Something very special happened in Amman Saturday night, something unexpected, very welcome, and brand new. A young Jordanian chef, Sereen Kurdi prepared a nine course “pop up” dinner for 20 of us in a private garden with such panache, such confidence, such elegance, that I was reminded again of how promising the culinary scene in Amman is. Sereen’s was recently profiled on Sinan Gharaibeh’s Taste of Jordan blog, so I won’t delve into her culinary journey here, but please check it out for yourselves!
“The Local Table, Innovative Food, Communal Table, Right Company,” is the tag line of these dinners that Chef Sereen is planning to have around Amman in different locations. This first one was held under a maple tree in the beautiful back garden of my favorite local dairy lady, Nissreen Haram of Mistaka fame (please read my profile of her if you haven’t). She was also a guest, buzzing with excitement at hosting the dinner at her home and promoting this young chef. Ever generous, Nissreen was thrilled at the idea of having 20 strangers come to her garden, eat food together, get to know one another, AND have an army of young chefs invade her kitchen with their equipment. Others in the group included a local beer maker (who had brought beer for the chefs to drink after they finished), a chef instructor from the local culinary academy where Sereen studied, Canadian humanitarian workers, the couple who oversee and own the farmers’ market BOTMA (they provided the produce for the evening’s meal), among others. None of us knew what to expect as we sipped our Rose, waiting to be ushered to the long, elegant communal table.
Sereen herself came out periodically during the meal to tell us about what we were eating. She’s a lanky blonde and exudes confidence in what she does. And why shouldn’t she? Each course of the vegetable-heavy meal was interesting, beautifully presented, and tasty. She took local, seasonal ingredients and handled them with a respect I’ve never witnessed here in Amman, and used techniques that were innovative but not so much so as to loose the essence of her ingredients. You could feel the strong Nordic influence in her food that working in the kitchen at Aquavit in New York City, but the meal firmly retained the spirit of Jordan.
First we ate a small bowl of beautiful baby vegetables (thank you BOTMA) – raw baby carrots and peppers, and new potatoes that were boiled in a lemony water – dipped in Mistaka’s labaneh which had been enhanced using whey and lemon zest (oh and there was a heavenly “soil” that provided texture which had earthy mushrooms in it). Next, and maybe my favorite, a tomato macaron which sandwiched a slice of pickled green tomato, with tomato molasses and Crottin cheese served on a bed of tomato leaves. The texture of the macaroon was so much fun to eat and its sweetness played with the sharp pickle and creamy cheese – sort of like the most delicious little sandwich morsel. The third course was a scallop which had “caramel” on top, floating in a broth of apple and cilantro with lemony tapioca balls – refreshing with a hint of dill. Beets were the star of her next course. Her favorite vegetable, she said (and mine). A play on beef tartare, beautiful ruby roasted beets with smoked egg yolk (of which I wish there’d been more), Mistaka’s stirred yoghurt, and pickled spring onions. Time to cleanse the palate at this point with a delicate and fresh peach granita with thin slices of BOTMA’s lovely peaches. Now on to the serious and flavor-packed lamb dish which was a confit of neck with bacon, a crispy polenta croquette, pickled eggplant with pomegranate molasses. While so much up until this point had been subtle and almost ethereal, this main course was wonderfully fatty, but still echoed the flavors that had led up to it. As we moved into the sweet part of the evening, we experienced lacto fermented plums (which were delicious but I didn’t really get the lacto fermented part of it) and then I was knocked out by Mistaka’s fresh ricotta with lemon verbena cookie crumble, orange marmalade, and super sweet isabella grapes. Finally, a rum soaked fig coated in dark chocolate served with a lavender rose cream.
Wow. As I write this I’m wishing I had a little box of those tomato macarons to nibble on! The celebration of all things culinary and local didn’t end with Sereen’s food using BOTMA and Mistaka products. The wine pairing was provided by local winemaker Saint George, and while some might turn up their nose at Jordanian wine, this was evidence to me that they are to be taken seriously. Two in particular stood out, the Cabernet Sauvignon WMS that we drank with the lamb was the perfect pairing and the Sweet Muscat alongside the fresh ricotta and the fig was astonishingly good.
To end we enjoyed coffee by Kava, a little espresso and brew bar in Abdoun, where I’m told the woman who owns it has a passion for coffee that is unmatched in Amman. Teas were specially blended for Sereen’s evening by Turtle Green Tea Bar, and finally one perfectly pink chocolate truffle made by Nissreen’s sister, Zahira, of Ishq Chocolates, who brings the same kind of perfectionism to her chocolates that Nissreen does to her cheese and dairy. It was a celebration of all things local, delicious, and beautifully crafted. The night also was a study in how local artisans can come together to support one another in their efforts in what is admittedly a challenging culinary landscape – but with the generosity shown by the many who supported Sereen’s gorgeous food I feel like we are all benefitting and we’ll all end up alright!