Gitlin is known for two things in Tel Aviv: one, for being so friendly he sometimes forgets to leave his customers alone to let them eat, and two, for serving the second-best hummus in all of Israel (more on that later). If you read his reviews on TripAdvisor, you’ll see his restaurant, Humus Habait, is paired with words like “awesome,” “so friendly,” and “super helpful,” and his hummus is paired with phrases like “best hummus I ever ate,” “such a delight,” and “kitchen is marvelous!” Humus Habait, which roughly translates to “The House of Hummus,” seems at first glance to have fulfilled Haim’s lifelong dream of becoming nearly the best hummus maker in all of Israel.
And yet, even though he serves nearly 250 plates of hummus on a given weekend day—a number he sheepishly admits is still quite a small operation in the Tel Avivian hummus world—Haim Gitlin, the tall, balding, fair-skinned, freckle-faced, pink-cheeked, belly-laughing Israeli man that he is, never intended to be a chef.
In fact, he’s not even a chef by trade, technically: he trained for years at the Elbaum Institute in Tel Aviv to become a physical therapist who specializes in exercise and massage therapy for children with severe ADHD. After he graduated and started working at Humus Habait help out Hedi Keren, his friend from school, he thought it’d be a temporary gig while he got his clinic in nearby Givatayin off the ground. Now, three years later, Haim spends his days as Humus Habait’s master chef, entertaining his customers, giving them recommendations for where to go and what to do, and grinding up their hummus to order. Hedi says Haim is the more interesting of the two of them. “Working with Haim is unique,” he says, “because he is a person that everybody likes.”
Walking up to Humus Habait is kind of anti-climactic, as it’s an itty-bitty, nondescript restaurant tucked in at the corner of Allenby and King George Street in downtown Tel Aviv. The sign, though in Hebrew, has a tiny English tagline underneath, and all it says is “Authentic Israeli Food.” Only the menu describes the place as being “The 2nd best hummus in Israel,” so you wouldn’t even know you’d found the right place until you studied the laminated piece of paper highlighting your food options. The restaurant is awash in red, from the sign itself to the menus to the paint on the walls to the large red umbrellas over the tables to the picnic-style checkered tablecloth draped over the bar. There are only a few wooden tables outside with mismatched chairs and a large sign that describes the hummus of the day in lopsided, scrawled Hebrew on a chalkboard. There are plastic ketchup and mustard bottles on every table, locals and foreigners in blue jeans and sandals in the seats, and a row of planted pots separating the place from the rest of the street’s banks, optometrist offices, and convenience stores.
Even though it only took him a month to nail down the Humus Habait’s signature hummus dish, Haim will freely admit that he’s still learning from his weekly delivery of chickpeas. There are, after all, many, many varieties of those smooth, round garbanzo beans—and each one, he tells me, performs completely differently when it meets its olive oil and tahini companions. The day I’m visiting, he tells me about his high standards when it comes to texture. “I refuse to let my hummus get grainy. It must be perfectly smooth and creamy or it just won’t do.”
Contrary to other hummus operations throughout the city, at Humus Habait, you won’t find anything canned, boxed, or preserved. Haim makes every single bowl of hummus to order; the most he has ever made in one batch, he promises, is about the equivalent of ten bowls. He never makes more than that at one time because it can get too unwieldy to mix that much hummus at once. Every morning, their supplier brings in all the ingredients for the day’s hummus demands, and twice a day, a nearby baker brings in fresh bags of spongy, sweet pita bread. “Twice a day is a must,” Haim reiterates in his matter-of-fact way. “Otherwise, they get dry, and that won’t do.”
But Haim’s also quick to divulge that the real secret isn’t finding the perfect chickpea supplier or the softest pita maker. “It actually depends on the tahini,” he says.
But isn’t there only one kind of tahini? Like, take a bunch of sesame seeds, grind them up, and voilá, tahini?
“No, no, no,” Haim laughs. “Actually, there are 15 kinds of tahini in Israel.” Like the chickpea, tahini can be just as finicky when blended into a hummus: it can wind up creating a concoction that is too lumpy, too watery, too grainy, or too thick. It’s all a perfect balance.
If it’s not already clear, there’s really no way to overstate the importance of hummus in Israel—it is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not, I should add, like Americans tend to eat it, as a friendly side condiment to some vegetables or bread or as a nice appetizer to a more substantial-sounding meal. In Israel, hummus is the meal. At Humus Habait, it comes out in a large round bowl, swirled up and onto the edges, drizzled with fresh olive oil, sprinkled with Moroccan paprika and freshly-ground cumin, topped with whole chickpeas and a boiled egg. This dish, the “hummus of the house,” is the one most people order when they come, a simple, predictable, and delicious feast. The hummus with shakshuka and the hummus with mushrooms are also popular dishes, but nothing—not even the “hummus of the house”—beats a solid bowl of plain hummus, served simply with a drizzle of oil on top.
“Hummus is also very flexible,” Haim tells me, wiping his sweaty brow with his sleeve. “You can eat it for any meal—start for breakfast, keep going for lunch, and have some more for dinner. It keeps you full longer and is so healthy, especially if you only eat half a pita.” Then, he smirks and smiles widely. “But who only eats half a pita?!”
“Hummus is also amazing for four more reasons,” he continues. “First, it’s really easy to make. Second, it’s very healthy. Third, it’s easy for vegans to eat, and let’s face it, there are a lot of vegans coming to Israel these days. And four, it relaxes you.”
Is it the methodical scooping of blended chickpea onto warm, fluffy pita? Is it the process of drizzling the olive oil on top in a tight swirl? What could possibly be relaxing about hummus?
“Well, that’s easy,” Haim says, his plump, reddened cheeks almost seeming to glow in the early October sunlight. The tables seem to turn in this moment, as if Haim feels guilty that he’s about to admit that he never intended to be a chef. His real dream, he says, is to blend his passion for helping children and his unexpected talent for making the smoothest, creamiest hummus most customers have ever tasted into a new kind of kitchen therapy.
“I want to bring the kids into my kitchen,” he says. “Kids with ADHD are so sensitive and they need small tasks that require a lot of coordination and concentration. Why not make hummus?”
hopes, in the next few years, to start an after-school program to take kids around to local kitchens and help them channel their anxiety through the art and act of cooking. Though he admits it’s still a dream, he believes that teaching kids to cook is better than any other kind of exercise or massage therapy.
Before we leave, I realize I’ve nearly forgotten: What makes Haim’s hummus only the second-best in Israel?
He looks up from the cash register and grins. “It’s easy,” he says. “The best hummus in the world is the first hummus you ever try.”
Special thanks to Weill and the Israel Ministry of Tourism for hosting my recent stay in Israel. Lunch, however, was bought by the author of this article and all opinions are, of course, her own. If you read Hebrew, check out The House of Hummus’ website for more information.