by Megan Giller • Photography by Melanie Grizzel
When Nikki Kaya was a teenager in Turkey, she didn’t want to go with her parents to their party on New Year’s Eve. And since they wouldn’t let her hang out with her friends, she opted for her grandmother’s house. Why? The hummus, of course.
Kaya says that on every holiday, Grandma Lale would cover her big wooden table with bowls of hummus, as well as fava bean spread, olives, feta cheese, lamb, rice, yogurt dip, baba ghanoush, pinto-bean salad and sweets. But it was the hummus that kept Kaya coming back. “On one hand, I thought about my friends having so much fun,” she says, “but on the other, there was that hummus!”
Sitting in the kitchen, Kaya would watch her grandma closely as she made the dip. “She’d actually peel the garbanzo beans by hand!” Kaya remembers. Eventually, she learned the recipe from watching her grandmother make it so many times.
Years later, in 2004, Kaya graduated from college in Turkey as a chemical engineer and moved to Texas. She quickly discovered that she didn’t like working with toxic chemicals, and she found a job at a catering company. After working her way up from accountant to manager, she realized she loved customer service and food, and took the leap and enrolled in culinary school. Eventually, she ventured out from catering companies to start her own business.
“It was supposed to be a catering company,” Kaya says with a laugh. She started at the farmers market with all sorts of Turkish spreads, dips and goodies, but one thing kept standing out. “People would try the hummus and they couldn’t get over it!” she says. “Like…where is the hummus lady? Where is the hummus lady?” When customers started specifically requesting her hummus at local stores, Kaya knew she had a winner.
What makes the dip so addictive? Well, it’s smooth and creamy, but it’s also thick. Then there’s that pool of rich olive oil in the center. “That was all her,” Kaya says, referring to Grandma Lale. “She would make the oil spicy to give it a kick.” Even as a small child, Kaya liked the way it burned the back of her throat, and she set about trying to recreate that on a commercial scale in her new product. And when she told the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmers’ Market Director Suzanne Santos about the history of the recipe, Santos exclaimed, “Well, you have to call it ‘Grandma’s Hummus’!” Now the treasure had an official name.
Kaya’s family has long been in the restaurant and food world. Back in Izmit, Turkey, her grandfather owned a restaurant, but he wanted to open a sweets shop in Istanbul. The family moved, and Kaya was born and raised in Istanbul. She remembers working the register at the sweets shop as a kid and eating the Damascus-style treats (the family was originally from Damascus). After her grandfather passed away, her grandmother ran the shop. “She used to make this one sweet,” Kaya remembers. “It looked like a basket. She would make the dough and use a basket to give it that weaved texture, and then she would fry it up. It was delicious.”
Kaya is describing a traditional Turkish sweet, but hummus, on the other hand, isn’t very Turkish at all. So where did the famous recipe come from? Grandma Lale grew up in Izmit, and, like most Turkish people, wasn’t very familiar with the chickpea-based dip. But when her in-laws from Damascus came to live with them in the 1940s, she wanted to make them something they would like. She came up with a recipe—but when she served the dip, her mother-in-law exclaimed, “This is terrible hummus!” She showed Grandma Lale how to make Damascus-style hummus and the rest, as they say, is history.
Currently, Grandma’s Hummus can be found at local stores such as Whole Foods Market, Royal Blue Grocery, Wheatsville Food Co-op, in.gredients and H-E-B (as well as in over two dozen cities in Texas). And though the dip is a constant staple in many households, we wondered if Kaya would be willing to share the recipe…you know…just for kicks. Let’s put it this way: Kaya’s own mother—who never learned to make the hummus from Grandma Lale—asked for it and, without hesitation, Kaya said, No way. Apparently, it will stay her legacy as well as her guarded secret.