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.

In Amman, staring at the stairs

When I first moved to Jordan in 2007, the long stairs were one of the most daunting things about downtown Amman. They connect streets and neighbourhoods on different levels since the older parts of the city are built on hills. I still remember how difficult it was to climb up the stairs on that first day in May '07 - not helped by the fact that my lungs were in terrible shape and I was toting a ridiculously heavy laptop. (Which would give me a shoulder ache for the rest of the year.) 

I'm back in Amman after eight years away; eight years in which I've done all of the things - writing a book, becoming a reporter - that I used to think about while walking down the city's streets and the stairs. 

The stairs are crumbling in places, I've noticed. I used to walk down them confidently in strappy heels and a suit, that heavy laptop on my back, amazed by what I thought was a grown up skill.

Now I bind my feet in sneakers to be sensible.

Elsewhere, the stairs lend themselves perfectly to Instagram photos. 

The city has changed in so many ways, and yet, as I made my way from Jabal al Webdeih to my old neighbourhood of 2nd Circle via downtown and back to Hashem (which has haunted my dreams since 2008) I instinctively knew which stairs and turns to take, which lanes were dead ends and which ones opened up into the ridiculously unreal views of Amman. It's weird what our minds retain. 

Amman in the Archives

One of my favourite things to do is look at newspaper archives online for coverage of cities. It’s always interesting to see the evergreen stories (or what I'd like to call 'what not to pitch'), the facts that are always mentioned, almost in a boilerplate fashion, but also the tone that ranges from the Orientalist to a genuine sense of discovery. 

Here’s Amman, Jordan in the Google newspaper archives

This reads like the opening scene of a James Bond film... 

1973: “There is only one cabaret in this Arab capital that boasts a belly dancer these days. And a visit to watch her could involve you in a gunfight.”

-     AP

1977: “There are no Bedouins now,” he says. “They’ve turned in their tents for villas, cars and color TV. If you call them Bedouins, they get angry.”


1980: “This new-old city boasts wide boulevards, clean streets, inexpensive public transportation, a growing number of good hotels, interesting foods, plus nearby historic and religious sites to assure the most timid visitor an exciting stay in the most exotic atmosphere of an exotic land.”

- The Evening Independent

1984: “Its present and its future are the teenagers in blue jeans and sweatshirts, businessmen in three piece suits and the new Youth Sports City complex that draws as many as 60,000 soccer or tennis players or swimmers on a warm summer day.”

This is an interesting estimate. I’m rather curious on what the current estimate is. (Also, wouldn’t it be the reverse in terms of dining preferences now?)

“At the rooftop Omar Khayyam Restaurant, co-owner Younis Shaer admits that fewer than 20 percent of Amman’s families dine out. His menu features traditional Arabic foods as well as hamburgers and steaks for his Western businessmen clients.”

-       AP