Ahlan Wa Sahlan Jordan!

Travel
My view out over the Dead Sea, Jordan

It’s been nearly a year since I first visited Jordan and was welcomed by my new family and friends with a hospitality and graciousness I’ve never encountered before.  I was the “aroos” or bride, not allowed to do anything for myself – just primp and prepare to be admired and assessed at the variety of events thrown in my and my husband’s honor.  It was a whirlwind of ancient sites, accordion music, sunbathing, our wedding party, and excellent food.  So recently, when we planned to return for a cousin’s wedding, I made a list of food I wanted to try again, experiences that were lost on me in my first head-spinning tour.  I couldn’t wait!

The elegant entrance hall 

Top on my list, and it should be on yours too if you go to Amman, is Fakhreldine.  It was opened in 1997 by Azzam Fakhriddin, the first of his many excellent Amman restaurants.  Part of what makes this spot so charming is it’s location inside the converted Fawzi Mulqui House from the 1920s when Amman was little more than a small town.  The restaurant has many generous rooms, many displaying black and white photographs of Amman back in the day.  In keeping with these gracious surroundings, the service is seamless and indulgent.  Every request is met quickly, your glass is kept full, ashtray empty (yes, you can still smoke at the table which I sort of love even though I quit), plate piled full, until you roll out down the marble staircase.

The divine tomatoes and the plate of almonds on ice

This entire year I’ve fantasized about one dish and it wasn’t even something I ordered, just a freebie upon arrival at Fakhreldine.  They present a plate with sliced tomatoes slathered with Labneh (goat curd) that has an extraordinary amount of fresh garlic chopped up in it, and a sprinkling of Sumac on top of it all.  Once we were seated this time I spent a lot of energy worrying that they weren’t going to serve it again or that if they did it wouldn’t taste as remarkable as I remembered it.  It came, I ate, and the choir of food angles in my head raised their voices towards the heavens. Magnificent!

While we waited for our friends to join us, I tried some suprisingly delicious Jordanian red wine from Saint George Winery.  I’ve done a little research and Omar Zumot, who oversees the production of these wines, is making quite the name for himself in the region.  And it makes sense, if you look around Jordan, you can’t help but be reminded of the landscape of the famous wine country in Northern California.  My husband got his favorite cloudy liquoricy liquor, Arak,  served on the rocks with a little water.   On the side we were given a saucer of almonds served on top of a bed of ice.  These almonds were soft, not yet roasted, quite unlike the nuts we are all more familiar with, and delicious cold like this.

Our table heaving under the weight of our many mezze

On both of my visits we stuck with mezze, the Middle Eastern tapas I love so much.  The biggest food revelation I had on this recent trip was Makdouse – little eggplants stuffed with a walnut, garlic and spice mixture and pickled in olive oil.  The garlic makes my mouth pucker while the walnuts mellow it out and the fleshy eggplants add a meaty texture that soaks in the oil and exotic flavors just perfectly.  I wish I had some right now.  Other favorites include the Homos Beiruti which is different from regular Homos in that it has extra lemon, parsley and beans on top, Wara’ Enab which are vine leaves stuffed with vegetables, Noukha’at (my husband’s favorite) which is a salad of poached lamb brains, little spicy sausages called Sujuk, and Raqaeq Bil Jibneh that takes me back to our kitchen in Ankara, Turkey when I was a kid and watched our housekeeper Taiba fry these delicate cigar shaped, cheese-filled pastries.

The smiling Al Qahwaje

Really, I’ve found you can’t go wrong, and the lively atmosphere of the restaurant only adds to the evening.  Yes, there are many tourists (I saw two different families of Americans leave with little kids slung over their shoulders sound asleep in spite of the din), but tables of locals are mixed in, many enjoying a hubbly bubbly and having their meals topped off with potent cardomom spiced coffee served by the roving Al Qahwaje – or coffee guy – in thimble sized cups.

We finished off the meal with whole figs and apricots in syrup and K’nafe, a crispy pistachio, honey, phyllo sweet – known by many different names throughout the region, but to me, simply delicious.  At this point the Executive Chef appeared from behind the swinging kitchen doors and I told him how much I admired his food.  He seemed truly pleased and somewhat embarassed by the attention, so unlike the brash and boastful chefs that populate restaurant kitchens in much of the West.

Fakhreldine’s Executive
Chef

This was an interesting response from our Chef, but made sense to me because most Jordanians consider service jobs beneath them.  It’s not a sector of the economy they want to work in, in spite of quite a high unemployment rate, a struggling economy, and a tourism industry begging for more in the way of tourist friendly businesses.  While the Lebanese are famous for their fawning service tactics, many Jordanians seem reluctant to join in on what could make their country a favorite among travellers from around the world. When I’ve told people in Amman that I work as a chef I can see confusion and a little bit of horror in their eyes.  Why would a nice girl like me subject herself to such menial work?  Except that it doesn’t have to be menial, it can be art as is so clearly revealed in the staggering amount of delicious food the kitchen at Fakhreldine produces and the ease and elegance with which it’s served to its guests.

One of the many trays of dramatic Arabic sweets
at Zalatimo Sweets in Amman

During this visit I made friends with Ahmad Zalatimo of the famous Zalatimo Sweets.  He studied at Johnson and Wales Pastry Program in the US, preparing to take over the business of making the incredible Arabic pastry that’s been in his family since 1860.  The original sweet shop was set up in the Old City of Jerusalem within the walls of the the ancient Holy Sepulchre.  Now they have shops throughout the region including in the Duty Free shop at the airport, but the high standards Ahmad carries on from generations of family chefs, are maintained.  During my first visit to his shop I sampled his many kinds of Baklava and Mamul which are semolina and butter cookies filled with either ground pistachios, walnuts, or dates.  He also sent us home with a box full of assorted French pastries, terrifically fancy patisserie, which are made in the shop’s basement kitchen and overseen by Ahmad each and every day.  We were then invited back for Saturday breakfast (not a good idea to plan to be in a bikini after this meal, but time was short) to sample his family’s specialty, Mutabak.  My husband and I sat in the back garden of the shop, in the blazing early day sun and listened to Ahmad describe how they made this delicacy.  It all starts with a goat cheese that they salt and cure for up to a year in a cold room in their basement.  The cheese is then washed several times, much like you would when rinsing salt cod, and pressed into the paper thin layers of pastry that will encase it.  This parcel of deliciousness is then fried and finished off with a very sweet sugar syrup.  I tried to dig in with my knife and fork, but Ahmad said I was to cut into four sections and roll up with my hands into a cigar shape, this way you get a little bit of the crunchy pastry, the cheese and the syrup in every mouthful.  It was delicious and sat in my stomach like a stone the entire day that we sat at the Dead Sea.  Bliss.

Circassian horsemanship.
My husband’s grandfather, Haj Zakaria Kardan 

Now, I’m going to throw a bit of a curve ball at you.  My husband and his family are Circassian not Arab.  Who?? What?? And why does this make any difference? Well, briefly, the Circassians are the indigenous people of the Caucasus Mountains in what is now Russia.  Back in the 1860s, at the end of the Caucasian War, the victorious Russians expelled the Circassians from their homeland.  Most headed over the Black Sea and into Turkey and many kept going, ending up in Jordan.

Today there is a Circassian school in Amman that teaches the many descendents of these proud people the language and traditions of their homeland.  At our wedding we had hours (literally) of traditional Circassian music and dancing.  The dancing is performed inside a circle of men on one side and women all gathered on the other.  The moves remind me a bit of mating dances performed by animals and birds in the wild – the man puts on a forceful macho show while the woman demurely shuffles away from him while elegantly swaying her arms.  One couple after another gracefully enters the circle and gradually the tempo of the music increases and with it the dancing becomes more rambunctious.  Everyone from little kids to grandmothers wearing the Hijab participates without any sense of self-consciousness. Now, married to a Circassian, I too am forced into the circle to try my best at modestly gliding across the floor while Ghazi stamps his feet and gestures wildly to get my attention.  I’m looking for a teacher here in London – ideas anyone?

But I digress. What this means is that in addition to a whole other cultural heritage I get to teach my kids, I also get a whole other kind of food to sample, learn about and enjoy.  Just before we left Amman, my mother-in-law, a force of nature if ever there was one, took me to the Women’s Branch of the Circassian Charity Association for breakfast.  There are 1,000 female members of this Jameya, or Association, which was founded in 1972.  They support the Circassian school, and provide aid primarily for indigent Jordanian Circassians. Most of the money they raise comes from The Productive Kitchen or Samawer which was started in 1998 and now produces almost $50,000 a year.  Forty almost exclusively Circassian women, work in the kitchens producing fresh and frozen Circassian and Arabic specialties which are available to eat in the cafe upstairs or for delivery (the Royal Palaces often order from them).

Mama Suzanne took me down into the kitchen to meet all of the cooks and see the many specialties they were working on that morning.  One of my favorites is Kibbeh which is a mixture of bulgur wheat and minced lamb worked into a torpedo-like shape and then filled with more cooked minced lamb, onions, spices, and pine nuts. This is then fried and sometimes put into a creamy sauce, although I prefer it straight out of the fryer. Haleva are pastry triangles filled with cheese or potatoes or meat or all of the above and then fried.  On the sweeter side of things there are Laqom which is basically a donut.  Shibs Ou Basta is the chicken with a creamy walnut sauce that the Caucuses have made famous.   Lots and lots of delicate hand work and swift creation of fiddly morsels was going on in that giant kitchen, much, I would guess, learned from standing at the apron strings of their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers, watching as they tirelessly created these same dishes throughout the years.  The women giggled and talked up a storm while they sat on stools, proud to show me their techniques.  I hated not being able to ask them questions – I’m looking for an Arabic teacher too.

The gorgeous view of downtown Amman from
Restaurant Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe, overlooking downtown Amman and located in the trendy Rainbow Street area of town, is such a hot spot that we were barely able to get in on a Tuesday night.  It has staggering views – try to get there at sunset to witness how the white buildings of Amman turns a lovely shade of pink before the lights of the city start to twinkle in the distance.  The food here is very good, a nice change when you’ve had all the shashlik, falafel, and homos you can take.  They call it a gastropub, but to me it’s more like a bistro in that it has casual everyday dishes from around the globe, executed well and made up of quality ingredients. Standouts for me were the Bresola served with an Arugula Parmesan Salad and genuine, delicious beef Sliders.  The owner, a friend, sent us a lemon tart and a chocolate fondant for dessert – both yummy. And to wash it all down, his latest creation, a dirty martini shot.

Finally, a couple more things to be on the lookout for in this charming country.  In the spring there are men selling green almonds along the roadsides.  Stop and get some.  You salt and then eat the entire fuzzy green pod that encases the still young almond.  Not sure that I loved it, but they’re a seasonal delicacy here and certainly interesting.  Mint Lemonade is the other treat that can’t go without a mention.  Sounds so plain, so run-of-the-mill.  It’s not!  They blend together fresh mint leaves, lemon juice and sugar.  Truly delicious – a sort of mint lemon smoothie.

I’ve only just skimmed the surface of the magnificent food culture of this region.  There are so many dishes to explore, traditions to learn, and people to meet here.  Luckily for me I have an excuse to visit often and have an array of excellent teachers in the many women in my new family.  Another fantastic culinary adventure awaits. I’ll keep you posted.

2 thoughts on “Ahlan Wa Sahlan Jordan!

  1. Was just surfing around reading about Circassian communities in the Middle East and stumbled upon your blog. Great post ! This is fascinating stuff and super interesting to me as someone with a passionate interest in the Caucasus. I’ve seen some of Circassian culture myself in Nalchik but would love to see it in Jordan as well. Amazing and admirable that the old customs and language are still maintained!

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