January 14, 2008

Amman Featured in NY Times

At NY times Travel section, an article posted on Jan. 13 featuring Amman food, culture, and restaurants. The writer wrote about politics more than eating in Amman. In the article you can feel the personal frustration from Amman, it's food, people and most important to her culture and heritage. I didn't expect this to be on the travel section at the well know and read newspaper like the NY times.

Shouldn't we react? How can an owner of a Famous restaurant show his dislike to the Jordanian food being Oily and lack of flavors compared to the Iraqi food? Trying to sell his own meals?

Amman is like most other modern cities. It contains many cultures from different origins and they all participate in shaping the culture of the city. We don't call Hummus, Falafel, shawerma etc a lebanese, palestinian, Syrian or Jordanian. I call it Belad El-Cham food, or the region.

Why should someone do this?

Israelis are heavily promoting for their culture by taking from other cultures. Many restaurants in NY city sells: Falafel, Humus, Salad, Tabouleh, Shawermah and many other cultural elements as being part of the Israeli heritage. They even branded them and opened retail chains with names like: Humus, or Pita. Even the Belly dancing, which was first introduced in NY city by an Israeli couples is considered an Israeli culture.

I once entered a restaurant in NYC called Nefertiti, an Egyptian queen, and wasn't surprised to see everything being Arabic from: food, music, interior design, and Argelleah ( Called with it's Hebron name: Hookah). I was shocked to see the logo of the store with the pyramids and David Star on the top. Moreover, the menu have names like: Israeli Salad, Israeli Hummus, etc. The owner was Israeli, while the waiters were Egyptians.

Food, and culture is part of our identity and heritage. The challenges of existence that we face is not only within the rights of Lands, it includes the Culture and Heritage.

The challengies we face in the global world are more than political or geographic. Art and Cultural sustainability are important to our development and Identity that requires from us to maintain and preserve.

Jason Florio for The New York Times

All the Foods of the Mideast at Its Stable Center
By DANIELLE PERGAMENT
Published: January 13, 2008


In Amman, you’ll find the bright vegetables from Lebanon, crunchy falafels from Syria, juicy kebabs from Egypt and, most recently, spicy meat dishes from Jordan’s southern neighbor, Iraq.



All the Foods of the Mideast at Its Stable Center
By DANIELLE PERGAMENT

ON a warm evening last fall, a handful of old men shuffled into Al Quds, a big, overly lit restaurant on a bustling stretch of King Hussein Street in downtown Amman. Platters of syrupy pastries, crispy phyllo shells and fried dough were artfully stacked in the windows. But the men were there for the house specialty: mansaf.

Mansaf, a lamb shank served on a heap of yellow rice with chopped, blanched almonds and warm yogurt sauce, is the national dish of Jordan. But over the past few years, as other cultures and nationalities have moved in, the menu has expanded beyond mansaf and Jordan’s culinary borders.

Call it a product of political turmoil. Jordan is smack in the center of the Middle East. In Amman, its capital, you’ll find the bright vegetables from Lebanon, crunchy falafels from Syria, juicy kebabs from Egypt and, most recently, spicy meat dishes from Jordan’s southern neighbor, Iraq.

It’s known as the food of the Levant — an ancient word for the area bounded by the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian peninsula. But the food here isn’t just the sum of its calories. In this politically, religiously and ethnically fraught corner of the world, it is a symbol of bloodlines and identity.

REEM CAFETERIA


At the bottom of the Jordanian food chain is street fare — fast, greasy, cheap. There are dozens of roadside stands in town, serving everything from lamb kebabs to hot falafel, but only one has had a line 10 people deep for, more or less, 30 years.

Reem Cafeteria (Jabal Amman, Second Circle; 962-6-464-5725) is a tiny wooden shack next to a traffic circle in the neighborhood known as Jabal Amman. It’s open 24 hours a day and commonly regarded as the best street food in maybe the whole country. Six men in curiously neat, pressed red jackets and matching baseball caps stand shoulder to shoulder in an assembly line making Reem’s only dish: warm roast beef sandwiches.

The beef is charred, sliced off a rotating spit, layered into a fresh pita, topped with slices of tomato and sweet onion, and sprinkled with salt and sumac, the tart, ubiquitous spice of the Middle East. Then it’s wrapped in foil and handed over drippy and warm.

The chefs will accommodate special orders — meaning, hold the tomato — but not when they’re busy, which was the case on a recent Monday, when a dozen people were waiting at 1 a.m. for their late-night snack. In front of me was a family of four, the father holding his sleeping daughter on his shoulder. Behind me was a group of teenage boys with gelled hair and bright, cuff-linked shirts, smoking cigarettes and leaning against a shiny Mercedes.

As an enterprise, Reem is legendary. “The owner makes a few million a year,” said one of the young cuff links. But the sandwiches are only the equivalent of 45 cents I told him. “You see?” he said. “That’s many, many sandwiches.”


HASHEM

A click above street food is Hashem — a culinary institution that hasn’t changed its menu or its décor since it opened in 1952. The outdoor cafe (962-6-463-6440), painted robin’s egg blue, is on an alley off Al-Amir Mohammed Street in downtown Amman, where three men take turns mashing chickpeas, molding them into golf ball-size rounds, and dunking them in vats of bubbling oil.

The alley, known simply as Hashem Alley, is lined with strings of light bulbs and flimsy plastic tables. Seated in the middle, in front of an old wooden cash register, is the owner, Hashem Turk, a heavyset, bald man with a trim white beard and a voice of gravel. “The king came here last year,” he said. “He paid for everyone in the restaurant and said, ‘Whatever you serve the people, serve me.’ ”

Lucky thing, because Hashem only serves one main dish: falafel. Every country in the region claims falafel as its own, but according to Mr. Turk it was invented in Jordan, more specifically in his kitchen. Hashem has no menus, napkins or utensils. And dinner, 1.25 Jordanian dinars per person (about $1.80 at $1.45 to the dinar), is served only one way — all at once.

Soon after my Jordanian friend Sahm and I sat down, our waiter brought us a plate of steaming, bite-size falafel and another plate of large falafel stuffed with onions and peppers. Then came the sides: pita bread, hot pepper sauce, fuul (an earthy fava bean paste with olive oil), garlicky hummus with pickles and ground pepper and, finally, a plate of raw onion wedges and a pile of mint leaves (for tea). It’s just what he served the king, Mr. Turk proudly told me.

I did what the men around me (there were no women) were doing: tear pita, dunk falafel in hot sauce, chew, tear pita, dunk in hummus, chew, tear pita, dunk in fuul, chew, and so on.

At the end of the meal, the men leaned back in their chairs, patted their bellies and bit into the raw, sweet onion. They yelled out compliments, which Mr. Turk accepted with a short, unsmiling nod. He’d heard it all before. Did he mention the king was here?


FAKHR EL-DIN

A meal at Fakhr el-Din is a starched tablecloth affair in an elegant Lebanese restaurant with flickering tabletop candles and speakers hidden in courtyard trees. It’s the kind of place where the reservation book is bound in leather, waiters move silently, and dishes arrive with sprigs of greenery that aren’t for eating (40 Taha Hussein Street, Jabal Amman; www.fakhreldin.com; 962-6-465-2399). Even Jordanians will reluctantly agree that Lebanese food is the most refined in the Middle East.

My dinner companions were friends from Amman and New York. We sat outside under a large canopy umbrella, surrounded by tables of local families, couples on dates and European diplomats. We started with mezze, small plates of food that might be called tapas, antipasto or hors d’oeuvres in other countries.

First, the cold mezze: grape leaves stuffed with rice and mint, creamy hummus, mashed eggplant with pomegranate seeds, crunchy green olives in spicy pepper sauce, crumbled mild goat cheese with tomato and various spices, tabbouleh and burghul, a cracked wheat. Everything tastes green and faintly spicy, as if it were all just dug up from the soil, rinsed and served. Almost all the vegetables in the region are organic and macrobiotic by default.

Next came the hot mezze; this is where the chef shows off his gastronomic acumen. The hot mezze started mild with the traditional crispy fried slivers of hallum, or goat cheese, and savory phyllo pastries of spinach and cheese. Then the dishes graduated to the exotic: sautéed sheep testicles, which looked and tasted like sausage, served in olive oil with a wedge of lemon. And finally, fried baby sparrows — bones and all — served with lemon and olive oil.

“Be careful of the beaks,” said the waiter. It was an idle warning — fried bird was a Lebanese specialty in which I wouldn’t indulge.


ZAD EL-KHAIR

An estimated 750,000 Iraqis have arrived in Jordan since the start of the war. And like every diaspora in history, this one has brought a culinary tradition. Dozens of Iraqi restaurants have opened in Amman in the past few years, serving Kurdish dishes like shredded chicken or beef served with vegetables and rice, and another Iraqi favorite similar to a quesadilla: shredded beef, raisins, onions, pine nuts, tomatoes, beet root and peppers stuffed between two cornmeal flatbreads.

The most popular of the Iraqi restaurants is Zad el-Khair (Um Uzayna Main Street; 962-6-554-0057, www.zadelkhair.com), where etchings of famous Iraqi musicians line the walls and the ceiling is covered in colorful tapestries. On the night we arrived, the two large dining rooms were filled with men in business suits and women in hijabs, though none at the same table.

After the waiters returned from a brief moment of prayer in the corner, we ordered the house specialty: grilled fish. The chef retrieved a big, gray Syrian river fish from a large tiled pool. Then the brutal part: he laid the fish next to the massive grill and beat it soundly with a small wooden club. He proceeded to slice the fish open with a small knife, and propped it in front of the fire using two wooden stakes.

When the fish was slightly charred, he slapped it on a dinner plate, drizzled it with olive oil and squirted it with lemon. The whole affair took about 10 minutes and, despite the savage preparation, the result was delicious — the fish was delicate, flaky and faintly briny.

At the end of our dinner, the owner, Yosef Aku Obiyn, came over to welcome us, the only non-Iraqis in his restaurant. I asked him how Iraqi food compared with the food of his adopted country. “To me, well, Iraqi food is much better,” he said. “We like our food full of flavor and the Jordanians like their food full of oil.”

Will he ever go back? “I had two restaurants in Baghdad, but I had to leave,” he said. “But I am not a political man. I don’t follow war. I follow food.”



12 comments:

Ahmad Al-Sholi said...

I couldn't read more, it always happens to me while reading your articles!
First, the guy needs a map :) since iraq is our southern neighbor!!!
Second, what do you suggest?

Amman Voice said...

Thanks Ahmad...It's a programming problem and will try to solve this issue.

Awareness is important and a good step to begin with. I suggest something like Branding our local food and Local Cultures.

Beduino said...

Same problem with "read more" my friend, great blog by the way...
Simply incredible to read such things on NY, and really shocked by the lack of geographical culture of their journalist!

Batir Wardam said...

Let me first congratulate you for a fantastic blog, one of the best in the Jordanian Blogsphere.
Is your blog linked to GAM in anysense or just an individual blog? As I think it is a great tool for the promotion of our capital.
In your description of Amman and the blog (right hand of the page) you mention Great Amman Municipality (GAM). Do you mean Greater Amman, since Great Amman Municipality is an expression of compliment to the Municipality?
All the best

Ahmad Al-Sholi said...

how do you think branding should do? I think more of media.. since it is our everlasting problem with israel and zionism..

Amman Voice said...

Batir, There is no affiliation for Amman Voice to any public or private sectors. It's a personal initiative and I am looking for everybody to be part of it.

It's Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). However, don't you think that GAM with it's current administration are doing a "Great" job too?

Amman Voice said...

Ahmad,

We need to let the world know about our cultures and traditions and not only about our politics.

We need to target the world using the media, as you mentioned. We the people need to do that, not only the politicians or the governments.

In this globl world our cultural and traditional elements need to be sustained.

To be sustainable, we can start from the Macro scale. We need a Brand for Jordan, Amman, our neighbourhoods, and streets.

On the Micro scale, we need to brand our food, drinks, music, clothes, etc.

I guess, this need a new Post to discuss

Racha said...

The problem with this article is it’s objective? What is it trying to tell?
I read a great deal of articles in New York Times travel section and it is always highlighting some interesting point of interest with history and culture. Or if it is talking about food, it would be telling the story of an exquisite taste, complex recipes, experience of a place and it’s relationship to the place and history.
This article is mind-boggling and has no constructive message. It is trashing our Mediterranean food which people from all over the world love and find quite tasty and spicy. In fact I was just chatting with friends from Latin America and New York who where just telling me that they would like to come and visit the middle east to have good food!!!
Is the writer comparing many popular traditional restaurants in Jordan? Or is he comparing the food category from street shawerma to fancy Mediterranean?
Or is he showing the mix of delicious food from the Levant is now all presented in Jordan due to its safe situation after adjacent wars. But wait is that new? We always had food from all adjacent countries in Jordan? Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, we never point out the place .. we always say it is Mediterranean. Yes we do have new Iraqi restaurants in town. But the food is similar from what we eat in Jordan. Contrary to what was described by this uneducated writer.
What is he trying to say? That we have no culinary sophistication? Is this a subject to talk about in the travel section? Obviously there is something else in mind.
I think the writer has no conception of culture. It is very apparent in the way he described Hashem. There is a lot to say about how this place still looks the same since 1952. There is rich phenomena in this place where all it’s customers drop all labels, titles and classes and share the same enjoyment of falafel and humus. Did he bother to highlight this in his article? Yes our humus culture is about dipping bread in humus and foul and using no utensils. Do we go around saying dumpling man on 8th street serve only one dish (dumplings) No .. on the contrary it is about how they make dumplings in the place and how it is eaten fresh. Same as the humus at Hashem it is the freshest. As for Fakher El Din he failed to describe the experience of the old house that is been renovated to give a feeling of the past while eating tasty food. He focused on trivial things like the green verges which in fact is all edible.
Going back to the objective. What is he trying to paint with his article? Looking at Zad Elkhair description? Iraqi food is better than ours that should not the core message. Maybe one should compare the two cuisines and tell similarities and differences of adjacent countries.
It is clear that he is trying to trash our food, image, and culture and he is trying to cause trouble between Iraqis and Jordanian. Since when is the travel section political?
Should New York Times reconsider publishing such materials and maybe give writers some geography lessons.
Anyhow, how should we react to this article? I am not sure I agree 100% with emad about branding. I think we already have a good brand for Mediterranean food we need to keep reinventing. Like the Humus and pita stores in New York! I call for all to respond to New York Times article and comment on the ugly picture drawn upon our culture.
-peace
racha Tarazi

Ahmad Al-Sholi said...

racha,
you are right.. an objection shall be left in their court. I disagree with the meditranean culture idea, as that would be highly dominated by Italy and Greece.
emad,
the failed image is part of our general failure to preserve our identity and well planning of future and progress as a nation.. Its amazing how it started from a cuisine critique to a nation identity. To me its all related, one thing leeds to another.. More, we shall -if considered a branding approach- to brand as a levant (Sham) this is the whole identity and is our entire history, no one of the four corners can present a whole separate image of its cultural identity. To do that, a powerful businesses that penetrate markets, or funds that care about the cause just as many zionist funds are there to sponsore alot of events and programs to market the Israeli cause against arabs.

Qwerty said...

3adi i don't see the problem, an owner of an Iraqi restaurant will of course prefer Iraqi food, what did we expect?
In any case isn't it our fault that we ourselves under-appreciate Jordanian cuisine and speak of it in disparaging terms. Why isn't there one single (serious/formal) restaurant that specialises in our local cuisine? And by local cuisine I mean both 'authentic' Jordanian dishes which apart from mansaf are almost impossible to find and those dishes which are now cooked and served in many Jordanian households even if they do not strictly originate from Jordan?
Why did it take a Lebanese person to write the only cookbook on Jordanian cuisine? http://www.amazon.com/Jordan-Land-Table-Cecil-Hourani/dp/1903018269

At the end of the day if we expect people to compliment our cuisine we should be the ones preserving and developing it.

Amman Voice said...

Qwerty

So the Jordanian iraqi restaurant owner can trash our jordanian food?

The writer from NY times did not only show his dislike to our food but to our tradition, culture, and people.

We have plenty of great food and restaurants in Jordan, check the Grumpy gourmet Awards at : http://www.frontrow.jo/voting

The 3rd annual celebration happened just yesterday in the Dead Sea.

Qwerty said...

Please don't exaggerate, where did this man show 'his dislike... to our tradition, culture and people' No one said anything about tradition, culture or people all he said was that he thought our food was oily but that iraqi food was flavorful, I happen to disagree and think the exact opposite, I think that our food is alot more 'flavorful' and that Iraqi food, in my experience seems to be greasy and heavy. But at the end of the day no one asked me or you our opinion, but it this man who was asked by the journalist what he thought and he gave his opinion. So what? Whats the problem?