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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!

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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!

Eating Internal Organs After Midnight

Since arriving here in Jordan I’ve noticed a fondness for making sandwiches out of things the last time I took a knife too was in High School Biology class.

A couple of weeks ago I was out driving after midnight.  Unusual on both accounts.  But, for some reason we had a rental for a couple of days (I can’t seem to remember why – too many vocab words jamming my short term memory) and I was out late at a tea shop with a couple of my friends.  Late night tea and hookah drinking always makes me hungry.  Yeah I meant to say hookah drinking – oddly enough the phrase for smoking here is “drinking tobacco.”  So, I was hungry after a night of drinking – but that means something way different back home than it does here!

I was driving through the old city just seeing what was open at this time of night.  Of course, there was Hashem’s – the tried and true falafil shop of falafil shops.  But I wasn’t in the mood.  Then I saw this little sandwich shop that I’d always meant to check out but never had.  It was still open and showed no signs of closing anytime soon.  It was the kind of place where you give your order to a guy out front in a little booth and he takes your money and gives you a little slip of paper to take to the appropriate station inside for your sandwich.  By sight I’ve always seen that they have shawerma, falafil and some other more (ahem) adventurous fare, but the menu is 100% in Arabic and it’s always so crowded during the day.  I never feel like embarrassing myself.   But after midnight, even though there were bright lights, loud music, and customers there seemed to be more workers than customers and I thought maybe I could ask a few questions without embarrassing myself or holding up the line too much.

I parked the car on the street next to some white service (pronounced serveese) taxis and approached the booth.  Sitting inside was a young man sporting the long beard, grey robe and white hat that seems to typify more conservative Islamic types around here.  We smiled and greeted each other in Arabic.  I asked forgiveness for my poor Arabic and asked what kind of sandwiches were available.  He laughed and told me to look around inside and then come place my order.

I walked past the soda cooler, juice dispensers, shawerma and falafil stations.  Neither of them interested me that night.  I found myself in the  back corner at the mystery meat counter.  Like a moth drawn to a flame. I eyed a guy deftly chopping and rolling innards into oddly appetizing looking sandwiches.  My stomach growled.  I must have been really hungry.

But first I wanted to know what I was dealing with.  There was a rather large black falafil-ly looking thing.  The guy only spoke arabic and tried to explain to me what it was.  I didn’t understand, so we moved down the line to sheep brains, tongue, and then liver – boh chicken liver and sheep liver.  Next to them was apparently a pile of sheep-cheek meat.  I am not making this up.   Then some other thing which try as he might the patient sandwich maker couldn’t explain to me.  Perhaps it was just as well.  There the internal organs sat in food service containers as if they were about to be put out on the Salad Bar at Pizza Hut.  And well stocked – it seemed as if they were expecting a run on brains at 1 AM!

In the end I opted for the liver sandwich.  Sheep liver.  I decided to save chicken liver for another day.    He spooned a generous portion of liver into a pita, then placed it in a sandwich press for a minute or too.  Next came tomatoes and a spritz of lemon juice and a generous shake of salt.  He rolled it up in some paper and – voila- Taco Bell Jordan style!  Believe it or not it was pretty tasty!

The norm seemed to be standing around on the curb and noshing on organ filled pitas, so I tucked in out front.  Theyoung guy with long beard in the booth struck up a conversation with me, asking where I was from.  When he found out he automatically assumed I was not a Muslim.  Or perhaps it was because I did not invoke the name of Allah before devouring my liver and tomato on a pita.  You can be sure I prayed over it silently!  We had chatted briefly on why I was not a Muslim when an off-duty service driver walked up and joined the conversation.

He had a long white beard, a white Islamic hat to match, and  ajovial smile.  We exchanged greetings and he began to outline the fact that both religions wanted peace.  We started in Arabic, but he quickly switched to his English, which was far better than my Arabic.  He went on to say that the whole world was sick of war and that all people wanted peace now.  It was only governments that still wanted war.  He went on to tell me that he had read over 5000 books, including Tolstoy, Doestoevsky, and Sartre.  I believed him. No offense intended, but my experience has been that most service taxi drivers probably wouldn’t even recognize those names.  We swapped a few thoughts on politics and literature and enjoyed the crisp night air and our sandwiches made of internal organs.

In the end he extolled the virtues of having an Islamic wife and suggested I send mine to a class to learn how to become one as she would then undoubtedly make me very happy. Marital  life had not been part of our discussion, but I took it in stride and smiled.

“But this is  only my advice, please do as you like,” he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling good-naturedly.

With that we exchanged names, shook hands, invoked the peace of God upon each other, cordially hoping that God would bring us together again sometime in the future, and turning, we went our separate way.  Ahhhhhh . . . . Amman after midnight!

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”

The Bake House – Jabal Amman Restaurant Review

Making pancakes from scratch is an important cooking skill that every Dad must have.  Especially when you move your family half-way around the world and they want some comforts from home.  Of course the best way to make them is with chocolate chips (rare and expensive here in Amman), and they should be called hotcakes or flapjacks and they should be served with 100% pure maple syrup.  But have no fear, if you are living in Amman and your flapjack skills are just not what they should be there is a tasty fulfillment for your family’s cravings:  The Bake House in Jabal Amman!

Two Golden Brown (and delicious) Pancakes and Two Eggs (yes my family likes them well-cooked) at the Bake House

Two Golden Brown (and delicious) Pancakes and Two Eggs (yes my family likes them well-cooked) at the Bake House

The Bake House is like a little island of American breakfast culture in the heart of Jabal Amman.  Hot filtered coffee, big pancakes, omelettes, home fries, french toast, scrambles – a welcome break, IMHO, from the usual breakfast fare here in Amman (hummus, foul and day old pita, anyone?)  I have eaten at the Bake House a number of times with friends and family and have never been disappointed.  It always used to be a little cram. . . er cozy, but over Ramadan they opened and upstairs expansion that doubled their seating capacity!

The Bake House in Jabal Amman, note the green awnings on the 2nd floor - all new expansion!

The Bake House in Jabal Amman, note the green awnings on the 2nd floor - all new seating area - including a "No Smoking" section!

Restaurant: The Bake House

Location: Jabal Amman, Amman, Jordan

Serving: American style breakfast, including pancakes, eggs, filtered coffee, and also some lunch items.

Rating: Excellent – a must-try, and on my list of regular go-to places.

Street Address: Good question – Near First Circle and Rainbow Street, also just off Mango Street after the Bishop’s school if you’re coming from 2nd circle area. If you’ve lived in Amman you know what I mean by this address (sort of).  Here’s a link to a review by “And Far Away” as well as a map.

Phone #: Let me know if you have it

Hours: Sat-Thurs 7:30-19:00, Friday 7:30-18:00 (with 1 hour off for prayers – around midday?)

Price Range: Breakfast 2-7 JD, Lunch 2-3 JD, Kids Meals 2.8 JD

Smoking: C’mon – it’s Amman!  (But there is a new “No Smoking” section in 1/2 of the upstairs)

What they say about themselves: The place to relax and enjoy an American style breakfast, a good cup of brewed coffee, delicious sandwiches and your favorite American sweets.

My favorites are the pancakes (2JD for 1 Large, 4 JD for 2 Large, and 1 JD extra for “fruit and cream”) and the Bake House Scramble (4.2 JD – eggs scrambled with mushrooms, onions, peppers and cheese).  The “fruit” actually appears to be blueberry pie filling but is quite tasty and, although it comes in a small bowl – it seems to do the job.  The Scramble is really delicious – everybody that I know who’s had it swears by it.  What I apprciate about it is not only the taste, but the portion size.  Just big enough.  Which if you are used to American style breakfast places you know that you pay through the nose and end up having way more food than you would want to eat for breakfast.  I guess 4.2 JD (includes coffee or tea) might be expensive for breakfast for Amman, but not to Americans.

I also recently had the Breakfast “Slam” which comes with 2 eggs, Home Fries, Toast, Sausage, and Coffee.  I wasexpectingAmericanstyle breakfast sausage, so was a bit disappointed with the Arab-spiced summer sausage-type slices I got.  Everything else was good though.

My son was disappointed on a recent trip as they had run out of toast for French Toast (4 JD).  He substituted pancakes and was happy enough, but I didn’t get toast with my breakfast either.  Instead they thought on their feet and gave us hamburger rolls that had been toasted in the waffle maker.  They were fun to look at and I give them credit for creativity.

The coffee is excellent, and if you are looking for a nice simple cup of coffee made in by dripping hot water through well roasted coffee and a filter, then this is the place for you.  There are free refills, which is even better.  Please note that the menu says there is a 2.5 JD minimum charge so you can’t just come in and by a cup o’ joe and nurse it all day for 1 JD.  But I’m sure you can find something tasty to go with your coffee in the pastry case (usually some sort of pie, cake, and/or muffins).

Service is always friendly and professional.  One of the waiters remembers my name now, which is kind of nice.  The speed of service, is, well – on Middle Eastern speed and time.  No better orworsethan any other experiences I’ve had in Amman, but perhaps a bit slow and disjointed for someone just off the plane fromthe States.  My advice – ask for your coffee to be served as soon as possible, and enjoy the company of your family or friends.

Speaking English is not a problem, but why not try out your Arabic?  The patrons run the gamut, from families, to groups of Ammman-hip urban singles, to women in traditional head coverings. Everyone will feel comfortable here.

In summary, if you are a fan of American-style breakfast the Bake House is a gem that cannot be missed in Jabal Amman.  When I don’t have the time and inclination to whip up a batch of flapjacks, or if my family needs a little taste of home, you can be sure we will be at the Bake House!

Please leave a comment if you’ve eaten at the Bake House and let us know what you think – even if you disagree with me.  Also any other links or info on the Bake House would be great!