I’ve had hummus in Shanghai. It tends to be bitty and bland. In some cases the taste is like plyboard, the texture stodgy. At the Western-style cafe near my campus there is a salad that comes with hummus. It arrives in a small porcelain cup and is runny, more chickpea porridge than creamy spread. It has no flavor.
Shanghai’s best hummus is made by the Hummus Lady, and is bought in small tubs at extortionate prices from the Avocado Lady. These are not my nicknames, but the actual names of their respective businesses, which pander to foreign consumers who don’t speak much Mandarin. The stars had aligned in such a way that at the intersection of their nomenclature one was able to find a halfway decent hummus. It was cosmic; but as in any big city, the stars disappear behind the amber glare of skyscrapers, and so it was with my hummus. One day it mysteriously disappeared from the shelves.
If I’m being honest, it was far from the best hummus I’ve had. The olive hummus was passable, the sun-dried tomato hummus roughly on par with an average supermarket tub from the UK. Compared with other Shanghainese interpretations of the dish, however, it was a supernova.
I don’t miss home much. I grew up in London, but I’m nominally Swiss. Most of my family lives in New York, though my dad’s family, or what is left of it, lives in Brazil. I spent all of my school holidays shuttling around the world visiting tangential relatives thousands of miles away. On Sundays at home, when my English friends would have their entire extended families over for roast dinners, it would just be my parents and I. Our closest relation was a godmother in Aberdeen, who would occasionally pass through on her way to the airport, an ethereal presence in the guest room, and as I grew older, an intangible voice on my answering machine.
In a family so intensely nuclear it is difficult to find the critical mass for truly explosive cuisine. It makes sense to slow roast a prime cut of beef for 13 people, or to expertly glaze pork for a critical audience of extended relatives. When there are only three people at the dinner table, it seems farcical. And because no one in my family is actually British, it would have smacked of obsequious appropriation, the immigrant family acquiescing to the local customs.
My parents eat the same lunch every day, or at least variations on a theme: a collage more than a cuisine. When it comes time to eat, my parents rise from their respective computers (they have worked from home for much of my life, so their retirement hasn’t changed the routine in any meaningful way), they walk into the kitchen, open the fridge and rummage. They will produce various cheeses, charcuterie, fruits, the occasional vegetable, leftovers, and a bottle of wine. My mother will often prepare a salad, and my father will toast some pitas.
“In a family so intensely nuclear it is difficult to find the critical mass for truly explosive cuisine.”
Crucially, the fridge will also yield pots of hummus: never less than three varieties, often from various supermarkets and—thanks to gentrification—the odd artisanal hummus maker. Hummus moves through that fridge in phases. There was a time when Sainsbury’s did a mean Moroccan hummus, topped with whole chickpeas and just a vague hint of spice. The year I did my Master’s degree, when I would come back to London at the weekends, my father was exploring a new range from Waitrose, an upscale British Supermarket. The Burned Aubergine hummus was sublime (though bordering on babaghanoush) and the pomegranate-infused hummus was extraterrestrial. The problem was that this hummus was too artisanal to come with a re-sealable lid, which meant scraping the stuff into the pots of hummuses past—a not unpleasant surprise for the weary student in search of midnight snacks, who thought he was merely settling for Sainsbury’s Basics.
I grew up eating hummus, but not appreciating it. At university, when I had to nourish myself, I developed a deep bond with the spread. It was easy, required no cooking, and cheap, operating as both snack and whole meal depending on the quantity of pitas consumed. My roommate was an Iranian man, and his favorite brand of hummus was Sabra, which had only recently become available in the UK. It was rich and creamy, the rare kind of store-bought hummus that allows pita breads not to die in vain.
Introducing a new hummus to my parents was like bringing a girlfriend home. When I first suggested that they buy Sabra, they nodded in approval, as if in seeking out my own hummus I had finally arrived at some unspoken right of passage. It joined the rest of the middle-class ephemera on our dining room table, and was met with universal approval, though my father never gave up his artisanal find from Waitrose. In fact, it is often into old Sabra pots it goes, a compromise from the master to his pupil.
One of my dream holidays is to travel around the Middle East sampling the greatest hummuses in the world. However, the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, and the fact I live in China make this a pipe dream. Another factor is that a serious contender for the world’s greatest hummus is Israel, but if you travel to Israel you can’t then enter many neighboring countries, and vice versa, which makes any true comparison tricky. My great hummus tour is thus shelved, though with no expiry date, and in the meantime I seek hummus wherever I am.
When I studied in Iowa I used to buy Oasis brand hummus from the New Pioneer co-op. It was good, though their pitas were chalky and lacked substance. It was there that I came to understand: a truly good hummus only exists in symbiosis with good pitas. Pitas are to hummus what pilot fish are to sharks—the star of the show has the dorsal fin and rows of teeth, but it would be nothing alone.
One day I went to the Bread Garden supermarket, which was both closer to my place and cheaper, though it lacked the homegrown feel of New Pi. I wandered the isles skeptically, hesitant to like the place until I sussed out their hummus. There was Oasis, of course, but tucked neatly one shelf beneath was Sabra. And not the Sabra available in the UK. In the US the tub is red instead of green, the writing more jaunty, the logo a sun. Bread Garden had about six different flavors, including Roasted Red Pepper, Sundried Tomato, and most exquisite of all, Roasted Pine Nut. The discovery was seismic. Iowa, and my life, was forever changed.
Sabra is mass-produced, but in the UK, where only two flavors exist, it isn’t readily available. When I left London for Shanghai, Sabra was still only sold at Sainsbury’s, and not even at every location. In the US, I realized that what I had previously considered to be the David of the hummus world was in fact a commercial Goliath. It was disappointing, not because of its ubiquity, but because upon discovering the expansive and delicious varieties on offer in the States, I had tasted the forbidden fruit and could never return, my life forever postlapsarian. I clung desperately to my image of Sabra as the hummus underdog. But Sabra is the Chobani of hummus, which doesn’t make it bad; it just means that the narrative I had constructed was wrong, and now, sometimes, the hummus tastes slightly artificial.
Apparently in Haifa there are two hummus shops that compete to be the best in the world. They are right next to each other. Which one you go to speaks volumes. I have heard of a pair of old men, friends since childhood. They live in the same building, and at exactly midday they meet out front and ponderously walk together, mumbling conversations already decades old. On only one subject do they differ: hummus. For lunch they part, eating their hummus from rival restaurants. They eye each other curiously, neither quite understanding what the other sees in his hummus. Plates scrubbed clean with pita breads, they settle their respective bills and stand to leave. They reconvene on the pavement, pat each other on the back as if to say no hard feelings, and pick up the conversation where it left off.
Is this story true? Probably not. But like a good hummus it is smooth and lyrical. It is the kind of story my father would tell over lunch, pita in hand.
Trying to find hummus in Shanghai is quixotic. With everything else—the internet, the air, rush hour on the subway, everyone’s inability to form orderly queues—I have accepted that it is not worth fighting to find home comforts, but rather to be comfortable in my new home. Yet hummus is the one thing I miss, because for me hummus is home. It is my staple diet, and pita my daily bread.
I have a British roommate, and when I asked him what he most looked forward to when going home for Chinese New Year, he wistfully said, “a nice roast dinner with the family.” Hummus is my roast dinner. When I arrive back in London the fridge will open, the pots will be decanted. If I am lucky, and I stand in just the right place, the glow from the fridge will illuminate a pot of Sabra from behind like a halo, and a heavenly choir of whirring toasters will sing.
Barclay Bram Shoemaker is a writer living in Shanghai.