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!

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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!

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!

Just Another Bag of Bread

To the untrained eye it may just look like another bag of bread. Of course, to the untrained eye it may not even look like that. Yes, this is generally how we buy our bread or khubz (خُبز) here in Jordan. We try to get it fresh from a nearby bakery every couple of days, but can also pick it up day-old from any number of little convenient-store-like shops.

Xubz (pita bread) from a local maxbaz (bakery)

Xubz (pita bread) from a local maxbaz (bakery)

The bread itself is flat and round and has a pocket like a pita. It comes in small (pictured here) and large sizes. It is so good fresh and still warm from the bakery. It’s fluffy, soft-but-not-too-soft, chewy, and just a touch of sweetness. You can’t buy anything like it in the States. Pita back home tends to be either paper thin, or super thick, and usually tough and stale – this stuff is just right.  When you buy it at the bakery they pick it up off from the wooden rack and put the amount you want directly in  a plastic grocery bag.

But I digress . . .

Last night I picked up our weekly meal of “Dream Chicken.” Dream is the name of a restaurant in our neighborhood. It’s not much to look at, but the food is great. They serve up rotisserie chicken, hummus, falafil, foul, french fries, and a couple of different Middle Eastern salads. The guys that work there are Egyptian and for whatever reason they’ve taken a liking to me – it’s usually an hour excursion to go get our supper. Last night they sat me down at the back table where workers sit in between customers, served me tea and we had a rambling conversation as I sipped tea and watched them do their jobs. (but that’s another post entirely).

As I left Dream and was walking down the hill, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for bread. I had no worries as they actually get all their bread from a bakery (maxbaz – مَخبَز) just 3 or 4 doors down. I looked over but the door where you usually tell the boy how much bread you want was closed. Wondering what I was going to do, I noticed another door that I had never seen open before. It obviously led into the inner workings of the bakery with the big mixer, ovens, empty bread racks, and flour everywhere.

I was already several steps down the hill when I decided to to do a very Arab thing. I walked back up and stepped a couple of feet into the obviously closed bakery and had the following conversation:

me: assalaam alaikum (Peace be upon you)
boy: wa’alaikum asalaam (and also on you)
me: ma fii xubz? (there is no bread?)
boy: ma fii! (there is none)

Just as I was about to turn and walk out a man emerged from the back room)

man: la! fii! fii xubz, bas zgiir. (No, there is. There is bread, but only small ones)
me: ma fii mush kalle. biddi zgiir, law samaat. (there is no problem, I would like small ones, if you please).

The man handed me a bag full of bread.

me: salaam idayak. qaddaysh? (peace on your hands. How much?)
man: rubiah (a 1/4 dinar aprox 35 cents)
me: tfaddil (please take this)
man: u idayak (and also peace on your hands)
me: ma’salammi (goodbye)
man: ma’salammi (goodbye)

The man went right back to his work and I left the shop.

As I walked out I realized that I had just had the conversation. I had just walked into a neighborhood shop and had a very normal everyday conversation including an exchange of money and goods with absolutely no hitch. No questions, no stumbling over greetings or amounts of money, no strange looks or questions about where I’m from. The whole encounter probably lasted less than a minute, and the conversation was pretty basic but I felt like I had passed a significant language learning milestone!

*******************

Cool Arabic language note:

The Arabic language works on a system of three-letter roots.  Prefixes and suffixes are added, and vowels are changed to change the meaning.  So:

xabaz خَبَز   means “to bake”

xubz خُبز means “bread”

maxbaz مَخبَز   means “bakery”

ps – the “x” is pronnounced like a combination ‘k’ and ‘h’, kinda like the last sound in “Bach”