City of Gold

I watched City of Gold recently. It’s a great profile of Jonathan Gold, which shows how the easy descriptor ‘LA Times food critic’ doesn’t quite fit, because Gold isn’t just critiquing food. He uses food to tell the stories of LA, the stories in the shacks and strip malls, the places where no one goes to look for food or cant quite believe good food exists.

City of Gold didn’t just help me think about food in terms of writing, but also about the impact of where we choose – and choose not to eat – has on the lives of people. Jonathan Gold, essentially, tells the stories of Los Angeles through chronicling the city, inch by inch, food truck by stall, but what I thought was incredibly compelling was how Gold’s work has changed the lives of restaurateurs across generations. That is obviously not the role of the critic, but a part of the culinary-immigrant experience that Gold chronicles so well that I really enjoyed. It also cuts at this inherent snobbery people have about food; this idea that good food can only be found in authentic, hole-in-the-wall places, or in high-end dining concepts, never the places in between.

Food on tap, farm to table

What kind of cake did you have for your tenth birthday?

What kind of cake did you have last week with your coffee?

It's quite possible that you can answer the first question from memory, down to the sprinkles. But can you answer the second question with the same kind of vivid recollection? Or can you answer it at all without looking at your Instagram feed from last week?

Of course, there's a lot to be said about the connection of childhood memories with food, and perhaps that's why you might be able to imagine the cake without relying on a dusty photo album. (Bee Wilson's First Bite is a fantastic book on childhood associations with food and how to change them.) There was a specialness to food that has been lost in adulthood and in the culture of food on tap, of everything that was once made individually and is now in vending machines and frozen packages. The ice cream cake from your favourite bakery that your parents only bought on your birthday is now available in a bite-sized version at the grocery store checkout. You can enjoy it every day, but that feeling of excitement, that surprise, has been lost.

What has struck me in Amman is the reintroduction of the idea that food is special, something to be savoured as an individual meal, and the ingredients and cuisines at new cafes and restaurants that are taken straight from farms or the food cultures of Jordan and the region. This farm-to-table concept strikes me as particularly interesting because it reintroduces the idea of "seasonal" products, which I feel has been completely lost.

Even until my early teenage years, the idea of winter vegetables persisted, or the concept that there were certain meals that were only cooked to herald the winter or spring or some such.

This idea of eating simply, eating what is available today gives food that elevated quality and transforms it into comfort food. It's why people wait for mangoes in the summer, or why it seems odd to have khichri when you're not sick.

(Speaking of khichri, I spotted this cart in San Francisco this summer. Let's Make Khichri Great Again?)

The concept of "farm to table" isn't particularly groundbreaking, and may even seem a bit Williamsburg-upon-Webdeih. But what is groundbreaking is trying to introduce this in a place where falafel and burgers and curly fries are so dominant.

The pleasure of eating something that is rooted in the place is something I am learning, or relearning, in Amman.

At Shams al Balad, it is about basics (how I love a place that can just do basics, and do them well). The bright, sunny space, the basic menu of flatbreads with za'atar and cheese, served in the heartier (may the plague that is "small plates" never visit this city) style of traditional food.

The aubergine flatbread at Shams al Balad

At WeFarm - where the produce comes partly from the creator's family farm - the parfait features berries and non-dairy milk, juices are whipped up on the spot - and nothing appears bagged and boxed.

At Joz Hind, the menu changes every day. (Something Superiority Burger in New York does really well.) This week I had black rice with squash and walnuts, pressed into a cake, raw zucchini carpaccio with melon (that was so good) and a raw vegetable salad, while an adorable cat sidled past the table.

Joz Hind's menu changes every day. Not sure if the cat is a big fan of the carpaccio.

My mother often cooked kadi pakoras - one of her favourite dishes - for her birthday. It was one of the last meals she made before she died. I remember opening the fridge after her funeral, and wishing I could freeze the dish, the last remnants of her cooking. But that isn't real life. Food is not frozen in time. It should not feel like an endless stream of Instagram images, a trend replacing the second, replacing the third. That wait for a vegetable to come back in season, the childlike pleasure of a treat for your birthday, the realisation that not everything is available 24/7: that is what makes food special.