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Humus in Jerusalem: It's tradition

Email|Print| Text size + By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / November 12, 2006

JERUSALEM -- They've been eating fast food in Israel for centuries, but it hasn't been burgers and fries.

Humus, which is also a favorite dish in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, is a blend of mashed chick peas, tahini, garlic , and lemon. But the protein-rich dip -- best eaten with warm pita bread -- gained followers outside the Middle East, including Socrates and Plato, who extolled its virtues in their writings 2,400 years ago.

In recent years, Americans have embraced the dish, and manufacturers have rolled out brands containing everything from roasted red pepper s to jalapeno s. But to get the real thing -- without preservatives -- one must travel to the warren of humus dens in Jerusalem. If Israelis and Palestinians have one thing in common, it's their love of humus and their loyalty to the cadre of restaurant owners who spend much of their lives perfecting family recipes that have been passed down through generations.

While there are dozens of superb humus joints in new and old Jerusalem, here is a personal top three:

Abu Shukri

63 Al Wad Road,

near Via Dolorosa

Open daily .

Wade deep into the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City and you'll find master humus makers, the Abu Shukri family, hard at work. They've guarded their recipe since the early 20th century, when Yosef Abu Shukri stood by a window near the Via Dolorosa and mashed his chickpeas for hours with a pestle. His son, Ahmed, 54, learned the humus trade beginning at age 4, and now carries on the tradition of serving up heaping plates of humus.

You can eat like a king here for $3. Order the specialty -- humus with sauteed pine nuts -- topped with olive oil, and served with hot pita bread. The first intifada in 1989 did not deter Israelis from forming long lines on Saturdays, with some pronouncing the humus the only food worth dying for.

With violence down, Israelis are again sharing tables with Palestinians. Ahmed says the best time to eat humus is shortly after waking, and before 11 a.m. A plate of humus, he said, will keep a person fortified for at least eight hours. He speaks with a certain reverence about the food he has eaten nearly every day of his life. "There is respect with humus. I respect the humus and it has brought respect to my family's name," Ahmed said.

Taami

3 Shamai St.

Closed Friday afternoon, Saturday

Taami means taste in Hebrew, and crooks, cabbies, and politicians have been coming to the narrow bistro off Ben Yehudah for more than 50 years.

Here, you'll find a creamy, rich humus topped with hot chick peas, parsley, and olive oil. You'll also find a no-nonsense attitude when it comes to dining. Albert Mager, a Bulgarian immigrant, opened Taami 52 years ago. Seeking to turn over as many tables as possible during the lunchtime rush, he implored his customers to "swallow, not chew," their humus.

One legend details a naive customer who plopped down in his seat, ordered humus, and began reading his newspaper, only to find that the owner had set the paper on fire in retaliation for lingering. The atmosphere is a little more relaxed these days.

With only a dozen tables, grab the first chair available. Motti -- who has been serving humus at Taami for almost 30 years -- will bring your dish in a matter of seconds. You can read your paper here now if you want, but better to savor the humus .

Pinati

13 King George St.

Closed Friday afternoon, Saturday

Pinati, located just steps from Taami, has long been a favorite destination for Israeli athletes, actors, and politicians. Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have been known to pop in . Once, on a presidential visit to Jerusalem, Bill Clinton had a hankering for humus while holed up at the King David Hotel, and summoned a staff member to go for takeout at Pinati.

When you enter the rectangular room that encompasses less than 400 square feet, grab any seat you can find and be ready to order right away. They don't speak a lot of English here, so just say humus, and within a minute you'll be digging into the creamy pureed dip with a warm pita.

Pinanti's humus is heavy on the lemon, and light on the garlic. Don't be alarmed at the speed of regular customers, who can finish a plate of humus in a matter of minutes. It's so good you may want to order a second helping.

Contact Steven Rosenberg at srosenberg@globe.com.

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