Ruman in Amman, Jordan

Apricot chicken skewersI missed the memo that it was Ramadan, (or I ignored it more likely). So for the past month we’ve been firmly planted at my father’s home in Ruman, Jordan (Ruman means pomegranate in Arabic, lovely, isn’t it?).  The kids and I have been living on our pomegranate hill, which is planted not with pomegranates but with figs, grapes, apples, stone fruit and citrus trees. Read more of this post

The Best Shawarma in Jordan, gelatinous Mulukhiya and celebrating sumac with Musakhan

I wonder if DNA has memories? Besides being responsible for the color of my eyes, is there an imprint of my origin? Birds know to migrate south for the winter, salmon swim upstream to spawn. It’s conceivable isn’t it?  I ask because despite living in large cities like Athens, Paris, London and now Berlin for the past 20 years – when I go to Jordan I feel…there is really no other way to put this…I feel at home?The dusty city of Amman is teeming with cars and colorful trucks. Except for the road to the airport, most don’t have any white lines to delineate lanes. I initially attribute the drunken weaving of the cars to their absence. Until I notice that most cars are hampered by other considerations: like drivers that are simultaneously on two mobile phones or little vans so stuffed with people, they have their arms around each other’s shoulders. When a car in front veers perilously close to another, the car horn is lightly tapped, so a faint teet-teet can be heard (nothing like the way they lean on the horn in Berlin when some imperceptible offence has been committed, sometimes I think the driver has expired on the steering wheel, it’s that bad.)To me, one thing is unique in Jordan, the twinkle in people’s eye, the ready smile, the teasing that starts within moments of meeting someone. There is something childlike, a cheeky inquisitiveness. They seem capable of enjoying my enjoyment and wonderment as if it was their own.

I see this most the last day, when the perpetually barefoot Egyptian gardener brings up a plate of 3 Poussin, a bowl of Mulukhiya and a big pot of glistening rice with dark vermicelli noodles scattered throughout. (My father had mentioned that I liked it when I was a child.) There is an almost audible hum of pleasure emanating from the small man as I exclaim my hapiness.“Hadda min tahat” he grins, swiping his index finger across his throat in a rapid motion. It means: “These are from down there.” ‘These’ being the chickens. I don’t mourn them; I reach in and begin tearing into the small birds. There is no trace of the exaggerated rubber skin that is the standard in Europe (even in organic birds). The skin literally shatters. There are secret pockets where I know the most succulent meat will be: behind the shoulder blades, the oysters, the leg meat is the color of bark. Mulukhiya is a dark green soup made from the serrated leaf of  Corchorus olitorius or Jew’s Mallow (Very interesting post about the journey of Mulukhiya from Africa to Egypt’s national dish on the blog Food Bridge).  It has slimy properties, which are augmented when you add lemon. And you always add lemon. Then the soup takes on the property of raw egg whites, when you scoop your spoon through it, the entire contents of the bowl try to come with it. I’m not sure why I love it so much when things like creamed spinach, which I would think, is similar but nowhere near as pronounced, make me gag. (Maybe it’s the DNA thing again?)  I get through 4 bowls.

Even though only a couple of hours before I had been driven to the Christian city of Salt (the one from the bible) to have a chicken shawarma from the rather oddly named Golden Meal TM.Take everything you believe to be true about shawarma.
Got it?
Good.
Now scrunch it up and, with flourish, throw it out the window.
We are going to start again. Read more of this post

Cardamom Burnt Creams with Coffee Ice Cream (+ a short visit to Jordan)

Do you know what you are looking at? Banana fields through a mosquito mesh from my trip to Jordan last week.

We spent a lot of time at a private farm close to the Dead Sea, which to me is the most magical place on earth: 330 days of sunlight a year, low humidity, dry air, 1,200 feet below sea level – it all adds up to making it unique, I would go as far as to call it otherworldly. The light is tinged with copper and it makes everything look rich. Things that shimmer should, the pool for example but also things that shouldn’t. A stretch of date trees, looking like a bunch of fat ladies wearing overlapped necklaces of dates. Sometimes the farm hands put nets around the dates, to prevent the birds from getting at them and to keep the dates from falling to the ground. The fecundity of the land astounds me, eggplants that have been dried by the sun litter the fields, the pickers unable to keep up with the squat bushes production. There is more fruit in the citrus trees than there are leaves. I eat a pomelo a day, every day, for four days. I borrow from the Vietnamese and pick some searingly hot chiles, dice them up, toss them with salt and dip the pomelo segments into it. I set out to convert every person I meet and succeed. My suitcase back to Berlin is brimming with pomelos, as well as seedless pomegranates, chile peppers, cardamom pods, a quarter kilo of sumac, oh – and pine kernels in the shell from Afghanistan.These pine kernels, no relation at all to the soft, almost rancid specimens around here.  They are sweet, nutty with a good snap to them.  You can toast them sure but there is no need to.  If you know me, pester me to give you some of these, they are outstanding!

We spent one day at a house in ‘Ruman’ district (which translates as the ‘pomegranate’ district – don’t you love that?).  Everyone seemed to be dithering so I decided to make myself useful and pick the ripe olives, my father had said that if I collected enough, he would take me to a local press to turn them into olive oil. 2 hours of dedicated picking, yielded about 2 shopping bags full.  You don’t make a trip to the press unless you’ve got sackfuls, about 5.  My father comes out and sees me gingerly picking one olive at a time and starts laughing.  I instantly understand why olive picking is a group activity, that takes all day long and is treated like a celebration.  “You know olive picking days are where the most romantic matches are made.” my father tells me.  “Why? Because all the girls are bending over?” I joke.  He rolls his eyes at me and smiles, at this point he’s used to my humor I guess.We go to the press anyway.  It’s a heady mix of motor oil and olive oil.  The machines make a terrible racket. Read more of this post

Reflections on Jordan

My two weeks in Jordan gave me some significant insight into myself.  Jordanians are possibly the most food obsessed people on the planet.  And my father is Jordanian, so it’s no wonder then, that I go on and on about food; it’s in my genes.
Jordanians are either eating, talking about eating or thinking about what they are gong to eat.  To this end, the provenance of their food is very important.  Not in the conscious way that it is in Europe in the minds of the nutritionally educated but in an inherent instinctual way.

Most things are organic because the land is rich enough to produce unaided and because industrial farming is, for the most part, not present.

A lot of families have an olive grove somewhere, or maybe a few trees or perhaps know of a few trees that they can plunder so that they can take their olives to a communal press and have their own olive oil made.  (And here I thought my mother’s friend from Crete was extreme, eschewing supermarket olive oil because ‘they put stuff in it” in favour of giant cans she would bring back to Athens with her from her village in Chania).

I risked paying a fine for excess luggage and lugged back a 3kg bag of Terra Rossa, hand-picked, extra virgin olive oil (0.8 % acidity).

If you want chicken, you go to the butchers, point at the live specimen which is quickly and efficiently dispatched to chicken heaven.  

Read more of this post

Zad el Khair, Iraqi Food, Amman Jordan

In Iraq they have rivers flanked by restaurants, they fish out carp and split them open like a book, impale them on wooden sticks and position them close enough to an open fire so that they take on a smoky flavor but far enough so that they cook slowly, over the course of one hour. If you eat only the meat from the belly, there are no bones to contend with.

I haven’t been to Iraq and I have been told the rivers have become so polluted that the fish are no longer safe to eat.

The fish I ate at the Iraqi restaurant Zad el Khair in Amman originally came from the rivers of Syria and was fished out still alive from a shallow pool of water. There it thrashed about on the tile floor while a man delivered some ineffective blows to its head. The carp doesn’t even have time to go into rigor mortis, so quick is its journey from pool to plate. Read more of this post

A garden in Jordan

“Would you like me to kill a rabbit for you?” The gardener’s wife asked, when she saw Layla and I playing with the rabbits.

I unintentionally recoiled.  “Oh no, we are just playing with them.”

“You eat rabbit?” she continued

“Umm, yes.” My Arabic isn’t good enough to explain that, like many city people, I am a total hypocrite when it comes to meat-eating.  (The one time I had to gut and de-feather a pheasant at Leiths, I was entirely without appetite when it came to eating the finished dish.) 

Read more of this post

Habibah, knafeh, Amman, Jordan

I only eat knafeh at Habibah, in Jordan. The last time I ate it was in 2006, when my husband and I got married.

Maybe all that waiting and pining is what makes me think it’s the best knafeh on the planet. But then again, no, I think because it’s the best knafeh on the planet, it’s worth the wait.

When we drove up to the shop I yelled “Habibah, Habibi! (darling)” the whole car started laughing at my unguarded enthusiasm.

How to describe it?

There are two kinds of knafeh; my favorite is a layer of cream that is boiled until it takes on the consistency of a rubbery stringy cheese (a bit like melted unsalted haloumi if you can imagine it). On top of that is shredded filo and then the whole lot is doused in sugar syrup. Read more of this post

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