Saturday, February 1, 2014

!صحتين -- To your health!

A full spread: tomatoes,
falafel, hummus, and khobz!
Believe it or not, when I left for the Middle East I didn’t like hummus. I could never quite stomach the texture. So when my roommates and I stumbled into our first falafel place in Amman, I didn’t have high hopes. We chose Mota’m Hashem, which calls itself the oldest restaurant in Amman and, despite its grungy demeanor, is apparently frequented by the Royal Family. A few blank looks at the waiter as he asked us, in Arabic, what we wanted was all it took to “order,” and soon, we had before us balls of falafel, steaming cups of chai wa na’na’ (tea with mint), a plate of onion and tomato slices, hummus, fool (mashed fava beans), and, to go with it all, freshly-baked khobz, or bread. I dipped a piece in hummus, added some tomato, and tried it—had I really not liked this stuff before?? Doused in olive oil and topped with ground up mint leaves, it became a staple of my diet, along with the falafel I liked to dip in it!

Arabic mashawii-- note 
the french fries covering it!
My food journey continued as I spent more time in Amman. I tried manakeesh for the first time: half za'atar and half jebnah, or cheese, spread out over thin bread. I tried a delicious Arabic salad called fattoush, with cut up cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and small lemon slices topped with thin croutons and a light dressing. Another favorite of mine was kubbah, a ball of minced and spiced meat encased by a fried overcoat. I was lucky enough to try waraq a’nab in the home of a new Arab friend: she piled seven or eight of these stuffed grape leaves on my plate, and although my tongue was overwhelmed at first bite, I soon acquired a taste for the sharply flavored filling of rice and meat. It was with the same friend, this time out at a restaurant, that I tried mashawii, or Arabic barbecue: wonderfully sauced beef kebabs, chicken, and lamb, with grilled onions and tomatoes to eat with it. And it was best paired with limon wa na’na’, a chilled, icy blend of lemon juice and pulverized mint leaves.

Limon wa na' na' 
on a hot day in Amman
There were also two classic Jordanian dishes that I had to sample: mensaf and kunafa. Mensaf, which comes from the Bedouins, the native people of Jordan, consists of lamb over rice, covered in a thick yogurt sauce. The lamb was amazing, practically falling off of the bone; the yogurt sauce, however, was a taste I liked less, and it kept me from going back for seconds. But no one could keep me away from kunafa, a dessert made of heated cheese underneath shredded dough and doused with sugary syrup. I lived a 5 minute walk from one of the most famous sweets stores in Amman, Habibeh’s, and would often make the trip after dinner to satisfy my sweet tooth. And every time after I finished eating came the familiar courtesy, from waiters and Arab friends alike: "!صحتين (saHtain) -- To your health!" 

Delicious, delicious kunafa!

So my question to Al-Bustan readers now is this: Where do I get this food in Philadelphia!?  Hazami at Al-Bustan was generous enough to give me some Jordanian za'atar for homemade manakeesh, and I've found falafel mix that you can fry at home to make balls. But what are the best restaurants?  I’ve tried Saad's and Manakeesh, right across from each other at 45th and Walnut, and was satisfied with their falafel sandwiches and platters. But what about kubbah, fattoush, and mashawii?  Is there anywhere to get limon wa nanah?  Can anyone in Philadelphia make kunafa!? If you know of places that I should try out, please let me know in the comments!!

Amy T. Cass
Al-Bustan Program Assistant
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2015
International Relations Major