I recently returned from a visit with the in-laws in Amman, Jordan, and although I had been there once before, you can never compare visiting a place as a tourist to experiencing it from the point of view of the natives. Ironically, my wife and, by default her parents, happen to be Palestinian, a group who came to the Royal Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as refugees. While today the number of Palestinians in Jordan exceeds 2 million, their dominance as the major minority has been challenged of late by a flood of Iraqis and more recently Syrians, who have fled here due to conflict in their own lands. In any case, I was very lucky to sample more authentic, home-cooked Palestinian dishes than even Tony Bourdain on his recent visit to the West Bank.
From the first breakfast, my mother-in-law, Faida, an excellent cook, showed off her considerable prowess in the kitchen making 3 types of manaqish, a pizza-like dish which people usually buy at the store instead of taking the trouble to make at home . The first, manaqish jubneh, was topped with a salty cheese similar to feta. The second, manaqish beid, was topped with beaten eggs, which cooked right on top of the dough, and finally manaqueish zaatar, was topped with zaatar, the dried thyme and sesame seed condiment that my wife likes to put in olive oil and use as a dip for bread.
The dough was made like a regular pizza dough using flour, salt, water, yeast, and olive oil. She rolled it out by hand and then added dimples with her fingers so the toppings would embed themselves before baking it in a very hot oven, which gave the manaqish a crispy crust and moist interior. The toppings were simple but very satisfying–especially as a first bite of the day. Most days, however, we had the standard Palestinian “country” breakfast of hummus, fool (a bean dish), falafel, fried eggs, labneh (a soft cheese made from strained yogurt), olives, tomatoes, and pita bread.
While breakfast and dinner are lighter meals in the Middle East (as in Sri Lanka) and virtually interchangeable as far as menu, lunch is considered the primary feed. Therefore, we ate a lot of heavy meals in the middle of the day, usually followed by a nap, which is the best (and only) thing to do when your stomach is bursting and it’s hot as hell outside. My sister-in-law Amal, who’s no slack in the kitchen herself, took over for lunch since her mother had handled breakfast, making a regional specialty called mashboos, which was basically chicken and rice. Baked with cumin and other spices, the chicken is presented atop a mound of basmathi rice, and supplemented by a concoction of sauteed raisins and onions. Amal really likes raisins so half her dish was covered by this concoction, and though she thought she could make a better masboosh, I found the dish to be delicious in its simplicity.
Simplicity, in fact, is the order of the day for Middle Eastern cuisine, which while utilizing many of the spices of the East lets the basic ingredients speak for themselves. Take for example, another lunch dish we ate called a’jeh made of eggs, chopped parsely, onion, and garlic. Similar to a Spanish omlette, the dish is cooked in a pan and then flipped over so the other side can cook. It is served with warmed pita and labneh, the soft yogurt cheese which is definitely an acquired taste.
Another dish I enjoyed was m’sakhan, which again is a fairly straightforward preparation which is more than the sum of its parts. It begins with Taboun bread, which is slightly more chewy and rustic than regular pita bread and cooked on a special convex pan resembling an upside down wok, . My father-in-law purchased a few round slabs at a hole-in-the-wall bakery and brought them back for his wife to complete the dish. First, she carmelized a load of onions in olive oil adding sumac, allspice and saffron. Sumac is a tiny fruit prevalent throughout the Middle East that when dried yields a crimson spice with a tangy flavor. Meanwhile, she roasted bone-in chicken parts that had been marinated in lemon, cinnamon, and garlic. The onion mixture is then slathered on the bread with plenty of olive oil, topped with toasted pine nuts, and eaten with the roasted chicken. What’s not to like about that?
Probably the signature dish of Palestinian cuisine is maqloobeh, which in Arabic translates to “upside down.” Similar in a way to biriyani, this one-pot dish marries chicken and rice cooked together with stock and fried cauliflower (and sometimes chickpeas and eggplant). Then the whole pot is turned upside down onto a big serving platter and eaten with cups of yogurt or salad. The key ingredient is a spice mixture called baharat, which is a combination of cumin, cardamom, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg found at any Middle Eastern grocery. Of course, my mother-in-law went to great lengths to prepare this dish even grinding the whole spices herself to make the baharat, but all her efforts paid off gloriously when we devoured the final product.
My father-in-law is not the kind of guy to be outdone, so after seeing me enjoying all his wife’s cooking, he had to go and make me one of his own specialties–grilled lamb chops. Of course, he wouldn’t tell me how he seasoned them because some secrets are meant to be kept that way!
Of course, we didn’t eat at home everyday, so whenever we ate out, I liked to try dishes with which I was not familiar. Luckily Mediterranean food lends itself to the small plates/tapas style of eating which allows one to try a little bit of everything. At one place I ate sujuk for the first time–a dry, spicy beef sausage apparently of Turkish origin, which had been sauteed in onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes and laced with pine nuts. The sauce of this dish was very similar to the aliyet bandura, a tomato-based dish which provided a perfect dip for the grilled pita topped with sesame seeds. We rounded out this meal with some hummus bil lahme, or hummus topped with tender chunks of lamb and toasted pine nuts, and a tabbouleh salad of parsley, mint, tomatoes, and bulgar wheat.
Another dish that I enjoyed in a restaurant was Kebbeh neyeh, a lamb tartare eaten with raw onions, mint, and a garlic/potato spread that packs loads of flavor. The raw lamb was not gamey in the least, and had obviously been laced with clarified butter and a lot of spices. Though there were plenty of other dishes on the table that night, this is the one I went back to again and again!
Besides sampling the local cuisine, one of the great joys of being in another country is being able to try fruits and vegetables that are not available at home. Sure, we can get pomegranates in the U.S., but not ones that were grown locally and in season.
And how about such things as dates, which grow exclusively on the date palm, which supposedly originated in Iraq. I must admit I have never been a big fan of dates, but plucking a dried one off a big tray at the souk or marketplace and popping it in my mouth tasted great. The fresh dates were even sweeter.
And I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have never ever eaten a fresh fig until I came here. And believe me, they taste a lot better than they do in Fig Newtons.
There are also all manner of nuts and beans available here, which provide the main items for snacking. Besides pistachios, which are probably the most popular, people eat peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews and pumpkin seeds (though they spit out the shell). Fava beans seem to be a popular street food as is sweet corn.
While walking around downtown Jordan in the souk or marketplace, I was surprised at the dearth of streetfood, which is everywhere on the busy corners of Cairo or Beirut. But being that we are still in the Middle East, one thing that is not hard to find is falafel, those crispy nuggets of deep-fried chick peas smothered in hummus, tahini, and rolled up in a pita along with some chopped veggies and pickle. Falafel sandwiches are to the Middle East what the “dirty water” hot dog is to New York City. Jordan is no exception, boasting a great variety of establishments–Al Quds, Hashem–which claim to be the best. They even have a high-end chain called Abu Jbara, which has elevated the art of falafel making to a serious science.
Desserts have always been hit or miss with me when traveling. First of all, I’m usually too full after having gorged myself on all things savory. With all the great desserts we have in America–from chocolate chip cookies and brownies, to pies, cakes, or ice cream–its also tough to compete. I did have one memorable dessert in Jordan, however, and though it begins with a “B” it was not baklava. Basbousa is a semolina cake baked with coconut and soaked in a simple syrup laced with rose water. My mother-in-laws version was supremely moist, but not to sweet, which was why I kept going back for more. As an added attraction it was topped with crushed pistachios.
Thanks to my mother-in-law, Faida Al-Suqi, and father-in-law, Abu Shriek, for lining my belly with a few extra layers of fat for the winter! And special thanks to my lovely wife and assistant camerwoman Manal!