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Fadi Abboud

Minister for Tourism, Lebanon

Fadi Abboud

Fadi is currently the Minister for Tourism in Lebanon. Prior to this he had a successful career in industry, working in the packaging, plastic engineering, general machines and metal processing, and food businesses. On two occasions he has been elected President of the Board of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists. He is also a member of the American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce and the International Chamber of Commerce.

Fadi has been a loud voice in the 'Hummus War' and along with Chef Ramzi was one of the main instigators of the campaign and promotions for Lebanese hummus, and against Israeli made hummus. Abboud is also a hummus producer and has small company Naas. He promotes his hummus as, "the most popular Mediterranean dip cooked in mineral water".

I met Fadi on two occasions and enjoyed his humour and company. He introduced me to some of the best hummus I've ever tasted at the Sultan Ibrahim Restaurant, in downtown Beirut.

the Interview

Beirut October 2011

Can you tell me whose idea it was to start the hummus campaign, to brand hummus as Lebanese, and why you started it?

In my capacity as President of the Industrialist Association in Lebanon, which was about three years ago, my colleagues, the industrials who are in the Agro-industry, came back from an exhibition in France.

And during a, a board meeting at the Association, they're telling me that, you know, now, not...it's not enough, what the Israelis took from our own heritage and call it theirs...even hummus, and tabbouleh, and baba ganoush, are now all Israeli traditional dishes, which is something we ought to do something about, just to tell the world the truth.

We must be careful here. We're not saying that there were no Jews in the Middle East who enjoyed the same cuisine as everybody else. Indeed there were. But this does not make hummus an Israeli traditional dish, because as you know, Israel is a-about 60 years old, and hummus has been around for maybe a few thousand years.

So we wanted to remind the world that this is part of our cuisine and our culture. Hence, you know, we came up with the idea of the largest hummus bowl in the world. And in a traditional sort of, of, of, of war, which we did, and broke the Guinness Book of Records, while doing, doing that.

The idea was, as I said before, to remind the world that hummus is, is part of, of, of the Lebanese cuisine. We did some research. We went back to the origins of tahina, which is the sesame paste, because hummus is a mixture of, of chick-, boiled chickpeas and the sesame paste.

And we found out that, you know, sesame has been part of our cuisine a few hundred years BC. So, you know, it's been around for a long, long time. And sesame paste, tahina, goes in so many Lebanese specialities. It is not just the, the, the hummus.

And, you know, the first manufacturer of...or producer, rather, of, of hummus with tahina, is a Lebanese company, back in 1959. And they were the first to export hummus in tin cans to the United States of America, and to Europe.

So, you know, the hummus, as a, a variation for hummus with tahina, which is now known as, as hummus, 'is' a Lebanese invention. We started exporting, as I said, in 1959. And this was the first factory in the whole of the Middle East producing hummus as we, as we know it today.

So, you know, we, we, we, we believe this is very Lebanese. And we want the world to know. Having said that, you know, the Middle East, as you see it today, is an invention from Sykes and Picot. This is, you know, in...after the First World War. So at the end of the day, hummus does not end, you know, when you reach the border with Syria, or the borders with, with Jordan.

Hummus is part...for, you know, cuisine of this part of the world. The Levant cuisine. But as I said before, we...the, the Lebanese were the first to manufacture, produce, export, and, you know, really turn hummus into an international dish.

So how important was this campaign for you and the Lebanese?

But the first thing to do, is to know how the West and the rest of the world wants our hummus. Most of the producers still produce in tin cans. And the tin can more or less is dead, when it comes...you still buy, I don't know, a bit of tuna or sardines, even though now...even tuna and sardines come in flexible packaging.

So the days of the tin can...the tin can is not as popular as it used to be, you know, in the '30s, '40s, '50s, of last century. So people are looking for short shelf life, fresh food. And now new manufacturers in, in Lebanon are manufacturing chilled hummus, ready to eat.

So we are now working hard to export more hummus, and not just to export the finished product. To, to franchise the way, we, we make hummus with the proper Lebanese formula if you like...recipe.

And I think, you know, the world now knows that hummus comes from the Middle East. And probably Lebanon is, is, is the place where, you know, they really turned hummus into an international dish.

The way that the battle, if you like, got characterised, was as the hummus war. Is that how you saw it?

No. One of the newspapers in the UK called it the, the, the, the hummus war. I think we need less wars in the Middle East, not, not more wars. You know, it is a positive war, if you want to call it a, a war. It is a, a war of, of convincing, you know, the rest of the, of the world that...to, to check the history books. That's what we are aiming for.

You know it's...it doesn't end with the hummus. It goes all the way to the music, to the culture, and even history. You know, when historians, you know, dr-drew a picture of, of the Middle East, everything which is good, comes from, you know, Israel and the Jews, and everything which is bad, comes from the Muslims and the Christians in this part of the world.

Even people in the Western world forgot that Jesus Christ was Palestinian, and was from this part of the world, you know. They are under the impression...I don't know how many Brits know that St George, the Patron Saint of Britain, is a Beiruti, you know. He was not from the east end of London, nor, nor, you know, from the Midlands. He was from 'this' part of the world.

So this is so very important, that the, the, the, the positiveness and the love and what is now known as the Western culture, is really a Middle Eastern culture, not the Western culture, because it is Jesus Christ who came up with, 'Love your enemies'. It was not someone, you know, from, from, from America. It was somebody who came from 'this' part of the world.

So what we refer to as the Western culture...meaning the Christian culture...is a Beiruti Lebanese thing, Palestinian thing, you know. It is from 'this' part of the world.

You use some rather strong language, I have to say, in some of your interviews, about the hummus battle, because you refer to the Israelis as 'stealing our land, our culture, and our food'. Is that actually how you see it?

Indeed...and our music, and our fashion. They are among the best, subtle thieves in the world. If, if you want strong language, here you are.

Yes, you know, this is, this is a very...I mean, at this moment in time, they've convinced the world that Palestine had no people, they came to a land where, where no one was living there, and they're the good guys who started the...their plantations, and started a culture which was not there!

You know, always there were no Arabs over there, there were no Christians, there were no Muslims, it used to be a Jewish land, and you know, Jesus Christ is an estate a-agent. You know, God himself is an estate agent, who decided to give a promised land to a chosen people.

I mean, if, if, if someone can convince the world it was that, they can do anything.

I've quoted you many times to people in Israel, about that.

So I'm not a popular figure over there am I?


But we've also been talking to lots of Palestinians as well, and they have agreed it's a similar view of the hummus war as what you've just said, that it's 'our food, the Israelis have stolen it.'

Yeah. We're not...when I say 'our', I mean, I, I'm not trying to say that the Syrians, and the Jordanians, and the Palestinians...it is from this part of the world. If you want the truth, the Levant, the Fertile Crescent here, is...and used to be the Greater Syria. It used to be just the one country.

Now, you know, in this Greater Syria, there were always Jews, before Christ, during the time of Christ, and after Christ. There are Jews, but we consider them Palestinian Jews...as Palestinian Christians or Palestinian Muslims.

But, you know, for them to claim that, you know, everything good from this part of their world, they're behind it, and everything bad is the other guys, is a bit of an exaggeration...because I don't want to use strong language.

Hummus dishes abound at the Sultan Ibrahim Restaurant, in downtown Beirut Hummus dishes abound at the Sultan Ibrahim Restaurant, in downtown Beirut

How can you prove that hummus is Lebanese?

As I said, first of all, you know, let's take one thing at a time. Cortas of Lebanon...they're still around; they are still producing hummus among, among other things...are the first exporters from the Middle East, from the whole of the Arab world. This is all documented, back in 1959.

So, the first can of hummus with tahina, which was exported to the rest of the world, was from this country...from this very small country in, in, in the Middle East. And again, you know, hummus is, is part of our tradition. It's part of our food. My grandmum used to serve hummus, and her grandmum before her, used to serve hummus.

And as I said, you know, tahina, which is the sesame paste, is part and parcel of our cuisine. And we did a lot of research. Builders who went from Byblos in this country, to Iraq, to modern days Iraq, were describing the picnic, where they take, you know, to, to consume, because they used to walk all the way to Iraq. And part of, o-of this was, the sesame paste.

The sesame paste is, is...has a lot of calories, and it's a, a very healthy thing. So this mixture of, of, you know, aubergines, and hummus, and so many other things, with tahina, i.e. sesame paste, has been around for a long, long, long time.

Hence, you know, I can count 30, 40 dishes where tahina is used even more. We use it when we're eating our fish, or our kibbeh. We've got a lot of salads where tahina is used as a dressing. And, you know, we have Kibbeh Arabic, which is a, a, a tahina soup, sort of thing, with, with meat and kibbeh, 'and' hummus in, and that soup.

So it is not really debatable that the sesame paste is part of our, of our c-cuisine, much more...again, when I say our cuisine, it's not just Lebanese, because the Lebanese cuisine does not differ that much from Syrian cuisine, or from Jordanian, or, or, or Palestinian.

You know, as I said, in this Fertile Crescent, the...you know, if you check our history, and check our culture, and you know, our, our music, you will find a lot of similarities. It's not just the Lebanese living in 10,000 square kilometres here. They were eating hummus, and nobody else around them was eating hummus, you know. This will not be fair, or, or logical for that battle.

The, the, the battle is...you know, we don't mind calling it a Middle Eastern dish. But, you know, to have the audacity, to right that this is an Israeli traditional dish, is beyond belief. To be honest, it's beyond belief.

It doesn't really differ from...like, you know, stealing the land, building the settlements now, and asking the world, 'Were there any Palestinians? We didn't see them. There were no-nobody living here'.

You know, the, the, the olive trees there, are the olive trees where Jesus Christ used to pick his olives, and, you know, eat his olive oil. And they're still there...these olive trees. And, you know, this is a land which should be for everyone, but not for a, a, a Jewish state where, you know, they are first class citizens, and everybody else is second, third or fourth class citizen.

Can you talk about the importance of hummus within the Lebanese tradition of food? And last time we spoke, you said, 'We do all our business deals around hummus. We fall in love around hummus'.

Yeah, to be honest with you, it...when you go to a Lebanese restaurant, the typical Lebanese restaurant serving the meze, which other hors d'oeuvre...they wouldn't even ask if you want hummus, because it goes for granted that, that, that hummus is there. And around the hummus, comes everything else.

So when you're eating your radishes, your vegetables, your cucumbers, your wild cucumbers, your lettuce, or whate-,...you dip them in hummus...all the way to when you receive your...I don't know...barbecued meat or whatever. Again, you dip them in hummus.

So hummus is an hors d'oeuvre by itself. But is, you know, is the king of the table, whereby you eat hummus nearly with, with, with everything. So yes, the Arak [Araq] which is the Lebanese traditional drink, revolves around the hummus.

And this culture of dipping--you know, dipping the pita bread, and dipping the vegetables, dipping the onions again--is very, very Lebanese. Hence, all these dips, i.e. hummus and, and baba ghanoush, and potatoes, and lentils, and...you know, the, the dips...are very, very, very Lebanese. This creamy sort of, of, like a mash, dip, is very Lebanese.

And the king of the dips is, is hummus. And, you know, I, I know fr-,...as an industrialist, I know h-how much, I mean, hummus is sold, in comparison to other dips. And hummus is still more than 80 percent of the market of, of, of dips.

And, you know, judging a Lebanese restaurant...when we are...you know, among the Lebanese, say, which is the best Lebanese restaurants, how do we judge it, for hummus?...Because hummus is a very tricky thing to get it perfect.

The consistency, how much lemon you use, you put or don't garlic, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...so, a Lebanese restaurant, it doesn't matter if everything is perfect, and the hummus is unedible. You know, it will never pass. The hummus has to be perfect.

And this is, as I said...it's the basis of, of, of our cuisine, and the way of life, because, you know, the hors d'oeuvres, you go on for a couple of hours before you order your meal.

And, you know, this is around, around a drink. Usually, usually Arak [Araq], because the, the typical Lebanese restaurant, it, it's called an Arak [Araq] parlour. So it's, it's like a cafe parlour for the meze.

And the idea of the meze, as I said, revolves around hummus. And if you see...if you go to the UK now, you will see...I don't know...maybe more than 40 or 50 derivatives of hummus. Hummus with olives, hummus with...you name it, it's there, you know. All derivatives with additives.

In Lebanon, you don't see that, because you see, if you are in the mood of hummus with olives, you take your olive, dip it in, in hummus, and eat it. So with the hummus at the Lebanese table, it's just there to be mixed with, with other things. You start eating it on, on its own, and then you mix with, with other things.

So you take your onion, dip it in the, in the, in the hummus, or your radish, and dip in the hummus, so on and so forth. So that is why it is, you know, part and parcel...even sandwiches, you know. The, the, the barbecues, and the shawarma, again, they are only bed of hummus.

In terms of culture, would you do business around hummus? Would you love around hummus? Would you date a woman, and eat hummus?

Yes, yes. We fall in love, and make love around hummus It is, as I said, you know, very much part of our, our culture. Rarely, you will see a Lebanese meze, a Lebanese table, you know, without hummus. Very, very rare.

And very rare to find a Lebanese who does not like hummus [background noise]. And as I said, when we compare notes on where is the best Lebanese restaurant around, it always starts...'their hummus is perfect'. So, you know, it's the basis, as, as I said.

Yes, these are done around hummus, and hummus is part and parcel. And even, you know...check the Lebanese sandwiches, other than if it is a cheese sandwich. But any other sandwich...if, if it's ham or Mortadella, or, you know, yesterday's roast, or whatever, still will have a good hummus in, in the sandwich. So it becomes like our butter.

Let's talk about the world market for hummus, because I wonder whether the, the hummus battle...Lebanon, Israel...is really about global markets, and who can cash in on the global market?

Yes. As I'm sure you'll know, there are huge corporations, you know...I don't want to mention names, but everybody knows, one of the brands of, of the Israeli hummus, which is the most famous brand, was purchased by an American corporation. And that is when I read, you know, some numbers on the size of the market globally.

We are talking of a market which is increasing at the rate of more than 20 percent per annum. Rarely, you have a food item increasing by such per-percentages, you know. It's unheard of, in, in, in, in the food business...globally, we're talking.

So we, we are under the impression, we're talking more than a billion dollars per annum...is the size of, of, of hummus. And that's ex-factory prices, not retail, retail prices. And as I said, you know, f-, manufacturers are mushrooming in, in, in the states, and in Europe.

If you go in the UK, every single chain of supermarkets, the big ones 'and' the small ones, have their own private label hummus, and some other labels of hummus. And this is why, you know, from this country, we are hoping to, to, to...because exporting short shelf life products is not an easy thing to do.

You either have to fly it in, because, you know, if it's, let's say...I don't know...a couple of month shelf life, you, you l-, you lose a lot of time in, in, in transit.

So now, we are, we are trying to, to export a franchise, whereby, you know, you, you, you manufacture the, the hummus, but the ingredients are exported frozen, so, you know, you can do it in a way, without having to cook again, because this is the best way to keep our little secrets.

...you're not going to ask me, you know, how we make the hummus...

...'cause I'm not going to tell you

I'm going to ask you about that in a minute, but I just want to talk about the global market a little bit more, and again, the competition between Lebanon and Israel because Prime Minister Netanyahu recently gave a speech in Washington, where...he was speakting about Israeli investment in America. And the biggest hummus factory in the world is an Israeli owned company in Virginia. And PM Netanyahu was saying that this new factory would mean more jobs, and he said, 'more hummus', and of course everybody in the audience applauded and it was quite a moment.

So it seems like hummus is becoming a global phenomenon. Even the BBC has an article on their website saying how hummus has conquered Britain, and how the market has changed. So I'm wondering how you can...as a country...can cash in that sort of increasing global demand? What are the problems you face?

You know, it is not easy, as I'm sure you know, to break into the supermarket chains, you know. I am talking now as a businessman. I own factory producing hummus, which I started, which is nothing to do with my business. We, we, we make disposables. I'm an industrialist, but I don't...I'm not in the agro-industry.

I did it just, you know, to make sure the world knows that, you know, we are there, we are around, and we produce a better hummus. The audience Mr Netanyahu was, was talking to, and they all clapped, they never tasted the Lebanese hummus, because if they do, they will not buy the hummus, which is produced in Virginia.

Now, I mean, you know, exporting hummus from Lebanon, specifically, as I said before, short shelf life is not an easy task. Hence you know, the, the, the factory in Virginia. So now, we are working so very hard to open factories in all the major cities where, where there is a demand.

And as I said, the, the, the Lebanese hummus is addictive. Once they taste, taste ours, you'll...they'll never return to our...to the hummus of our neighbours [laughs].

Do you want to grab your hummus and just talk about why you started in the hummus business, and show us your brand?

The brand is Naas. And Naas is where I come from. Is...was my home town. And it, it is known for, it is...for its mineral water. And, you know, it's, it's, it's a very clean area with mineral water. So we wanted...we did not want to go to an industrial estate as such.

So we went to an area where it is a very healthy atmosphere. And we have no additives in, in our hummus. It is a short shelf life hummus. And it is, you know, to a, to a recipe which has been around for a long, long time.

So the colour, the consistency, as well as the, the, the, the taste, is, is very unique to us. And as I said, the formula is a formula which so many Lebanese chefs helped with. So it's not like a formula which came up, you know...we went and asked...we picked...

Hummus dishes abound at the Sultan Ibrahim Restaurant, in downtown BeirutHummus dishes abound at the Sultan Ibrahim Restaurant, in downtown Beirut

Is it secret?

It's not really just the form, it's the way we do them. So in actual fact, we asked about 15 chefs to give us their recipes. And, you know, we came up with a recipe...was a bit from everywhere, really.

Yes, it 'is' a secret in a sense. But, you know, you carry the ingredients. So there are no secrets any, any more. But it's not just about the ingredients. It's the way you prepare it. It's the temperatures you, you, you use. And, you know, it's how much of everything you put.

The, the Lebanese hummus traditionally is about one-third sesame paste, whereas all the hummus produced in the UK, as an example, is seven or eight percent. So there is a huge difference in, you know, the consistency, and how much sesame paste you use.

We use more than they use, when it comes to sesame paste. But again, you know, it's the way the sesame paste has been produced. If you do a hummus with a sesame paste produced in Greece, Turkey, or Israel for that matter, it's a totally different taste...totally different.

For so many reasons, we use a traditional manufacturer, who still has the stone grinders. So the wheels, the grinding wheels are still made out of stone. They're not, they're not metal, for so many reasons. You know, stones do not get hot, hot, like, like metal does. And, you know, the way,...because sesame has to be roasted before you turn it into a paste.

All these things are taken into consideration, and you've got to be very, very, very careful, because, you know, sesame is the staple food for, for pigeons. And you've got to be very careful with salmonella. So, you know, we go through a, a huge process to make sure that it is 100 percent safe, without any traces of salmonella, or any other microbe for that matter.

And were you the first in Lebanon to put hummus into a plastic tub?

Into a traditional plastic tub, as the one you see here, with the beige which is mimicking, you know, the traditional stoneware hummus platter. Yes, it is the first in the world to be produced in the traditional platter, which is used for, for hummus.

Did you grow up eating hummus? Was it something that was part of your family table, and do you have any stories about that?

Absolutely. You know, hummus, in the last 50 years...I'm 55, so I started when I was five years of age...changed in consistency. Fifty years ago, the, the...your high speed mixers were not part and parcel of the kitchen.

So how did they mash the hummus? They mashed them in like, sort of a wooden, you know, pot, with a wooden masher, you know. So certainly the consistency is nothing like today's consistency, because high speed mixers give you this creamy hummus.

Now, 50 years ago, it was a different thing altogether, because it is mashed manually, either with one of these, you know, whatever you call them...I don't know what, what you call them...or, you know, mash it by hand.

But again, you know, it was not the creamy consistency it is now, and you couldn't build body, you know, whereby it...you know, you turn it like, whipped. You cou-, you couldn't whip it. Hummus now, is, is, is a whipped hummus, you know.

And again, the amount of whipping is, is very, very important, because the Lebanese like to feel that the weight is there, and not like if they were eating whipped cream, where, you know, half of the thing is, is, is, is air.

So all, all this differs, when it comes to, to, to, to the recipes we, we use in this country. The taste was more or less the same. But no, it was 'not' the same hummus 50 years ago.

Your Grandmother?

Yes. I remember Mum and Grandmum, and, you know, we had quite a good cook at home. She, she, she was Lebanese. And I remember Mum's friends saying that...her name was Ramal has a very, very, very good hummus, because again, you know, a cook is judged by how nice their, their hummus is.

You see, mashing food is very Lebanese, and very mountain...why? I mean, what is tabouli? Tabouli is crushed wheat with all the vegetables. Why the crushed wheat? To make the vegetables go further, because, you know, they didn't have a lot of vegetables spec-specifically during the winter, up in the mountains.

With our kibbeh...what is kibbeh? Kibbeh is mashed meat with crushed wheat. So one kilo of meat...this was the way t-,...of making it 'two' kilos, by simply adding crushed wheat, you know.

So this mashing...again, these are all mashed in, in, in, in, you know, mashing stoneware...is, is again, part of, of, of the cuisine of this part of the world.

This is poor man's food...


...it's something we heard a lot of in Palestine, that hummus is a poor man's food.

Yes, yes, because, you know, you have all the vitamins you can think of. A loaf of bread, and a hummus for like, you know, a dollar, and, you know [makes noise], it's a good lunch.

Given that Jews and Arabs, Israelis, Lebanese, Palestinians, all equally love to wipe the plate, can you imagine a day when you might all sit down together, and wipe from the same plate?

Indeed, indeed. I mean, you know, as I'm sure you know, with origins, if we take Christianity, you know, when the Protestant movement came along, you know, it was not accepted by the establishment...the Catholic establishment...and that it established itself.

And, you know, it helped the, the, the, the Catholism to have a wider, you know, look. And we are hoping, we are hoping that, you know, everyone in, in, in the Middle East...because in actual fact, c-,...think about it...we are living now in the Middle East, the Dark Ages of Europe, when you had all these religious wars.

Is this going to go on forever? I certainly hope that one of these days, we share, you know, one hummus plate among, you know, Jews, Muslims, 'and' Christians. But, you know, we have to all change the traditional beliefs.

If the Jews still maintain that they are different, they are a chosen people with a promised land, and everybody else is a bit less than they are, it'll be difficult.

And Christianity, if they still think that they are, you know, the, the most advanced, or the most, if you like, that the numbers of, of Christians are more than any other religion in the world, and they are special, and the rest is not special, and they forget, you know, Jesus Christ, and, and his teachings, where...why he says, 'Love your enemies', again, you know, things have to, to change.

Everybody has to be more realistic. And then yes, peace 'can' come. But unfortunately...you know, if you see what's happening in Egypt, and what's happening in Iraq...you know, the war of Iraq ended up with about more than a million Christians leaving Iraq.

And now, you know, the revolution in, in, in, in Egypt, is developing into a revolution against the Christians in, in Iraq. But the Christians were not the puppets of, of President Mubarak, were they?...you know.

So unfortunately, the, the Middle East is still living in the Dark Ages. Where do we need to start? We need to start from our schools, whereby, you know, there were a lot of schools in the last 25, 30 years, teaching Jews, Muslims and Christians that they are different, and they ought to be on their own, and not mix with others...and this is wrong.

I'm calling this film, 'Make Hummus Not War'.

Great. I love it. Brilliant idea.

Lots of Israelis say to me, 'We know when we will be at peace with our neighbours, when we can go to Damascus to eat hummus'.

Yes, yes, and, you know, I don't know if they are aware that there are still a lot of Jews living in Damascus. So, you know, we have to all understand, in the, in the Middle East, is, is, the origin is, is, is, is a little secret between you and your God. It's not something you ought to really, you know, shape all your life around it.

And once we all agree on, on that, they will be eating hummus in Damascus, and we will be dancing in Tel Aviv...because I don't think cuisine is their strong point, so I picked on dancing.

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