Living here is going to make me a better chef. Well, if not a better chef, a different kind of chef. Every time I make up my grocery list I am gripped with anxiety because I never know what I’m going to be able to find at the shops. It’s an experience I’ve coined urban foraging. Often, as I stand in front of the shelves, willing an item I know they don’t have in stock to magically appear, I go through several stages: denial, hope, grief, bargaining, until I finally just start figuring out what to do. What might work instead of fresh cranberries? Canned pumpkin? Duck breasts instead of duck legs? Might spring roll wrappers work instead of wonton wrapper? Cabbage instead of boy choy? How to achieve that uniquely licoricey taste of tarragon without fresh tarragon?
Before, I never once shied away from a recipe because of a daunting list of ingredients. I knew I could source them one way or another. Here, I’m not so sure! I was also one of those people (call me lazy if you will) that never understood why I should make something from scratch that someone else could make it better and with ease. Sushi was always a less dicey proposition in the hands of a master at my local sushi joint. Why make my own bread when I knew my oven would never give me the results of the bakery down the street, and besides who wants to mess with that whole sourdough starter mess? Why make your own puff pastry when the store-bought is just as good? Why, why, why? I’ll tell you why! You just can’t find that stuff here!
It all started with my kombucha experiment (which is flourishing). Last summer while visiting the US, I fell in love with the stuff. Walk into almost any grocery and there are entire refrigerators dedicated to various artisan brands of kombucha in creative flavors. When I went back to London I was hard-pressed to find just one kind of the stuff at Whole Foods….and it was terrible! So when I was back in the States for Christmas I ordered a kombucha making kit and when we were finally settled here in Amman I started the process, experimenting with my own flavors and length of brewing to make my own distinct taste. Now my fridge is constantly filled with my own version of this effervescent health elixir and the orders for it are rolling in!
Next I hunted high and low for a loaf of good sourdough bread. While I was told about a couple of new bakeries specialising in European style loaves, neither came even close to meeting my expectations. And, yes, there is a guy who makes excellent sourdough and sells it at Joz Hind, however I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made the trek up to Weibdeh only to be told they don’t have any bread that day. Frustrated and craving good bread, I’ve finally decided to make my own and am following a recipe for San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery’s sourdough. I’ve been feeding the starter for seven days now and am about to make my first loaves. I’ll keep you posted!
My latest urban forage was not done out of necessity, more out of curiosity. When we were visiting Amman last year a friend told us about capers that grow wildly and in abundance in the countryside here. While it was too early in the year to go then, once we moved here I was determined to check it out for myself. Most astounding to me is that local cuisine rarely if ever features capers and most people I told about my project weren’t even aware that they grow here!
We followed our friends Mo and Randa just outside the city limits on the Airport Road to an area I’ve always gazed at longingly before. Whenever we were on our way to the airport to go home to London I felt sad there wasn’t time to explore the beautiful hills. Now I was finally doing it. It looks just like Tuscany or Provence or Napa with low handmade stone walls snaking through the golden hills which are littered with wild olive trees and grape vines. Our friend and guide Mo is half Italian, half Jordanian, which perhaps explains his deep love for food. His spice cupboard is the stuff of legends, full of his own secret blends and rubs. Earlier in the week he had made us the most delicious grilled Emeriti quail – seriously! A true Renaissance man, Mo forages in between camping and trekking and climbing and spelunking all over Jordan, most definitely a man to know if you want to learn about all things edible and local, and really anything worth knowing about here is learned via word-of-mouth.
Caper bushes are essentially a thorny weeds with beautiful flowers on them this time of year. We pulled over to the side of the road at numerous spots to find bushes laden with the little caper buds. Mo instructed us to pick the smaller ones as the bigger buds were well on their way to becoming the beautiful tropical looking flower which then, in turn, produces the even better caper berry. In about two weeks caper berries will replace the relatively humble caper on these bushes. You could see the beginnings of them all over (and who doesn’t love a chacuterie plate with a few pickled caper berries as garnish?).
After an hour of picking in the late day sun we had maybe a pound of little green buds and much more respect for those little jars of capers I’ve bought in the past and the work that goes into producing them! Mo and Randa led the way once again as we scouted out a location for a picnic of sandwiches and aperol spritz which Randa had thoughtfully prepared. We went off-road towards a pine grove but had to keep looking as the amount of garbage carelessly thrown everywhere by other picnickers ruined the settings. It’s such a shame that most locals seem to have no regard for their own beautiful country or the environment at large. Finally we had our picnic and learned more about where and when to go looking for other local delicacies.
Back home that evening I rinsed the capers well and decided to try two different curing methods: salt and brine. I placed about a third of the green buds in a jar and layered them with sea salt, covered it with cheesecloth and then placed it in a well-ventilated area of the kitchen. The second batch I soaked in water for three days, changing the water daily before finally placing them in a brine of equal parts vinegar and water with some salt. After sitting outside for a couple of days, they’re now in my fridge ready to use! I tasted them today, a week after they were picked, and they’re delicious. They have more bite than the store bought version – they sort of pop in your mouth in the most delightful way. I can’t believe I did it!
Somehow, I’ve become one of those smug do-it-yourselfers I used to scoff at. I did so out of necessity but in the process have come to appreciate the beauty of it. So far the ingredients I’ve produced have all been more delicious that their purchased equivalents and also quite a bit cheaper. Now one of the open shelves in my kitchen is filled now with various culinary projects burbling and pickling and fermenting away. I can’t tell you the sense of satisfaction I get from having made something to eat completely from scratch. My patience has grown because I have no choice but to wait, my creativity flourishing because it must. A gift grown out of scarcity, don’t you think?