Meals in the Middle East

Harold Lyons is a student at the University of Maine, Orono and an ISA Featured Blogger. Harold is currently studying abroad in Amman, Jordan on an ISA Fall 1 program.

The most affordable fruit stand in Amman.

The importance of food quickly became evident while attempting to acclimate to Jordanian culture. In the States, home cooking is usually a sign of hospitality. It seems as if hosts prepare lavish feasts in order to indirectly boast of their means. In Jordan, exceptional cooking is an obligation ingrained into their very culture.

Food is quite affordable in Amman. In what I thought was a bizarre cosmic joke, I realized the healthier, more authentic Arabic food is cheaper than America’s fast-food counterparts. Luckily for me, American food is viewed as somewhat of a delicacy. For example, Pizza Hut is much more expensive than most of the Jordanian restaurants in the area. In a rare twist of events, I am now happy to be a broke college student. My inherent lack of funds force me to eat the local Jordanian food, by necessity alone.

Doing one thing and doing it well.

A meal at McDonald’s will cost you close to 6 JOD (about $8.50USD). On the contrary, I bought an entire week’s worth of fresh grapes, peaches, apples and pomegranates for 4 JOD (about $4USD). I can go to the local baker and get 10 pieces of freshly baked khubz (bread) for approximately 1 JOD. It is no coincidence that you rarely see an obese Jordanian. It makes me wonder if the United States would look different if they adopted a similar food economy.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Jordanian sweet food. My argument for cheap, healthy food falls apart when you can get the most delectable sweet food for less than 1 JOD. I swore that I would never fall in love, but that was before I met kanafeh. There is no description I could possibly bestow upon this wonderful creation to give it the proper justice. Wikipedia describes it as “a traditional Arab cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup.” If I come back from Amman 40 pounds overweight, you will know why.

This week, our study abroad group was lucky enough to take part in an Arabic cooking crash course. Our Arabic teacher, Balqees, guided us through the many steps of cooking Kebseh: a delicious concoction of rice, raisins, vegetables, nuts and a mix of spices. This has further cemented my opinion that Middle Eastern cuisine is among the best in world.

In Jordan, food is more than a simple act of providing sustenance, but rather a investment. Simply following a recipe will achieve results, but when you imbue a food with genuine emotion, it makes for a entirely new experience. Such an experience was quickly evident as our culinary undertaking progressed. When asked how to properly marinate the chicken, Balqees said it best: “With your hands obviously, how else are you supposed to feel the food?

In America, recipes are perfected to a science. In Jordan, it is a completely different experience. Cooking in the Middle East is constant improvisation. At every step, Balqees not only altered the recipe in minute ways, but also attempted new refinements. The recipe was less a strict formula and more a suggestion on how to proceed. The constant improvisation coupled with the encouragement of emotion made for an experience completely foreign to myself. Needless to say, I can not wait to do it again.

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