Several weeks ago, my wife brought home some dinner she'd picked up from a Middle Eastern restaurant on her way from work. I tore open one of the aluminum trays and took a spoonful of its contents, an unrecognizable mishmash of chickpeas in a custardy sauce.
"What's this?" I asked.
"I think it's hummus," she said.
Hrm, not hummus, I thought, before scarfing it up. Afterwards, I did a little Googling and found that, indeed, it was hummus—a variant called masabacha, or msabbaha or musabbaha or musbacha, or probably a dozen other spellings depending on your chosen transliteration of the original Arabic and Hebrew words for "swimming." Swimming, because the chickpeas are left whole, bobbing in the creamy tahini sauce.
Luckily, I'd recently received a copy of Emily Kaiser Thelin's excellent Unforgettable, a book about cookbook author Paula Wolfert's life. In it, I found a recipe for masabacha, which Wolfert dubbed "Deconstructed Hummus." I can't think of a better way to describe it.
I've since found many more recipes for masabacha, and, while there are differences from one to the next, the basic idea is the same: Make hummus, but stop before blending all the chickpeas into the tahini sauce.
Wolfert assembles hers by first putting down a pile of seasoned chickpeas, then spooning the tahini sauce, plus lots of parsley, on top. Others stir the chickpeas and tahini sauce together, then spoon all of it onto the plate. Sometimes, a small quantity of chickpeas or hummus is blended into the tahini, with even more whole chickpeas added after that. The website Humus101.com describes renditions that are thicker and thinner, spicier and milder, some served warm and others not.
What's so fun about it is that it opens up so many more possibilities in the world of hummus, an entire spectrum of new textures, consistencies, flavorings, and presentations. It's also really easy to make. You can start with your favorite hummus recipe, but I beg you to use cooked-from-dried chickpeas if at all possible, not canned ones. I made the mistake of doing one round of testing on this recipe with canned chickpeas, just to speed things up, and there was almost nothing to like about the results. This is a dish in which success rises and falls with the quality and flavor of the chickpeas. While you can fake it by simmering canned chickpeas with aromatic vegetables and herbs, you might as well just go all the way and start from dried at that point, since the amount of effort you'll expend is nearly the same.
It's also critical to cook the chickpeas until they're as tender as they can be. Chickpeas are a strange legume in this regard—they can seem done long before they truly are. Once you've cooled down a batch that you thought was soft enough, it's not uncommon to discover they've regained a firm and gritty texture. Take them further than you think they should go, because a melting, velvety bite is what you want. If some of the chickpeas fall to pieces in the process, so be it.
For my version, I started with Kenji's hummus recipe here on Serious Eats, which, in turn, is partly based on the one from Chef Michael Solomonov in his cookbook, Zahav. Kenji had already done a ton of the heavy lifting of testing all the factors, from how to make the tahini sauce so that it's loaded with garlic flavor without being too pungent (answer: blend the whole garlic cloves in lemon juice, a trick picked up from Solomonov) to whether to use baking soda in the chickpeas' soaking and cooking water (answer: yes and yes) and how best to deal with the chickpea skins (answer: cook the crap out of them, which is good, because we want to do that for the masabacha anyway).
Really, most of the work I had to do was tinkering a little with the procedure to make it suitable for masabacha. The final process is as simple as making tahini sauce, blending it with a small portion of cooked chickpeas, then folding that with an even greater quantity of whole cooked chickpeas. Add a lot of parsley and some toppings—good olive oil at the minimum, paprika, za'atar, toasted pine nuts—and you're all set.
Of course, the funny thing about all of this is that I should have known I was looking at hummus from the moment I opened that to-go container: All hummus really means is "chickpeas" in Arabic. Exactly what you do with those chickpeas is up to you, which is precisely hummus masabacha's point.