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, 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 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 inside and sesame seeds outside), pita bread, more hummus and a glass of tea. $4.50 for two people! Ramadan Kareem!
Filed under: culture, Food, Jordan | Tagged: Amman, Amman, Arab Culture, Arab Culture, Arab food, cross-cultural experiences, Crossing Cultures, culture, Falafil, Food, Hashem's Restaurant, Hummus, Jordan, Local Life, Ramadan, restaurant | 8 Comments »