Jordan A to Z: O is for … Olives!

Unfortunately, I have fallen way behind in the A to Z blogging challenge!  This being my first time, I don’t know what the official rules are … but I am taking more of a NaNoWriMo approach to it.  As long as I push through and get all 26 entries done by the end of the month then I will be satisfied.  This also means that I am going to have to make my posts a lot shorter.  So here goes.

Olives

One of the delights of Jordan is that delicious olives are readily available.  Most markets (both the open air variety and the western-style super market) have a large selection of fresh olives, not unlike a deli counter back home.  Although prices vary, and I never really bought olives by the kilo back home, my impression is that it is much cheaper to keep yourself in olives here than back in the states.  Jordan is 12th in the world for olive production … which may not sound overly impressive until you realize it is 96th in the world for GDP, 106th for population, 112th for land area and then you realize that tiny Jordan is holding  its own on Olive production!

It seems that almost everyone here who has a little bit of land has an olive tree or two.  When we moved into our new place we actually had a garden with 9 olive trees! Trees can either be pruned for cultivation or allowed to grow a bit wild for shade.  These ones were definitely left for shade and we are thinking about having them pruned back for production as you can pick your own olives and have them milled into fresh oil.  However, friends of ours who have perhaps a dozen trees picked a lot of olives this year and when they brought their pickings to the miller he laughed and out of sympathy milled them for them.  It produced a couple of liters of olive oil only.  Apparently it takes 5-7 kilos (11-15 lbs) of olives to make a liter of olive oil!  The miller usually was dealing with 100s of kilos of olives.

If your olive trees over hang into the street the poor are allowed to glean from them and this year I witnessed this a few times.  Sometimes people will knock on your door and ask if they can harvest your olives if you do not want them. Olive trees are hardy, living for hundreds (some say thousands) of years, providing sustenance and income for a family for generations.

Olives!

 

Jordan A to Z: N is for … Nana (or more accurately نعناع )

Nothing beats the smell of fresh picked Nana.  It is so delightfully refreshing and Jordanians use it in a handful of wonderful ways.  What pray tell is Nana?  First of all it is really نعناع  which when transliterated correctly looks like “na3naa3.”  For those readers not used to seeing words spelled with numbers, 3 is commonly used in the transliteration of Arabic to represent the Arabic letter 3ayn, which we do not have a formal equivalent of in the English language.  the ‘3’ is pronounced almost like the ‘a’ in ‘father’ but the sound comes from deeper in your throat with a fair amount of voicing.  And it’s a consonant rather than a vowel.  The sound is difficult for English speakers … so many default to some version of an ‘a’ sound, especially in words like Nana.

Oh, right nana! What is it?  Nothing less than the wonderfully delicious and ultimately refreshing … mint!

Anyone who has grown mint knows that it is off and running like a weed.  This is a great thing if you have uses for it … and the Jordanians have many.  Besides the ubiquitous garnish on hummus, baba gannouj and other spreads, salads and dips, mint has three uses in Jordan that I am particularly fond of.

Nana Number One – Mint Tea

شاي بنعناع

Probably more popular than water, you are never more than 50 yards away from a mint tea seller in Amman.  Whether it is from a cafe, a restaurant, a falafil cart, or simply a guy walking around with a teapot, a stack of plastic cups and a wad of mint stuffed in his belt … you can always find somewhere to get your fix.  I must confess that in my university study days I may have gotten addicted to having a hit of mint tea before facing class each day.  It’s hard to say what is most enticing . . . the caffeine, the copious amounts of sugar, or the nice fresh minty flavor.

Tea for two, Jordanian style

Nana Number Two – Mint Lemonade

ليمون بنعناع

Limon bi Nana or Mint Lemonade - a must try while in Jordan!

Ok, seriously, it may not be too much to say that you have not truly lived until you have tasted a Jordanian Mint Lemonade, or as it is called here ‘Limon bi Nana.’  It is so unique and refreshing!  Each place that serves it up has a slightly different recipe and spin.  Some add ice to make more of a slushy, others serve it as a juice.  Some places have more mint, others more sugar.  But in the end they are all roughly the same.  A very tart lemonade made with fresh squeezed lemons blended together with tons of mint and varying amounts of sugar.  I would say that most places go light on the sugar (which seems counter-cultural here in Jordan).  The result is the perfect summer drink!

Nana Number Three – Mint Flavored Hookah

A typical hookah or arghile pipe

Hookah is very popular in Jordan as it is all over the Middle East.  The name for it here is ‘arghile’ (pronounced ar-gee-la) or ‘sheesha’ (pronounced like it looks).  I think the term hookah is of Indian or perhaps Persian origin and is only just catching on here.  Usually when they refer to arghile in English, Arabs will call it ‘hubbly-bubbly’ which I had never heard until arriving in Jordan, so I wonder if it is a Britishism.

For those unfamiliar with the hookah – it is a water pipe that has been used for centuries by the Arabs for smoking tobacco.  In the US, the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s has forever tainted the image of a hookah as primarily being used to smoke illicit drugs.  Such is not the case here in the Middle East.  It’s just tobacco!  The term ‘sheesha’ doesn’t help as many American English speakers will automatically associate it with marijuana … but that is certainly not the case!

Arghila tobacco is unique in that it is very moist.  It is blended with molasses and different kinds of flavorings.  Jordanians prefer fruity flavors, so options tend to be: apple, double apple, cherry, melon, fruit cocktail, grape, etc.  Another popular vein is mint flavors.  There is just plain mint, but they also mix it with other flavors particularly lemon or grape.

Mint-flavored arghile tobacco

So it is entirely possible on a Thursday night outing in Amman to sit at a cafe enjoying a nice cool mint lemonade with a hookah filled with mint tobacco and chase it all down with some mint tea.  Perhaps a bit much all in one sitting … but all three are delicious reminders of life here in Jordan.

Jordan A to Z: M is for … Mansaf or Msakhan!

MMMmmmmmm . . . It is only fitting that ‘M’ is for two of the most delicious meals offered in Jordan!  While it is true that there are many delicious Arabic dishes that start with the letter M (check out Jim’s delicious post on Maqluube), these two are often at the top of the list as favorites.

Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish

A platter of mansaf.

Anyone who has traveled to Jordan, or even has read about traveling to Jordan has probably heard of Mansaf.  A guidbeook section on Jordanian cuisine cannot be complete without mentioning this tasty meal.  Even government websites extol the virtues of Mansaf.  So (for the uninformed), what is Mansaf? It is lamb  cooked till falling off the bone perfection, served over a bed of rice, topped with warm jameed (yoghurt sauce), sprinkled with pine nuts and/or almonds, and often accompanied by large pieces of shraak (Bedouin style flat bread).

An individual portion of mansaf.

At a restaurant, or I suppose in someone’s house, you might be served an individual serving on an individual plate.  However, mansaf is traditionally served on a huge round serving dish, and is consumed as a communal meal straight from the platter.  Traditionally, the platter is set on the floor and 10 or so people would sit around it and eat everything with their hands.  This takes some getting used to for the uninitiated or cutlery-dependent, but really is not so bad once you get the hang of it.  (The trick is rolling the rice into a ball around a core piece of chicken.  Also, remember this has to be done only with the right hand as the left is considered unclean.)

Of course some Jordanians will offer you a plate and spoon or fork if you are visiting. But not all.  And if you are able to try your best at eating with your hands without batting an eye … your status definitely goes up in the sight of your host.  Once when I visited a bedouin village, I ate mansaf with my hands without hesitation.    Later when I was walking around meeting people in the village my host told everyone, “he eats like us …. with his hands!”

Eating mansaf Bedouin-style!

You say Musakhan, I say Msakhan

A typical platter of Msakhan.

Another delicious dish starts with ‘m’ but after that there everyone seems to disagree how to spell the word in English.  There are a handful of variants … but they all spell one thing in my  book … delicious!  Now I must say from the outset that msakhan, although very popular in Jordan, is actually of Palestinian origin.  But seeing as how 40-60% of the population are Palestinian or of Palestinian background, msakhan  remains a crowd pleaser here in Jordan.

A smaller plate of Msakhan to be shared with 2-3 people.

And really, what’s not to like?  Msakhan consists of carmelized onions, warm bread, and chicken cooked to perfection.  First a ton of onions are cooked in olive oil with a citrusy but purple spice known as sumac.  Then a layer of flatbread is arranged on a platter.  Some of the onion mixture is ladled over the bread, then the chicken is placed down, and often more onion mix and more bread.  The whole thing is cooked in an oven and the result is … soooo very good!

The chicken and the bread are often both crispy on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside.  The onion mixture bakes onto the bread creating a on-of -a-kind crust that is really hard to stop eating.  As with Mansaf pine nuts or almonds are usually sprinkled over the finished product.  It too is often served on a large communal platter and of the two dishes is by far the easier to eat sans utensils.

An award-winning platter of Msakhan in Palestine in 2010.

In Conclusion

Both meals are quite heavy and not for the faint of heart.  You will probably not be doing your cholesterol any favors, especially with msakhan.  But if you have an opportunity to experience either one … you must! Beyond tasting great,  both of these dishes hold a special place in Jordanian and Palestinian culture. One is a source of national pride and hearkens back to the country’s Bedouin roots.  The other is like Middle Eastern soul food that reminds many of grandma’s kitchen and table.

So the real question is … which do you prefer?  Answer the poll below and let us know!

Jordan A to Z: H is for … Hummus!

Mmmmmm …. hummus!

Nothing beats a nice bowl of fresh Jordanian hummus.  I’m not talking about the prepackaged stuff you buy at the supermarket in the States or Europe with it’s designer flavors and mispronounced name.  No, I am talking about the stuff that is a labor of love … whose beans have been soaked for hours and whose ingredients are just the essentials.  Never yellow or beige, or (egads!) orange … it’s off-white color accented by bits of green parsley or mint or purple sumac speak of careful handcrafting.  It is smooth and creamy, and perfectly balances the bitterness of tahini with the tang of lemon juice.  Mmmmm …. hummus!

A local feast of hummus, falafil, batata, ful, and khubz at Hashem's in downtown Amman.

Truly, once you have tried hummus in Jordan, you will never be satisfied with what is offered up as hummus elsewhere in the world.  What, you may ask, is the difference?  First and foremost I would have to say texture.  Jordanian hummus is smooth … never chunky.  You cannot over blend your chickpeas when making hummus.  To get it right you have to let it go on the food processor for 15, 20, maybe even 30 minutes.  I learned this from a guy who has been making hummus for two decades.  Every morning you can walk into his hole-in-the-wall shop and see his industrial grade mixer that looks more like an outboard motor than a food processor churning away at a huge vat of creamy delicious goodness.

The next thing that sets Jordanian hummus apart is simplicity.  Not to mix haram and halal … but it’s like the Bavarian purity laws restricting the number of ingredients for beer in Germany.  The best hummus is simply:

  • Chick Peas
  • Tahini
  • Lemon Juice
  • Olive Oil
  • Garlic

And maybe some salt.  Baking Soda is used in the soaking process … but it is not a main ingredient.  That’s all you need.  Jordanian hummus tends to have a lot of tahini flavor to it followed by lemon juice and very light on the garlic, if at all.  That’s it … no sun-dried tomatoes, or greek olives, or roasted red peppers, or whatever other nonsense makes it into supposedly “gourmet” hummus these days.

That’s not to say there are not variations on the theme when it comes to hummus in Jordan.  It’s just that the additional flavors tend to come from toppings and are not blended in with the hummus itself.

Hummus bi snobar (with pine nuts)

Hummus topped with pine nuts. Mmmmm.

Hummus bi lahme (with meat)

Hummus topped with meat (typically ground lamb or beef)

Hummus bi shawerma (with shawerma – my favorite!)

Hummus topped with lamb shawerma ... also possible with chicken.

It’s like the classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial from back in the states, “Hey somebody put Shawerma in my Hummus!” “Hey, someone put Hummus in my Shawerma!”  Seriously you cannot go wrong with that combination.

Hummus in Jordan is also typically dressed with either olive oil, or a combination of olive oil and a citrus-jalapeno-garlic sauce that is amazing!

The last thing that sets Jordanian Hummus apart is it’s taste.  The flavor profile highlights the sesame of the tahini and the citrus from the lemons.  There should not be a “beany” flavor at all in the ideal bowl of hummus.

Jordanian Hummus at it's best!

Mmmmmm …. hummus!  If you are looking for the quintessential bowl of hummus in Jordan check out Hashem’s downtown (near the post office), Dream Restaurant in Ashrafiyeh (East Amman), or any of the Abu Jbara branches throughout the city.

Check out these other A to Z bloggers:

I’m trying to link to 5 other random A to Z bloggers when I have the time.  These are completely randomly chosen from the almost 2000 participants, so I can’t vouch for their content … but so far everything I have seen has been interesting.  Check them out if you have the time!

1278.
And this one is not random … don’t forget to stop by and see how Jim, my friend and fellow Blogger-in-Jordan, is doing on the A to Z Challenge at  The Left Wright Brain.  Rumor has it great minds think alike when it comes to what H stands for in the country of Jordan!

When Soup Tastes Better than Steak

There was a knock on the kitchen door the other day around 4:45 PM.  It was Joe (not his real name) our Egyptian building super.  We exchanged Arab greetings and pleasantries by my front door and then he explained the purpose of his call.  He and his family wanted to bring us supper.  Of course being Americans supper was already cooking on the stove.  He explained that they wanted to bring us chicken and rice and some Egyptian food.  I asked what time and he said after two or two and a half hours. 7:15 – still early by Arab standards, but my wife had a meeting at my son’s school at 7 PM and the kids were already ravenous.  I told him about the meeting.

“No problem Mister.”  I can’t get him to stop calling me Mister. “We will come in one hour.”

How could I refuse?

Supper was halted and we rushed around preparing the house.  It wasn’t exactly clear to us what was about to happen.  Joe had tried to bring us supper before but that day we had guests already coming.  At that time it had sounded like they were planning to share the meal with us. I had said that we could easily go to their place another time, but Joe had protested, “No, no, it will be more comfortable for you here.  Our room is very small.”

This is true.

Joe and his wife and three kids (10, 6, and 2, maybe?) live in a room off from the garage under our apartment building.  Ok, there’s also a closet with a squatty-potty and a shower and one other small room which really serves as Joe’s “workshop” and storage space. Their main room is made of uninsulated cinder block and was an afterthought addition to the building.  Inside are two metal framed cots with thin mattresses, a TV on a wobbly table, A small storage shelf with food items and a two burner hotplate on another shelf.  There’s a pictures of Saint George slaying the dragon, Fr. Zakaria Botros, and Pope Shenouda III on the bare white walls.  (These three are all popular with coptic Christians.)  The paint is flaking away from the cinder block and there are a couple of threadbare carpets on the ground.  When I have visited Joe and his family before they have spread out newspapers as a mat to eat or drink on.

So, yes, I supposed we would be more comfortable eating in our comparatively palatial apartment complete with a dining room table, chairs, new rugs, sofas, and fresh paint.

We didn’t know what to expect as the hour ticked down.  Were they just bringing food to give to us?  Or were they going to eat with us?  We prepared for both outcomes with a clear table in the dining/living room and a tray of dishes ready in the kitchen to be set if they all arrived to eat with us.

About an hour and a half after Joe first stopped by, the doorbell rang.  It was Joe and his 10-year old daughter and 6-year old son (who has become a buddy of my son lately).  They were decked out in some of their best clothes.  They brought with them two small-ish serving bowls. One covered with  good sized piece of khubz (pita bread) and another with a metal lid. The first bowl was filled with rice and a roasted chicken. The second contained a chicken and parsley based Egyptian soup.  With the usual exchange of Arab pleasantries of invoking peace on each other’s lives, hands, hearts, kidneys, livers, and . . .  (ok I’m just just kidding, but sometimes it seems that way)  they put the aromatic food on the table and began to take their leave.

Parsley Soup, Chicken & Rice, Bread

We invited them to stay and eat with us, but they declined insisting that the food was a gift for us.

I can’t say that parsly infused chicken broth is really my thing, but that night it tasted far better than the most expensive steak on the menu of the finest steakhouse in Chicago.  Out of their poverty our neighbors had blessed us with far richer fare than we normally enjoy.

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, ended last weekend with the annual multi-day festival and holiday of Eid Al-Fitr.  I don’t really have much to blog about that right now, but I do have a Ramadan related post that’s been sitting around for a couple of weeks waiting to get polished up for “publishing”.  So without further ado, here are my thoughts from a couple of weeks ago during the height of Ramadan . . .

Thursday night is the Friday night of back home.  The work week is finished and people are looking forward to the weekend.  Traffic is always crazy here in Amman on Thursday afternoons because, just like stateside,  people like to start their weekends early.  This past Thursday I decided to enjoy iftaar with a buddy down at Hashem’s Restaurant in the balad, or Old City.

For those who don’t know,  iftaar is the evening meal used to break the day’s fast during Ramadan.  The timing of iftaar is strictly regulated by the sunset call to prayer.  The word iftaar is related to the Arabic word for eating breakfast – typically a morning meal, even here in Jordan.  However, breakfast (iftaar) during Ramadan occurs in the evening, and appropriately so as people are more literally breaking their fast during this time of the year than any other.

I met my buddy at Hashem’s (Amman’s most famous falafil and hummus place) an hour early.  We wanted to make sure we got a seat.  Restaurants are more crowded at iftaar time during Ramadan than any other time of the year.  People arrive early and wait to break the fast together.  It’s not unusual to find every table in a restaurant full before iftaar.  Food orders are often taken and served in the hour leading up to the time to break the fast.   Those final few minutes are a true test of the will as people wait for the call to prayer with steaming plates of food in front of them.  I once saw a group of teenage girls cover their glasses of soda with their napkins to avoid the temptation.  It has to be a logistical nightmare for cooks and waiters to have hot food on every table at exactly the same time every day for a month.  Not to mention the fact that they haven’t eaten all day either.

Anyways, we thought being an hour early would be a good idea on a Thursday night.  As it turned out, we timed it perfectly.  Although we were two of the first people to arrive at Hashem’s, tables filled up quickly.  Fortunately we were able to nab one of the two prime tables up on a little patio overlooking the rest of the alley.  Yes, that’s right – the alley.  No, I’m not talking about the view from the restaurant, I’m talking about the location of the entire place

Hashem's Restaurant before iftaar during Ramadan 2009.  Note the festive lights hung across the alley.

Hashem's Restaurant before iftaar during Ramadan 2009. Note the festive lights hung across the alley, and on the bldgs across the street. Strings of Ramadan lights (usually with a star or crescent moon motif) go up around the city during the holy month, much like Christmas lights back home.

Crowded between two buildings  the alley that is Hashem’s Restaurant.  White plastic tables and chairs line the narrow space.  Doors and windows open up  into the buildings on either side for more seating and cooking areas .  On the left hand side are the falafil and french fry fryers, on the right the hummus and the fool.  No, I’m not insulting someone – it’s another bean-type dip – you could think of it like the Arab take on refried beans.

One look tells you that Hashem’s is a no-frills eatery.  The alley.  The plastic chairs.  The lack of a menu.  Options are limited to pita, hummus, fool, french fries, and 2 kinds of falafil.  It’s customary at Hashem’s to drink tea Arab style, meaning with lots of sugar and fresh mint. You can also have a can of soda.  Bottled water is available, but most opt to drink the room temperature stuff poured from plastic pitchers into communal steel cups (one or two per table, or shared between tables)  There’s also a chance you might see someone drinking straight from the pitcher.  Not usually – but I have seen it.  The owner’s nickname on the sign kind of says it all “Abu Al-Shabbab” which literally means “Father of the Guys.”  Shabaab are young single teen and twenty-something guys.  If you don’t immediately identify them from demographic profiling you can recognize them easily as they typically travel in packs, wear tight shiny polyester button-up shirts (often purple in color), a lot of cologne, and plenty of hair gel.

As soon as we sat down at our prime table the shabaab began to arrive.  Slowly at first, but a steady stream filled the plastic chair and tables set up deep from the bowels of the alley right out onto the sidewalk itself.  Of course it wasn’t just young guys arriving at Hashem’s that night to break their fast with falafil and hummus.   There were also families with young children, tourists wearing khaki shorts, Gulfies dressed head to toe in white robes, well-heeled folks coming from work, and others who by appearance might have been a bit down on their luck.  The beauty of Hashem’s is that everyone can and does eat there – from the king himself straight down to beggars off the street.  Partly because it’s so cheap (1-2.50 JD per person – TOTAL), but also because the food is so tasty.  And there’s lots of it!  The waiters just keep coming around giving you more food until you’ve had your fill – which you always do.  No one leaves Hashem’s hungry.

As the alley filled with people, the shadows lengthened and the Ramadan lights strung above us twinkled on.  The owner stopped at our table and asked if an older gentleman could sit with us. Of course he could.  We exchanged pleasantries but he was quiet and didn’t seem to want to talk.  Waiters were bustling around laying down paper place mats, and putting water pitchers, hot sauce, and veggie plates on the tables.  The falafil guys were working up a sweat, spooning balls of ground fava beans and chick peas into vats of boiling oil.  I like to think the hot oil sterilizes the sweat.  Bowls of hummus were being prepared by the dozens and large trays of fresh pita bread were brought in from a neighboring bakery.

Fresh warm bread!  Too bad there isn't a scratch and sniff feature for blogs.  One of the great things about Amman is you can eat the best pita in the world everyday.  You're never far from a bakery.

Fresh warm bread! Too bad there isn't a scratch and sniff feature for blogs. One of the great things about Amman is you can eat the best pita in the world everyday. You're never far from a bakery and carb-lovers paradise.

The guy in charge (owner? manager?) stepped out on our little patio and bellowed, “rubi3 saa3a!”  (15 minutes!)  The waiters kicked it up a notch.  Which still might have seemed slow by Western standards – but the pace did quicken.

During this whole dance that is the pre-iftaar rush another thing unique to hummus places was happening.  People were streaming in with their own dishes to be filled with hummus and fool to be taken back home to break the fast there. Takeout Arab-style – bring your own container!

When the time to start the meal neared, it was quite loud in the alley.  All of the food had been set before us – warm bread, piping hot falafil, and yummy looking hummus and fool.  The air was abuzz – perhaps it was just normal conversation, or perhaps people were trying to ignore the delicious meal in front of them as the final minutes of the day’s fast ticked down.  The guy in charge stood on  the little patio again and looked down the alley and across the street.  Someone on the balcony of the coffee shop over there was listening for the call to prayer and signaled to him when it was time to start eating.

Our silent table companion waved towards the feast before us, “Tfaddlu…”

“If you please…”

It’s all he had to say.  We tucked in with all the rest; those who were breaking their fast, and others, like us, who were soaking up the fascinating culture of the Middle East like pieces of pita dipped in hummus.

Our breakfast at Hashem's.  Clockwise from the top: Green plastic water pitcher, communal steel drinking cup, red peppers, "veggie tray" (in middle) including raw onions tomatoes and mint, a bowl of fool (bottom right), a bowl of hummus, green citrus/pepper sauce, french fries,  falafil (the larger ones have onions, and sesame seeds), pita bread, glass of tea.  $4.50 for two people!  Ramadan Kareem!

Our breakfast at Hashem's. Clockwise from the top: Green plastic water pitcher, communal steel drinking cup, red peppers, "veggie tray" (in middle) including raw onions tomatoes and mint, a bowl of fool (bottom right), a bowl of hummus, green citrus/pepper sauce, french fries, falafil (the larger ones have onions inside and sesame seeds outside), pita bread, more hummus and a glass of tea. $4.50 for two people! Ramadan Kareem!

Amman Street Food #1, An Introduction

Well, summer’s half over, so I decided I needed to get cracking onmy summer series on Street Food in Amman.  Especially seeing as how Ramadan starts in the middle of August.  Of course that doesn’t rule out eating street food – it just shifts it to later at night. I actually went out for some “field research” tonight.  I guess you could call it a Shawerma Crawl!  I hit 5  places and tried 6 different samples of this quintessential street food. It wasa lot of fun!  But more on that in my second installment.

Why did I choose to do this series?  Well, for starters food is a topic everyone enjoys.  And is especially important for those who find themselves traveling in foreign lands.  I hope these entries will provide some interesting bits of info on Middle Eastern/Jordanian culture and food but also serve as a bit of a resource for travelers.  One thing I have noticed here is a lack of good online info re. eating in Amman – whether street food or 5-star cuisine.  Unlike in the States it’s had to find restaurants with websites and when they do they don’t often have e-menues.  Of course that is another discussion entirely b/c we’re supposed to be talking about Street Food and when was the last time you heard of a hotdog cart with a URL?

So why Street Food?  I think it says a lot about a culture.  It’s what they eat when their on-the-go, in-a-hurry, getting from point-a to point-b.  It’s gotta be portable and convienient, but it has to be tasty enough to be worth the trouble to walk and eat.  I guess that’s how I see street food as different, or perhaps a subset of fast food.  With fast food, you expect a quick preparation and fast service.  But you’ll drive to a restaurant and sit down and eat it inside, on the premises, or drive home and eat it.  For me street food is like the Hot Dog vendor on the corner in Chicago, or the popcorn store, the ice cream shop, or the NY pizzeria that sells slices to-go.  It someplace that you can duck in and duck out of quickly to grab a snack or meal to eat on the run, or somewhere nearby while your sight-seeing or commuting.

There are no hotdog carts here, but street food is alive and well in Amman, Jordan.  The funny thing is they would never call it street food.  I’ve tried to get people to tell me what the Arab equivalent would be and I always get a blank stare.  Food of the street?  Food for the street?  Food for eating in the street?  None of it makes sense in the Arabic language or perhaps even the Arab mindset.  They don’t even have a word per se for “snack.”  The closest they come is “small meal.”

I think this is due to the fact that unlike in America where it’s perfectly acceptable to wolf down a Big Mac in the privacy of your SUV while barreling down the highway for an important meeting, here meals are in some ways sacred.  They are a a communal experience of hospitality and intimacy.  Lives are shared, alliances forged, and committments made in the context of meals.  It is one of the most important ways for people to share life together.  So even when they speak of a snack or fast food it is a small MEAL.

The communal nature of eating is evident here when men buy a sandwhich and stand around inside or within 10 feet of the shack that sold it too them.  Sharing their small meal in the company of strangers made family even if for the briefest moment because they are all noshing on goat brains rolled tightly in a pita.  Oh, with extra hot sauce, please!

Sharing is the other phenomenon that marks the communal nature of meals (even small ones) in this culture.  I can’t count the number of times a taxi driver (who is a complete stranger to me) will earnestly offer me a bite of his half-eaten falafil sandwhich!

Despite the interesting cultural spins (and lack of a satisfying, to me, moniker) street food is much a part of life here in Amman.  From Shawerma and Falafil, to brains on pita and eggs on rolls, and from bags of corn or fava beans to honey-drenched confections or ice cream cones theres a lot of vareity and interesting stuff to explore.

I’m working on my shawerma entry – look for it soon!