I never imagined that I would be sending food dispatches from the city of seven hills, this quiet town of sand-colored buildings and salty seas. When I told my friends that I would be coming here, they all said the same thing to me: nothing. Because, you see, the words "Jordan" and "cuisine" rarely appear together and, when they do, they rarely inspire further conversation.
But that, my friends, is what we food-treasure hunters, gatherers of gourmet gems, call a challenge. So I put on my thinking cap, threw a knapsack over my shoulder, and prepared myself for an adventure. I was going to discover the hidden mysteries of local Arabian cuisine.
It took me all of one week to have four people recommend that I visit Beit Sitti.
Beit sitti means "my grandmother's house." The phrase in Arabic, like in English and probably many other languages, conjures up memories of childhood and heaping mounds of warm, hearty meals. It means tradition and culture, history and community. And for many of us, it means coming home.
I arrived at Beit Sitti with four of my friends. We were greeted at the door by Mohammed, busy chopping vegetables and boiling chicken, Umm Heba, the guardian of the kitchen watching over every stir and sizzle, and Maria, a lovely young Jordanian gourmande and the creative genius behind Beit Sitti. "I started this place with my two sisters," she explained. "Our grandmother always used to have us help her in the kitchen, so for us cooking is an important part of life."
And with that we were led, one by one, to an outdoor kitchen perched on the hillside of Jebel Webdeih, where we tied on aprons and assembled in front of our cutting boards, knives in hand. And then it began. Cauliflower was chopped -- "just the florets!" -- and tossed into a pan of hot oil. Eggplant was roasted on an open flame and picked clean of the blackish-purple ash -- "but leave the brown skin for flavor!" -- then mashed up with sesame paste and lemon juice.
We soaked rice in water then, grain by fluffy grain, painted it yellow and red with turmeric and allspice, cinnamon and cardamom. Every spice had been freshly roasted and ground that morning, then stored in airtight jars that we passed around, each of us taking a whiff. The aromas were startling, dancing up from our nose to our brain, getting our taste buds excited and forging that crucial bond between scent and memory.
We filled a stockpot with tender chicken, fried eggplant and cauliflower, colorful grains of rice, and slices of fresh tomato. It went in the oven to bake away and as the juices slowly cooked down into a concentrated elixir, Maria and Umm Heba brought out the flour.
Arabic bread is simple. Flour, yeast, sugar, salt, warm water. The yeast, set outside in the warm afternoon air, perked up and got to work, plumping up the dough and forging those glutenous links that later, after baking, would result in soft, chewy pockets of pita. As Maria coached us on flattening the dough and placing it inside the oven, she reminisced, "I used to be so fascinated by Arabic bread when I was little. I couldn't understand how the warm air got inside and puffed it up..." I wanted to reply that I still don't understand how the bread puffs up and could you please explain? But instead I stayed quiet and watched as she moved the baking loaves from the top shelf of the oven to the bottom and pop! They puffed. I know I'm making it sound like magic but I honestly have no other way of explaining it.
It was approaching two o'clock, lunchtime in Amman, and we had one last dish to assemble: dessert. Kunafeh is a traditional Arabic sweet made with layers of vermicelli sandwiching either fresh cream or cheese. Our version had cheese: a somewhat non-traditional mixture of shredded mozzarella and akawi, a mild Palestinian cheese. "Smush it in your palm," we were instructed. "Make sure it squeezes out through your fingers!" We did as we were told (and it turned out to be a strangely meditative experience, both I and my cheese-squishing partner zoned out for a while until Maria's voice coaxed us out of our daydreams) and the dish was rushed to the oven. It was time to eat.
A good lunch is like a symphony. It starts quietly. Everyone sits around the table and absorbs their surroundings. The look of the food, its smell, the tastes and textures. Senses are on high alert. Then, slowly, people start to open up. Conversation begins to flow. Ours started with someone saying, "My diet for the past week has consisted of bread and hummus." (Thank God I didn't request that we make hummus.) From there it's a quick ramp-up, and everyone is chatty. Endorphins run rampant as one bite of ma'loubeh interrupts an outburst of laughter. You exchange stories and plates, piling on seconds and then thirds. There is a crescendo and then, all of a sudden, it slows down again. Time for dessert.
The end of a meal can take some time to conclude. Sugary spoonfuls rest easy in a warm belly, but every bite is savored. Our dessert course took just as much time as the main meal. We sipped on Turkish coffee and cafe blanc, which Maria described as a mixture of hot water and orange blossom -- "no caffeine." A song by Abdel Halim Hafez played in the background and the sun waned, casting a shadow over Jebel Weibdeh.
And so ends my first dispatch from the city of seven hills. I'm not sure what the next one will be, but I'm sure there will be more. A lot more. And at the very least, by the end of it all, when someone mentions the words "Jordan" and "cuisine" in the same breath, my response will be far from nothing.
For more of Sarah's writing, visit her website.
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