FOOD: Jordan

Food in Jordan revolves around the holy food trinity of shwarma, felafel/hummus, and chicken with rice. I swear, 90% percent of my lunches in that country consisted of one or more of those things. I drew a map today for someone in my Morocco program who’s heading to Irbid this summer. He was so excited that there were so many restaurants . . . wait till he learns they all serve the same thing.

This is not to say that these 3 things aren’t very good sometime. My roommate John would wax lyrical about the glories of Fuwaal’s creamy hummus and warm bread and how the shwarma place near the Paradise Supermarket on University Street was the best because the didn’t dilute the meatiness by adding french fries (sort of like adding sawdust to a used car engine).

He may be right, but then again, he was the sort of person who considered a bag of Bugles and a bottle of Coke a balanced breakfast.

Chicken and Rice, it should be noted, is not just chicken and rice, it is the lifeblood of Jordanian culture. It is always a great honor to host a guest in Jordan, and what better way to do so than by serving up a big heaping plate of steaming rice topped with crispy roast chicken. Sound like more food than any one person could possible consume in their wildest dreams? That’s kind of the point. Thy Jordanian cup overfloweth.

Of the great chicken and rice dishes (lamb can be substituted but rarely was in my experience), Mensaf towers over them all. Bedouin to the bone, it consists of roast chicken, nuts, rice, and a thin fermented yoghurt sauce. That’s it. Piles of it. Piles and piles and piles of it. If you want to show how big your Jordanian britches are (as my grandmother might say were she to talk about eating Mensaf, which, for reasons I’ll never understand, she never did) you mix clumps of the stuff in your hand, work the rice starch/yoghurt goo until the whole thing becomes a sort of desert sushi ball, place it on you bent thumb and flip “superbowl-coin-flipper-ref style” into your mouth. Don’t wash, don’t rinse (your hands will get gross, that’s half the fun) DO REPEAT.

Eating with your hands, as every four-year-old knows, is lots of fun. What they (and apparently 24-year-olds hosted at their language partner’s house) forget is that the reason grown-ups eat with forks, beyond the fact that they like being boring, is that FOOD IS HOT. When John and I went to (my language partner) Mohammad’s for lunch I had been fasting all morning in anticipation and hence shoved my hand in with relish as soon as the eating procedure began. This was a mistake. I thought I might cry or get a skin graft or both while Mohammad laughed and started munching away.

Eating Mensaf is fun, tasting it less so. It’s sort of like roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Sure it reminds you of some homely-Norman Rockwell-Richard Nixon-vision of remembered 50’s America but that doesn’t make it actually taste good, it just makes it taste boring. You can replace Rockwell paintings with Beduin kufiyas (red and white, not black and white like those fedayiin Palestinians) and Nixon with King Hussein (either one) and you’re still left with the same product: a boring mix of fat and starch that’s given more prominence than it deserves.

Thankfully, there is hope and, like with Luke and Leia, it comes as twins. What twins you ask? The twin saviors of the Jordanian Chicken and Rice Galaxy: Maghloubah and Ouzze.

Maghloubeh literally means “upside down” though in my lexicon it means “rice heaven”. It involves deep frying eggplant and cauliflower (possibly even potatoes and carrots) and then cooking them again with onions, chicken, and spices in a huge pot with rice on top. When finished those whole mess is dumped upside down revealing the secret chicken and veggie treasure buried beneath the seemingly barren rice surface. It’s like hunting for dinosaurs that you get to eat. With vegetables. For a country that seems to have markets full of the green stuff I was continually surprised that they never seemed to show up in meals anywhere except my apartment on nights I was cooking.Image

Ouzze, at least the type that my professor made for us, is just as good. It has little veggies mixed into the rice and the chicken is stuffed with rosemary before being roasted. It has a sort of earthy taste that fits right in with a cool Fall day, looking out at some Roman ruins from my prof’s balcony.

Jordan may not be the culinary capital of the world but, occasionally, it can be surprisingly good, even with things that have become unsurprisingly predictable.

RETURN OF THE BLOG!

All apologies to those of you who intended to be avid followers of my overseas adventures in blog form. The pressures of school work and the lack of reliable computer access have kept me from actually writing the regular entries that I had promised to all.

 However, having returned to the Arab world (albeit a part devoid of felafels) I figured this was a good time to return to my felafelsophizing.

 I figure that a bit of distance from experiences can be a good thing for storytelling (hopefully my forgetfulness will help me leave out the boring bits) and that, after a long journey, some reflections are in order.

 A quick update since I haven’t exactly been clear about what I’ve been p to or where I’ve been:

 I did indeed, as promised go off to Jordan to learn Arabic. In a word, the experience was difficult. Hence no blog. In a few more words it was enlightening, at times exhilarating, at times frustrating, at times full of more chickpeas than any human being should be expected to consume. High points include making many amazing new friends, American and Arab. Low points include sleep deprivation and burning trash. There will be blogs on the more interesting bits.

 After I finished my CET studies in mid-December I headed off to Lebanon for a week to hang with this nice girl named Emma who I’d met there during my midterm break in early November. Following Lebanon I had a “Flinstones meet the Jetsons” moment where I traveled through Israel, the Palestinian Territories (well, one of the “territories”, the West Bank), and Jordan with Terry, my crazy Australian friend from the Camino, and Victoria Wolfe, aka Thomas’s sister. Special guests included high school friends, CET people, and Dylan, the coolest experimental piercing death metal artist-cum-social activist person I’ve ever randomly met at a hostel and invited to Bethlehem for Christmas.

Following this I squatted in friends’ apartments in Irbid, becoming essentially nocturnal (thanks in no small part to my growing Yemeni tea addiction), cooked all sorts of preposterous food experiments, and loafed in a way that few slackers can dream of.

 At some point I realized that all this chicken and rice had to stop and so I hopped on a plane to Prague (via Abu Dhabi, land of sand, stupid buildings, and amazing Indian food) and, under the cover of “getting certified to teach English as a second language” proceeded to swim through rivers of ham, milk, and beer. I studied a lot, made many new friends, and almost froze to death. It was basically Carleton with more dumplings.

I got fancy cake in Vienna, took a fancy bath in Budapest and wound up back in Ireland where I traveled for two weeks with Emma (remember tat girl I met in Lebanon 3 paragraphs ago?) and reunited with Rebecca of Camino fame, ate lots of scones, drank lots of Guinness, listened to some sweet trad sessions, and watched a man dressed as St. Patrick sing to some bridesmaids: just like when I was young . . .

 The nostalgia-thon continued with a return to Spain, this time accompanied by my parents. Needless to say, no one can stand and look at pretty things for hours/talk forever about politics over wine and ham like the Hildebrandts. Both were done in excess.

In order not to die of a ham overdose we headed down to Morocco which I where I am now. I am currently studying Arabic at the Arabic Language Institute in Fez (or ALIF). I’m living with a host family which, on the one hand, is great because, as the family is the center of Arab life, I get an amazing view into what life is really like in Morocco (probably more so than I ever did in Jordan, honestly). However, Moroccan Arabic is basically incomprehensible to me, as is the French people try to speak to me when I give them the “uuuuuuh” look. I therefore spend most of my time speaking my well-honed and now well-useless Jordanian Arabic to baby Mohammad who, though he lacks any true language skills (and probably even a sense of object permanence), seems to understand me.

I’ll be here for about 6 more weeks and then will head off to Tunisia for a week or so to see if it’s all I’ve cracked it up to be and whether or not I should get a job teaching English there. After that, it’ll be time to return to AMERICA!!!!!

 See you all then. In the meantime, why don’t you send me some life updates, I’d love to hear what you’ve all been up to/where you’re going.

Felafely (couscously?) yours,

Robert