• Hummus goes well with so many dishes. (Bar Tikram)Source: Bar Tikram
Bar Tikram's Dany Karam shares his family secret behind this Middle Eastern staple.
Lee Tran Lam

15 Apr 2020 - 12:24 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2021 - 3:17 PM

When Dany Karam was 11, he earned pocket money by picking grapes in a mountainous town outside of Beirut in Lebanon. He was helping his dad make arak, an anise-tinctured spirit.

Karam remembers smashing the grapes before they were fermented in barrels. He also recalls the joyless task of cleaning the fruit-stained equipment afterwards. He hated it. "But that's how we got money to spend!" says Karam and laughs.

The chef recalls the time his father handed him grape-spraying equipment that was small enough to wear like a backpack. "That was my birthday present."

Dany Karam makes incredible Middle Eastern dishes at Bar Tikram.

Now that he doesn't have to sweat to make it, he enjoys drinking arak with the family. "We still have it every Sunday," he says, even though he's more of a beer person. 

Arak is on the menu at Bar Tikram restaurant at The Star in Sydney where he is executive chef. But he assures people it's much more premium than the rustic bootleg kind that his dad used to make.

Bar Tikram is heavily inspired by his family, though: many dishes are influenced by the way his mother cooked when he was growing up in Lebanon. It wouldn't be the first time the chef has drawn on her recipes, either.

Two years ago, The Star asked Karam to put on a Middle Eastern dinner event at steak restaurant Black Bar & Grill in which Karam was executive chef at that time. "I said, 'my mum is here from overseas, why don't we do something with my mum? She's sitting at home bored and she's a good cook'."

Two days after the collaboration was announced, they'd sold out all 150 seats. He was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. Together they presented a menu of 20 mezze dishes, mains and desserts – but he had to warn his mother about the work involved.

"I was trying to tell her that it's not 10 people coming for dinner at home," he says. "But she didn't listen, so she ended up prepping until one o'clock in the morning." 

Many dishes from that menu now feature at Bar Tikram. His mother's hummus recipe, of course, is also a star feature. 

It was a hi-rotation hit when she'd cook their weekly Sunday feasts in Beirut, and he has tried to replicate it in Sydney.

"When you make hummus for 40 years, you must be excellent after that."

So how does she make the classic chickpea dip?

"My mum's very OCD," he says. After soaking the chickpeas, she boils them – before changing the water, reboiling the legumes, changing the water again, boiling them once more, and changing the water one last time. "So it's nice and clean."

She also peels the chickpeas. "It's a big process. We try to do it as much as we can, but when you feed 200-300 people a day, it's a different story," Karam says.

Hummus has a saucy pasta-smothering secret
The legume-centric dip has been moonlighting in the pasta community.

When asked whether changing the water three times is a crucial part of making hummus, he says, "I don't think it would make a big difference, but for [my mum], yes. Every single detail makes a difference," he says. "When you make hummus for 40 years, you must be excellent after that."

She's also very particular about what she includes in her version.

"We've got a sumac tree next to our house [in Beirut]. We've got za'atar in the wild next to our house, so she goes and picks it, so everything is nice and fresh. She won't buy cans. Everything she does in-house. She's a busy woman!"

Flat bread is a perfect way to scoop up hummus.

Karam admits that opinions on hummus differ throughout his family ("If you go to my aunty’s, she'd put more lemon zest"), but he thinks the type of chickpea used is of key importance.

"I recommend kabuli chickpeas – Australian chickpeas,' he says. Salt them for one day, then change the water on the second day. Then bring the legumes to boil. The key is not undercooking them – or overdoing it either.

"My mum used to say, 'if you take one chickpea and you throw it at the wall and it smashes, that's when it's cooked'." But he recommends not staining your home this way – and admits he never witnessed his mother taking her own chickpea-throwing advice. 

10 ways with canned chickpeas
Overnight soaking... draining... cooking... Sometimes it’s just all too much or you just don’t have time to prep dried things like chickpeas. In such times, it’s ever so handy to use them canned.

Once you boil the chickpeas, the rest is to your taste – how much tahini, lemon, garlic and salt do you like? How much oil should you add, and at what tempo? Do you prefer it blended or hand-crushed? 

"The best way should be with a mortar and pestle, that's how she would do it," he says, but with large quantities, it's more realistic to use a food processor or blender.

That said, he adds, "I don't have a sumac tree next to me, but I try to copy [her] as much as I can." He uses good tahini and ensures you can taste every single element in the hummus – so there's a hint of garlic, and the lemon's there without overpowering the other ingredients.

The chef also adds the oil slowly to his hummus, to aerate it – "make it more fluffier, less heavy". 

He looks forward to his mum trying his Bar Tikram version once she returns to Australia.

Dany Karam serves knafeh with a sesame bun – so you can scoop the bread through the dessert's semolina crust and syrupy topping.

Another staple from their Beirut Sunday feasts was knafeh – and that, too, is on his restaurant's menu. He admits that it's harder for him to offer readers advice on how to master it at home, as the dessert can be rather complex. The chef got it "150 times wrong" before nailing it.

Karam does, however, recommend getting the "right cheese" (Lebanese cheese is his preference), so it stretches and melts. The chef serves knafeh with a sesame bun – so you can scoop the bread through the dessert's semolina crust and syrupy topping and dunk it in the melted cheese. It's just how his mother did it when he'd enjoy repeat top-ups of knafeh at the family table.

"It's a must [to have multiple serves]. It's like Vegemite in Australia, you gotta have some," he says. At his daughter's second birthday, he invited 70 people over – and didn’' skimp on the knafeh. "They ate 15 kilos of it." Karam has clearly learnt well from his mother's Sunday feasts. 

Bar Tikram is temporarily closed due to the NSW restrictions on restaurant trade. Visit its website for updates on its reopening.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

Hummus and friends

I know, vegans and hummus. But if you’re going to do it, you might as well make it the best it can be, right?

How to make hummus while you sleep
Toss those canned chickpeas aside, we’re pulling out the slow cooker once again to take on the hard yards.
Love hummus, love bread? Make hummus bread
Hummus is the special ingredient in these easy flatbreads and loaves.
Hummus flatbreads

Hummus is the key ingredient in these soft, easy-to-make flatbreads. 

Hummus has a saucy pasta-smothering secret
The legume-centric dip has been moonlighting in the pasta community.
COOK: Salmon with hummus and charred onion
Want to upgrade your boring weeknight dinner? This crisp-skinned salmon will get you fed quickly while still delivering punchy flavours from tender charred onion and carrots.
Hummus with spiced lamb (hummus b'lahmeh)

Versions of this comforting dish are made throughout the Middle East.