When you think of Middle Eastern food, you probably imagine hummus, tabbouli, falafel. While those foods are indeed popular throughout the region, they come from the Levant, essentially the region between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates which contains modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, plus pieces of Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. (Incidentally, confusion about how to translate the Arabic word for this region, ash-Sham, is why the terrorist organization based in Syria is sometimes translated ISIS (where the second S is "Syria") or ISIL (for "Levant"). One of the goals for this project is to highlight what's distinctive about a country, meaning in part what you can find there that's nowhere else. In this case, some of the core parts of the Levantine diet are so pervasive I couldn't avoid them, but rather integrated them in a distinctive way — with hummus as a part of a bigger dip, for instance, and particular local variations of regional favorites like baba ghannoush and mujaddara.
Fortunately, this type of meal scales well. For our very last meal as New Yorkers, we returned to the fantastic Hostelling International on the Upper West Side for two reasons: we wanted to host many more folks than could fit in our apartment, and even if we'd wanted to host there, almost everything was packed up or given away! It was a pleasure to host several dozen people on a beautiful night, and cook with friends old and new in the very ample basement kitchen.
Tremendous thanks to Najeeb, a colleague of mine from Jordan living in Dubai, who summoned the famous Jordanian hospitality I'd read so much about in an amazing and unexpected way — he insisted on paying for the tickets for some people to come and enjoy his country's food! Thanks to Najeeb, everyone who volunteered to cook was able to enjoy the meal at no cost. (And, of course, hundreds of people received meals from the World Food Program.)
Fattet hummus | Hummus dip | Recipe
You know that random mixed-up mess you have left on your plate after trying a bunch of dishes at a Middle Eastern restaurant? This dish is kinda like that, just pre-mushed-up for you, with chickpeas two ways — plain and as hummus — plus yogurt, tahini, pita, olive oil, pine nuts, and parsley. It's like for Levantine food what seven-layer dip is for Tex-Mex, and a tasty way to feed a crowd. Big thanks to Jason for whipping up the hummus and then compiling the dish.
Moutabal | Roasted eggplant dip | Recipe
If this dish of roasted eggplant, tahini, garlic and lemon juice looks a whole lot like baba ghannoush, well, you're sort of right. That's what it's called in Egypt, as well as much of the Western world. But if you order baba ghannoush in several other Arab countries, including Jordan, you'll get something also based on roasted eggplant, but more like a mashed-up salad with tomatoes and onions rather than this creamy dip. Anyway, what the Jordanians call moutabal is the more common one there, so that's what we made. Really not very hard to make, and very easy to tweak the levels of pretty much all ingredients to your liking. Don't forget ample pita.
Mukhalal | Pickled turnips | Recipe
The same mustiness with a hint of sweetness that makes roasted turnip an mild yet intriguing flavor makes for a bigger punch when pickled. The deep, earthy tones play off the bright crisp of the vinegar, all of which is made cartoonishly pink thanks to a few beet pieces that have been thrown into the mix for show. With nothing more than a bay leaf and a bit of chili, and of course a week of sitting on the counter, these few elements interact to create a condiment that is, rightly, hugely popular, a nice palate-cleanser after a bite of lamb, or a texture-enhancer to an otherwise mushy bite of hummus.
Mansaf | Lamb and rice over flatbread with sauce of reconstituted buttermilk | Recipe
Sometimes it's excruciating to choose what to feature for a given country from among so many options, and sometimes you see a certain dish declared in every travel article and recipe collection as the undisputed National Dish. Jordan is the latter type of country, as this bountiful dish of meat over two types of starch bathed in a rich sauce is the sine qua non of that famed Jordanian hospitality.
Mansaf means "explosion" in Arabic, and this dish does indeed look like a bunch of settled debris. But it's all layered for maximum deliciousness and texture sensation, with lamb-infused buttermilk sauce layered amongst the flatbread, rice, and lamb for full tastiness.
The most important, and most challenging, part of the dish is the jameed, which is dried buttermilk. I couldn't find the proper hard balls that the recipe calls for, the best I had was the Lebanese version called kishk, which is similar but ground and mixed with wheat. The advantage is that the powder allowed us to skip the soaking part, but the flavor and texture both felt a little too thin and mealy. I probably put in too much water and didn't stir it enough. It definitely showed promise, with a sort of smoky-tart flavor and, in parts, a lovely creamy texture. It was definitely good enough to eat, thankfully, because I bought over 30 pounds of lamb!
Mudardara | Rice and lentils with caramelized onions | Recipe
I included this to make the meal vegetarian-friendly, but found it quite tasty all the same. As far as I can tell, it's the better-known mujaddara, except explicitly made with brown lentils and rice, whereas other versions of the dish can use green lentils, or even wheat in place of rice. Anyway, it's a hearty comfort food, and while it takes time and care to prepare, it's very inexpensive.
Knafeh | Cheese and shredded filo pastry | Recipe
Take a feta-like cheese out of its salty brine, soak in several changes of water, then simmer to make darn sure all the salt's gone. Tear open a package of shredded filo and fry in ghee until it's crispy. Layer a pan with filo, then that weird cheese, then more filo. Wait, this is dessert? Yup! Because after baking on one side, flipping over, and baking again to ensure even caramelization, you douse the whole thing in a ton of sweet syrup.
You know what? This thing was pretty darn awesome, the runaway success of the night. And congrats to Elly, pastry chef for the night, who followed the spirit of the recipe by "summoning the courage of her convictions" when flipping the trays, beautifully executed.
It was a lovely evening, mild by late-July New York standards, and many of us transitioned out to the hostel's lawn, enjoying last nibbles of sweets, including a whole box of dates I'd forgotten about in the rush. After lots of hugs goodbye and a team effort to clean up, we rushed home to pack — and a week later hit the road to move across the country!