I met hummus a few years ago, sitting next to falafel. I found it unusual. Interesting for sure. Soon enough addicting. As I think others did, too.
It no longer carries the foreign allure of a Sri Lankan curry. Three-year-olds dip baby carrots into miniature-sized portions of ravaged chickpeas. Hummus is everywhere.
Like all genuinely natural food spreads—peanut butter, hazelnut spread, mayonnaise—hummus started with the promise of stemming from actual ingredients, but now, hummus turned chemicalized just like Jiffy and Hellman’s. Sabra ruined it. So did Tribe. We can now buy hummus in a jalapeño bacon flavor. And it all suddenly starts to taste like nothing.
George Azar won’t let that happen. The man makes a 50-pound batch of hummus feel intimate.
Mediterranean Gourmet Market sits at the very end of a strip mall perpendicular to Franconia Road. Hookahs line the wall above the cash register. CDs featuring glamour shots of Egyptian and Lebanese singers spin around on a few racks.
Only a handful of short aisles run through the squat store, filled with imported candies and economy-size jars of pickled turnips. The dairy case features (non-alcoholic) Saudi Arabian beers and glowing orbs of labneh (feta-meets-yogurt smooth cheese) marinating in oil.
Wild cucumbers, growing round-and-round like lassos, congregate in a big box, probably the same one that it shipped in from California. Sour green plums, the size of ping-pong balls, sit in the next box. The plums taste crisp like an apple, almost raw in its bite.
Earlier this year fuzzy, sage green almonds from California sat there. Azar imported 150 pounds of the seed (technically not a nut) during the first fresh period of the almond growing season. “Wash it. Dip it with salt. Eat the whole thing,” explains Azar. “When they’re fresh, that’s how you eat them.”
Azar remains as straightforward explaining his hummus. Chickpeas soak overnight. The next morning the beans are washed over three times and then boiled for two hours. A huge blender combines the chickpeas with tahini (sesame seed paste), fresh lemon juice, garlic and a little salt.
Most recipes call for olive oil during the processing stage. Other recipes expect clumsy fingers to remove the slim skin off the chickpea. Azar does neither. He adds Lebanese extra virgin olive oil before serving. He keeps the skin on.
There should be a big reveal here. I imagine GOB, from the canceled show “Arrested Development,” shirtless and dancing as a faux magician, just about to whisk away a shimmery, polyester sheet to showcase the
secret to this hummus. This hummus that is thick enough to hold up the powerful thighs of Beyonce, but creamy enough to compete with the complexion of Kim Kardashian.
It’s a hummus bright with lemon, but deep with a nutty, buttery <insert hyperbole> effect. I’ll stop now. You get it.
The counter also holds a baba ganoush so briny it seems like an anchovy swam into the eggplant mixture. Azar thinks the sea-salty flavor protrudes because of its hour roast, as well as the laborious de-seeding of the auburgine and then the mixing—by hand—with Mediterranean kitchen staples garlic, tahini and lemon juice.
Plenty of olive varieties sit in big bins, including one mixed with red pepper flakes that beg for a swim in martinis. Grape leaves are oily, a little acidic and extra creamy with halved chickpeas embedded in the rice.
There are a few tables and some counter space as well to enjoy manakish, a dough slicked with oil and za’atar (a spice blend primarily of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac). In one version, it’s topped with feta, mozzeralla, spinach, onions and so much gorgeous, bursting lemon that you will soon order all pizza-like dishes with a slice of the citrus, just like you do with water.
Kishk manakish shows off funky dried yogurt, leaving flakes of sour whiteness that will not make you miss gooey cheese. The flakes, imported from Lebanon, mix with tomato sauce and sesame seeds, and are spread onto a cracker-type dough.
Azar opened up Pita Express in the Landmark Mall in 1989. He stayed there for 12 years and then created this market, where he’s been for the last nine years. He brought the pita with him for standard sandwiches—beef shawarma (sultry, sumac-ed meat), gyro (tough meat), falafel (moist, not crumby, just like a superior brownie)—as well as a few kabob platters and a garlic-attack foul m’damas. Fava beans, chickpeas and garlic float in oil. It’s good, of course.
Mediterranean Gourmet Market
6122 Franconia Road, Alexandria; 703-971-7799; mediterraneangm.com
Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, Sunday open until 5 pm.
Average entree: $12 and under ($)