When the hummus wars broke out between Israel and its northern neighbor Lebanon several years ago, the small Arab-Israeli town of Abu Gosh, not far from Jerusalem, made international headlines.
As part of the ongoing food war, which includes arguments ranging from who invented the popular chickpea paste to who should be allowed to claim it as a national dish, the most recent battle was between Abu Gosh restaurateurs and their counterparts in Lebanon over who could make the largest plate of the stuff and become a Guinness world record holder.
In Abu Gosh, 50 chefs succeeded in winning the coveted title by whipping up four tons of hummus. That was last year. This year, Lebanon took back the title, with 300 chefs to making 10 tons of the delicacy.
While the Guinness title is currently in the hands of the Lebanese, Abu Gosh has succeeded in retaining its own unofficial title: purveyors of the best tasting hummus in the Jewish state.
Most Saturdays the village, which is home to roughly 8,000 mostly Muslim residents, turns into a mecca for hundreds of Jewish Israelis and international visitors in search of traditional Arabic food and, of course, the renowned hummus.
The traffic jams that are commonplace on the main thoroughfare, Shalom Street, are, to most who come here, part and parcel of the Abu Gosh experience; visitors consider them a small price to pay for a good, fairly cheap and hearty meal. Not to mention the warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Most of the action in Abu Gosh is centered on Shalom Street, and famed eateries sit either side of the scenic road. The Abu Gosh Restaurant, the main impetus behind the Guinness world record attempt, is perhaps the best known, and local celebrities or lawmakers can often be found eating here.
However, any of the other restaurants in town — Abu Shukri, The Caravan, the Lebanese and more — are also worth sampling. Locals say that today there are more than 20 restaurants in the area, and all of them are open on Saturday, when most other places in the Jerusalem area are closed for Shabbat. (Observant Jewish travelers can visit on other days of the week, although the meat is not kosher.)
Of course, with Saturday’s unrelenting crowds, vying for a table in any one of these popular places can be a chore; but for a plate of smooth hummus, freshly cut Arabic salads, warm, fluffy pita bread and succulent char-grilled lamb or chicken, most people are willing to wait.
Jo Shoshani, an Israeli who often visits Abu Gosh with her family, said that most of the restaurants are child friendly and offer very good value for the money.
“Sometimes I stop by one of the restaurants and pick up food for the family — the hummus is the best around and the falafel is tasty,” said Shoshani, who lives in a nearby Mevasseret Zion, a predominantly Jewish town. “When I go out alone with my husband and we want a place nearby, we pop over to one of the coffee shops in Abu Gosh and have some of the sweet deserts like baklava and Arabic coffee.”
Linda Levy, who visits Israel several times a year, says she always makes time to eat at one of the Abu Gosh restaurants.
“I am a vegetarian and that is sometimes a problem in Israel with the restaurants being split between dairy and meat,” she says. “In Abu Gosh, I can get a fresh salad and even some labane [goat cheese], while the others I am with can eat the meat.
“I also like the atmosphere in Abu Gosh; it’s a pretty place with great views of the Jerusalem mountains,” says Levy.
Restaurants are not all that make a trip to Abu Gosh and the surrounding area worthwhile.
According to information from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abu Gosh has a colorful history mostly due to its strategic location on the main highway from Jaffa on the coast to the holy city of Jerusalem.
Historically, the ministry points to sources citing that the Ark of the Covenant was kept near here for two decades before it was transferred to Jerusalem by King David. The history books also suggest that this was a strategic location for the Romans before their assault on Jerusalem.
Not far from Abu Gosh, just across today’s main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, is the national park of Ein Hemed. The park, which is open every day of the week, contains the Aqua Bella, the remains of a crusader fortress that was built to control traffic into Jerusalem and protect pilgrims.
The bubbling natural springs running through the middle of the park makes it an ideal place to picnic, especially with take-out food from one of the nearby Abu Gosh restaurants (www.parks.org.il).
Local legend about the area suggests that in 1099, British monarch Richard the Lionhearted first saw Jerusalem from the hills of Abu Gosh, and just over 100 years later the Crusaders built the first church there. In 1907, the French government acquired the land, and today the building still sits at one of the entrances to the village.
The Crusader church is not the only historic Christian sight in the village. Sitting majestically at one of the overlooks is the Convent of Our Lady of the Ark, built by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition in the early 20th Century. Our Lady is easily recognizable by a marble statue of Mary holding her baby as she looks down on the village.
Twice a year, on Sukkot and Passover, the churches and various other venues around the village are turned into concert halls, with well-known local and international classical musicians performing to large crowds of music lovers.
As for the name, village locals say that Abu Gosh refers to an Arab family that settled here in the 16th Century, and many locals claim they are direct descendants of the original clan.
While some stories suggest that the family used the village’s strategic location to impose a toll on those traveling to and from Jerusalem, what is well known in Israel is the neutrality of the Abu Gosh clan during Israel’s War of Independence.
Information on the Foreign Ministry’s website details how 36 Arab villages in the hills around Jerusalem assisted in keeping Jerusalem under siege in 1947 and 1948. Residents of Abu Gosh, however, helped to keep the road open and even provided Jewish forces with support.
Whether or not it is this display of allegiance with the State of Israel that has allowed Abu Gosh to grow and prosper in comparison to other Arab-Israeli towns, there is no denying that its commitment to excellent food, especially hummus, is what keeps the crowds coming — through all seasons and political crises.