‘It’s a flavour-bomb!’ The rise and rise of the dip

<span>‘Easy win’ … a table full of dips.</span><span>Photograph: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images</span>
‘Easy win’ … a table full of dips.Photograph: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

On 30 May 1987, Waitrose announced the introduction of a new range of dips: tzatziki, taramasalata and hummus. This was the first time they had appeared on supermarket shelves in the UK and they were so novel that they needed explaining. Hummus “is a traditional Middle Eastern hors d’oeuvre made with chickpeas and sesame seeds,” the label advised, under an illustration of palm trees and minarets. Fast forward 36 years, and our appetite for dips appears bottomless. They – and their partners in crime, crispy snacks – are a shopping basket and restaurant staple, and not a summer or Christmas goes by without a new limited-edition dip causing a storm online.

They’ve become “mandatory”, says restaurateur David Carter, whose latest opening Oma has received rave reviews of its “showstopping” hummus.

For restaurants, dips are an easy win, tapping into our longstanding love of bread and butter before dinner and “dialling it right up”, says Carter. “They are mainly cold and veggie, so we can get them out in five minutes” – placating hungry customers while they linger over the menu or wait for the main courses – “and they are huge sources of creativity.” Like bread and butter, dips and dippers serve as a culinary calling card. “Get those right, and people are excited for what’s next. They show you’re serious about detail and sourcing. It’s imperative you start on the right foot,” Carter adds.

It helps that Britons are dip-obsessed – but also that most people experience dips for the first time via the supermarket. The result is a very receptive audience with a fairly low bar for chefs to improve upon. “The supermarket is the gateway for hummus and baba ganoush – which means when people try ours, made with the best-quality tahini, chickpeas and olive oil, it blows their minds,” says Marc Summers, founder of Bubala in Soho and Spitalfields. Its hummus is so popular, it sells two kilos a week across both sites, drizzled with burnt butter or topped with harissa, apricot and jalapeño oil, alongside sharp pickles and pillowy pitas and laffa bread.

Taramasalata is another good example, says the Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who has devoted a whole section of his forthcoming book Nights Out at Home to the dish. A staple of traditional Greek meze that has been popularised in the UK as a lurid pink dip, it’s had a renaissance of late among chefs who are elevating it and rebranding it along the lines of “whipped smoked cod’s roe”. “We have become used to the commercial iteration coloured with beetles or beetroot – but there are beautiful versions to be had, like that piped across toast and topped with a poached egg at Sargasso in Margate,” says Rayner.

Food historian Pen Vogler puts Britain’s dip devotion down to our tendency to “go mad for new stuff. We have always been incredibly absorptive of other cultures and, particularly today, social status comes from being open-minded and metropolitan; the ability to eat Mexican one day and Greek the next.”

There is no traditional British dip to speak of. “There are of course many traditional British sauces, gravies and condiments,” says Eleanor Barnett, author of Leftovers: A History of Food Waste and Preservation. “But it’s not until the 1960s that you really see references to ‘dips’ like we would recognise … In Woman’s Own magazine in 1962, you see the instruction: ‘Have a trolley of savouries and dips ready to wheel in.’ Like most trends of that time, this came from America.” Before then, what we know as dips were not dips at all – at least not in their origin countries.

“Guacamole and salsa weren’t promoted as dips specifically until the 1960s in the US, along with the rise of (Mexican-American) restaurants and eating-out culture,” Barnett continues. Though she’s lived in London for years, Mexican chef Adriana Cavita confesses to having initially been baffled by seeing guacamole on the supermarket shelves, lined up alongside hummus, and chive and sour cream. “In Mexico, guacamole is more of a sauce, designed to eat with tacos or another dish,” she says.

“I couldn’t understand people dipping carrots in hummus when I first came over here,” says the Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan, author of Bethlehem. “It doesn’t make sense. All the things used as dips here are things which, in Palestine, we scoop with bread.”

Yet by the time hummus and guacamole made their commercial debuts in the UK, the dipping culture had already been set: by the American-style cheesy dips and by crisps, which were simultaneously soaring in popularity in the 60s and 70s. Unlike many countries in Europe, where kids seek to continue their country’s culinary traditions, in Britain “every new generation is anxious to do something different to the previous generation,” says Vogler. Crisps, dips and canapés represented a golden opportunity to “abandon staid ideas around knives and forks”.

They still do, of course. Though their usage is changing, part of the enduring appeal of dips is that they are finger food. “You are sharing, you are using your hands – it’s a much more engaged, physical experience when you remove the ‘barrier’ of a fork and spoon,” says Charles Banks, co-founder of The Food People, a food trends and ideas agency. Banks puts the escalating popularity of dips – particularly post-pandemic – down to that physical connection, and retailers agree. “Eating habits have become even more informal than they were before,” says Kirsty Rowley, product development manager at M&S, which has seen sales of dips increase steadily since the pandemic.

When hummus appeared on the shop shelves in the late 80s, it also tapped into the growing popularity of Greece and Turkey as holiday destinations. Now that authentic Mexican and Levantine are the cool cuisines on the block, hummus has been joined (in supermarkets) by whipped feta and labneh, and guacamole has been joined by creamed corn. The move away from highly processed, low-fat foods has fuelled the rise of dips that appear to be more authentic, or more indulgent. “We’re seeing a trend for gourmet cheese dips,” says Laura Priest, product development manager at Waitrose, which has brought back the Creamy Pecorino dip it retired four years ago, to viral social media acclaim.

Last week, Waitrose launched a truffle hummus topped with truffle chickpeas. A few weeks previously, M&S launched its summer range of “global-inspired and mega mash-up dips”, which include Chicken Caesar, New York Deli Pastrami and a Fully Loaded Indian Style Dip comprising “all the best bits of an Indian takeaway” in layers of cream, chutney and tandoori spice. It was catnip for foodie TikTokers, playing straight into their prevailing obsession with #grazingboards and #girldinners – the combinations of cheese, charcuterie, dips and other picky bits they eat when (online followers aside) no one is watching. And it encapsulated how the role dips play is expanding – not just accessorising and customising a meal, but almost becoming a meal in their own right.

“They call it ‘loaded’ hummus in the supermarket, but it’s nothing new,” says Eran Tibi of Tel Aviv-inspired restaurants Kapara and Bala Baya. Hummus has always been topped with meat, herbs, nuts and vegetables. It’s the toppings – and the pillowy flat breads – that transform it into a meal. “Our smoky tomato and red pepper dip topped with toasted pine nuts and pul biber chilli is so intense. We have customer reviews saying they’re not using it as a dip, they’re using it as a ‘flavour bomb’ to add to meals,” says Priest. But that’s been true of romesco dip in Spain and salsa in Mexico all along.

That said, the marriage of crisps and dips shows no sign of disintegrating. The range of crispy snacks in supermarkets has never been greater, and increasingly they’re designed with dipping in mind. Though M&S reports that 54% of shoppers use dips as a condiment or to add flavour, 82% still see them as a snack with crisps.

“A bag of chips and a couple of dips makes a lot of people happy. That is universal, across the ages,” says Rowley. It’s a low-risk, low-cost means of entertaining – which is why dips have proven so recession-proof, according to retailers. Oma may be one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants of the year so far, “but if I’m having you round to my gaff, I’m serving crisps and dip,” says Carter. “Nine times out of 10.”

Three delicious dip recipes

Baba ganoush
David Carter, founder, Oma

For the aubergines: Prick two aubergines with a fork all over. Roast in the oven in a roasting tray at 180C (fan) for 45 mins until they are really soft. Remove from the oven and place them in a bowl to cool. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to rest for 20 mins. Confit 50g whole, peeled garlic cloves in olive oil by cooking them slowly in a pan at a low temperature until they are really, really soft. Remove from the oil and mash into a paste. When the aubergine has cooled, peel off the outer skin. Chop the flesh roughly into chunks and place in a bowl. Roughly chop 2g parsley and add to the aubergine. Add 20g olive oil and 20g lemon juice, and 30g of the mashed confit garlic. Add salt and mix well. Taste for seasoning. For the tahini sauce: Put 50g tahini, 25g plain Greek yoghurt and 20g of the garlic confit in a bowl and mix. It will start to split – don’t panic. Start stirring in cold water bit by bit until it comes together once more. You want a creamy, smooth sauce. To serve: Dollop out your baba ganoush as the base, then crown with a generous dose of the tahini sauce. Drizzle with more olive oil, and top with vegetable crisps.

Whipped feta with brown butter pine nuts
Georgina Hayden, from her new book Greek-ish

Crumble 200g feta into a mixing bowl. Stir in 200g Greek yoghurt and the juice of half a lemon. Season well. Use a stick blender to blitz until just smooth. Do not over-blitz this or it’ll end up runny. If it does become a little runny, pop the mixture in the fridge to firm up.

When you are ready to eat, halve, deseed and finely slice 2 green chillies. Pick the leaves of ½ bunch oregano or thyme off the stems. Place 25g butter in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir in 20g pine nuts and the herb leaves. Heat over a medium-low heat. By the time the pine nuts are golden, the butter will be nutty and golden-brown. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the sliced chillies. Spoon the whipped feta on a plate or in a bowl, make a shallow well in the top, pour over the spiced pine nut butter and serve.

Loaded braised lamb hummus
Eran Tibi, executive chef at Bala Baya

For the hummus: Blitz 350g water and 500g cooked chickpeas together. Whisk in 200g tahini paste and 60g lemon juice. Season with salt. For the lamb braise: Mix 30g each of ground cumin, coriander and pepper. Rub gently into the lamb shoulder. Place in a shallow paper-lined tray and roast at 200C for 1 hour. Leave to cool, then add 2cm water. Place paper on top to stop lamb sticking to the foil. Double wrap with tinfoil and cook overnight at 110C in the lower oven. Drain off liquid and leave to cool for 20 minutes. Pull the meat off the bone in large chunks, removing any large fat deposits. Chop up and mix through the rest of the meat. Chill the stock and remove fat, then reduce by half. For the zhoug: Blitz together 25g green chillies, 125g fresh coriander, 26g peeled garlic, 30g lemon juice, 100g tomatoes, cracked black pepper and cardamom pods. Transfer paste to a bowl and fold in 25g olive oil. Taste and season appropriately. For the saffron apricots: Slice 250g apricots in half. Make a sugar syrup in a pan with 150g water, 75g sugar and a pinch of saffron. When sugar has dissolved and syrup is simmering, add apricots and simmer for 10 minutes. Then take off heat. For the Ras el hanout almonds: Toast 250g almonds at 160C for 10 minutes, turning halfway. Mix 12.5g oil with 12.5g Ras el hanout and 5g salt, then roll through almonds. To serve: Top the hummus with the lamb, apricots and almonds and serve with bread of choice.

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