrive, you may see old-timers scratching lottery tickets, Salem State students sipping soft drinks, or locals picking up some laundry detergent. This may seem incongruous at first, but settle in before a plate of hummus ($5), dip a triangle of pita into the puree, and savor its earthy — and surprisingly tangy —flavors.
Want to try Middle Eastern fast food? Order a plate of falafel wrap ($5) and savor the six plump, crisp falafel balls — fat, juicy spheres of ground chickpeas seasoned with fresh garlic, onion, coriander, cumin, and hot pepper. They’re gently placed on a pita, and served on a bed of fresh diced tomatoes and lettuce. This is a light, crunchy, filling wrap.
While many restaurateurs brag about their grape leaves, Chaghouri has earned the right. His leaf is heavenly, and just one serving (50 cents) is a healthy appetizer. Chaghouri uses a California leaf, white Egyptian rice, diced tomatoes, parsley, onion, salt, and olive oil. When it’s wrapped properly, he dips the leaves in lemon water. “It’s like cooking them in lemonade,’’ he says.
Other homemade gems include spinach pie ($1.25) and an exquisite flaky and buttery baklava ($1.25).
There’s a simplicity and proper sense of authenticity — beginning with a commitment to serve everything homemade — that lends an Old Country aura to White Dove. Here, one quickly realizes that fancy linens and high-end cutlery cannot be tasted. If food is prepared in the same place where the soul finds nourishment, then it is no surprise that mirth resides here.