The Many Promises of Jordan

Markets, Travel

All week, since we returned from Jordan, I’ve been trying to craft a blog post about our recent trip there. Normally my stories from Jordan come to me so easily, are full of new finds and sun-drenched explorations.  As I’ve written before, the magic of Jordan quickly receeds once we’re back in London so I’ve been trying to work in haste. They are such different places – in mood, climate, landscape, order, people.  I feel quite a different person when I’m in Amman, unburdened and adventurous.

On my first night, my husband’s uncle, Doktor as we call him, went through a whole list of traditional foods that I should investigate during the week.  Most intriguing was a lentil and rice dish made with jameed, a fermented dried sheep’s yoghurt.  Traditionally jameed is used in the preparation of mansef, the most famous Jordanian dish (which I’ve still not tasted somehow). Lamb is boiled in a broth made from this fermented yoghurt and then served on rice.  Honestly, I’ve never pushed to taste this dish as lamb is often a tricky meat for me, often too pungent and chewy, but using the jameed in other preparations?  Oh, I must get my hands on some of that yoghurt I thought to myself.  It was time to experiment and develop wonderful recipes and ideas to share with you, my readers.  Two days later, after nattering on about jameed this and jameed that, we were at the downtown market in my favorite little spice and nut shop when I saw some. My husband said I absolutely couldn’t buy it there, that the trick was getting high quality jameed that had a more delicate flavor.  OK, we still had three days left and I was sure we’d come across some somewhere.  Then, when I mentioned my need for jameed to a friend she told me I must absolutely get it from Karak, a small village in the countryside reknowned for its delicious mansef. She had a friend who made the yoghurt for her and she’d get me some. Hurrah, I thought – oh, and how fantastic would it be to meet this woman who made the dried yoghurt and learn how they do it?  Fantasies abounded, but alas, I left Amman without any jameed.

Our second night was spent with close friends and they told us that Jordan has endless groves of wild capers.  What?? I had no idea that capers were grown there, but apparently people went foraging for them in the countryside.  Again the fantasies of roaming through the arid landscape and picking little buds off of the prickly caper bushes started. We’d take pictures, make something with the capers, have adventures along the way.  After a couple of phone calls the next day we determined that we were too early to find any capers. May is caper season while July is caper berry season. We’d have to come back.

On our third day, while we were at the market, we met Joseph (pronounced Yoosef), a man with an fantastic face who sells desert truffles, known here as kima, and chestnuts.  I had remembered seeing the truffles last spring when we were in Amman, but I hadn’t quite believed they were what people said they were and so I’d passed on buying any to play with. I wouldn’t be as foolish this year. While these white, potato-like bulbs, found in crevases in the desert by bedouins, are called truffles, they are only very distantly related to the varieties found in Italy and Spain that cost a king’s ransom. Legend has it that if there are a lot of thunderstorms during the rainy winter months these truffles will be abundant, as it is the claps of thunder that create the splits in the sand where these delicacies burrow.  Joseph just shook his head and said he’d sold his last kima the day before.  We took his mobile number (which he’d written in pencil on the side of his stall) just to see if he happened to get any more.  My mother-in-law marched me over to her green grocer near their home and asked the owner to search for some. We were too late he politely explained after coming up empty handed. It had been a dry winter, not much thunder.

The fourth day was a bit of a write-off because I was a guest at the Circassian Women’s Association charity evening.  My mother-in-law took me for a complete overhaul at her salon (now staffed by Syrian women who have fled their homes and jobs during the civil war). I’d bought a new dress for the occasion (the outfit I initially showed her had received a bit of a grimace so I knew I had to hit the mall) and she thought bright red nails would be a lovely contrast to my white dress.  My hair coiffed and nails shockingly red, we headed off to a restaurant on the outskirts of Amman and joined 150 other Circassian ladies who whooped it up, told dirty jokes, played a cutthroat game of bingo, and boogied until midnight. The food was pretty good, I thought. Others dismissed it as average.  As I watched the ladies drawing on the hoses of their hookas and dancing in their chairs, I felt a wonderful sense of well-being as they uninhibitedly and unabashedly expressed their joy.

Thursday found me in a bit of a panic as our week was drawing to a close and I still hadn’t found anything new to write about.  Yet another good friend of ours works for the Jordan River Foundation, an organization headed by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah, that helps Jordanians help themselves.  Their showroom just off of Rainbow Street has beautiful traditional handicrafts and our friend told me all about a culinary project they have in the works that they’d love my feedback on.  They’re taking Arabic sweets and giving them a modern twist with interesting flavors and ingredients, but organizing a visit to their kitchens on such short notice just wasn’t going to happen and wouldn’t it be better if I could also visit the women in the villages who are making these products and share my ideas with them in person?

photo 2By Friday I’d given up, given in to the fact that this was just going to be a vacation.  I was going to put my brightly painted red toes up on a lounger by the Dead Sea and drink blended mint lemonades until my brain froze.  Meanwhile, a friend of ours promised to fix me her mansef next time we’re in town and that lady in Karak who makes the best jameed, well, I’m going to visit her next time I’m here too. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back in the next couple of months to forage for some of those Jordanian capers (or even better, the caper berries if I can stand the summer heat) and I’m going to ask someone to freeze and good supply of the kima when they’re in season next year so I can try them (I think a shaved salad of them with some grated jameed and olive oil might be delicious).  I’ve been promised they’ll save the next batch of the family’s olives from their trees, making sure I’m around to watch them get pressed into olive oil. Oh, and hopefully I’ll get to help out at the Jordan River Foundation, offering them ideas to update their Arabic sweets.  So many ideas, so little progress, but with the promise of many more adventures to come…I just need another visit in a couple months time, inshalla.


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