You take chickpeas, hard and dry, and boil them until their skins loosen and they reveal themselves, tender little hulks with souls of butter. Maybe you think of the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi’s parable of a chickpea that rises from the pot’s seething depths to accuse the cook of torture — only for the cook to reply calmly that this is the path to a higher destiny: to “become food and mingle with life.” Then you mash the chickpeas in a swirl of tahini, olive oil, vinegar, spices and herbs, and fold in a crush of nuts, seeds and preserved lemon, sour-bright and tasting of aged sun. This should yield a spread thick enough “to hold its shape when picked up with a piece of bread,” the food historian Nawal Nasrallah writes on her blog, In My Iraqi Kitchen.
For much of human civilization, recipes were rarely written down, and of those that were, almost none have survived.
You might recognize this as hummus. Notably absent from the recipe is garlic, despite its ubiquity in the cooking of the Arab world at the time. It’s not certain exactly when garlic was introduced to the dish: Nasrallah notes that there is no documentation of hummus recipes after the 14th century until the late 19th century. A Lebanese cookbook from 1885 names garlic among the ingredients, as if it was already a given.
For Zayan, a Frenchman of Egyptian and Syrian descent, the history, however incomplete, is inextricable from the recipe. He often returns to the theme of origins and the vagaries of fate. Last fall, for instance, a five-week festival at the Invisible Dog devoted to the union of art and food featured cakes, by Spencer Merolla, made of coal ashes and a photograph, by JR, of people sharing a picnic on opposite sides of the border fence separating the United States and Mexico. Zayan’s Jewish parents were expelled from Egypt in 1956 — his mother from Cairo, his father from Alexandria — and later met in France. When asked how his family ended up in Paris, he answered simply, “Because that was the first train we could take.”
Zayan served the medieval hummus, somewhat cheekily, at a meal otherwise dedicated to garlic, as part of the Salle à Manger dinner series that he hosts at his apartment, down the street from the Invisible Dog. Garlic can hide other flavors, he tells me. Here, instead, the nuts — he uses hazelnuts, for more butteriness, and pistachios, with their hint of camphor — fortify the chickpeas in their earthy heft, so close to the richness of meat.