Writing about Jordan isn’t easy for me once I’ve traveled back to London. Somehow, smelling the scent of the lemon blossoms on the trees outside wafting through the open windows and hearing the childlike tinny tune that the gas canister truck plays over and over as he roams the streets looking for customers, help bring Amman to life in my writing. Looking out at my very English garden with the roses just budding, a desk full of mail that came when we were away, and my darling cat begging for my full attention, just doesn’t place the same magical spell on me. Alas, the couple of things I found during my last week in Amman deserve a magical touch because they were so much fun, so for my 100th blog post I’ll do my very best!
Saturday is my favorite day of the week in Amman. After the extreme hush of Friday, Saturday wakes up with a long stretch and leisurely goes about its business ending with a bang as everyone hits the streets on for a big night out on the town. We woke up early last week to get a cheap breakfast in Abdoun (the very ritzy, foreigner-filled neighborhood). Family Restaurant has been around in one form or another since 1920. From the outside it looks a little dodgy with its makeshift plastic-fronted extension on the front, but inside you know you’re going to get something special. The front area is reserved mostly for men sitting in groups drinking tea, smoking and clicking through their worry beads, while inside is the more genteel sitting area with a terrific view of the take-away counter humming a top speed. Giant vats of chickpeas and hummus, containers of garlic sauce, bright fresh chilli lemon sauce, a pot of foul. To take some home you pick up the containers you want filled from the counter and hand them over when it’s your turn (the line does not move quickly). I noticed one woman standing to the side – apparently she had spoken to the manager who held her place in line for her because she didn’t want to be in between the men. This is not a posh place despite its posh address and I absolutely loved every minute of sitting and watching the waiters in their blue uniforms buzz around the room with trays of tea and plate after plate of delicious food. I’m not enough of a hummus expert to know why their particular recipe is so good. Is it the lemon? The amount of tahini? The garlic? Suffice to say, it’s now my favorite spot in Amman for a tub of the stuff and a small paper bag full of hot greasy balls of falafel. Apparently, they also offer a mean grilled chicken liver (a little early in the day for me to stomach) and eggs any way you’d like them. No utensils were offered, just lots of bread which I’m still clumsy with. I can’t seem to get in and scoop up the food without spilling it over the sides of the dish and not really getting much into my waiting mouth. My favorite new way to eat my hummus – scooped up in a giant wedge of raw onion.
After filling up we headed into the bowels of downtown Amman past a storefront selling the metal crescent tops for minarets and a man herding sheep through an empty lot. We were stuck in traffic behind a car with a backseat full of young kids sticking their heads out of the car windows to grin and wave at us and I kept praying that a truck wouldn’t pull in too close to their adorable smiling faces. They finally drove off one way and we found a parking spot, I pulled on a long sweater to make sure I was as covered as I could be and we entered the small street that leads to the souk (market to you and me) of Amman. Now, this is no rival to the souks I’ve explored in Marrakech and Cairo, but what it does offer is a completely tourist-free experience. There are no signs pointing the way to it, no gold seller trying to rip you off or spice man offering your family camels in exchange for your hand in marriage (yes, this happened to me in Morocco). Instead, Amman’s market is where locals really shop, and not the posh locals (they all head to Cosmo where everything’s been butchered and packaged and cleaned). There’s little you’d ever want to buy outside of the food here – most of the other shops are bursting with crap made in China by some underage child – but the food is exciting.
I found three more completely new foods to try on this market trip (to add to my green chickpeas and my weird pumpkin cucumber). The first find was something that looks like an artichoke. In Arabic it’s called akoob and apparently it’s grown all over the Middle East and can be eaten in the Spring before it gets too hard and yellow from the sun and lack of rain. According to wikipedia, remnants of this plant were found in the Shroud of Turin and historians guess that the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on that fateful day was akoob. Fascinating! I didn’t get to try this pretty vegetable but I hope to try it next spring when I’m back.
Next find, and one that I ate quite a lot of, is the lovely almond shaped askedinia. This sweet, tart fruit became available toward the end of our two week visit and is only available for a very short time. They tell me the reason it’s not exported outside of its home region is that it must be picked when it’s ripe or else it’s very bitter and it won’t ripen off of the vine so it just rots when transported. Too bad for us! Anyway, you peel off the very thin layer of peach skin and bite into the firm flesh. Inside are four dark seeds that are sometimes roasted and used to infuse sweets with a cherry-like flavor. I think that this fruit would make a divine souffle – subtle and sweet!
Finally, a real surprise to me, green cherries! I love how people in this part of the world use their crops throughout their growing cycle, not content to just eat them in the form we’ve become accustomed to (like the green chickpeas I was introduced to earlier in the week). These cherries are simply not yet ripe, but the most fantastic bright green color and hard. The man selling them offered me a small bowl of salt – you dip the cherry in it first and then bite into its tart, sour goodness. Admittedly, it might not be for everyone, but for all of you who’ve loved a bag of sour patch kids, here is nature’s version. I really loved them and it made me think again about the many ways we can use produce.
My mother-in-law was at her wits end with me bringing home food that filled up her fridge and went largely uneaten (we were running around a lot), so I had to restrain myself and not pick up all of the gorgeous produce we saw. The one place I did go a little crazy in was the spice shop tucked well away from the main street. Initially I was just looking for some orange blossom water, but quickly threw caution to the wind and had the young shop assistant bagging up lots of exotic and otherwise hard-to-find goodies: spicy long peppers, dried hibiscus flowers, dried lemons, untoasted cardamom, cheap saffron, rose petals, and some gummy kind of thing the guy told me I had to try and I still am not sure what I’ll do with. It was all very exciting, making my pulse race just a little bit at the heady smells and bargain basement prices. We walked out onto the main street and I was fascinated by the little holes in the wall (almost literally) that sell a marvellous variety of professional cooking equipment, including all of the delicate French cake and tart molds my heart could desire (eat your heart out Paris). What a joy it would be to live here and watch the ever-changing rotation of fruits and vegetables as the weeks and months pass by. In the West we take great pride in the slow food and sustainable food movements that have taken root, but here in Jordan, they’ve never known anything else. I hope, for their sakes, they never do!