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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.

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!