The Golden Harvest in Post Production

This morning I was walking along a street in Amman, Jordan and came across several

The Crew in Salento, Italy

The Crew in Salento, Italy. Photo by Fabio Fassone.

people parking plastic chairs near the olive trees planted inexplicably along the city’s public  sidewalks.  They’d climb onto the chairs and start picking the olives off by hand and putting into sacks. What I’ve learned making THE GOLDEN HARVEST is that they are picking too early.  The olives are still too green for oil.  But if they want them for table olives, they’ll do okay.

Seeing these people today reminded me of why we’re making this film and just how hard it is to make a film.  So I thought I’d give a little update.  We’re in post production now.

We’ve filmed in four countries, and have a couple more to go. Along the way we’ve sampled a tremendous amount of great (and sometimes not so great) olive oil. When I sample those oils at home now, they remind of the exact trees they come from, because they taste and smell of the wind and sea and soil of that spot. Maybe that is one of the reasons olive oil stirs up so many emotions. The idea for this film began several years ago when my father passed away, and I tried to think of the times where he was happiest. And it was around the time of the olive harvest,when people would come to him to taste the oil from their harvest. My father hadn’t lived among olive trees since his youth, and I’m not sure he knew what virgin and extra virgin olive pressing meant, but that passion for the oil—for great oil—never left him. How could it? It was in almost everything he ate, and sometimes he just had a straight shot of it as a pick me up. When I started mentioning some of the olive oil stories of mine to other people with Mediterranean roots, it inevitably formed led to them telling me their own stories, all with as much emotion as if they were telling me about their first loves.   And so the process began…it’s been a regional effort, with great co-producers in Italy, Greece, Spain and Palestine. And we’ve brought together just some of the stories of that people along the olive oil route, tales of love, faith, pain and triumph—not to mention science, medicine and needless to say, great food.  CU Fresh OilIn the coming months, I’ll start introducing you to the crew and the people we’ve met–along with their favorite olive oil recipes.

Nut Cases in Jordan

In the Red Sea port of Aqaba, you can relive the romance of Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures on and off film. You’ll discover the CIA-esque intrigue of being able to see Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the same spot. Indeed, it is a grand opportunity to take in a vista of all of the Middle East mess at once. Then there is the pristine diving in the Red Sean and taking advantage of the luxury resort boom—or ordering the delectable local dunise and faridi fish eying you at Ali Baba Restaurant while the camels eye the tourists. All these are legitimate reasons to go to Aqaba, reasons that bring thousands of foreign visitors a year.

But when I ask Jordanians what excites them about Aqaba, they often tell me it’s the nuts. Nuts don’t have a double entendre in Arabic, so they don’t mean the opportunity to hangout with crazy people. That is unless you find it crazy to buy bags of nuts by the kilo on a beach vacation. But that’s what most Jordanians do when they go to Aqaba.    IMG_1447

All these fine nuts are purchased in the downtown shopping souq at the Al Shaab shop. Actually, the Al Shaab shops. There are eight branches to choose from in Aqaba, and conveniently six of them are on the same street selling the exact same nuts in the exact same heated cases and bins. Three of them are separated by only one other shop. It’s a business model that should defy logic, and yet every one of the stores is teaming at all times with customers, who eventually leave with kilos of the nuts, seeds and Turkish delights stuffed into the shops’ bright signature red and yellow plastic bags. The bags show up everywhere in Aqaba in their post nut-transporting duties as all-purpose totes.

The mom and pop nut shops that are scattered across the souqs and malls of the Middle East make you feel like a kid in a candy store– but with nuts and seeds instead. There are bins and bins of intrigue, each bin magically keeping the nuts toasty warm and freshly roasted. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and of course the king of nuts, the pistachios—in nearly countless flavored mixes and matches. There are pure pistachios or pistachios tossed with almonds and hazelnuts and cashews. Or in another combo, the cashew may reign supreme, with the hazelnut coming in second. The almond can be the leader of the pack, too. Sometimes the nuts are salted, sometimes raw, sometimes smoked.

Like everywhere else in the world, peanuts are price reducer. But the biggest way to cheapen the bag is the addition of pumpkin seeds. These are the big, salt crusted white seeds that Arabs seem to be able to crack open for the meat and still spit out the shell while doing just about anything, especially playing backgammon, drinking coffee, and smoking shisha in a café in Aqaba. The also popular watermelon seeds require even more crack and spit skills, which is why the uninitiated just chew on them, like me.   I blame my incompetence on the fact that I didn’t grow up with nuts serving the same purpose as my Arab relations.  They don’t say it, but nuts are a habit at a gathering of people, like coffee is, but they are also a way to pass the time–crack, spit, chew.  And in so much of the Arab world it feels like people are gathering to pass the time because there is nothing else to do with time.  And maybe nuts provide an entertaining diversion–yes, sometimes it’s a fun challenge yourself to see if the seed will actually come out of the shell.

Al Shaab Nuts

Al Shaab Nuts

The peanut is often in the mix, but it is actually a bean, and in Arabic fuol Sudani (Sudanese bean) is the word for peanuts. And it’s not the only bean in the shop. There is seemingly not enough you can do with a chickpea. Those craving sweets can enjoy the pink and blue sugared edomi, which are dry roasted chickpeas. I prefer them salted than sweet. Beyond the crunch, there is the comforting pasty quality. For more sweet, there is of course the sugar coated Jordan almonds, which do not have the descriptor “Jordan” in Jordan or the rest of the Middle East, where they are ubiquitous on silver platters at weddings and holidays. For an even bigger sweet tooth, raha, a range of rose and orange blossom flower infused Turkish delight-esque squares packed with pistachios and walnuts, is the big seller. I like them best when they are rolled up in dried apricot wrappers. But my favorite is semsemia, the squares of gooey or crunchy toasted sesame with sugar and honey.  Unlike nuts in a bag, semsemia is a comforting sugar rush that makes you want to go out and conquer the world.

Today, peanuts are also sold in candied form, which is not traditional. Peanuts are named for the Sudanese peddlers who once roamed the streets of the Levant and North Africa in more peaceful times selling hot peanuts. I’m less sure why pistachios are called fousto halabi (which means Aleppo nut), because they mostly come from Iran. But I can only imagine how much more confusing it would be for Asians to find a variety of coated peanuts and nacho-flavored crunchy balls, called Asian crackers or Japanese crackers or Chinese crackers, depending on the shop. And the American corn nut and wasabi peas are mainstays these days.

So the Jordan nut shop has globalized itself.  There are ever more ways to pass the time.  As I watched people get onto the bus as we were leaving Aqaba, their overnight suitcases sometimes seemed dwarfed by the kilos and kilos of Al Shaab nuts they were also toting. On the four-hour drive back to Amman as my Kindle bounced around on my lap, I heard people munching on Al Shaab nuts and seeds. No one else had a book. As I heard a kid get yelled at by his mom for trying to open a closed pistachio with his teeth, I thought about how if those eight Al Shaab stores were bookstores, they’d be empty. And thus the nuts win in the Middle East.

Or the Beach

Or the Beach

The Green Food Season

The Levant is among the many places across the world where spring means baby lambs, tree blossoms and the new buds that will produce precious bounty in a two or three months.   It’s also the green food season—when winter’s Swiss chard, dandelion greens, endive, escarole

Hameli & Green Almonds

Hameli & Green Almonds

and so many other leaves recognized for being wiltable in a frying pan run rampant in a final seasonal hurrah, overlapping with new green food, like sweet peas and fava beans.  There are also the foods that urban dwellers rarely meet in their green baby stage—like almonds and chickpeas.  Most people wait for them to be picked, dried and packaged. But in Jordan, where I’m writing now under an almond tree, and Lebanon, Sryia, Egpt and Palestine, these almonds and chickpeas are coveted for the short season before they become vegans’ best friends.  Green almonds are picked and dunked in course salt and munched on, more for the crunchy, juicy freshness than for being particularly flavorful.  Green chickpea pods, each yielding one or two peas, are roasted and then the soft, warm chickpea is popped out with the same principle as cracking open roasted peanuts in the shell.

This spring in Jordan the landscape is super green, thanks to a brutally rainy and snowy winter.  A punster could have fun playing with the word Arab Spring at this point.  But that phrase only makes people cringe.  Jordan has long been a landing spot for displaced Palestinians or a temporary escape route for wealthy Lebanese caught in the country’s civil war.  Today Jordan is a dumping ground for human tragedy—refugees from nearly all its border points—both rich and poor from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  It is also a country where many of the gardeners picking spring’s green things are Egyptians.

The gardener next door just returned with from visiting his family outside Cairo.  Between giving me various medical and culinary suggestions for rosemary, so that the herb’s overgrowth will not be wasted, he lamented the ruin his country is in.  I don’t actually know his politics but that is not as important as the sorrow that comes over everyone with whom you talk.  Once sustainable societies that survived, albeit poorly, off the produce of their lands have been floundering between stupor and rage in a diet fueled by junk food politics nearly a century in the making.  This spring, the violent crash diet approach to change is horrifying to watch.

It takes a long time for the region’s beloved olive tree to grow in strength and power and be fruitful.  The little olives are just popping out green now.  There’s something to be learned from the land.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that a predictable cycle of life at least hasn’t been too disturbed in the garden…but even that’s not so true when you think of what warfare does to the land.

Roasted Hameli (Fresh Chickpeas)

Hameli means “pregnant” or “full.”   Rinse the green pods off and dry.  Place single layer on baking sheet and toast until the pods char slightly, stirring occasionally.  (A small amount can even be done in a toaster oven).

Poetic Pomegranates

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

literature and food circles today.  Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years.  Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.

I remember my first pomegranate.  I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder.  But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance.  One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s.  Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento.  Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut.  I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped.  My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson.  Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls.  This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.

Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses.  American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season.  We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD.  Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient.  That includes plus or minus the pomegranate:  as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan.  However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine.  Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it.  I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.
Question to ponder:  Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?


If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.

Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.

~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

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.


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)


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.

Kimchi Falafel and Other Great American Meals

Falafel is not falafel–heck it’s not even good food– when it contains eggs, is yellow inside and out, weighs more than a tennis ball, is bigger than a tennis ball, or worst of all, refried.  But such have been my sad falafel encounters in New York, where everyone seems to be peddling falafel, including the pizza joint down the


Really Good Just Falafel

Excellent Just Falafel


street.  There are some pretty passable falafel spots, most particularly Maoz, where the falafel is actually hot and where, in respect to America’a all-you-can eat approach to life, you can add all the fixings you want, which is a good thing except for the inexplicable fried broccoli.  The only item that should be deep fried on your pita is the falafel.

When I was a kid in Minnesota, no one knew what falafel was unless his or her parents were born in the Middle East, but now it’s so ubiquitous that it’s in Microsoft Word’s spell check, like tacos, sushi, and pasta, which used to simply be called noodles before the US fully embarrassed its multicultural obsession with food.

Not that the idea of the falafel hadn’t already been brought over by someone, as when, as a kid, my brother bit into his first veggie burger and declared it “a falafel pancake with ketchup on it.”  Not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, just because you’ve called something falafel, doesn’t mean it is falafel, just like my Japanese students in Los Angeles explained to me that the rolls at Ralphs supermarket are not sushi as they know it, my Mexican students have never eaten jarred cheese product nachos at the movies, and my Taiwanese students in addition to not knowing the fortune cookie, don’t recognize the cuisine at the one-dollar Chinese restaurant.

Different and bad don’t necessarily go together when we look at the Americanization of ethnic cuisine.  Food gets changed here because of economies of time and money, lack of ingredients, and the different taste of the ingredients, including  the local water.  In the spirit of its birth and growth, the US gives you plenty of ways to eat around your cultural and religious restrictions, with creations such as turkey bacon, soy cheeseburgers, and meatless meatballs.  And it accommodates our health issues–although to look around at us not all of us  are paying attention to that part–with fat-free and sugar-free versions of everything, and it can enrich anything, even Turkish delight, with vitamins and minerals and lately even make your gelato—also in the spell check today—organic.
Some American embellishments, like thinking every desert can be dipped in chocolate, even baklava (wow, also in the spell check now) or constantly embellishing savories with roasted garlic are unnecessary, even annoying.  But the country has created a diverse cuisine all its own.
When people disdainfully say the U.S. doesn’t have any real cuisine other than the hamburger, I would ask them what are breakfast egg rolls, pineapple pizza, and wasabi hummos?  American marketers, as if also holding their own food in contempt, have labeled them as Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or Chinese perhaps to give them an exotic edge.  But they are American in reality, ketchupfied and cross-culturized—that’s why it’s called the melting pot, a big culinary helping of food from all over the world.

Even I’ve Americanized falafel, as I think it’s pretty tasty with a dollop of  kimchi—oops, looks like kimchi hasn’t made it into the spell check yet.  Microsoft Word doesn’t know what it is missing on its falafel sandwich.

*Note:  Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, American food is getting cross pollinated, like the pizza burger at Burger King, sliced up like a pizza pie.

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!

1 kilo high quality, very lean beef or lamb (if lamb, lean leg of lamb is
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

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

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.


In The Night Counter, Amir promises his grandmother Fatima that for dinner he is not eating quiche, or gay pie, as he explains it to her, but rather

Laundry Day Food

majadera, a food with a whole lot less glamour to it than quiche and a whole lot more gas.  But dress it down or dress it up, majadera is a perennial favorite.  Not because it’s cheap, easy, and fast, not even because it’s rich in vitamins and fiber and made from ingredients that are always in the pantry.  Those were the reasons it was prized in the past.  Today majadera is just simply good food.

Majadera is so simple to make that you shouldn’t serve to company, or at least that’s what my mother used to say.  She got that from her mother, who called it “laundry day food,” because it was the only thing she had time to make on the days she had to take care of the laundry of a family of nine without the awareness that somewhere in this world laundry machines existed.

Majadera has come up in the world, as vegetarian food is no longer for the poor man’s table.  It seems to be more standard in mezze today and expats order it by choice.  But the basic recipe hasn’t changed, still pretty much the same if you can call it a recipe at all.  You can use bulgur wheat or the more common rice.  You can serve it with the lentils and rice still holding their shape or you cook it into a mush.  But the one thing you can’t leave out is the caramelized onions that must cover the top.

Cheap, easy, and fast doesn’t usually mean great when we talk about most things in life but there are always exceptions and majadera is one.


Two cups lentils
One cup rice
Three large onions, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste
Cumin, optional

Boil the lentils with more than enough water to cover.  When the lentils are very soft, about 45 minutes to an hour, add the rice, and cook for another half hour, until rice is tender.  Remember to make sure there is enough water in the pan, as the rice absorbs so much.  Add salt and pepper to taste (it will need a lot of salt).  If you like, add a little cumin, which isn’t traditional, but I know a few people who use it.

Meanwhile, fry the onions until caramelized.  Spread the majdera on a platter and cover with the fried onions.  Serve with yogurt, pickles, and chopped tomato salad* on the side.  Good hot, cold, or at room temperature.

To Mexican-Americanize it a bit, salsa is an easy, perhaps I might even say superior, substitute for tomato salad.

Jordan’s National Dish: Mansaf

It’s Friday in Jordan.  Family get together day.  Mansaf day.  The first time I went to Jordan, my uncle took me to Jabri.  “This is the only decent restaurantDSCN0130 in town,” he said.  “Order the mansaf.”  I did and found myself faced with an almost intimidating amount of rice generously topped with lamb shanks simmered in a salty, pungent dried yogurt whey sauce that made me want me to gag.  This was the 80’s and I remember thinking that “gag me with a spoon” could be taken literally.  After a few more spoonfuls it became tolerable.  That was years ago.  Today, I still haven’t learned to crave mansaf, as so many people here in Jordan do, but I love Jabri, in part because the other food it serves—Levant food from its Syrian origins– is really good and in part because one of the few things always recognizable in Amman’s ever changing landscape is the bright lemon yellow sign of Jabri & Sons.
Jordan’s capital, is no longer the quiet, almost provincial city it was when I first visited some 20 years ago, let alone in 1935, when Subhi Jabri took over his Syrian-born father’s restaurant and began turning mansaf, a traditional Bedouin creation, into Jordan’s national dish. In fact, Jabri & Sons has been the exclusive caterer to four generations of the Jordanian royal family, not to mention hundreds of families that have it delivered for Fridays and special occasions.
Today, Youssef Jabri, one of Subhi’s four sons, is the company’s public face.  I met him a couple years ago while working on a magazine article.  At 48, Youssef is a British-educated intellectual who himself would make a witty guest at one of King Abdullah’s official dinner parties, events which he personally supervises, much like his late father did before him.
Youssef also oversees the ingredients that go into the food, most of which come from the rural Jordan Valley, where he likes to remind you Jesus was baptized and where the mystical curative powers of the Dead Sea have drawn in tourists for centuries. “My family takes pride in what Jordan’s land offers, from the meat we serve to the olive oil from a local press,” says Youssef.  “We’re always committed to the unique flavors of authentic Arabic food.”


Ramadan in Detroit

Ramadan in Detroit

Here in Abu Dhabi Ramadan is essentially a national event, a month of family celebration as well as religious significance, with virtually every Emirati fasting.  In THE NIGHT COUNTER, Fatima doesn’t talk about Ramadan but she is someone who fasts the whole month.  Fatima spent most of her life in Detroit, which is the largest Arab community in the U.S., and Ramadan there is almost like being transported back to Beirut or Amman.  I know this because I spent quite some time there in 2003 working on a cover story for Saveur magazine on Ramadan, focusing in on the charming Rana Abbas and her family.  Much of what appears in THE NIGHT COUNTER about Detroit I learned on that trip.  On the occasion of Ramadan, here is that article again.

FROM SAVEUR MAGAZINE (Cover, December 2003)


For Muslims across the world, all roads lead to Mecca.  For Arab Americans, there’s a short cut that leads to Dearborn, an inner suburb of Detroit strung together by strip malls and fast food chains and anchored by the famed Ford River Rouge Plant, a National Historic Landmark that by the mid-1920s was the largest manufacturing complex in the world.  Arabic calligraphy forms the signs on many of Dearborn’s stores, Middle Eastern pop music booms from the car stereos of teenagers cruising the main drags of Warren Avenue and Schaefer Road, and the local MacDonald’s proudly serves halal Chicken McNuggets, i.e. chicken slaughtered by merciful Islamic law before it is compressed, molded, and shipped here.

Some say Detroit, with Dearborn as its hub, is the largest Arab city outside the Middle East.  Unquestionably, Detroit has loomed large in Arab American lore since the early 1900s, when the first wave of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, arrived here to work on Henry Ford’s assembly line.  They have come from across the Middle East – from Yemen to Syria and Egypt. Each ensuing Middle East crisis has spurred a new wave, the largest being from Lebanon and the latest from Iraq, a steady stream that began after the 1991 Gulf War. White pages in the greater Detroit metro area are filled with Arabic last names, many of families who have long ago assimilated.

Arab Americans, like other ethnic groups, have remained connected to their heritage primarily through food, which aside from a shared language is the most common link amongst Arabs, no matter their original nationality or religion. Arabic food, give or take a few different spices, is Arabic food, and generations have come to Dearborn to shop at its grocery stores, buy sweets at its bakeries, and dine in its many restaurants. At no time of the year is this more apparent than during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, the month I arrived to this city that as an Arab-American I had heard about since childhood.

While I am someone who questions religion more than practices it, I do know the basic pillars of Islam, and fasting is one of them: so they understand sacrifice and empathize with the poor and hungry, Muslims cannot eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during the entire month of Ramadan.  However, what I didn’t know was how this was observed in an American neighborhood that has more Arabs than most villages in the Middle East.  The person who helped me map that all out was my friend Rana Abbas, a 23-year old Dearborn native I had met through mutual friends and whom you can’t help but describe as bubbly and vivacious.

“Detroit is a big city, you know, but when it comes to the Arabs it’s a small town,” she told me with her distinctly nasal Michigan accent, as she highlighted the key shops of Dearborn on a map. “Everyone knows everyone’s business, even if you don’t want to.”

With the use of Rana’s homemade map, a quick tour of Dearborn in the afternoon, revealed a bustling atmosphere that I quickly recognized from Ramadans spent in the Middle East – with a little slush and sleet thrown in for Midwest ambiance.  Like in the Middle East, fasting shoppers, with surprising energy in their steps, scurried from store to store getting the final ingredients for the dishes they were preparing for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast.  Crates of dates, the food traditionally eaten as fasting ends, were present in nearly every store, as was jalab (a raisin and rosewater julep), apricot juice, and tamarind juice, beverages that are often the first liquids sipped at iftar.

When the sun sets during Ramadan, the streets of Dearborn become deserted, with everyone at home with their families eating.  However, every night after iftar, Dearborn takes on a festive mood, come snow or rain, that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.  Rana suggested that I check out Sinbad’s, one of her favorite night spots, in part because her fiance’s brother is a waiter there.  Sinbad’s, and a growing number of similar Dearborn establishments, is a smoky, darkly-lit coffee house of wooden tables and velvet and leather wall benches that provide a clear view of a stage surrounded by Middle Eastern brass kitsch. Iraqi-born owner Akram Allos brings in bands from around the country who provide largely mediocre, tinny cover versions of well-known Arabic pop tunes to an audience that nonetheless claps enthusiastically to the syncopated beat.  Most of the patrons are young men and women, many of whom are on dates or newly engaged.  Aside from each others company, what these burgeoning couples come here for are the 52 flavors of tobacco that Sinbad’s offers for hookah smoking, a bad habit which has seen a renaissance born of nostalgia both here and in the Middle East.

While Sinbad’s and other hookah cafes provide limited menus, Rana advised me that the place for serious post-iftar snacking is New Yasmeen, a spacious, brightly lit bakery with a chocolate-brown and mustard-colored mosaic-tiled floor, tiled Roman-style pillars, and a wall-size mural that depicts the idyllic, sun-bathed Mediterrean landscape of rural Lebanon.  The painting and the heat of the bakery’s ovens are a sharp contrast to the biting cold, ice and dark clouds of Dearborn at night, and it was a relief to step inside and take off the weight of my winter outer gear.

New Yasmeen produces more than 40,000 loaves of pita bread a day and never closes during Ramadan.  “Our busiest time is from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m., after people have gone to the mosque for their nightly prayers,” said Hussein Siblini, 38, a fair-haired, soft-spoken man of few words who owns the bakery with his two brothers.

Families and groups of young men and women in the latest Abercromie and Fitch crowd his brightly lit counter for sahour, the meal eaten late at night before going to bed to face another day of fasting.  They come to line their stomachs from Hussein’s wood burning brick oven with mushtah (a flat bread topped with sesame seeds and eaten with labaneh, a condensed yogurt) manaeesh, (an open-faced pizza topped with an olive oil, thyme, and sesame seed mixture) and ma’ajinates, savory pastries stuffed with either a lemony spinach mixture (fatyir bi sabanikh), a hard white cheese (fatyir bi-jibneh), or a soft beef or lamb and tomato mixture with sweet spices (lahma bi-ajeen).  Older customers shout out orders to the 15 energetic young men manning the counter for items made only during Ramadan, such as sahlab, a sweet and spicy hot milk thickened with powdered orchid root and topped with pistachios and kolaj, a deep fried pastry stuffed with cream and dunked in syrup.  To keep up with the Ramadan rush, some of New Yasmeen’s 40 cooks and bakers – young men in white aprons and older ladies in colorful head scarves, many trained back in Lebanon – work 18 hour shifts.

So prevalent is the profession of engineering amongst Arab Americans that there’s a joke in which a mother tells a new friend that she has a son, and the friend asks what kind of engineer he is. Hussein is no exception. As I enjoyed the tangy tartness of a sumac-laced spinach pie, he told me that he has a Masters in computer engineering from nearby Wayne State, but soon found it more fulfilling to use the education he got working in his father’s bakery in southern Lebanon.

The same is true for 42-year old Palestinian Khader Masri, owner of the popular Masri Sweets.  After arriving here in the early 1980s for his studies, he went back to his hometown of Nablus, on the West Bank, in1987 and realized he wanted to open a sweet shop in America similar to his late father’s famous Nablus shop, as a way of honoring him. A nearly life-size black and white photo of his father making kunafa, a sweet cheese pastry for which Nablus is particularly famous, hangs high over a counter lined with seven different kinds of baklava (assabeh, finger-shaped filo stuffed with cashews, and kolushkor, half moon-shaped filo with nuts, are among the most popular), harisi (a semolina cake drenched in syrup), crescent-shaped anise cookies and French-style cream cakes and sesame encrusted date petit fours.

I only had to tell Khader my mother’s maiden name for us to become instant friends, as there is a long tradition of marriage between her family and the Masris, probably making us cousins of some sort if we had had a couple of days to map out our family trees.  When he took me into the kitchen area, I met his wife, Susan, a petite woman who is the perfect counterbalance to his frenzied energy.  She manages the shipping business and their teenage son and daughter mill about, offering her clerical help if needed.

While Susan takes care of business in the back and Samer, a chatty 20-something Jordanian with the ability to wait on six people at once, manages the front, wiry and fast-moving, Khader overlooks a staff of 21 as he rolls out his homemade filo dough.  Under the fluorescent lights, white walls, endless white sheets of dough, white cheese, white uniforms, and white counters are tempered only by the brown and green hues of fresh nuts, black logs of ground dates, and shiny metal kettles of melting yellow butter.  Two thousand trays of baklava and cookies come out of Khader’s ovens every day of Ramadan. Workers, whom Khader trains on machines imported from Nablus and Damascus, mold cookies, man huge vats of dough, roll up pastry with pistachio nuts (from Turkey, never California, says Khader, because they’re too dry for baking), brush baklava with clarified butter, pour buckets of orange blossom syrup across the trays of sweets as they emerge from the oven, and line up variety trays in pretty patterns.

“See, very organized, very American, it’s like the Ford plant,” joked Khader, as he handed me yet another plate of sweets, insisting that I try everything at least once before leaving. “But I don’t want my employees to go crazy, so every day I change the rotation.  Everyone gets to do everything.  It’s non-stop work from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. from Ramadan to Christmas.”

Ramadan evenings bring in people wanting atayif, the traditional Ramadan dessert. After it comes off the griddle, this airy pancake is filled with a thick cream, cheese, or walnuts, folded, baked and dunked in syrup – and best eaten immediately.  Which is what I did, relishing the strong squirt of buttery, sweet syrup that comes with the first bite. The only problem is that it needs a cardamom-laced cup of Arabic coffee or a mint tea to temper the sweetness, as do all Middle Eastern desserts, but sadly it’s much easier to get a Coke than a hot drink in Dearborn.  Some traditions just don’t survive a new continent.

Nearly everyone at New Yasmeen Bakery and Masri Sweets fasts the whole month.  “When you work in the food business, it’s really hard,” says Hussein.  “Everything smells so much better.  Your senses are really sharp.  But it’s bearable because everyone is always in such a good mood.  There’s a real feeling of good will everywhere.”

Rana also fasts, as does her entire family.  I didn’t have a chance to spend an iftar with them, but the day after Ramadan I headed over to her house, where her mother was preparing dinner for Eid el-Fitr (Holiday of Breaking Fast), the day that marks the end of Ramadan (and fasting) and marks the first day of the tenth month.

Rana may be from the most well-known family in town, in large part because of their religious and civic accomplishments.  She is the public affairs director at American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a national grassroots organization founded by U.S. Senator James Abourezk in 1980.  Her uncle, Haj Adnan Chirri, is the chairman of the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of America, which is spearheading the building of a new $12 million mosque that when completed will be the largest in North America.  The family’s legacy really began in 1949, when Rana’s grandfather, Imam Mohammad Jawad Chirri, was invited from Lebanon by the Muslim community to be its spiritual leader.  He went on to spend years advocating Islamic unity among American Muslims.

“He was invited to the White House three times,” boasted Fatima Abbas, his oldest daughter and Rana’s mother, as she walked across the oriental carpets in her Dearborn home the next day, pointing out the many pictures of her father that adorn the walls.

A dark-eyed woman with a deep, smoky voice that often breaks into robust giggles, Fatima continued to talk while she went into the kitchen to begin preparing the Eid meal for a few of her Dearborn relatives.  She wasn’t sure how many she had invited, maybe 12, maybe 20.  Hovering around her were Hana, Amanda, and Zeinab, her curly-haired nieces, helping her wash parsley and peel garlic.  They often hang out in her kitchen when they don’t have school.  With Arab Americans accounting for an estimated 60% of the Dearborn public school student body, the school board decided several years ago to make Eid an official two-day school holiday.

The girls began fasting half days when they were eight – their choice, they insist, not their parents’ – and all three are proud to say they made it through all of Ramadan this year.  After asking me if I loved hometown hero Eminem as much as they did and if I thought Justin Timberlake was cute, they told me that their aunt’s cooking was so good she should open a restaurant.

“Oh, please,” Fatima blushed, as she poured pan juices over three plump, paprika-brightened stuffed chickens browning in the oven.  “Everyone says that…I was a little worried this morning that I wouldn’t have enough food so I bought a leg of lamb at the butcher on my way back from my Eid prayers.”

The lamb was roasting downstairs, in the family’s equally crowded second kitchen.  In addition to the leg of lamb and the stuffed chickens, Fatima was also in the midst of making two other dishes:  fetee, a layered dish of toasted pita bread, chickpeas, yogurt (she makes her own), meat, and pine nuts and sheikh mashi, eggplants stuffed with spiced ground beef and baked in a tomato and pomegranate sauce until they’re soft enough to melt in your mouth. Meanwhile, the girls began washing dishes and Mohammad, the young man overseeing the prolonged construction of the house’s new addition got chewed out by Fawziah, Fatima’s frail 76-year old mother.

“God, I’m going to die before you finish,”she shouted with the aid of her cane.  He just smiled a beatific smile as Fatima laid out a plate of her homemade preserved olives and raised her eyebrows into a look torn between frustration and amusement.

Fatima wears a hijab, the white head scarf, in public.  Rana lets her long curls hang loose, as do most of the females in the family.  There are exceptions, like Haj Adnan’s 21-year old daughter Vivian, named for Vivian Leigh, who began wearing the hijab last year, a choice many young Muslim women have opted for in recent years.

Relatives kept filing in, each carrying a gift box from Masri Sweets or another sweets shop – the exotically beautiful Randa and Majeda (the nieces’ mothers, both devote Muslims and People magazine junkies), diminutive Rima (Fatima’s daughter in medical school), Rima’s husband, Randa’s husband, Fatima’s brother Ali, his kids, someone’s brother-in-law.  Two card tables were brought out to extend the dining room table.  Plates in a mish mash of china patterns were added as people kept coming in and the nieces were sent off to wash more forks and knives for the table.

Talk shifted seamlessly between Arabic and English and between food and politics, the staples of Arab American conversation. Rana’s eyes teared up when she talked about some of the hate mail and death threats they get at work. Her job at ADC is to deal with discrimination cases, and as the number of unwarranted firings and evictions has risen at such a sharp rate, it has taxed her personally, as well as the organization.

“We have always had an American flag at our office and journalists come in ask if we put that up after September 11.  It’s my boss’s flag.  He got it when he became an American citizen.  No one would ask someone from another ethnic group that,” Rana lamented, tossing a gargantuan bowl of fetoush, a pita bread, tomato, and greens salad traditional at Ramadan and Eid.  “The truth is we’ve done really well here.  There are Arab American engineers at Ford whose fathers or grandfathers worked on the assembly line.”

Rana’s mood perked up when her fiancé Hicham came in.  They met in Lebanon last year through a family set-up, on Rana’s first trip overseas. They both reluctantly agreed to meet the other and fell in love at first sight.  He moved to Dearborn to be with her and quickly become yet another helping hand in Fatima’s kitchen.

In the downstairs kitchen, Fatima got the humus started (her secret to getting the silky smooth texture of Middle Eastern restaurants is to keep the food processor running for 8 minutes) and went upstairs to do one of her five daily prayers.  Meanwhile, Abbas, her husband and a salesman at the nearby Ford dealership, arrived home with some jokes in tow.

But senses of humor were running low, squashed by hunger. After all, for the last month, they had all been eating at sunset, at 5:30 p.m. It was now 7:30 p.m. On the day when they weren’t fasting but rather holding out for Fatima’s cooking, the family was starving. The nieces walked around carrying protest signs demanding to be fed.  Snatching a plate about to be filled with food by one of her sisters, Fatima said she wanted to wait for Haj Adnan, also a salesman at the Ford dealership, as is another one of Rana’s uncles.

Someone said there was no point in waiting  – there wouldn’t be enough room for Haj Adnan’s family of five.  They would have to eat on the second shift, when even more people were likely to show up.  Still, Fatima insisted on waiting.  But when she noticed with horror that her nieces were about to indulge in Hostess Cupcakes to ward off their hunger, she finally gave in to her family. She gathered everyone around the table for a short prayer in her father’s memory.  Silence followed the prayer, but not devout silence. It was a silence tempered only by the quick swish of forks digging in for another mouthful.  Arms reached across other arms as people filled their plates, sampling everything, and sending bowls up and down the dining room table and two card tables.  The phone rang.  Haj Adnan and his family were on their way. The family intensified its eating, knowing that at least some of them would have to soon give up their seats and reset the table for Fatima’s second round of guests.