Summer is upon us in all its glory, even in this new-variant-a-day era. If dressing boldly and traveling ambitiously is already on your agenda, why not leave even more inhibitions behind and carefully emerge into society equipped with … garlic breath?
According to the latest local condiment trend, a pungent exhale might be the season’s hottest accessory. That’s right, we’re in the middle of an East Bay toum boom.
Toum is a traditional — and delicious — Lebanese condiment made of garlic, oil and salt, whipped until creamy and white. Used generously as a spread, a drizzle and a sauce, toum is considered, by many, to be a vegan answer to mayonnaise, with a similar soft, tangy goodness.
But unlike mayonnaise, toum’s fluffy texture is a testament to expert technique, since, without an egg, an oil and lemon mix is much harder to emulsify. Also unlike mayo, it packs a decadent garlic punch. Recently, it’s been on the minds of the masses, spicing up menus in Oakland, Berkeley and beyond.
“I was lucky enough to grow up eating toum with many meals, but didn’t see it outside of family meals until more recently, probably within the past three or so years,” said Michelle Nazzal, the woman behind the East Bay-based vegan Palestinian pop-up Mishish Souk.
Nazzal has just started working on her own version, which she’ll serve as a sauce to accompany vegan kiftah kebab. Toum, she said, is both simple and sophisticated, “such bold flavor from such minimal ingredients.”
Nazzal pointed to the Oakland sensation Shawarmaji as the spot that might have started the trend: “they make incredible toum,” she says.
Open in Uptown Oakland since 2020, the popular fast-casual restaurant was one of the first spots to expose a broad swath of East Bay diners to the deceptively innocent condiment, which sends shawarma wraps and fries to new heights. In an act of self-awareness, mints are available on location for free, to mediate the effect of the toum on post-meal interactions.
In Berkeley, chef Mona Leena, who opened her jewel box of a restaurant, Lulu, in 2021, has had a Caesar variation of toum (spelled thoom on her menu) since the very beginning. At Lulu, the all-star condiment replaces the traditional dressing, typically made with mayo and anchovies.
“I wanted to make a Caesar salad that is accessible to the vegetarian crowd that frequents Lulu,” she said. “Toum itself is so simple with its ingredients, and I knew it would make a great alternative for a Caesar.”
Leena has also added a dish of Urfa-roasted asparagus with toum and za’atar furikake to her Instagram-famous weekend brunch spread. It’s already a hit. “Fresh veg, pungent toum, and umami rich and flavorful zaatar furikake, the dish rounds out so well with each bite,” she said.
Both Leena and Nazzal think that toum is pretty much indispensable: “I think it adds great depth to many savory dishes it accompanies,” Nazzal said. “It’s like an aioli, but more powerful and tangy, and is incredibly versatile!”
And the fact that many folks are just now discovering it? It was only a matter of time, Leena said: “I think Middle Eastern spices and condiments are having a moment right now in general! You see zhough, labneh and sumac everywhere nowadays. And toum is so simple and packs a ton of flavor! What savory food doesn’t go well with garlic?”
And, as one East Bay business shows, it’s well-situated to outgrow restaurant dining and become a core part of anyone’s pantry. “Toum’s flavor is very familiar — people taste it and immediately know what to do with it,” says Katya Berberi, the woman behind Anne’s Toum, a new Walnut Creek-based brand dedicated exclusively to the condiment. “You can use it traditionally, with chicken shawarma, or go super-modern with it. It’s the easiest way to elevate your meal.”
Popping up at the Grand Lake farmers market since 2020, the brand has been growing its reach — you can currently find it at East Bay mainstays like Pomella in Oakland, or shipped through Williams Sonoma since January this year. “It’s been going great so far!” Berberi said. Anne’s Toum is named after her mother, who unexpectedly passed away in 2019. “Right before she died, we were talking about launching [the business] together,” she said. Berberi’s father is Lebanese, and she grew up eating toum on regular a basis — her mother learned how to make all the recipes.
In addition to traditional toum, Berberi had created a zaatar-flavored version, and a sumac-lemon spin. “You’ve always been able to get toum in Lebanese restaurants, in tiny dollops,” Berberi said. “People always tell me that they’ve tasted it, and that they want more of it.”
Toum has always been around, Berberi said, and has long been a favorite for those in the know. But now it’s on the path to being embraced by the masses, she said.
“In terms of home cooking, people are looking for new ways to add flavor without adding time,” she said. And the flavor really draws people in. “Customers taste it at the Oakland farmers market, and go ‘where has it been my whole life!’” Berberi laughed. “I can’t even tell you some of the things people say when they taste our toum — they’re explicit!”