How Britain went dippy for hummus: We guzzle 12,000 tonnes a year so it’s no wonder, with 80 varieties withdrawn in a salmonella scare, that fans are going stir crazy

The ugly duckling of savoury dips is now a national treasure. 

Smooth, beige and smeared inelegantly on a plate: if we ate only with our eyes, we’d never touch hummus, let alone pick up a dollop with pitta bread or a carrot stick.

But, goodness, Britons seem to love it. So little wonder we are suffering a hummus crisis, with tonnes of the dip being recalled.

So how did this simple dip — typically a blend of chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), lemon and garlic — inveigle its way into the national affections? The answer is it’s cheap, versatile food, at home in children’s lunch boxes or on a modish ‘mezze plate’ at a hipster kitchen supper [File photo]

‘I’m having withdrawals!’ cried one person online. Another called the dish ‘God’s gift’. 

Someone else confessed to having eaten hummus ‘every day for at least 20 years’.

The crisis has arisen after one of Britain’s biggest manufacturers, Zorba Delicacies, based in Ebbw Vale, South Wales, recalled 80 product ranges amid fears of salmonella. It blamed the contamination on an ingredient supplied by an unnamed third party.

The firm sells to retailers including Asda, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Aldi, Morrisons and Iceland.

Crucially at a time when many people want to adhere to the ‘Save the Planet’ pleas of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, its vegan credentials make it eco-friendly compared to many meat-based dishes

If you have one of the products bearing a use-by date up to November 17, it ought to be returned or binned, says Zorba. (The list of banned products can be found at food.gov.uk.)

All this has highlighted the quantities of hummus we eat. Indeed, we consume more of the stuff than we do Marmite, at least 12,000 tonnes a year.

So how did this simple dip — typically a blend of chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), lemon and garlic — inveigle its way into the national affections?

The answer is it’s cheap, versatile food, at home in children’s lunch boxes or on a modish ‘mezze plate’ at a hipster kitchen supper.

During human history, about 6,000 different plants have been cultivated for food, but now about half our energy-intake comes from just three: maize, rice and wheat — with chickpeas at No 13 in the Top Of The Crops chart

And, crucially at a time when many people want to adhere to the ‘Save the Planet’ pleas of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, its vegan credentials make it eco-friendly compared to many meat-based dishes.

For my part, I love hummus not because of its ecological qualities, but because of its delicious taste.

And, having been born in the Sixties, I call it a ‘dip’, not a mezze. They made a good hummus at Costa’s, a Greek taverna in London’s Notting Hill, in those heady days when the capital had few decent restaurants or at any rate, few cheap ones.

Costa’s was the kind of place you went in large groups for birthdays. First course was hummus and the yoghurty Greek dip tzatziki.

Side by side on plates they appeared: glossy, garlicky and spread out with the back of a spoon, topped with puddles of olive oil and the odd Kalamata olive.

Yes, in the Eighties we thought this exotic. Don’t laugh.

Egyptian-born food writer Claudia Roden, now 83, was the most significant early champion of the dish in her pioneering books on Middle Eastern cooking in the Sixties and Seventies.

Latterly, uber-trendy author and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi has glamorised it in his London restaurants and cookbooks.

Forget the lonely topping of a black olive: Ottolenghi has developed an exciting profusion of flavoured oils and condiments to scatter over hummus, including ginger, cinnamon, parsley salsa and pomegranate molasses.

Hummus’s heritage is hotly contested. Countries including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel all claim to be the place where it was born. 

Most food historians agree the first hummus was eaten in Egypt, but nowadays it is diplomatic to describe it as being originally from the Levant: a region covering much of the Middle East as well as the Eastern Mediterranean as far north as Greece.

Which is why I, seated in Costa’s in my party puffball skirt, believed hummus to be Greek. 

In Britain, we have embraced it in countless forms: Zorba turns out varieties including beetroot (ugh), peppers, lemon and coriander, caramelised onion, peri-peri, pesto and Parmesan, jalapeno, avocado, feta and, seemingly, the entire contents of the kitchen cupboard.

Such fancy versions would not impress the inhabitants of countries such as India, Pakistan and Ethiopia, where 20 per cent of folk depend on the chickpea as their primary source of protein.

Smooth, beige and smeared inelegantly on a plate: if we ate only with our eyes, we’d never touch hummus, let alone pick up a dollop with pitta bread or a carrot stick. But, goodness, Britons seem to love it

And, like many foodstuffs in poorer countries, the lack of genetic diversity in chickpea plants is a very serious problem.

Scientists expect more droughts, heat stress and insect pests, creating the need for new varieties of food-producing plants with qualities that will let them adapt to changing conditions.

But geneticists have discovered that chickpea plants do not adapt so easily.

During human history, about 6,000 different plants have been cultivated for food, but now about half our energy-intake comes from just three: maize, rice and wheat — with chickpeas at No 13 in the Top Of The Crops chart.

This week’s major recall concentrates the mind on the fact that hummus — as long as you have an electric blender to hand — is one of the easiest, most economical dishes to make.

It also, like so much that is home-made, tastes freshly different when compared to a shop-bought tub, and can easily be tailored to suit your own taste.

As they say, out of disaster comes opportunity. Make it once and it may never appear on your shopping list again.

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