KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 23 — During a recent weekend, I was at a café having coffee and chatting with the barista. She complained of the drop in the number of customers, which explains why she was so free. Oh, how belts are tightening.
Which got me thinking: how could I muster a weekend dish that was nourishing and not too challenging given my limited kitchen skills, all without hurting my wallet? What I was seeking was a dish for every budget: simple to make and cost-effective, yet easy to dress up with fancier ingredients should the occasion call for it.
What came to mind was the humble hummus.
Hummus is basically a dip made from chickpeas, historically part of meals in the Middle East and North Africa. Nutty, buttery, yet redolent of whatever spices you add to it, hummus is nutritious and satisfying. What better budget dish to learn?
Given the number of Middle-Eastern restaurants along the Bukit Bintang strip, you might assume that’s where I’ve first tasted hummus. Picture it: Arabian Nights décor; fine carpets emblazoned with ornate designs; the aroma of lamb kebabs, a crisp salad of tabbouleh, warm flatbreads, syrupy and sweet-to-tooth baklava.
A plate of hummus wouldn’t be out of place, to go with the tabbouleh or to dip a torn-off piece of flatbread with. But: no, that wasn’t where I first tasted hummus.
Instead it was years ago, when I was studying in Germany and backpacking during a semester break. I had taken the train to Freiburg, a beautiful and old city at the edge of the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest of fairy tales) to stay with a friend of friend.
I didn’t know what to expect beyond a silly fantasy of purchasing and eating a slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake) while hiking in the forest. The friend of a friend, Florian, turned out to be a friendly, hippie German who walked barefoot whenever possible and had travelled extensively in the Middle East while doing volunteer work.
Instead of a typically German meal of Bratwurst (sausages) or Knödel (dumplings), Florian prepared a meal of Lebanese lamb stew, some flatbreads (he got them frozen rather than fresh, he admitted), and a generous dish of hummus. My host invited me to sit (or in his case, sprawl) on the comfortable cushions on the floor and dig in.
In hindsight, it was certainly an unusual dinner: watching a German eat happily with his bare hands, scooping up hummus with the warm flatbreads. I followed suit and was glad I did: it was delicious.
I realised then as I do now that hummus is a dish for everyone: meat lovers and vegetarians alike, rich or poor. It’s simple fare, but the memories it evokes are priceless.
Making a batch of hummus is as simple as assembling the ingredients and combining them in a food processor. There’s absolutely no cooking required. Humble and hearty and easy-peasy.
However, to jazz it up, there is plenty of other ingredients you can incorporate into this basic recipes. Spices are a great addition: think coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, dried chilli flakes. For those with access to a good Middle Eastern grocer, try adding sumac (a tart, lemony spice) or za’atar (a herbal blend of oregano, basil thyme and savoury).
For extra bite or texture, you can chop up some olives or sun-dried tomatoes and stir this in with the hummus. The Malaccan boy in me is tempted to try adding some buah keluak (Indonesian black nut, also known as the Asian truffle) though this may be a bit strong and clash with the sesame seeds.
Speaking of sesame seeds, most traditional hummus recipes use tahini (sesame seed paste) but I find the flavour to be a bit intense. Instead I opt for lightly toasted white sesame seeds to provide a more subtle aroma and some crunch. If you like, you may replace this with 2 teaspoons of tahini; use sparingly as it’s very strong.
1 can (400g) of chickpeas (reserve the liquid)
4 teaspoons of toasted white sesame seeds
1 garlic clove
Juice of 1 freshly squeezed lemon
½ teaspoon of sea salt
½ teaspoon of paprika
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Parsley, roughly chopped (optional)
Pour the chickpeas from the can and reserve its liquid separately. Add the chickpeas, sesame seeds, garlic, lemon juice, sea salt, paprika, and 3-4 tablespoons of the reserved liquid into a food processor.
Put the food processor on pulse mode until the chunks of chickpeas and garlic have broken up before switching it to a faster mode. During the combining process, add the olive oil in a steady, slow pour.
When fully combined, serve the hummus on a flat dish. Sprinkle with roughly chopped parsley leaves and drizzle with more olive oil, if you like. Serves 4 as an appetiser or side dish.
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