Three local hummus masters on what makes the perfect dip (and what doesn’t)

Elias Harika at Pita’Z Mediterranean and American Cuisine, Hiawatha — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The origin of hummus is obscure. The earliest recorded recipe is found in a 13th century Syrian cookbook with the phenomenal title Winning the Beloved’s Heart with Delectable Dishes and Perfumes: boil chickpeas, then mash them together with tahini, olive oil, salt, spices and vinegar. Sometime later, lemon replaced vinegar and garlic was added, but the recipe has remained essentially unchanged for eight centuries: a humble dish made with simple ingredients available to all, at least in the Levant.

“I don’t know where she found tahini in Iowa in the 1980s, but she did,” explains Ofer Sivan, co-owner of Oasis Falafel in Iowa City. “It all started with my mom.”

Sivan was born in Israel and moved to Iowa City as a child, where his mom preserved her culinary culture and nurtured his love for food. By the early 2000s, Sivan was completing his undergrad in engineering, but, with his mom no longer in town, he could not find decent hummus in Iowa City. Friend and fellow hummus devotee Naftaly Stramer decided to step away from his career in the tech industry, and together they opened Oasis in 2004, serving the recipes he loved as a child.

“When we opened the restaurant, I just made it the way I liked it,” which, of course, was the way his mom made it. This is the paradox of hummus: five basic ingredients can produce infinite flavor permutations. The hummus at Oasis has a texture so light it feels whipped, the perfect consistency for scooping up with pita or vegetables or (who am I kidding) eating by the spoonful at the open refrigerator door before I ever make it to the table. It is savory and creamy, the garlic taking the lead, lemon content to softly harmonize in the background.

Ofer Sivan and Naftaly Stramer in front of Oasis Falafel, Iowa City — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Just up the highway in Hiawatha, however, Pita’Z Mediterranean and American Cuisine pumps up the volume on those bright lemon notes in a recipe created by owner Elias Harika. Born in Lebanon, Harika graduated culinary school before immigrating to the United States in 2002. He settled in Cedar Rapids where he worked for his uncle at the Starlite Room, turning out the deep-fried comfort food that place is famous for.

In 2009, with the blessing and support of his uncle, Harika opened Pita’Z. There are echoes of the Starlite on the menu with onion rings and chicken strips, but the flavors of Lebanon prevail: shish tawook, chicken shawarma and, of course, hummus.

“I grew up with it. On every table in Lebanon, there is hummus.” Instead of relying on family tradition, Harika put his culinary training to work, crafting a hummus all his own. “At first there was no recipe. I made it, tried it, and started adding from there: a little more lemon, a bit more salt, until…boom!”

Top to bottom: Pita’Z, Oasis Street Food, Cortado — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Pita’Z hummus is a lovely boom!, indeed: that bright citrus note coming through like Mediterranean sunshine, sending the garlic into the shadows. The blend of the chickpeas is slightly rustic, allowing those gorgeous garbanzos he insists on importing from Lebanon to retain a bit of their texture. Pita’Z hummus is so substantial, in fact, that I kept breaking the pita chips trying to scoop it out (truth be told, those chips are a fried-to-order thing of beauty all by themselves) until Harika showed me the trick: a generous glug of beautiful, grass-colored olive oil (also from Lebanon, of course!) on top of the hummus to be slowly incorporated as I dig to the bottom of the bowl. A side of pickled turnips adds a briny punch which would be foolish to forgo.

This, explains Oasis’ Sivan, is another thing that makes hummus magical. “You can throw everything on there: literally any vegetable, pickled, not pickled, with some pita, labneh, hard-boiled egg. It is such a fucking great meal.”

Cortado Mediterranean Cafe in Iowa City likes to keep their hummus real, too. Yochai Harel opened Cortado with business partner (and Hudson’s Tap owner) Ryan O’Leary in 2017, envisioning a cosmopolitan coffeehouse like the ones he loved growing up in Tel Aviv or the ones he worked in when he immigrated to Manhattan, where he fell in love with a Cedar Rapids native and moved to the Midwest.

Yochai Harel at Cortado Mediterranean Cafe, Iowa City — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Cortado is so good at so many things, from coffee to pastries to egg salad sandwiches to die for, that it is easy to overlook their hummus. Don’t! So perfectly smooth that it wants to flow like honey, the hummus at Cortado is best enjoyed as part of the Deconstructed Falafel Bowl, hidden under crisp lettuce with diced pickles, onions, tomatoes and cucumber, anointed with a savory, rich tahini sauce, and crowned by a half-dozen falafel balls still warm from the fryer. Pro-tip: for a mere dollar extra, Cortado will add a baked-to-order pita so warm and delicious you’ll never be able to eat those lifeless shrink-wrapped frisbees in the grocery store again.

The one ingredient which all three chefs agree has no place in hummus is chemical preservatives. The combination of crotonaldehyde and ketene with potassium hydroxide might allow mass-produced hummus to remain edible for a couple months, but these chefs keep their recipes fresh and all-natural. “We could add preservatives in there, but the flavor gets weird,” explains Sivan. No artificial preservatives means this local hummus has less than two weeks before it starts to go funky, though the idea that hummus might go uneaten for even a few days is unthinkable.

With five simple ingredients from a recipe older than the Magna Carta, these three chefs traveled across the globe to win the CRANDIC’s beloved heart with their delectable dishes and perfume.

This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.

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