It is quite fascinating how western India has taken to the subtly-flavoured, Middle-Eastern chickpea dish, giving it prominence in almost every pub and restaurant menu, in the last decade. From a mezze accompaniment to a standalone star, the hummus has made a journey to our tables — and hearts.
I had no idea what the shawarma was, before moving to Mumbai. My school-time travelling wasn’t necessarily culinary curious, and I didn’t have any relatives in the Middle East. Also, Kolkata is, quite rightfully, obsessed with its own kind of roll, and I don’t think there is enough space in the market — and in the Bengali heart — to accommodate any other kind of wrap. Here I must mention that, when I came to Mumbai, I also realised that the city abides by the English understanding of the word “roll” — filling and cheese stuffed into a sliced roll of bread. My young Bengali head was quite confused back then. For a regular paratha and meat filling, you asked for a Frankie. That’s a story for another day.
I didn’t take to the Frankie, but on a rainy July afternoon, an Omani hostel mate introduced me to the shawarma. I had a tough time getting the pronunciation right. Show-arma? Shaw-er-ma? Shower-ma? I heard different people use different pronunciations in the queue at the shawarma stall. We were at the year’s first college fest, and everyone was quite chuffed that there was a shawarma stall. When we finally got one each — my mate had asked for the “special Arabic one”, I stared at a bulging monster of a roll (as I understood it), stuffed with chicken, and fries, and julienned cabbage. And sauces — different in flavours and textures, exploding in my mouth. Of course, there was a small dish of pickled beets too, that annoyance. I had another one, my mate was quite proud of having been able to introduce me to shawarma, and a little worried by the end of the day — I had eaten six by then. I remember googling about the shawarma the next day on the hostel computer, learning words like “Toum”, “Tahini”, and “Hummus”.
Back in 2008, my first year in Mumbai, hummus was only served in restaurants. There weren’t many that served it either, and Piccadilly on Colaba Causeway, was the best bet in South Bombay for an “authentic” Middle-Eastern experience, as my Malayali hostel mates and classmates stressed. They, of course, would know best. I remember dragging a Kashmiri friend to Piccadilly one evening, and the both of us — he was equally obsessed with the shawarma, and didn’t mind an academic plunge as long as it involved eating a lot of food — splurged on as many new and interesting things on the menu as our pocket money permitted. I couldn’t fathom how I was enjoying — and loving — the hummus so much. It is, basically, a garlic-flavoured chickpea mash, for crying out loud, I had said aloud. How my Bengali palate, used to robust flavours, was comprehending such subtle and delicate notes confounded me. And that dinner at Piccadilly was just the start. Over the next couple of years, I had a shawarma with a side of hummus (and fries, obviously), whenever I could, wherever I could.
The secret to good hummus is in how well you “whip” the tahini. The tahini, a pourable blend of roasted sesame seeds and oil, a sort of mother base for most Middle-Eastern and Lebanese dishes, has to be whipped or beaten with lemon juice really well, to incorporate air, and make it creamy and light, which — in effect — will make the hummus light and creamy. After the tahini is whipped well, the garlic, oil and roasted cumin (a predominant spice of the region, along with sumac) is added, flavouring the tahini, to which the cooked chickpeas are added and blended. The consistency has to be thick and creamy, but not gritty, grainy, or chunky. The perfect hummus has a luxurious mouth feel, isn’t heavy on the palate, and generally is swiped off the plate quite fast. It is a simple nutritious dish, and can be had by itself with some pita bread and pickled beets, as the hero of a mezze platter, in a shawarma (adding hummus to a shawarma makes it an “Arabic” shawarma in Mumbai, and, obviously, costs more), or just as a quick snack or appetiser with some lavash sticks. I realised how to make it on an ambitious day back in Kolkata after I had finished college, and was allowed to tinker around my mother’s kitchen without supervision. I had learned how to cook by then — living by yourself will always do that to you — and had discovered my love for it, and my skill at it. So, one fine day, I decided to make shawarma and hummus, from scratch. My parents were away for a day or two, and I had the house to myself. That meant, any loss of face at making the dishes would not have any audience. When I was finally done (it had taken the whole day), my phone buzzed. A certain someone I had been looking forward to hooking up with, was asking me if I was alone at home. Said certain someone, in the next message made their eagerness and unchristian intentions quite clear, if I was in fact, alone at home. I had to make a decision — have dinner with shawarma and hummus, or have sex. Unlike Joey Tribbiani, I could make a choice.
I texted back that, unfortunately, my parents were at home, and we most definitely must reschedule our wicked rendezvous. Also, I must add that my shawarma and hummus was an absolute ripper.
Over the last decade, I saw hummus’s popularity soar. From select restaurants and cafés, the hummus started appearing in boxes in supermarkets, ready-to-eat. Soon, other than gourmet supermarkets, it became common to find transparent containers of hummus in your local general stores’ refrigerators. After Riyaaz Amlani brought Social to Mumbai, the mezze sharing platter became a huge hit, and soon appeared in various other restaurants. A bunch of companies that had started producing ready-to-eat boxes started offering flavours now — spicy harissa, herb, garlic, pesto, onion, salsa, and so on. I have come across tandoori and vindaloo hummus too. Soon, Jain versions also popped up.
Today, every second eatery in Mumbai has the hummus on their menu, irrespective of whether they do a good job at it. It is common to find restaurants serving up authentic hummus all over Kerala. Due to the frequent Middle-Eastern and Lebanese tourists and backpackers, south Goa, Gokarna, and Hampi also serve good quality hummus. It isn’t too hard to find good hummus in Delhi either, but as is the city’s nature, if Delhi loves something, it tandooris it. The rest of the north, the east and the eastern coast isn’t quite taken in by the hummus yet. My experiments and experiences in Hyderabad have been quite abysmal. The shawarma has slowly trickled into Calcutta — the southern side and Salt Lake, the more experimental side, the new money side — but funnily, I have seen it be served in a Bengali paratha.
The success of the hummus, and the shawarma, is a story of honest flavours winning over hearts in a country obsessed with spices and complex cooking. Although, my shawarma diaries should be set aside for another day.