Ronen Tenne wants to change the way many Americans eat hummus. Mainly, he wants them to think beyond that plastic tub of hummus that’s been sitting in a refrigerator for weeks.
“It’s sad. That’s not what real hummus is,” Tenne said. “Real hummus should be made fresh and should taste smooth, almost like air.”
On Tuesday, Tenne and his partner, Nick Wiseman, will open Little Sesame, a downtown eatery that aims to encapsulate the flavors of the hummus found in Israel, and is an expansion of their counter-service Dupont Circle shop that closed earlier this year. It's one of several spots around Washington — and across the United States — that are challenging how most Americans eat hummus.
Rather than serving hummus as a dip with carrots or celery, these shops serve warm and freshly whipped bowls of the dish as the star of a meal.
The biggest difference between Tenne’s hummus and the type from the store, aside from its velvety texture, is its freshness. His recipe is whipped and contains six main ingredients: cooked chickpea, lemon juice, tahini, salt, garlic and olive oil. It’s a style of hummus that you might expect to order at an Israeli hummus shop. In Israel, Tenne said, the rise in popularity of hummus shops dates back from the 1960s and '70s, when wars and recessions made the protein-laden dish a staple.
Of course, hummus isn’t popular only in Israel. For centuries, it has been found on tables across northern Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The first written recipes date back to Egyptian cookbooks from the 13th- and 14th-centuries, and today there is a range of styles everywhere from Israel and the Palestinian Territories to Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen.
“Especially in this day and age, with so many environmental and health issues in the world, hummus is a dish to consider because it’s vegetable-forward,” said Michael Solomonov, the Philadelphia chef whose modern restaurant Zahav and casual hummus shop Dizengoff are among the best Israeli restaurants in America. “It’s healthy eating and part of a shared commonality between cultures. It should be widely celebrated.”
What shouldn’t be celebrated, he said, is packaged hummus filled with preservatives like potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate or citric acid. A good hummus, he said, “should taste so fresh that you scoop and shovel as much of it as you can into your mouth.”
If you don't want to cook it yourself, here's where to give it a try.
For hummus that’s light and fluffy, try Sababa’s hummus tahina or hummus of the day, a rotating daily special, which includes masabaha, with whole chickpeas for texture, and a braised goat and harissa hummus. All of these taste as if they come from a hummus shop in Tel Aviv. For inspiration, chef Ryan Moore spent a week in Philadelphia, shadowing Solomonov at Zahav. Moore also has another Philly connection through a tahini company he swears by, Soom Foods. The company uses single-origin white Humera seeds grown in Ethiopia but has local roots. Soom’s founders — three sisters — hail from Rockville. 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW. $8-$10.
Little Sesame's new space will feel bigger and brighter than its previous windowless location in a basement. The refreshed menu features six hummus bowl varieties, three of which will include such seasonal ingredients as cherry tomatoes, sweet corn and summer greens. But the star ingredient in every bowl is the tahini. Tenne and Wiseman ship in a brand called Karawan, which some refer to as “Israeli ketchup." Beyond the hummus, Little Sesame offers a selection of salatim (Israeli dips, salads and spreads), pita sandwiches and coconut soft-serve ice cream. 1828 L St. NW. $9-$10.
In a Rockville strip mall, next to a popular kosher market, is where you’ll find Al Ha’esh Grill. It has a tiny, open kitchen fueled by a charcoal grill. There are four styles of hummus, including a traditional tahini hummus topped with smoked paprika. In Hebrew, Al Ha’esh means “on the fire.” And that’s exactly what you get when you try the hummus topped with spicy grilled-beef sausage. Just be sure to save room for the all-you-can-eat pita and salatim, too. 4860 Boiling Brook Pkwy., North Bethesda. $7-$13.
While reservations at Maydan can be hard to get — especially now that it's been named the second-best new restaurant in America by Bon Appétit — it’s much easier to make an early weekday visit for “hummus happy hour” (between 5-7 p.m.), when you may find an open bar seat for a daily special on hummus and wine. Chefs Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan highlight local ingredients, such as Sungold tomatoes from Cockeysville, Md., to top a summer-style hummus. Otherwise, try the Beiruti hummus, which pays homage to owner Rose Previte’s Lebanese roots, with green onions, tomatoes and peppers. 1346 Florida Ave. NW. $8-$10.
Marib is one of the best Yemeni restaurants in the area and a favorite for hummus that’s prepared to order. Try both styles: a well-balanced and lighter-style hummus with garlic, lemon and olive oil, and the more crave-worthy option of a fried-lamb hummus, loaded with meat, tomatoes and onions, and garnished with olive oil and nigella seeds. The latter can make for a full meal — or a starter to split between friends. 6981 Hechinger Dr., Springfield. $6-$12.