I first met hummus somewhere around 1998. Before I discovered it, I thought it was like baba ganoush: some gross puree of twigs and oatmeal. My first taste, however, was bliss, and even though it still sort of reminds me of the food pellets in Soylent Green, I can’t believe I went all that time without having it in my life.
I was further aroused when I discovered there were different kinds and different ways you can make it. Just as there are hundreds of different accents in English, yet all are recognizable as our mother tongue, the variations of hummus are similarly divergent yet familiar. I was determined to seek out all the hummuses I could find.
After several years of trying different hummuses throughout the world, I decided I wanted to settle definitively the question of which hummus is the very best. Limiting myself to locally available hummuses, I developed the idea of a blind taste test for hummus, and designed and carried out the experiment described below.
I employed the pretext of arranging an elaborate gathering for the subjects, who were essentially all of my friends. While subjects were made to believe they were attending a party for the purpose of socializing and consumption of food and drink, the real purpose of the gathering was to provide controlled conditions under which a blind study could be made.
Five different hummuses from across the city were put into identically-sized bowls labeled with letters from A through E. Two of the bowls were red and three were green. It is not known how this might have affected the result.
Most hummus suppliers, in an apparent attempt to add visual interest, added small quantities of ancillary substances to their hummus products. These substances were analyzed and later determined to be red pepper or paprika, olive oil, olives, and the odd vegetable wedge. To preserve the essential visual presentation of the hummuses, these items were extracted and carefully placed on top of the hummus portion itself when the hummus was transferred to the bowl. As an important footnote, hummus D, the sample from Aladdin’s, was the only hummus to contain large (3-4 cm) slices of tomato and cucumber. To preserve the essential integrity of the sample, these vegetable pieces were retained, but some early participants immediately guessed the identity of this sample by using the vegetable cues. It is not known how this ultimately affected the outcome.
Study participants were led to the examination station, where they were explained the nature of the experiment and given 17cm x 28cm paper ballots on which they could scratch their simplistic impressions. Ballots were to be placed into a white envelope approximately 23cm by 30cm in dimension. Subjects were also confronted by a large poster, 56cm by 86cm in size, entitled “Hummus through the ages,” that purported to provide a few cursory hummus facts, but in fact was designed to use cheap humor and phony education to break down the subjects’ natural disinclination to be honest about their emotions due to reticence or ignorance. Both may be downloaded for further examination (right).
The study ballots asked participants to rate the hummuses on a scale of 1 through 5. It was implied that 5 was the highest rating and 1 was the lowest. Unfortunately, some subjects were too clueless and/or intoxicated to follow simple English directions and consequently ranked the hummuses so that their favorite hummus received a 1 — the lowest score. The few participants committing this error corrected their ballots or gave instructions to do so. Such ranked ballots were inverted upon tabulation, so that a subject’s favorite hummus was given a 5, and least favorite was given a 1.
Ballots also were used to capture certain demographic attributes of the survey population. These attributes are analyzed later.
Participants were not given the identities of the providers of any hummus sample, although as discussed above certain participants believed they had guessed the identity of certain samples. Some participants were overheard spreading inadvertently incorrect guesses among other participants. (To preserve the purity of the experiment, I restrained myself from declaring that I would never be caught dead in Whitehall, let alone serve any Whitehall hummus at a party.)
All samples were acquired on 28 January 2006, except for Aladdin’s hummus, which was purchased on 25 January 2006 and refrigerated until the time of the experiment.
The experiment was conducted on 28 January 2006, and ran from approximately 8pm until about 1.20am, whereupon the hummus samples had been mostly depleted. It was noted that hummus D was the first sample to reach exhaustion, while hummus A was the only sample never to be fully consumed.
All participants rated all hummuses. Therefore, it was a simple matter to average the ratings to come up with an overall favorite. These results are tabulated here, but for important distinctions among demographic groups and comments about each product, read the results for each particular hummus below.
|Hummus D||Aladdin’s||$8.95||3.75 (winner)|
|Hummus C||Athenos Hummus (Kroger)||$5.00||3.25|
|Hummus E||Happy Greek||$8.50||3.08|
|Hummus B||Taverna Opa||$10.00||2.95|
The Firdous stall at the North Market sells a variety of Middle Eastern dishes, but customers buying meals have to shout their order through an imposing steel and glass partition. When this researcher went directly to the cash register and attempted to acquire the sample, he was made to wait for another customer to purchase a meal first. When I asked where some feta cheese could be purchased, he was unhelpfully told, “Try the cheese guy.” This researcher gives Firdous low marks for customer service during this visit, although this is not always the case.
Firdous hummus was specifically requested by two subjects in advance of the experiment, although they were not given any assurance it would be on the menu. I believe that it is an acquired taste, being the thickest sample of the five tested. The hummus itself is generally smooth but sticks to the mouth and tongue. The taste is somewhat astringent and there is a noticeable lack of garlic when compared to the other hummuses. “Needs garlic,” “bland,” and “too bland” were among the comments received. Firdous hummus was also labeled “boring” and “disgusting.” “I think it’s the most like wallpaper paste of any selection,” one subject wrote, then rated it a 4 anyway.
This hummus was the lowest-rated of the hummuses among survey participants overall, at 2.50. Republicans rated it at 3.00, whereas Democrats rated it only 2.36. It also scored significantly better among non-urban subjects (3.17) than among urban subjects (2.36), and even more pronouncedly was preferred by fans of old-school Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist than by fans of new Chief Justice John Roberts, 3.60 to 2.00, respectively. These findings lead this researcher to dub Firdous hummus “the hummus for red staters.”
Taverna Opa’s hummus is one of the newer entrants to the Columbus market. When I ordered the hummus over the phone, the person on the other end cheerfully said it would be ready in two seconds. An order of pita bread was included, unlike with any other hummus in the sample. When I arrived to pick it up, my order was only a cup ($5). Since I needed a pint, I ordered another cup. This included additional pita bread, and the time to prepare this indeed was a mere trifle. While I waited, the waitress at Taverna Opa seemed thrilled to hear of the hummus competition, and wished me luck. Overall, this was the best customer experience, although at $10, the most expensive.
Taverna Opa hummus is extremely garlicky. Subjects commented, “bold,” “love garlic,” and “very flavorful.” However, subjects that did not like garlic or zesty foods also made their preferences known, dismissing it as “too lemony,” saying “too much garlic,” and asking “what is this?” The texture is not so smooth (“kind of gritty”) and it does not pour. The other two comments received about texture were “excellent texture” and “great texture.”
The demographic measurements for this hummus were muddled. Its overall rating of 2.95 was lower than the rating given by any identifiable demographic group. This is because several ballots skipped the demographic questions by giving incomplete or no answers to that section. This leads me to believe that idiots who cannot fill out forms do not like Taverna Opa hummus and that Taverna Opa hummus is the hummus for intelligent people. Fans of the totally hot Chief Justice John Roberts chose this as their favorite hummus (4.00) — a sign that they like their hummuses as zesty as their jurists? Interestingly, it was rated 3.70 by people who wrote in that they thought western countries (“Switzerland,” “United States,” “America,” “Texas,” and “US under Bush”) were the most evil and only 3.17 by people who hated Communist countries China and North Korea the most. Therefore, Taverna Opa hummus may also be the hummus for Communists.
Athenos Hummus was purchased at Kroger and was the only store-bought, non-restaurant hummus in the sample. It was hoped that the inclusion of a store-bought “generic” hummus would provide interesting results. This hummus was the cheapest, selling at $2.50 a cup, and also ranked the second highest.
Athenos Hummus came in sealed tubs which had plastic liners to keep in the freshness. Possibly because the hummus had been chilled, it had a congealed, pasty quality. It had to be removed with a spatula, and ordinary paper towels had difficulty removing the hummus from the spatula. Athenos provided perhaps the most oily looking of the hummuses, and it was the only hummus to come ungarnished, lacking even a half-hearted dusting of red pepper.
True to its generic roots, Athenos drew the fewest number of written comments. Experiment subjects generally remarked favorably on the taste and texture, calling it “flavorful and delightful.” Several subjects contrasted it with other hummuses, saying “it’s better than bland hummus A” or that it was “almost there.” One comment was that it was “zesty!”
Non-urban subjects had a markedly lower impression (3.27) of Athenos Hummus than urban subjects (2.67). It also was a significant favorite of Chief Justice Rehnquist fans, who rated it an even 4.00, their highest rating. And as a whole, populists that they are, the Democrats in the sample rated this general hummus higher than the twice-as-expensive overall winner, Aladdin's. Based on these results, Athenos Hummus can only be called the hummus for cheap, generic country folk.
Aladdin’s hummus was provided in a clear, wide plastic clamshell container and was clearly the most artfully arranged of the samples. As mentioned, it was tastefully garnished with a few additional vegetables and an olive. This was the only sample that was purchased early and refrigerated for a few days. During that time, little to no condensate formed on the inside of the container. Aladdin’s hummus did not pour easily and was on the smooth side.
Aladdin’s hummus was the clear favorite among experiment subjects as a whole. Participants offered such general comments as “good,” “sweet and mustardy, a diversion from ordinary,” and “the clear winner.” Some offered ways to improve on the best, saying it “would probably be even better if warmed.” One subject was moved to suggest that Aladdin’s hummus was “more delicious than beef!” Finally, it was remarked that it “must be good — [bowl is] almost empty.”
Among those who expressed no opinion on anything other than the hummuses themselves, Aladdin’s was the favorite. Aladdin’s also produced striking political results among those who did fill in the demographic questions. It earned a perfect 5.00 among Republican subjects, and only a 3.36 among Democrats. Among haters of the United States, however, it rated a 4.20, and those hating Communist countries gave Aladdin’s only a 3.50. These results lead Aladdin’s to be the hummus of internal conflict, best for closeted husbands who live double lives.
The Happy Greek’s problems in the hummus market have been previously documented on Before. I am happy to report that the underfilling of the pint container has been remedied and a full pint of hummus was produced during the acquisition of this sample. However, the phone order taker gave an unacceptable quote of “twenty to twenty-five minutes” to produce a single pint of their hummus, which is a time period they needed every minute of. Therefore, I must say that the Happy Greek continues to provide a less-than-optimal customer experience, and, as the second-highest priced hummus, should be able to do better.
The most striking feature about Happy Greek hummus is its extreme pourability. This is due to the product’s creamy, slightly oily nature. The hummus simply poured right out of the smart, squat pint-size container into the bowl. Several test subjects remarked negatively on this aspect of the hummus. One wrote that the “texture takes away from the otherwise excellent rating of this well-balanced blend.” Only two participants appreciated its trademark creamy nature, with one calling it “the smoothiest — like eating crème anglais” and the other writing “love creamy hummus!”
Although Happy Greek’s entry was the middle of the road, earning the third-place 3.08 rating, in fact it garnered mostly negative comments, such as “bad and weird,” “ugh,” and “don’t like.” Other comments conflictingly included “needs garlic” and “seemed to have garlic.”
Among urban voters, the Happy Greek was the winner, at 3.68. The Happy Greek also produced the widest urban/non-urban divide because non-urban voters gave it only a 2.67, a substantial spread of 1.01 points. This was the most striking demographic feature of Happy Greek hummus, although it was preferred by Republicans to Democrats 4.00 to 3.23. Interestingly, this hummus also earned a respectable 4 from all six Communist country haters, making their favorite hummus. These attributes lead to the conclusion that Happy Greek hummus is for slow, generally conservative city dwellers.
The results were clear. While every hummus except Firdous was the favorite of some demographic group, Aladdin’s won for submitting the best hummus entry across the board and also scored highest among every large political bloc except, predictably, those irascible Democrats, who just can’t get with the program even when it comes to hippie food like hummus.
Also, the 2nd-place showing by Athenos (generic) Hummus is notable. Since hummus is ridiculously overpriced as it is, it's refreshing to find a $5-a-pint hummus that gets the job done. Workmanlike, nothing fancy, but it did a fine job. I'll keep it in mind.
On a personal note, I would suggest that Taverna Opa’s entry was the most shortchanged. Opa offers the most texturally complex hummus, and it’s a hearty mouthful of zesty, garlicky flavor. While I didn’t expect everyone to like it, it should have done better than it did.