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?
Now scrunch it up and, with flourish, throw it out the window.
We are going to start again.The bread they use at Golden Meal is chewy, elastic almost; when you take a bite there is a subtle delay as the bread stretches up momentarily, then tears. It’s toasted, sporting grill marks on two sides and sealed tight. You could take it out of the tissue paper it’s wrapped in and eat it without a care, it will not unfurl.

The tissue paper is the same kind you would wrap an expensive cashmere sweater in. The effect it two-fold, it’s easy to open and the faint swishing as you peel away adds to the enjoyment (in much the same way that crisps are put into tinfoil packets that rustle to echo the noise of the crunch the potato chip makes when you bite into it). Inside there are three ingredients: garlic sauce, a lone sliver of extra salty pickle and small pieces of browned chicken. (I shake my head when I think of the ridiculously long line at Mustafa’s Gemüsekebap in Kreuzberg, where the chicken schwarmas are 5 times the thickness of those at Golden Meal to accommodate all the lettuce. And where I once saw the guy working the kebab squirt it quickly with fish sauce to try to get the color and umami that he should be achieving naturally.)The reason Layla and I found ourselves in Jordan again, a month after our last trip is because Fifi’s youngest son is getting married.

Fifi (short for Feiruz) is my favourite aunt. She is a tough woman whose strength fills the room.  Her eyes have heavy lids, which droop low, sometimes she looks like she is sleeping but in the kohl-lined slits are light brown eyes, like gold and sometimes darker more like copper.  Her eyes are young, they twinkle.  I feel like this woman knows me even though I see her rarely and her English is not very good while my Arabic is equivalent to that of a two-year old.  Sometimes her mood is dark, people scatter away from her and I start to laugh at her, then her frown breaks, she smiles so wide I can see the gap in her back teeth, the people come back in. I know her too.Her daughter, Ethar offers to make food for us one night. Under Fifi’s supervision she makes us an enormous platter of lamb with rice, sultanas and nuts and Musakhan (a famous Palestinian dish from the West Bank, of onions, sumac and chicken baked on flat bread and garnished with pine nuts). She serves it with a labaneh drink so sour - it’s practically fizzing, undressed rocket leaves, pickled eggplant.Ethar’s thick lashed daughters take videos of each other with Layla, the blondest cousin they will ever have, on their blackberry phones – to post on Facebook (the new generation are ALWAYS online it would seem).

Picture by Bruno Doyle

We were only supposed to stay for 3 days but after checking the weather forecast in Berlin (rain) I decided that days spent among the citrus trees and people with the same large almond-shaped eyes like mine (but much better eyebrows) was the preferable choice.It’s even conceivable that I could live there on day.  If I did, I would buy some land in the valley around the Dead Sea and I would serve food with things grown on that land.  I would string white paper lights in the orange trees (because it only rains 10 days a year).  I would bake bread in wood burning kilns in the garden.

Golden Meal
Normally I would give you an address or a link but these guys have no web presence at all. I will try to find an address for you. But if you go to Salt, it’s the only shawarma restaurant with three rows of cars parked in front of it.

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

  1. Giulia says:

    ahhh, I think I know where that second to last picture is…loved our short stay there, we will have to return and we talk about it often! Oh and I love rice with the vermicelli….

  2. ceciliag says:

    what an amazing time.. i feel how much you love it there, i hope you are able to visit often.. your soul brightens there i think.. c

  3. Michael says:

    All of the food looks delicious!

    I give everyone who eats whole chicken tons of credit. The American in me can only have boneless chicken breasts. I was at an Indian restaurant once and I ordered two entrees on chicken. The first was diced and absolutely delicious. The second was literally a whole chicken dumped in a pot and served to me! It just was so much work to chop up and avoid eating a bone or some non-edible body part. But after looking at these photos, and reading the description, I think I’d be willing to try the chicken.

    How is chicken said in Jordanian Arabic? In formal, it is دجاج or ‘dejej.’ I think levatine just drops the de and keep it as jej.. (Although, the Egyptians butcher it.)

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