The best hummus in Palestine

The best hummus in Palestine

Abu Shukri in Jerusalem has been keeping alive a family tradition for almost 70 years, making everything with fresh ingredients

For the hummus, the chickpeas are slow-cooked through the night and manually ground Image Credit: Rafique Gangat

In this part of the world, hummus isn’t just food, it’s a way of life. And nowhere else is it more evident than at Abu Shukri restaurant in the heart of the Old City in Occupied Jerusalem, between the 7th and 8th stations on the Via Dolorosa. The eatery, named after the man who established it in 1948, is renowned locally as well as internationally as the best place to have a plate of hummus in Palestine.

Shukri’s grandson Raed Taha is more than happy to share the history of his family, and the restaurant. “My great grandfather was Turkish and the family name was Taha Agha. He came to Jerusalem and married a Palestinian, but never came back after he went to fight in the Ottoman wars. My grandfather was an only child. He was just eight years old when my great grandmother died, and was then raised by the Ansari family in Jerusalem,” he says.

“Abu Shukri saw a business opportunity and opened a hummus shop in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Later he moved to this place [Via Dolorosa]. Nobody was selling hummus in those days as it required a great deal of effort and time to make. He would begin to boil the chickpeas from 2 to 5am and drain it the old-fashioned way, with a cloth instead of a sieve. His assistant Abed had to then manually grind them.”

Taha’s grandfather had a simple recipe for success. “Treat the customers like friends, serve them fresh food and only use natural ingredients. Also use fresh ingredients such fresh lemon juice, which is more costly than artificial lemon juice, but the difference shows in the taste. And finally, make the stuff according to taste, every morning, not measurements. Make it as you go,” he says. “To this day, our secret is that we use organic and fresh ingredients such as parsley, green chillies and lemons that we buy from the market every morning. Also, we maintain a high standard of hygiene and clean the kitchen at the end of each day.”

The restaurant started small. “Before 1967, the present premises were extremely small, only 5 metres by 5 metres. People coming to pray at Al Aqsa on Fridays would line up to purchase hummus. The queue would be so long that some had to wait for two hours,” says Taha. “But the wait was worth it, as ours was the best hummus in Palestine. During Ramadan, we also made the Palestinian sweet, ‘katayif’.”

After Abu Shukri passed away in 1981, his two sons — Abu Raed Taha and Abu Fadi Taha — took the reins of the restaurant. Abu Raed Taha opened a branch in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina, which has been as successful as the main eatery, all because, says the grandson, it adopted the same recipe and way of making hummus.

Today, the third generation of cousins — Raed, Fadi, Rami, Amjad and Ashraf — manage the two outlets, with Raed and Fadi at the helm in Old City and others in Beit Hanina.

Taha explains how the eatery acquired fame. “In 1985 the Old City saw a boom in tourism. A lot of Europeans, especially Germans, and Americans were eating our hummus. They loved it and word-of-mouth made the restaurant famous across the world.”

This claim is further boosted by the fact any tourism literature or guide you choose insists that a visit to the Old City is incomplete without a stopover at Abu Shukri and a taste of their famous hummus.

The quaint eatery is manned by 10 persons and operates daily from 8am to 4pm. A steady stream of people from the area and tourists frequent the restaurant strategically located on the route to Al Aqsa as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Taha agrees that the location plays a role, but is confident that it is their hummus, really. “We challenge the world to taste our hummus. Even our tahini is fresh and our falafel has special ingredients. Besides, we use fresh oil for frying every day.”

At the back of the eatery are cauldrons filled with simmering chickpeas that have been cooking all night long. When you order their hummus, they place garlic, chickpeas, salt and pepper in a mortar and pestle and grind them until the consistency is right. Then tahini and lemon juice are added and the mixture is placed on a flat plate. Olive oil is dribbled in the centre and paprika is sprinkled on top.

Hummus is served with warm pita bread, falafel, salads and a spicy side dish. As I sit down to find the proverbial proof of the pudding, I look around at all the customers — local and foreigners — savouring the fare. And then I dig in. Yes, it is the best hummus I’ve had in Palestine.

What future plans does Abu Shukri have? “We are planning to modernise the infrastructure with technology but at the same time to maintain the Old City charm of the place. This is our challenge. Also we hope to open branches in the Arab world,” Taha says. But then, with a sense of reality creeping back, he adds, “My dream was to go and live in Germany. A Dubai-based businessman even offered to open a branch there, but in the end, I stayed here. We are like fish, we will never leave Al Quds [Jerusalem].”

These words reflect how deeply Taha believes in the idea of keeping the family tradition alive. As I step out into the bitter cold, a fresh batch of European tourists walks into the warm, homely ambience of Abu Shukri. Taha’s dream and this family tradition will surely live on.

Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.

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