Before we came to Amman this time, a friend wrote and urged me to try out Beit Sitti, which translates into Grandmother’s House. From what I read, it’s a small venue in an older lovely, hilly neighborhood with views over the city. They offer small personalised cooking events in a home-like environment, you bring your friends and learn to cook hummus, foul, falafel, tabbouleh, fattoush and then sit around and eat the spoils of your labor. Also available are ad-on’s like traditional Jordanian musicians and a coffee cup fortune reader or a guided tour of Amman’s fruit and vegetable market downtown. I was eager to sign up even called to find out more, but then as I thought about it more (and really this was pure blockheadedness on my part), I realised I have all of these wonderful culinary lessons at my disposal. All of my delightful and colorful relatives are willing and eager to share their many recipes, secrets, and skills. On top of that I have an indulgent husband who is willing to translate for me and ask the locals all sorts of questions about their food and produce (they seem a little baffled by the attention as food is something you just eat here, it hasn’t been fetishised yet).
So I abandoned the idea of Beit Sitti, took a minute and decided to strike out on my own. I realize that I’m incredibly lucky to have this kind of personalized access so I have included the link to Beit Sitti above in case you’re coming to Amman and want to experience the emerging local foodie scene yourself. And emerging, slowly but surely, it is. As we took our lives into our own hands and drove through one of Amman’s many giant chaotic traffic circles, I spotted a banner that read Farmers’ Market. The rest of the information was written in smaller Arabic so my husband drove through the circle twice more, dodging wildly careening buses and hijabi ladies driving without regard for anyone around them, trying to find out when and where this market was happening. We survived the circle and on Saturday made our way through downtown to a new expo-type space where the market was happening. It was all terribly marked and required a Frogger style crossing of a six lane road to reach it. Persevere we did and found a small hall filled with about a dozen sellers. I so want them to succeed but it’s just not quite executed properly. There are gaping holes in what is on offer – why not bring someone selling delicious arabic breads or the jams that all of the aunties here make from their own fruit trees? It’s out of the way and lacking a sense of fun and life. There were some olive oil sellers, some zataar and sumac spices for sale, lots of flowers, very oddly a mushroom farm was represented, and a couple of vegetable guys. We were possibly the only patrons there.
We bought some snapdragons for my mother-in-law and a couple of bags of powdered mushrooms that make a really delicious soup when you add hot water to it (no chemicals, just ground dried mushrooms). I also talked to the men from Tilad Farm in the Jordan Valley (down by the Dead Sea) and bought some cucumbers that have been crossed with pumpkin to create little orange orbs that taste like sweet cucumber and some green chickpeas still in their pods that I was told to roast in a hot oven with salt, pepper and olive oil. We came home and I made a coleslaw with shredded green cabbage and the weird cucumbers with a lot of chopped dill, cider vinegar, salt, sugar and pepper. Delicious. Not a wildly successful food outing, but I hope the market is successful and they perhaps rethink some of their strategies (like location) to get their food revolution underway.
One of our friends, Sharif, owns and runs a herb farm in the Jordan Valley (which has absolutely perfect weather for growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables – it reminds me of Northern California). He exports his basil and tarragon to the UK, so those of you shopping in the big supermarket chains look for herbs marked “grown in Jordan” and you’ll be eating his produce. Anyway, on the road to and from the Dead Sea (which is where I like to spend as much time as possible while we’re here) there are impromptu green grocers all along the side of the highway. When we were here in the autumn pomegranates made for hugely colorful displays. Nowadays it’s strawberries and green almonds. Huh? you’re asking. Yes, they are the little fuzzy pale green pods that hold the almonds inside. Terrifically sour, you can eat the pod itself and make your way to the pale sliver of almond inside which is soft and wonderful dipped in salt (and I like a glass of cold white wine with it). It’s like nothing I’ve ever eaten, but they are abundant here with large piles on folding tables along with a giant scale.
Coming back from the Dead Sea you can see the colorful little trucks carting vegetables up and up and up to Amman, Petra and beyond. Tomatoes, cauliflower, onions, all destined for markets far above their below sea level origins. These trucks just barely make it up the steep and continuous climb but I love how they are each customized by their driver with different motifs and patterns using wood and metal to brighten up what has to be a rather dull job.
Halfway up (or down) the road there’s a small village, complete with its own mosque whose minaret pierces the clear blue sky, and lots of shops selling inflatable toys, sunscreen, and buckets and pails. On each trip I’ve noticed a particularly beautiful display of vegetables on the side of the road at the edge of the village, and yesterday we stopped on our way home. Abu Rakan (father of Rakan) grinned from ear to ear as we took photos of his beautiful lettuce, carrots and radishes. We bought a head of romaine to bring home and he ran over with a handful of peas in their pods as a gift. As we were leaving he grabbed some of his carrots, dunked them in a pail of water handing them to me through our car window as we drove off – a little snack from a generous and proud man.
A treat was waiting for us when we got home from our day in the hot sun. My mother-in-law, the ever-energetic, Auntie Suzanne, had prepared a banquet of stuffed peppers, tiny zucchini and eggplants (she had cooked it but my father-in-law had sat down and arranged all of the vegetables on the serving tray). All of this and there were also grape leaves (from her own garden) filled with rice and ground lamb that you are supposed to dip in yoghurt that’s chock full of so much raw garlic it makes your eyes water. The other stuffed veggies are eaten with your hands and dipped in a small bowl of warm tomato broth. To add to the deliciousness of it all Auntie Suzanne had taken the insides of the zucchini and sauteed them with lots more garlic and then chilled it in the fridge. Scoop up a little bit of this pulp with some pita bread and I was in heaven. I think this may have been my favorite meal in Amman so far….and one I’ll take notes on so I can work on duplicating it at home.
As for the ad-on’s, the other night I counted about 15 drop by aunts, uncles and cousins, who came to greet us and catch up (and that’s only one small portion of the family). I had thought only a couple were stopping by, but it became a full-blown party, as happens so often here. If I had that many people pop in unannounced I’d run for the hills, but instead the giant tea-pot was boiled and Arabic coffee made, more and more chairs put out. The boys were sent out to retrieve platters of hummus, foul and leben (yoghurt) with pickles and bread from the shop down the road. Everyone gathered around a small table and gossiped and ate. Auntie Adla read the grounds in my coffee cup – she said I have a big job opportunity about to land in my lap – and I wouldn’t have been surprised if my brother-in-law Tamby had pulled the family accordion out of its case and started playing Circassian folk music (it has happened in the past). So, you see, I am blessed not to need Beit Sitti, to have such a vibrant and talented Circassian Jordanian tribe surrounding me, teaching me, immersing me in their rich culture. Jordan is slowly opening itself to me, one petal at a time.