Just Peachy in Jordan

In Jordan, my mother’s garden has a peach tree that doesn’t stop giving at this time of the year.  She hands out bags of peaches to neighbors and relatives and anyone who passes by on the street.  She makes peach jam with whatever peaches she can save, and still she mourns the peaches that fall on the ground, uneaten.

“Can’t you find something American and tasty to do with these?” she asked when I arrived.  I knew she meant bake something, and the American part referred to the use of fruit in desserts. In the Middle Eastern fresh fruits are eaten fresh, dried, or as jam or as an ice cream flavor.  They are not baked into desserts usually, unless they’ve been dried first.

My first thought was peach cobbler, summery and simple.  But if you’ve never heard of peach cobbler, it pretty much looks like its name implies, something cobbled together.  Not particularly appealing to Middle Eastern guests I discovered.  Which is how they also they reacted to my next endeavor, the peach crumble.  “Didn’t quite come out like you hoped it would,” my aunt said to me sympathetically.  “Maybe you didn’t put enough butter in the crust and that’s why it’s all broken apart like that.”

It had come out pretty enough for any TV chef to pose with, perfectly crumbly and buttery on top, juicy and sweet filling with a hint of cinnamon.  But aesthetically, the Jordanians couldn’t get past the appearance to get to the taste.

My next venture should have been pie, but I could see that the aecetics reaction would be the same.  Then I remembered the one Western dessert that all people appreciated:  the birthday cake. I’d make a peach cake, and cut the peaches small enough that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the fruit-in-dessert concept.

It was too hot to spend hours creating a layer cake, so instead I took a basic coffee cake and an apple bread recipe and combined them, and called it peach coffee cake.  Anything with the word coffee goes over big in the Middle East.

For Americans, for whom peach crumble, cobbler, and pie say summer, the coffee cake may have less appeal.  To the American half of my taste buds, it welcomed in fall.  Very tasty but a little early in the year to let go of summer.  But freeze for winter, when the hint of peaches should be a welcome surprise and thus save them from landing on the ground, their glory untapped.

PEACH COFFEE CAKE

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 t. vanilla

1 ¾ C sugar

1 C vegetable oil

1 ½ C white flour

½  C. whole wheat flout

1 t. salt

1 t. baking soda

2 t. cinnamon

¼  t. nutmeg

3 C. peeled and diced fresh peaches (this seems like a lot of peaches, but it’s not)

Topping:

For the streusel:

½ c  packed brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

½ c. chopped walnuts

6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

ALTERNATIVE TOPPING/ADDITION: Drizzling with icing sugar when slightly cooled

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.   Grease a 13x9x2 inch pan.

Add sugar and vanilla and oil to the eggs and mix thoroughly.  Mix together dry ingredients, then fold into egg mixture until combined.  Add in the peaches.

For topping, mix together nuts and sugars.  Cut in butter until topping forms into little pieces.

Pour cake batter into pan.  Sprinkle on topping.  Bake about 35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  I used a glass baking dish because the usual baking pan would have looked like I didn’t have enough to serve it in decent kitchenware.   Add alternative/additional icing drizzle when cake is almost coool.

Jordan: “Yes, I don’t know”

“Where can I get a Blackberry battery?” I asked in the Nokia shop.  The two men working in the shop both pointed and said, “That way.”  They were both pointing in different directions.   It didn’t result in a “jinx” moment where they both looked at each other, laughed and then agreed on a direction.  Nope, they just both

Jordan: "Yes, I don't know."

continued to point in opposite directions as if they were both giving me a legitimate answer. Which, perhaps on higher philosophical plane, would be correct—after all isn’t life of a circle we all spin around?

Alas, there was nothing metaphorical in their response, at least not intentionally.  And really who wants philosophy when its hot and dusty and you need directions?  But Amman can feel very much feel like a vicious circle when you ask questions—and take the answers seriously.  That’s because no one seems to be able to say the simple phrase, “I don’t know.”

Even “Do you have green tea?” got me the response at a café.  “Yes, no.”  It took me several more questions to figure out whether the yes was more correct than the no. The truth was he didn’t know if they had tea at all, which I gathered from the various other “yes, no” responses.

Never saying “I don’t know” seems to be a phenomenon among the 20-somethings of Jordan.  There are questions in Jordan for which they have no answers but these are matters strangers don’t discuss in public—“Is it likely I’ll get a job?” “How will I pay for heating this winter?” “Which one of our neighbors –Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria—will be the most unpredictable this week?”   Big questions for which people are afraid of the answers.

But people want to be able to answer something. So maybe that’s why a less earth shattering question like “Do you sell Jason Shampoo?” gets answered “yes” by the cashier and “no” by the clerk in a shop the size of a big living room.  The real answer was no, but that didn’t make the yes man feel bad.  He just shrugged, like he had a 50-50 chance at being right.  “I don’t know” just doesn’t have that definitive power of taking a 50 50 chance of being right, which are about the same odds for a long lasting marriage, all Jordanians take that risk.

After more than an hour and a half of elaborate directions from about 10 people who “yes,” knew where to get a Blackberry battery and then finally running into the Blackberry store by complete accident, you just want to throw some one for a spin by asking, “What do you think are the advantages of the Blackberry over the iPhone?”   If no one knows the answers to the little questions, then dare to ask the big questions.

The Right To Drive Well

I support jailed Saudi Manal Al Sharif’s right to drive.  I support her right to join the men on the roads in her country, a country that has one of the highest car accident fatalities in the world, like most of the countries in the region.

The Right To Drive Well

See, having spent big chunks of my life in the Middle East, I most importantly support Manal’s right to drive well—to stop at traffic lights, to use her turn signal, to look both ways, to wear her seat belt, move a speed lower than your body temprature, to remove her child from the dashboard, and tell the other kid hanging half way out the window to sit back in his car seat. This I wish for all the male and female drivers in the Middle East.

Driving means respect for the lives of your fellow human beings with whom you are sharing the roads, and I don’t see a lot of that from my steering wheel.  It’s why I sometimes envy the women here who are only allowed to have drivers.  They don’t have to grind their teeth while someone makes a U-turn out of the far right lane, they don’t have to patrol narrow streets looking for a place to triple park their car, they don’t have to drown out hundreds of randomly honking horns.  Whenever they need to go somewhere, they just call their driver and he drops them right at the door.  While the driver is negotiating the roads, a woman can make her phone calls, grade papers, and listen to her iPod, take a nap, answer her e-mails.  Of course, some people do all this while driving, too, further making me wish I had a driver.

For some women, like me, a driver is s a luxury, for others a form of subjugation.  However, living without luxuries is easer for most—but not all–women than living under someone else’s control.

I too remember when driving was my form of emancipation.  I turned 16 and just like every American-born 16-year old, the first thing I wanted to do was get what I was entitled to:  a drivers license.  The only problem was we were living in Beirut.  That meant no testing center for eager American teenagers.  However, I wasn’t about to let a license get in the way of my right to drive.  We were in the middle of war, I explained to my mother, so who really cared about licenses.  I figured the soldiers and the militias patrolling the roads wouldn’t be interested in my legality as a driver so much as what I might possibly have hidden in the trunk.  My incessant droning on about this, with the support of my brother, who at 15, was  little Datsun on the Corniche  one Sunday morning and tossed the keys at me.  “You can go up to the Rouche and back,” she told me.  “That’s it?” I complained.

But in that short drive, I skidded to avoid a car going the wrong way and forced my way into the other lane.  Actually, it wasn’t another lane so much as a funeral procession, and I was right behind the hearse of a militiaman whose people didn’t take to kindly to my nouveau driving.  After my mother negotiated us out of the situation, explaining that I had too many American notions about being 16 in my head, she took her place behind the driver’s wheel and said, “You think driving is some kind of way to get your entire family killed?” my mother shouted.  “This is not a game.”

Middle East roads are stressful, requiring vigilance and patience.  Most women who have fought hard for their right to drive did so with vigilance and patience.  I hope they remember that on the road, along with all the others, male and female, behind the wheel.

People should also remember that driving isn’t just a right.  For all its stresses,  it is also a privilege.  I remember a well-intentioned European asking a boy from Gaza if his mother drove.  “No,” he said.  “That’s a shame,” the lady said, her feminist indignation not registering with the boy.  “Yes, imagine one day if I could make enough money to buy my parents a car,” he answered.  Many women here—clerks, maids, nursing assistants–must say that, too, as they stand in the 120 degree weather, often more than twice a day, hoping that an empty and affordable cab will eventually stop to take them to their jobs.

Tor’s Palestinian Photographs: 1967 and 1977

Today my friend and photographer Tor Eigland sent me two of his photographs as his way of remembering 63 years of the Palestinian Naqba (Catastrophe).  Tor is Norwegian and he’s covered events around the world since the 1960s, but his most amazing stuff is of the Middle East (aside from his photo of Castro on his day of coming to power–which is pretty the much the photo of Castro coming to power).

Palestinian Refugees 1967

Tel al Zaatar 1977

What Arabs Talk About At Dinner

On a recent work trip to Kuwait, my American colleague started chuckling while he listened to my Syrian cousin and me arguing about the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  “Is this what sitting down to dinner with family sounds like in the Middle East?” he asked.  Yep.  Pretty much always unless there is a divorce to talk about.

Until recently, if you were to look at the Middle East through television, which is how most people know it, you would think everyone in the Middle East was either a terrorist in training or a rich oil sheikh.  That was never the case, and maybe one of the good things that might come out of these heroic demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will be to see the Arabs as people.  And people who love to eat.

So in case you’re wondering what else we talk about at dinner, here’s a list. The order of this list may change family by family and depending on what is the largest and latest crisis of the moment.  For example, Libya (see no. 2) would top of the list today.  I don’t mention Osama bin Ladin, Al Qaeda or the hijab, because honestly those seem to be West’s favorite Middle East topics.

Here’s a peek into dinner, say over lentil soup, stuffed zucchini, cucumber yogurt salad, and hummos or something made with eggplant.

1.     Israel:  Israel via Palestine, Israel via Egypt, Israel via Lebanon, Israel via Syria, Israel via Jordan, Israel via Saudi Arabia, Israel via Iran, Israel via the nuclear bomb, etc.  These conversations are ready to go even on an empty stomach.

2.     Arab dictators:  Mubarak and Qaddafi and Ben Ali and so many more to choose from.

3.     Iraq:  See above.  We were talking about Saddam at dinner long before he became Enemy No. 1 and we’re still talking about Iraq because it’s still tragic.

4.     Shiite/Sunni:  Also see above.  Long winded stories to get to “@en did this divide become so big?”

5.     Lebanon:  See most above.  Also can revolve around “Do you think this is a good time to go to Beirut for fun?  I go the best haircut there.”

6.     America:  See all of above.  America means the U.S., not the North and South American continents.

7.     Conspiracy theories:  See all above, especially #1.  People are already buzzing on carbs from rice and bread when these started getting kicked around.

8.     Stories about how great the Arabs once were.  Remember Andalusia? So a thousand years ago.

9.     No one has better food than us. Followed by the latest diet theories and a bit of comfort that yes, America may have everything but that includes more fat, too.

10.  “What has the oil really done for the Arabs?”  This one usually comes at the end of the dinner, when everyone is wiped out, defeated, and decides, just like their fellow humans in America, to turn on the TV and zone out.  With some shisha.

Today the topic at the dinner table:  Is the conversation actually going to change now?

Cue the Camels and the Donkeys…and the Cool Cats

It’s time that we get our Middle East animals straight.  The other day when I was watching men on camels and horseback charge through Tahrir Square in Cairo, whipping demonstrators, I felt like I was witnessing a bad Hollywood remake of Ben Hur or any other “cue the camels” movie depicting battle in the Holy Land.

Only Hollywood wasn’t guilty of this travesty.  It was the fat cats of Egypt.  In this case, when I say “fat cats” I mean it metaphorically, although there are a lot more real cats in Cairo than camels.  It’s just that camels do seem to be the default animal of the Middle East.  They show up in movies, t-shirts, billboards, souvenir mugs and any other item meant to say “look, this is about the Middle East,” even seemingly used by a besieged president to show the few television cameras allowed to film Tahrir Square that “we mean business,” because after all, he had sent in the camels.

If you know Cairo at all, you know that the only camels you’ll meet are at the pyramids, used as props for tourist photos.  In truth the Arab animal kingdom is a lot more about donkeys, goats, and sheep.  Even in the Gulf Arab countries, where there actually are a lot of camels, the horse is the gold standard of animals.  In Cairo, you’re much more likely to have an encounter with a sheep or of course, a donkey. The donkey is the favorite animal of the Arab countries sharing the Mediterranean Sea—not only does he provide transport, he provides plenty of humor, being a symbol for stupidity.

The other day my friends from school days in Beirut were sending back and forth quips on Facebook about what to name the donkey necessary to complete a Middle East farm scenario. There was even some talk about the goats’ and chickens’ names.

No mentioned the cats. But the Middle East is really about the cats. Go to any Arab country, and you’ll find feral cats perched on windowsills, patrolling the back alleys of restaurants by the dozen, peeking through military sandbags, chilling out on beach rocks, and in better times scurrying amongst the masses in places like Tahrir Square.

No one feeds them, as they have plenty to eat in the overflowing garbage dumps of the Middle East.  No on brings them home as pets.  No one even seems to notice them much.  They are the most universal sight in the Middle East, and the least thought about. Unlike the wild dogs that are rounded up, the cats continue to roam free.

Cats tell you a lot.  They sense earthquakes coming before we humans do, including manmade earthquakes like war.  And they are barometers of a changing society.  For example, when I first moved to Abu Dhabi two and half years ago, the cats were so skinny they looked more like bald mice.  Today, they are far furrier and plumper, just as Abu Dhabi fortunes have become far plumper.  In Beirut, the cats are very adept at taking cover, and in Jordan, the one cat in the pack seems to always take on the role of king with his loud meows.

The metaphorical fat cats (it would be too easy to continue with Middle East leader animal metaphors) can send in the camels, but the real cool cats bask in the Middle East sun, happy to be ignored as they take in or avoid what their home countries have to offer them in these changing days.

Recipe From The Night Counter: Kibbeh

For all special occasions, Fatima prides herself on the kibbeh she makes. That makes her like many women in the Middle East who have mastered the art of this rather complex food.

Family and Kibbeh

In my family, like so many extended families, no party is ever complete without a platter of my Aunt Suad’s kibbeh, which is a Middle Eastern mixture of finely ground bulgar, onion, and lamb or beef that is, most commonly, formed into a patty or ball, stuffed with cinnamon and sumac-spiked meat, then fried, baked, or grilled.  When people ask Fatima what the secret to good kibbeh is, she holds up  her hands: It is believed that the thinner the shell, the better the kibbeh, and legend goes  long fingers are particularly prized to carefully form a thin enough outer layer to envelop but not overshadow the flavorful, moist center. In fact, the word kibbeh actually derives from the Arabic verb kebkeb “to shape.”

Often called the national dish of Lebanon and Syria, kibbeh is one of the most versatile concepts in Middle Eastern cookery, and recipes for it have existed for centuries, when the addition of bulgar to meat may have been a way to make the precious commodity last longer. (It is also made with fish in Iraq).  In villages across the Levant, the preparation of kibbeh was once a communal event, and the sound of the pounding together of meat and bulgar in huge mortars could be heard throughout small towns. Today kibbeh is, for the most part, prepared by home cooks or in restaurants and it comes in many forms. To save time some people simply spread the mixture in a tray and bake it. As a main dish, kibbeh is frequently simmered in mint-laced yogurt, and as an appetizer or, as Miriam does for Rock’s birthday, it is often served tartare-style, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with mint, and scooped up with raw onion wedges. But it is the crispy, warm, deep-fried kibbeh (aqras kibbeh maqliyya) that is most often served to guests, not only as part of the mezze at Arabic restaurants, but also an essential part of the buffet at weddings, family gatherings, and other festive occasions throughout the Middle East.

I’ve given you a recipe below, but I warn you that preparation is time consuming!

KIBBEH
1 kilo high quality, very lean beef or lamb (if lamb, lean leg of lamb is
best)
1 kilo fine ground bulgar wheat
1 medium onion.
2 T salt
1 t. allspice
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. black pepper
1 C. cold water

STUFFING:
2 medium-size onions chopped
1/2 kilo ground sirloin
1/2t. allspice
1/2 t. cinnamon
salt to taste
2 T. sumac
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. pine nuts or chopped walnuts

Shell:   Rinse the bulgar wheat with water and squeeze out water.  Grind the meat in an electric mixer twice. Finely chop the onion.  Mix the spices with the onion.  Knead the meat, bulgar wheat, and onion together with your hands then put
through the electric grinder once.  Gradually add the cold water to the mixture kneading until it is smooth and pliable like bread dough (you may not need all the water). Cover the kibbeh with cloth towel so that it does not dry out.

Stuffing: Sautee the onion in the oil until soft and translucent.  Add the ground meat and cook through, 10 to 15 minutes.  Add cinnamon, allspice, and salt to meat a couple minutes before it is done browning.  Take off heat and mix in nuts and sumac. When stuffing is cool enough to work with, you may begin making the kibbeh.

Form the kibbe “dough” into balls the size of an egg.  Keep them covered
with a towel, so they do not dry out.  Form each “egg” into an oval shell by inserting your index finger into the “egg” and turning it around until it forms a thin oval with an open end. Use your other hand to hold the kibbeh as you turn.  Dip your fingers in cold water to help prevent the kibbeh from breaking. Take a teaspoonful of the stuffing and put into the shell.  Seal the shell.   Do this with remaining  “eggs,” keeping everything covered so it does not dry out.

Deep fry the balls in hot oil for a few minutes, until they turn a dark,
golden brown (a color halfway between dark brown sugar and light brown
sugar)

Put on paper towel to drain.  Serve at room temperature with yogurt on the
side, if desired.

This recipe should make about 20.

Fatima’s Freezing Tip: It is bet to freeze the kibbeh before frying it, and fry it a
few hours before serving.