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!

Jordan A to Z: E is for …. Enchiladas!

Enchiladas?!?  In Jordan?!?

Unfortunately … no.

This post is not meant to highlight one of the cool and unique aspects of life in Jordan.  No, rather it is a post meant to beg and plead with some wealthy business minded patron to please, please, PLEASE bring an honest-to-goodness reasonably priced Mexican restaurant to Jordan!  PLEASE!

My first choice, of course, would be El Famous Burrito.  If you have spent any time in the Chicagoland area you know what I’m talking about. Here’s the one I used to frequent.

Next (and perhaps more realistically) would be Baja Fresh.  There is one in the Dubai Mall in (wait for it) … Dubai!  Mr. Middle Eastern Restaurant Developer, Entrepreneur, and Investor … please bring Baja Fresh to Jordan!  We have many large malls that would make an ideal and profitable locale for such a venture.

Of course, a Chipotle or Qdoba would work well too.

Barring either of those, even Taco Bell would be acceptable … although I fear it would not be done right and the fact that it really is the low end of the Mexican eating environment would become all to obvious.

A Cozymels or On the Border would be ok to … even though those are a bit on the pricy side.

I know, I know … some of you Ammanites are protesting right now and pointing out that we have Chili’s on Mecca Street and in City Mall as well as Cinco de Mayo at the InterContinental Hotel. First of all … Chili’s is not what I am really looking for when I say a Mexican restaurant.  Sure their chips and salsa are great and so are the fajitas …. but that’s all their depth when it comes to anything remotely Mexican.  When I just want an honest down to earth shredded beef taco with a little grease oozing out of it, or a crispy fried fish taco with just the right spicing, or monster burrito … Chili’s just doesn’t cut it.

Don’t even get me started on sopes or chiles rellenos or tamales or mole.

As for the Mexican place at the InterCon it is way overpriced and the quality is not near any of the places listed above.  And there’s also the sorry little place in Mecca Mall near Subway.  Every time I get something from there my wife looks at my quizzically because she knows what my reaction will be.  I just hope maybe they’ll get it right one of these times.

Ok … so this post isn’t really about something Jordan has … but something it needs … a great Mexican restaurant (reasonably priced)!  It’s no brainer really.  All the American ex-pats would flock to such a place and the locals would catch on to it.  What’s not for a Jordanian to like about Mexican cuisine?  It has shredded meats, thin pieces of bread, fresh vegetables, hot peppers, beans, rice, corn … it’s truly a match made in heaven.  So c’mon investors and restauranteurs …. bring Mexican to Jordan!

Grateful Generosity: Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha Remix

Note this post is my outsider’s reflection on observing the sacrifice of the the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival this year in Amman Jordan.  For my outsider’s summary on the broader details of Eid al-Adha, check out last year’s post here.  I’m not sure why but as of Nov 2009 it’s the most viewed page on the site (2600+ views).

Turkey, Stuffing, and Mashed Potatoes, yes - even here in Jordan

This year (2009) brought an interesting convergence of cultures and holidays as the American Thanksgiving celebration coincided with the beginning of the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Fesitval of the Sacrifice).  In American culture the last Thursday of November is always Thanksgiving Day and people typically spend it with family and friends.  It is usually a day of feasting featuring a huge meal with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.  Some also take the time to serve the less fortunate.  Churches and other organizations often put on Thanksgiving dinners or deliver Thanksgiving meals to those who can’t afford to celebrate on their own.  Here in Amman we were able to celebrate with a mixed group of Americans, Canadians, and Jordanians.

Haggling over the price of a sheep of Eid al-Adha in Amman, Jordan 2009

By way of contrast Eid al-Adha falls on a different day each year as Muslims follow a lunar calendar.  This year the Thursday of Thanksgiving corresponded with the preparation day before the actual beginning of the festival.  The 5-day government holiday begins on preparation  day.  The streets were crowded yesterday with people making their last minute purchases for the holiday.  I was caught in a couple of traffic jams.  The interesting contrast with Thanksgiving is that many Muslims fast on preparation day.  Feasting and Fasting.  Traditionally in America early Thanksgiving Days were accompanied by a day (or even days) of fasting as people expressed their gratitude to God for his blessings.  But it seems we Americans have lost that tradition over the years, preferring the feast to the fast

Best Buy got flak for wishing people a "Happy Eid al-Adha" in this Black Friday flyer.

Today (Friday), was the actual beginning of the Eid.  I awoke this morning at 5 AM with the extended call to prayer that is typical on the mornings of the Greater Eids.  Of course waking up early on the day after Thanksgiving is not unusual in the States, as many rise at the crack of dawn to line up at stores in anticipation of getting some of the best shopping deals of the year.  Black Friday has almost become a religious experience for some.  Actually, electronics retailer Best Buy got in trouble with some this year for mixing too much religion with Black Friday.  They printed an ad that advertised their Black Friday deals and wished Muslims a Happy Eid al-Adha.  From my perspective this seems like a culturally savvy move recognizing that the Eid actually fell on Black Friday.  Apparently 10 pages of complaints were lodged on the Best Buy website – how petty, culturally arrogant, and just plain backwards.  Have people forgotten that with freedom of religion comes recognition of other religions in the society as a whole.  Those who were offended shouldn’t worry –  it’ll take aproximately 33 years for Eid al-Adha to fall exactly on Black Friday again.

In Amman Jordan today, early risers weren’t off to the mall or the department stores to find the best bargain.  (Although curiously I found that at 6 AM plenty barbers and bakeries were open).  Rather, many people were up early to pray at the mosques.  The call to prayer sounded for a good couple of hours this morning and people went early to begin the festival with prayer and a sermon.

Displaying Jordanian pride at the sheep/goat pens

After some time at the mosque many go to one of areas in the city reserved for the selling and sacrifice of animals for the festival.  For many days now people have been buying animals for this purpose.  Many purchase a lamb or goat (around 150-200 dinars), but some purchase cows or even camels (5000 dinar).  As an outsider it’s somewhat surprising and amusing to see ordinary looking people struggling to put a live sheep or goat in the trunk of their ordinary looking car.  I even saw one family putting theirs into the trunk of a taxi.  This made me laugh out loud, but perhaps it was the taxi driver and his family.  Those who buy and take their sheep may be planning to do the sacrifice at their home, or have another butcher do the deed

Jordanians gather for the sacrifice after attending morning prayers at the mosque

However, many show up at the sheep pens early on Friday morning to have their animal sacrificed, skinned, and butchered while they wait.  And, it’s a real family outing.  I saw men, women, and tons of kids all watching this fascinating ritual take place.  No one seemed to bat an eye at the animals being sacrificed right in front of them – the women, the little kids, even the girls in pink coats and cute winter hats took it all in stride.  I was really struck by the family nature of the event.  I kinda figured I would just see a bunch of men at the place of sacrifice but that was definitely not the case.

The whole experience was fascinating and if you are ever in a Muslim country during Eid al-Adha you should find out where the sacrifices will be taking place and go check it out.  However, be warned: it’s not for those with a weak stomach, don’t like the sight of blood, or have trouble seeing animals killed.  I didn’t understand everything that was going on this morning, but heres a thumbnail sketch.

The first thing that struck me this morning was the smell.  My son and I had stopped by to take a look at the animal pens earlier in the week and in his own charming way he had summed up the smell at that time, “Ewwww, it smells like sheep poop.  Or maybe camel poop!”  Anyone who has grown up near a farm knows the smell.  This morning was different.  It was distinctly the smell of freshly butchered lamb.  The air was permeated with it.  You might not recognize the smell if you live back in the States, but after a year of walking past sides of lamb hanging in the open air in the market you begin to identify the odor.

Basically the area was divided up into a bunch of different pens for the different sellers.  People would come and buy an animal, or often bring a slip showing that they had previously bought an animal.  Some of the animals had numbers spray painted on them – I imagine this is something like a customer number, but I could be wrong.  Most of the pens had their own sacrifice/butchering area as well.  The animals would be led to the place of sacrifice – sometimes led backwards by one leg.  I guess this is to help shield them from what is about to happen.  Then the animal is sacrificed by one stroke of a sharp knife across its neck.  This is done over a sort of makeshift trough or drain that runs to a large metal barrel or tank that has been sunken below ground for the purpose of collecting blood.  The dead sheep are lined up in a row on the ground so the blood will drain out.  On the other end of this line there is a man who skins and disembowels the sheep.  The carcass is then hung on a meat hook.  A butcher chops it into sections on the hook and then takes it to a nearby block for further breaking down.  One butcher I saw was using a  large tree stump as his block.  The pieces of meat are then given to the customer who is usually holding some sort of heavy duty plastic bag waiting to receive the fresh meat.

It was chilly this morning and the sides of lamb steamed as they hung in the cool air.  I overheard one guy commenting positively on how the air was like a refrigerator.  I couldn’t imagine the whole process taking place in the hot summer months!

Each family then takes the meat and distributes it according to Islamic tradition.  The combination I’ve heard most often is some for the immediate family, some for the poor, and some for the extended family.  Over the next few days there will be big family get-togethers and feasts not unlike Thanksgiving.  (Ok, the menu is dramatically different.)  The most important part, however, is giving to the poor.  Like folks back home who help the poor on Thanksgiving, acting on behalf of the less fortunate is a major part of observing Eid al-Adha.  Even if a family isn’t going to have an animal sacrificed they can donate  money so food will be given to the poor.

The differences and similarities between the two celebrations have been swirling around in my mind this morning.  Setting aside a day to be thankful, or be obedient to God, or to help the poor are good things.  But there’s this tension for me because, really, we should be doing those things everyday.  Our gratitude to God shouldn’t just be relegated to one day out of many, nor should our obedience or generosity.  However,there’s something in human nature, that despite our best intentions we wander and stray from time to time.  Perhaps the level of gratitude or obedience or generosity that we observe and practice on special days like Thanksgiving or Eid al-Adha isn’t humanly sustainable every day of the year.  But in a way shouldn’t our lives over-pour in generosity due to the gratitude we have for the blessings that have come our way.  Shouldn’t these special holiday observances should be powerful reminders to bring our lifestyles more in line with the desires of God and live each day with grateful hearts, obedient wills, and generous spirits?

Ok, time to get off the soap box.  Wherever you are and whatever holiday you are observing I wish you the very best. Happy Thanksgiving!  Eid Mubarak!  Peace to all!

Note: Even though I left out the most graphic ones,some of the pictures below are a bit bloody – if the sight of animals being sacrificed or butchered bothers you – don’t look.  If you are interested remember that clicking on a thumbnail below will bring up a full-sized pic.



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.