Monday, April 18, 2011

DO try this at home!

A few weeks ago one of the program directors here at AMIDEAST had a few of the students over to her house for a cooking lesson. This visit was the result of a failed trip to a culinary school that the program had tried to arrange. As is often the case with long-term plans in the Middle East, things fell through at the last minute. Instead, Wa'fa, our academic advisor here, offered her kitchen to a small group of us. Her home was beautiful, packed with artifacts from distant lands and exotic locals. Despite the international feel of the surroundings, in the kitchen it was 100% Jordan. On the menu was hummus, shatta, al-khierib leban, maklouba, and asir limon ma nana. Seem like a lot? Well it was! And Wa'fa had graciously purchased not only all of the ingredients, but enough for everyone to have a hand in making everything! It was very impressive. And incredibly generous. There is that Jordanian hospitality for you!



The above photo was the only one I managed to take before my camera died. So, the rest of the photos in this post are courtesy of my friends Allegra and Lauren. I was also elected to be the eggplant frier, so Lauren recorded the recipes while my hands were busy. Wa'fa started out by explaining everything we were going to make. Maybe I should do the same for you.

Wa'fa explaining the instructions
Most of the dishes I listed above are Arab condiments. Hummus is undoubtedly the most well known outside the Arab world, shatta is a hot chilli sauce, and al-khierib leban is a cucumber yogurt sauce. Hummus is readily available in most supermarkets in America, any hot chilli sauce can be substituted for shatta, and cucumber yogurt sauce is pretty straight forward. Nonetheless, here are the recipes:

Hummus


Ingredients:

-        ¼ kilo of raw chickpeas
-        2-4 heaping spoonfuls of Tahina (sesame seed paste)
-        ½ of a lemon, juiced
-        2-3 large spoonfuls of plain yogurt (optional)
-        Salt
-        1-2 cloves of fresh garlic
-        Olive Oil

Preparation:

1. Overnight, soak chickpeas in lukewarm water.
2. Fill large pot with soaked chickpeas and water until 1 inch above the level of chickpeas. Boil for an hour, uncovered.
3. Taste chickpeas to see if soft. Put in blender or food processor and add several spoonfuls of Tahina. Blend until chickpeas are broken up.
4. Add lemon juice, garlic cloves, and salt. Blend.
5. Add water and yogurt until it’s the consistency desired.
6. Serve in a bowl with olive oil drizzled on top. 

Shatta

Ingredients:

-        12-15 hot red peppers
-        1 large tomato
-        1 tablespoon of olive oil

Preparation:

1. Cut the hot red peppers in half. Cut the tomato in to slices.
2. Put vegetables in a small bowl and let them steam for 10 minutes in a double-boiler. Cover until peppers and tomato are mushy.
3. Put these ingredients into blender. Make sure it is not too runny.
4. Add the olive oil. Blend until desired consistency.
5. Serve or refrigerate (keeps for 1 month).

Al-Khierib Leban (Yogurt with cucumber sauce)

Ingredients:

-        6 small cucumbers
-        1 large container of plain yogurt
-        1-2 cloves of garlic
-        Salt to taste
-        Handful of fresh mint leaves

Preparation:

1. Cut the ends off of the cucumbers. With a cheese-grater, grate the cucumbers into a large bowl.
2. Peel the skin off the garlic, grate the cloves into the same bowl as the cucumbers.
3. Cut the mint leaves into very fine pieces. Set aside.
4. Mix the yogurt into the cucumbers and garlic in the large bowl. Salt to taste.
5. Sprinkle the mint leaves over top.
6. Serve immediately or refrigerate.





We also made something called asir limon ma nana. It sounds much more complicated and fancy than it really is. It translates to lemon juice with mint. I won't provide the recipe, because it is simply lemon juice and mint blended with 7-Up or Sprite. It is delicious however. And, if you use fresh mint, it takes on a fantastic green color!




The main dish, the star of the evening, is called Maklouba. In English, it translates to "upside down." Essentially, it is a whole bunch of veggies (and chicken if you so desire) topped with rice, all steamed together until the veggies are tender and the rice is infused with the succulent flavors of the produce. When it is all done cooking, you flip it over onto a tray (much the way you would with an upside down cake!), hence the name. It is delicious.

Maklouba

Ingredients:

- 1 large eggplants
- 1 large onions
- 1 large green bell peppers
- 2 large tomatoes
- 2-3 boneless chicken breasts
- 2-3 cups of short-grained white rice
- Vegetable Oil
- 2 Tablespoons minced garlic
- Salt
- Black pepper
- Parsley
- Mint
- BBQ sauce
- Lemon juice
- Cilantro 

Preparation:

1. Cut chicken breasts in 1 x 2 in strips. Marinate overnight (12 hours) in a mixture of ~ 1-2 cups of lemon juice, a sprinkling of parsley, crushed fresh mint, 1 Tablespoons of BBQ sauce, and black pepper.

2. 3 hours prior to cooking, put rice in a large pot. Fill with lukewarm water until rice is covered. Let rice soak for 3 hours.

3. In a large frying pan, heat up several tablespoons of vegetable oil. Cut eggplant into 1 inch thick disks and salt each side (leave for 10 minutes). Cut onions, tomatoes, and green peppers into 1 inch thick rings/rounds, set aside.

4. Once oil is hot, fry eggplant until light brown, flipping to ensure both sides are browned.



5. In a large pot, place 3 onion slices and 3 green bell pepper slices in the bottom and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Crush these ingredients together with hands, making sure all vegetable is covered with seasoning. After thoroughly crushed, make sure the bottom of the pot is covered with vegetables.

6. Salt this layer. Place one layer of tomato rounds on top of the crushed onions and green bell peppers. (do no crush tomatoes)


7. Place a layer of eggplant rings on top of tomatoes and then sprinkle with minced garlic and cilantro.



8. Layer on top of the eggplant & seasoning the marinated chicken breast strips. Press down, crush the chicken breasts and all previous layers flat as much as possible with hand. Sprinkle black pepper.

9. Add 1/2 - 1 inch layer of rice on top of chicken and vegetable layers and sprinkle this with salt.


10. Fill pot with water until rice is covered. Place pot on stove on high heat until boiling. Bring to a simmer and cover, cook for 20 minutes.

11. Taste for rice to be ready. Turn off burners, take pot and turn upside-down on a kibsa (large, circular) platter. Lift slowly so it has a cake-type form. Serve.



Absolutely delicious! And super Jordanian. We are supposed to have another cooking lesson with Wa'fa before the end of the semester, but, as with everything in the Middle East, this may or may not happen. Insha'allah! In the meantime, I have some other classic Jordanian meals to tell you about, but I want to get you exact recipes and instructions to accompany the many picture I have! It is also crunch time in school and I have become extremely busy with my work. But, as always, I will post when I can! 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Culinary Highlights of Turkey

I have no legitimate excuse for my long absence. School got crazy, life got busy, and then all of a sudden it was spring break. My friend Lauren and I decided to go to Beirut and Istanbul, but at the last minute our plans were diverted. Higher powers forced us to abandon our excursion to Lebanon and the decision was made to spend the whole week-long break in Istanbul. As disappointing as it was, a week in Istanbul is not exactly a bad alternative. In fact, I was soon to discover it was probably the best possible alternative. To make up for my lack of posting, this one is a monster.

I am in love with Istanbul. I am pretty sure everyone who I have ever talked to who has visited that city has felt the same. The atmosphere is enchanting, the energy intoxicating, and the history prolific. I took over 750 pictures, some of which are posted on Facebook for those who have access and are interested. If you aren't on Facebook but want to see them, leave a comment with your email address and I will send them! We did so much in our short time there, crammed each day with sights and adventures, I could easily write 10 posts just about what we did each day. Lauren is actually probably going to do this on her blog, so those who are interested can check it out. But that is not the purpose of this blog. And truly one of my favorite things about Istanbul was the food. So, instead of boring you with the details of my days, I am going to elaborate on the spectacular culinary sensations I experienced in this great city.

Let's begin the way you begin meals in Turkey: the Mezze
Mezze are small dishes sometimes served as appetizers and sometimes just eaten together as the meal itself. Mezze are great because they let you try a bunch of different things without decimating your wallet or your stomach. Mezze are similar throughout the Middle East, but with each country putting their own spin on classic dishes and always at least one or two "national" dishes. Babaghanoush, hummus, and tabbouleh are some of the most common and also the ones non-Middle Easterners are likely to be familiar with. But in this part of the world, mezze don't stop there. Everything from salad, cheese, and meats can be served as mezze. In my last post, I wrote about kusa and warek. Both of these are often served as mezze. In Turkey, these kinds of dishes (vegetables stuffed with rice or ground meat) are known collectively as dolma. One of the best restaurants I ate at in Turkey (a classic Ottoman restaurant just off Istaklal Street called Haci Abdullah) listed "mixed dolmas" as a menu item. Being unable to chose from the plethora of mezze options, Lauren and I ordered this. A familiar plate arrived at our table:
Kusa and Warek in Jordan, Dolmas in Turkey, Mahshi Wara' inab in Egypt, and Stuffed Grape Leaves and Lebanese Zucchini in America 
The warek (which was listed as Stuffed Zucchini on the English menu) was prepared almost identically to how my host mother prepared it on that first day. Slightly more garlicky and boasting a bit more meat, they were delectable. The grape leaves served at this particular restaurant were not anything to write home about, but on our first night in Istanbul Lauren and I stumbled upon a little Circassian restaurant, called Ficcin, right off Istiklal and ordered several mezze here as well. Our selection included grape leaves, eggplant with tomato and yogurt, and Circassian chicken.

Lauren's favorite was the chicken, but I was partial to the grape leaves. They were different than those I have had anywhere else. Quite often the downfall of this dish is the grape leaves themselves. The leaves are often purchased in jars, packed in a briny solution that can make the grape leaves almost intolerably sour. Indeed, Lauren was convinced she didn't like grape leaves, but then she tried these. The inevitable sourness that comes from the leaf was mellowed and delicately balanced by a surprising sweetness to the filling. Turkish preparation of this dish often contains small raisins or currants in the stuffing, along with pinenuts and occasionally cinnamon. While not overpowering, the sweet stuffing offers the perfect counterbalance to the wrapping. While not the most delicately prepared version of this dish I ever had, the taste was far superior.

Many of the mezze in Turkey make ample use of one of this region's favorite vegetables: Eggplant
For those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning, I did a post a while back about my version of a classic Turkish dish, Imam Baylidi. I had been inspired by a meal I had with my family in a Turkish restaurant in Washington, D.C. (Cafe Divan). I can now say I have had the real deal! And it was different from both previous dishes. And it was delicious. The most prominent difference was the addition of green pepper and some sort of nut in the stuffing. But the most important elements of the dish have been the same through all the variations: slightly sweet, incredibly silky eggplant, savory stuffing, and an pool of olive oil surrounding it.




Eggplant was featured in most of the meals we had in Turkey. Despite our excessive ingestion of this versatile vegetable, Lauren declared towards the end of our trip that she wanted to only eat eggplant for the rest of the trip. We didn't do that exactly, but we incorporated it into almost every meal we had.

One of our favorite eggplant dishes was part of a meal we had at a classic Turkish eatery: The Lokanta
The most common kind of Turkish eatery, a Lokanta essentially functions like a cafeteria. When you enter the establishment, your eyes are met with an overwhelming amount of food. Heaping trays sit in rows enticing you with inviting aromas and colors. To say you are flush for choice would be an understatement. And our eyes were far bigger than our stomachs. After dinner, Lauren and I agreed it was one of the fullest we had ever been in our life.

Choosing was difficult, but we eventually settled on 3 small dishes each and a meat dish to share. We both got rice and chickpeas, but we also had a mushroom dish, grape leaves, kusa (stuffed zucchini), a warm eggplant concoction, and some chicken kofta.


Everything was delicious, but our favorite was the eggplant. Served warm and bathed in olive oil, it melted in your mouth. Anyone who says they don't like eggplant has probably never eaten it like this. When prepared well the silky sweetness of the flesh is irresistible. At first we spread it onto bread, but soon we were inhaling heaping spoonfuls by itself.

And all this for about 10 Turkish Lira (about $6)! Which brings me to another of our favorite culinary experiences in Turkey: Street Food
Stick with me here, because street food is almost always impossible to photograph flatteringly and often sounds a bit strange when described. Our all time favorite Istanbul street food definitely falls into both these categories. Even the name sounds unappetizing. We referred to them throughout the trip as "spice burgers," (taken from the reference that recommended for these tasty bites, the Wikitravel site for our neighborhood in Istanbul). Upon further research, I learned that these burgers are actually called "Islak Burgers." Sounds fine in Turkish, but it translates to "Wet Burgers." It is probably better that Wikitravel neglected to mention the real name, as it probably would have deterred us. And that would have been tragic. 

The stand pictured above is supposedly the "original" makers of the burgers, but their extreme popularity (particularly among the post-bar crowd) means that on this one corner there were about 5 or 6 restaurants selling these strange snacks. We tried one other place next door to Kizilkayalar, but we found the original superior and never strayed again. So what exactly is a wet burger? Smaller then American burgers but definitely packing more punch, the burger patty itself is actually doner meat (those huge cones of meat that rotate on a vertical spit, usually called gyro in America). This means the meat has a much more garlicky, spicy flavor than the average cardboard-like fast food burger. But the patty inside is not what makes this burger special. What makes this burger special is the oily, garlic-infused, tomato-based sauce that it is drenched in. The sauce is actually on the outside and the inside of the burger, which contributes the the buns sogginess. The burgers are then placed in a glass incubator (a Turkish Bath for hamburgers!) and steamed so that they become even more "wet." It sounds pretty disgusting, but trust me, all this amounts to one incredibly tasty burger. 

After a night of drinking and gypsy music, there is nothing better than a steaming hot Islak burger from Kizilkayalar. Except maybe 2. Or 3...

Anthony Bourdain actually did a little segment on these sinful burgers for his show No Reservations. It is only briefly mentioned in the Istanbul Episode (starts 2:12, ends 2:55), but their inclusion emphasizes their importance in Istanbul's culinary nightlife.

Our next culinary street delight was recommended to me by a Turkish friend from Mount Holyoke. After touring the obscenely opulent Dolmahbace palace, my friend and I walked along the Bosporus coast on the hunt for a neighborhood called Ortakoy. My friend's advice: "Eat Kumpir in Ortakoy." A 10TL street vendor meal might not be the most appropriate follow up to a lavish Ottoman palace (or maybe it is the perfect counterpoint!), but we were certainly not sorry we did it. This concoction is easier to describe in an appealing way. Essentially, it is a stuffed baked potato. So what, you ask? Why does it warrant a section on this food blog? The answer, my friends, is in the toppings. When you approach a kumpir stand, it looks more like a salad bar. Topping choices are arranged in front of you and your options are extensive. Meat, cheese, vegetables, pickles, and sauces are all available, and you can have as many as you want! 
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sanafarooquie/page6/
First they cut open a GIANT baked potato, taken straight from the oven. Then they put a hunk of butter and a fistful of cheese inside, mash it all around until you have a sort of buttery, cheesy mashed potato mixture and then the adornment begins. Sausage slices, corn, peas, mushrooms, cabbage, couscous, pickles, beet sauce, yogurt, mayonnaise, and ketchup are just a few of the choices. My philosophy? The more the merrier! Calories don't count when you are on vacation, right?

I've talked about meat and veggie dishes, but no trip to Istanbul is complete without: Fish on the Bosporus
On our third day in Istanbul, Lauren and I took a ferry up the Bosporus to the point where it meets the Black Sea. The last stop on the ferry was a small seaside town on the Asian side called Anadolu Kavağı. We were starving when we disembarked and our hunger was anticipated by eager restaurant owners in the small town. One even started flagging us down before the boat docked! The options were pretty much the same everywhere: grilled fish, fried calamari, fried mussels, a salad and a drink for 15TL. We chose one that looked popular. The first thing to arrive was a small plate of vibrantly colored salad. Glistening in the hot sun, the green lettuce, orange carrots, and purple cabbage looked like a floral arrangement. It was beautiful. And tasty.


Soon after, our seafood arrived. A beautiful piece of grilled flounder sat innocently by the decadently fried squid and mussels. The flounder was good, a little fishy, but meaty and substantial. But the stars were the deep fried delicacies. The crispy coating of the calamari revealed the soft, chewy white cephalopod when torn open. Mild and not in the least bit rubbery, it was clearly as fresh as it gets! Skewered and served piping hot, the shellfish converted Lauren into a mussels believer. Their flavor was a little overwhelmed by the breading, but it wasn't hard to pull this away and get to the succulent fleshy morsel inside. Sprinkled with lemon juice and dipped in a garlic yogurt sauce, perfection!

Of course one of the main reasons why Turkey's food is so delicious can be found in one place: The Spice Bazzar
Turkey is famous for its grand bazaar, the largest covered market in the world, where you can buy anything and everything you can think of. It is a lot of fun and I definitely made some good purchases there, but my favorite shopping experience of Istanbul was in the smaller, but equally lively, Spice Bazaar. 

Don't let the name fool you. This is not just a place for spices (although it used to be more so). Overflowing from the rows of shops are also fragrant teas, colorful dried fruits, and some of the finest nuts in the world. Lauren and I visited on our first full day in Istanbul and got bags full of peanuts, pistachios, roasted corn kernels, walnuts, almonds, dried cranberries and pineapple, and banana chips. We made sure to carry a little bag of these snacks with us on all our sightseeing trips and they kept us going all week long. 

The energy in the Bazaar is lively, almost frenetic. Shop owners try to persuade you to look at their goods, shoving handfuls of tea under your nose and offering special Turkish love and sex potions. But my favorite part of the experience was the visual aspect. Every storefront is bedazzled by vibrant
hanging fruits and veggies and the huge bins of colorful spices spill out onto the walkway. Everything takes on a sort of reddish, orangey-yellow hint and I never figured out if it was from the plethora of dried flowers and berries and piles of curry, sumac, chili, turmeric, cayenne, and saffron or from the dim, hazy lighting coming from the glowing insides of the innumerable shops.

Anyone who knows me is probably wondering how I have gone so long without talking about anything sweet. Well, since we started the post with mezze, I thought we would end with: Dessert
Turkish desserts are similar to other middle eastern desserts, but usually with a twist. First of all, almost everything is covered in crushed pistachios, giving desserts a electric green color we don't usually associate with sweets.

The picture above shows trays of the most common Middle Eastern dessert, or at least the one best known throughout the rest of the world: Baklava. What I have learned since arriving in the region is that every country prepares it slightly differently. Turkey's variation? You guessed it, adding pistachios to the filling. Delicious!

But the dessert I really want to tell you about is another treat that is common throughout the region, and is also prepared differently everywhere. The dish is called Kunafeh and it essentially consists of shredded phyllo and some kind of cheese. However, Lauren had a version here in Jordan that forgoed the first ingredient for a burned sugar topping and in Egypt the second ingredient is often left out. Coming from Egypt, I though of Kunafeh as a little bird's nest of shredded wheat, sometimes covering a sweet nut and cream filling. But apparently the dish is originally from Nablus and in this version Nabulsi cheese is the key ingredient. Nabulsi cheese is a soft white cheese that can be salted and eaten in savory dishes as well. It is the most common kind of cheese here in Jordan. When fried, this cheese takes on a stretchy, rubbery consistency, not unlike melted mozzarella. The concept of cheese in dessert is somewhat foreign to Americans (we prefer creamed version of dairy in after-dinner treats, i.e. whipped cream, heavy cream, cream cheese, etc.). I was skeptical at first too. But Lauren assured me that it was good, so we ordered it at a classic Ottoman restaurant we ate at. It was so good, we went back a second time later in the week and ordered it again!

The Turkish version takes the cheese and forms it into a thick, round patty. It is fried, covered in simple syrup and coated in a vermicelli-like pastry called shredded phyllo. It tastes and looks very similar to shredded wheat. This round patty is then covered with more syrup, sprinkled with pistachios and served warm. And it is sinfully, sinfully delicious. The crispy shredded phyllo crunches between your teeth as your chew the sweet cheese. The texture is a bit unfamiliar, but the taste is out of this world. If you are in the Middle East and want to treat yourself to a decadent delight, I highly recommend finding yourself some good kunafeh. It shouldn't be too hard...

I will promise again to try to be better about posting, but I make no guarantees. But I have a few cooking classes arranged by my program coming up and I do promise to share these experiences (and some recipes insha'allah!) as soon as I can. And Lauren and I are determine to try to recreate some of the spectacular meals we had in Turkey and I will be sure to document our kitchen exploits. Also, recently developments indicate that I may be in the Middle East this summer. If this is the case, I will continue to blog as best I can in my new location. I'll keep everyone updated!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kusa wa Warek

Sitting in a Starbucks, humming along to the Aretha Franklin song wafting out of the speakers (You make me feel like a nat-ur-al woman!), I could be in any city in America. When I walk out of this café, the impression remains. To my left, a gargantuan Zara entices with its stylish dresses and soft florescent lights. To my right, a Gap. The street my school is located near is called Sharia Wakalat and its pedestrian mall is laden with Western shops and restaurants. Down the street is a Safeway, the same store I bought all my groceries at when I was living in D.C. this summer. You can even buy Amy’s organic soup there. I know it is partly the neighborhood I’m in and also the fact that I have been here for less than a week, but most of the time I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m living in deep American suburbia. It doesn’t feel like the “third world” or a “developing country” (both of which Jordan is considered). It doesn’t even feel like what I now expect the Middle East to feel like. The cars are shiny and new, the price tags in stores seem to assume a salary of at least $30,000 a year, and the streets are clean and well maintained. The Jordanian Dinar is stronger than the dollar right now and all of a sudden I am back to being a broke student. Two weeks ago, if you had asked me which city was likely to be more Westernized, Amman or Cairo, I would have answered the latter with no hesitation. In a way, this highlights the inaccurate portrayal of the “Far East” that we are bombarded with by the American media. But even as a student studying the region, I expected a vastly different country than the one I have found myself in. Half a year before I was supposed to return to America and I think I am prematurely going through some form of reverse culture shock.*

For this reason, and many others, I am really glad I am living with a host family. Although fairly well off and also part of the mere 5% of the population in this country who are Christians, when I am with my Jordanian family I am able to retain a sense of being in the Middle East. They speak constant, rapid-fire Arabic, Jordanian TV is the backdrop to most of our daily activities, and they are a great source for learning about Jordanian customs.  And even though it is in a completely foreign country and it is people I have just met, it is a home. It feels like a home; cluttered but clean and comforting. It sounds like a home; with three children (a ten year old, a nine year old, and an eight month old) and a frequently visiting grandmother, there is rarely a quiet moment. It looks like a home; familiar faces and welcoming smiles greet me when I walk in the door. It smells like a home; every home has a distinct scent that lingers on your clothes and in your hair even after you leave. And boy, does it taste like a home.

Rowah, my host mother, is an excellent cook and despite having a demanding and time consuming job as a manager at a large pharmaceutical firm, she always makes sure there is food ready for me before I leave for school and when I get home. Hikmat, my host father, contributes a dish every now and then and even Hulla and Marrah (10 and 9, respectively) can often be found in the kitchen, mixing something up. Last night they proudly led me to the fridge to show me the dessert they had prepared (ground cookies mixed with water and covered in sprinkles) and we gathered around the living room table to eat the vegetable soup and fried potatoes they had made for us. And little brother Fadi brightens every room with his smile and laughter. A happy baby in a full kitchen does wonders for the soul. 

Both my host mother and father are Jordanian (an important distinction to make, as about half the population here is Palestinian) and so I have been treated to very classic Jordanian dishes since I arrived. I moved into the apartment on Thursday evening. Friday is the day off in the Middle East (like our Sunday) and lunch is the big meal in this culture. I woke up late Friday morning and wandered into the kitchen, where I found a big project underway. 



A huge metal bowl sat filled to the brim with vibrant green Kusa. I have never seen this vegetable in the United States (although I’m sure it is possible to find it) and it is most commonly translated here as zucchini (which calls to mind slightly inaccurate taste associations). After scouring the internet, I finally discovered that it seems to be most commonly called “Lebanese Squash” or “Lebanese Zucchini” in English. In my opinion, the taste is much closer to squash than zucchini. 



Also on the table was a big pot filled with vine leaves (Warek) and a huge platter of the stuffing that was to be wrapped in them. 



This stuffing is also what goes in the squash. It consists of cooked rice, margarine, uncooked ground beef, salt, and pepper. 




I sat down between to my host mother Rowah and my host sister Marrah and watched as they expertly rolled the vine leaves into perfect tiny packages of deliciousness. They showed me how and soon enough I was rolling along with the best of them! You start the process by putting a small amount of the stuffing at the base where the stem spreads into the blade. 



Next, you fold the side corners in over the stuffing, sort of like a burrito.



Finally, and this is important, you tightly role the leaf from the bottom to the top. If you don’t press hard enough or wrap it tight enough, it will come open while being cooked. 



Rowah prepared a huge pot, filling the bottom with chunks of fresh tomato, and piling the Kusa and Warek in layers to the brim. This particular cooking device is some sort of special steamer/press. She has promised to show me how it works sometime. 




This mixture is put on the stove and left to simmer and stew for an hour or so. When it is ready, you can cut through the Kusa like butter. With help from her husband Hikmat, Rowah dumped the entire pot onto a gigantic platter in the center of the table. 



Rowah served me a helping on a plate with some meat she had cooked separately, but only because I was still new to the household. 



The rest of the family simply sat around this huge circular serving dish with spoons and dug in. This is how most things in Jordan are eaten. This culture really brings a whole new meaning to eating “family-style!”

The Kusa can also be prepared in tomato and garlic stew, but I’m still a little vague as to what exactly all goes into it. I'll try to find out more and get back to you. Regardless, it is delicious. It is slightly stronger in taste than the other preparation and comes with the added bonus of a delicious sauce to dip your bread into!






*I’m certain I would have far greater “re-entry shock” had I returned home. A friend of mine and Fullbright Fellow who I went to school with in Alexandria, Ryan Fan, was just evacuated back to America on Friday, Febuary 4th. He did an excellent post on his blog about the difficulties in adjusting back to American culture. You can read it here

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mabruk, Ya Misr! (or Congratulations, Egypt!)

On Friday February 11, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the position of head of state that he had held for thirty years. Jubilation spread through the entire Middle East and fireworks illuminated the sky over the region. In Jordan, traffic came to a stand still as people poured onto the streets to celebrate. The joy was indescribable. The night before, when Mubarak had made his speech and NOT stepped down after a day of building up to it, I was glad for the first time since I left that I wasn’t in Egypt. I was scared. I was scared for the people, scared for the country, scared for the movement. I was anticipating a breaking point, an unleashing of pent up anger and aggression in the form of violence. But the Egyptian people again rose above what would have been both understandable and also disastrous. Over and over, they exceeded every expectation I, and the world, had of them. Now there is no place in the world I would rather be than right in the center of Cairo.

When I arrived in Egypt in September 2010, just before the parliamentary elections (if you can call it an election) were held, I asked everybody I met, young and old, if they were going to vote. Almost without fail, they answered no. Their reasoning was always the same: “What’s the point? It won’t make a difference. There is nothing we can do to change things.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard these statements, and similar sentiments, coming from people’s mouths. While no one would hesitate to tell you that Mubarak was a dictator, a terrible man, hated by the people, swimming in a sea of corruption, no one seemed to feel capable of, or responsible for, change. They also all seemed completely resigned to the fact that Hosni’s son, Gamal, would take over when his father retired. I can tell you with complete honesty that I heard a lot of frustration, but nothing to indicate that a people’s revolution was months away.

It is different here in Jordan. People are still scared to criticize the royal family. Anyone you ask will tell you that the King and Queen are loved by all. It is only in closed circles and hushed whispers that dissent is spoken here. But on Saturday, after the news of Mubarak’s departure had spread far and wide, I came into the living room of my host family’s house and sat next to my host mom. She was holding Fadi, the baby, on her lap, bouncing him and cooing. He is such a beautiful baby, with huge brown eyes framed by long dark lashes, thick, curly black hair, chubby, rosy cheeks, and an almost perpetual smile. As we sat with the cheering crowds in Tehrir on the TV as a backdrop, Rowah (my host mom) stared intently at her baby boy and told me how she hoped he would grow up and lead a revolution. She told me how she knew already that he was charismatic (“like Obama!” she said) and that she wanted him to grow up to lead a movement like the one in Egypt. Hearing her speak this way made me realize that even if the monarchy doesn’t fall today, the seeds of change have been sown. What the Tunisians and Egyptians have done, beyond just ousting oppressive dictators, is inspire people everywhere to question the status quo.

Everyone is speculating about what is next for Egypt. I have read over and over that the concern is that the now-ruling army will try to implement a Mubarak-style government, just without Mubarak. And that may indeed happen. But I think it is important not to underestimate the Egyptian people. Mubarak, America, other Arab countries, even myself, did that for too long. And now they have tasted freedom. It is on their tongues, at their fingertips, in their hearts. I don’t claim to know what is coming next for the country known as the Mother of the World. But I do know that I will never again doubt the power of its people. And neither should the military.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reflections of an Evacuated "Middle Eastern Studies" Major

In the past couple of weeks I have been having a sort of Kristof-athon. While I was in snail-mail reachable Europe, my mom sent me Kristof’s book, Half the Sky, which he wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. The subtitle of the book is “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” and it is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. As a frequent reader of his editorials in the New York Times, my long time admiration for him has recently turned into full-on adoration. My dad sent me the link to his blog, which for the past week or so has been his first-hand account of the events in Egypt. His writing is eloquent, thought provoking, and rich with the experience of a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has been reporting on world events for decades. He has been on the ground for innumerable conflicts, uprisings, and revolutions. His article “We Are All Egyptians” in Thursday’s paper synthesized perfectly so many of the emotions and thoughts I have been having since all this began on that fateful “Day of Anger.”

Being stuck in Jordan, so many miles away from where I feel I should be, I have been watching and reading everything I can about what is going on in the country that has been my home for the past half a year. Everyone has an opinion about what is going on and what the future holds for Egypt. The consensus seems to be that Mubarak has no choice but to step down and even his BFFs in Washington have reluctantly agreed. But if there is one word that is used most frequently to describe the Egyptian dictator, it is stubborn. While there are certainly a few other, more colorful adjectives floating around my head to describe him, especially after his most recent despicable attempts to quell the uprisings, I cannot deny that this is true. One thing is for sure; he’s not going down without a fight. And any hope he had for a graceful departure from power was crushed by the fists of the “pro-Mubarak” thugs he sent to intimidate peaceful protestors. And now people all over the world are feeling what every Egyptian has felt for at least the last twenty years: it’s time for him to get the fuck out.

However, despite the fact that the obvious next step is Mubarak’s resignation, many American media sources, and indeed some powerful people in Washington, seem reluctant to take the plunge. This faltering is understandable, Mubarak has been our biggest ally in the Arab world for years and certainly his departure leaves uncertainty about our, and Israel’s, future relations with Egypt. But I think the suggestion that without Mubarak, Egypt will descend into chaos is an insult to the Egyptian people and what they have accomplished. Indeed, thus far the chaotic element of this revolution has been the regime. Useless concessions, empty promises, and, lately, violence have been the government’s only actions, while the people have been organized, persistent, clear-headed, and peaceful. I think it is time we put a little more faith in the Egyptian people, especially now that the world knows what they are capable of.

Another problem with the Western media’s analysis of Egypt’s future possibilities is the almost universal, and wholly inaccurate, portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood as a radical, terrorist organization. While this description may have been accurate a few decades ago, the MB has been an organization that condemns violence for many years. Now it is a middle-class movement, consisting mostly of members who are doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. For the past decade, its members have been discussing practical ways to reconcile Islam, democracy, and the modern age. And they have come up with some worthwhile solutions. While still primarily a religious group, the majority of the MB represents a moderate outlook on government and society. There are still radical fringe groups of course, but as a country currently electing members of the Tea Party to government, I don’t think America can say too much about that.

As for Israel’s concern, and our inevitable concern for them, it is unavoidable. A leader representing the views of the majority of Egyptians would not continue the same kind of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state that this regime has. But Egypt is in no position, politically, economically or militarily, to go to war with Israel again. Nor can it afford to lose the valuable American aid that has been flowing in due, in large part, to its conciliatory role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anyone smart enough to gain a position of power in Egypt will know this.

The most important thing to keep in mind, in my opinion, is that the Egyptians are saying loud and clear that they are fed up with authoritarian rule. While the ousting of Mubarak has been the aspect of these uprisings most played up in the media, it is actually the cry for democracy that is at the heart of the issue. Egyptians are not only seeking the end of a dictatorship, but the beginning of a government for and by the people. Decades of oppression have taught them the importance of government accountability to the people and the rule of law. They have taken these lessons to heart and now it’s our job to offer our support as they seek to implement them.


*I know I promised food posts, and I swear there are some coming, but my head is fuller than my stomach right now. So, in the meantime, I hope you will all accept some brain food!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Part 3 (Evacuation)

Sunday morning I received a frantic call from my program director at 7:00 am. It went something like this:

Dr. Mohammad: Liana, the insurance company has decided to evacuate the students.
Me: Wait, what?
Dr. Mohammad: Yes, they decided to get you out.
Me: Wait, seriously?
Dr. Mohammad: Oh yes.
Me: Ummmmmmmmmm………… ok…
Dr. Mohammad: I don’t have any more information so we ask that you wait to tell your parents so that we can give them more information. But you should pack your things. They are coming today for you.
Me: Today? Wait, like… TODAY?
Dr. Mohammad: Oh yes.
Me: Oh.
Dr. Mohammad: Look Liana, they are making the right decision. They are doing what is best for you. But I don’t know when they will come for you so you should have everything packed as soon as possible.

It went on like this for some time, with Dr. Mohammad assuring me that this was best and me responding in monosyllables. After making a few more calls (I mean, did they really expect me not to call my parents??) I began repacking the things that I had just unpacked not a week earlier. Having been told the Alexandria students were being taken to the airport in an hour, I frantically stuffed the things I thought I would need into my suitcases. When I was finished I went into the living room to watch the news and rest while I waited for further instructions. One hour passed. Then two, then three, four, five… I kept calling my directors and I kept being told that there was no information. Eventually the clock struck 4, curfew descended on the city, and I knew nothing would be happening that day. Later in the evening I received a call from Chris Harrison, another person in charge of my program and she told me that as soon as curfew was lifted in the morning (8:00 am), I would be picked up by a man named Ali and taken to the airport. She was stuck in Alexandria and asked me to bring the luggage she had left in Cairo with me. 

The next morning I awoke, showered and finished my last packing. I had received a call at about 7:30 informing me that I would be picked up in an hour at my apartment, now by a man named Drum Cussak, taken to the airport in a van with other American students, and flown out on a 12:30 pm chartered flight which would stop in Alexandria to pick up the people there and then fly to Athens, Greece. Since it is Egypt and nothing is ever on time, I didn’t really expect to be picked up at 8:30. I guessed more like 9 or 10. What I didn’t expect was to wait for five hours, every hour or so being told someone was on his way, just late because of the other students they were picking up. I didn’t expect to receive a call telling me that someone named Walid was waiting for me downstairs. I didn’t expect Walid to be driving an empty car. And I certainly didn’t expect for Walid to ask me where he was supposed to take me.

Eventually I arrived at the airport at 2:30 in the afternoon. Mind you, my flight was supposed to have left at 12:30. Luckily for me, it hadn’t, because none of the students who were supposed to be on it had arrived in time. We waited outside the airport for another hour before being told our plane was ready. It took us an hour to get through security (with Chris’s bags I had a total of six pieces of luggage), passport control, and other Egyptian bureaucracy. The airport was a mess, flooded with foreigners trying to escape. Finally, at 4:30 we boarded our airplane. They told us we would take off in about fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes later they told us we would take off in twenty minutes. An hour and a half later, at 6:30, they told us our flight was canceled. They explained that the Egyptian Air force had suspended all flights out of Cairo and that we would be unable to leave until tomorrow morning. But somehow Mathew, the program manager of the AMIDEAST study abroad group who was also being evacuated with me, managed to miraculously get us clearance to take off. At 8:30 pm, eight hours later than scheduled, our plane finally took off. However, we bypassed the stop in Alexandria for fear of being detained there too. This meant I had all six suitcases to deal with when we arrived in Athens at midnight; the Alexandria people managed to get out later that night and were flown to Prague. It was one of the longest days of my life.

After discussing it with my parents, who had been in touch with my program, my school, and the State Department, it was decided that I had three options:
  1. Go home and figure something out for the rest of the semester.
  2. Go back to Mt. Holyoke, which had started a few weeks ago.
  3. Try to go on a different program in a different Middle Eastern country.
It was a difficult decision and I quickly narrowed it down to option 1 or option 3. Oh, how tempting it was to go home! Life would have been boring maybe, but easy. So easy. But if I had gone home, what would all you lovely people have to read?! In the end I managed to arrange a new program (actually with the group I had been evacuated with), in Amman, Jordan. And that is where I am now. I spent one glorious day in Athens, seeing the sights and basking in the comforts of a Westernized country, and then flew to Amman on February 2nd.

Aside from being in an entirely new city in an entirely new country, there are a few other things that are going to be different this semester. This program gave me the option of an apartment with other American students (as I would have had in Egypt) or a home stay with a Jordanian family. It was a tough decision (again I found myself faced with the choice of an easy way out or a challenge), but in the end I decided that as long as I was doing this, I might as well do it all the way! So, last night I moved in with my new family. They are beautiful people and I think I am going to be treated very well here. I have my own room and there is wireless Internet (most of the time), so creature comforts are well taken care of. I live not too far from where I have class. And there is a baby! But more on the family later. I know I have abandoned my main theme in the last few posts, but I thought it was necessary given the stories I had to tell. Plus, I lived on crackers, peanut butter, and popcorn for the last week, so there wasn’t much to elaborate on. However, living with a host family offers me the chance not only to eat authentic, home-cooked Jordanian food, but also (insha’allah) to learn how it is made! So, stay tuned and come hungry, I promise a feast!

The Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Part 2 (Jan. 29th)

Note: I am still unable to load the videos, but spent the better part of today trying. Again, this was drafted while I was still in Eypt, I apologize for the delay.

Update: The videos are loaded!

Friday night was restless. Gunshots rang out throughout the night and screaming usually followed. I finally got some sleep once the sun started to rise, its rays driving the looters and criminals into the shadows. I woke up at around noon and decided to go explore. I had no set idea of where I was going, only that I would follow the action for as long as I felt safe. With a fully charged camera I set off toward Tehrir street. The street was quieter than it had been the night before and no one was gathered at the traffic circle. I crossed the bridge into Zamalek and started wandering off the main street. Almost as soon as I deviated, I heard chanting and clapping from behind me. I turned around to see a huge crowd of people marching down the street in the direction of downtown. I abandoned my off-the-beaten-path approach and returned to join the masses. Despite being surrounded by hundred of protesters, I never once felt unsafe. I saw many other foreigners who were clearly doing the same as me, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the action. As I approached the bridge that would take me into the heart of downtown Cairo, the charred, smoldering remains of the NDP building came into view. Smoke was still rising from its roof and windows, filling the sky above it with a thick, black cloud. I paused for a moment, wondering if this blackened building should be taken as a warning. 


However, as I slowly made my way across the crowded bridge it became more and more evident that no one meant me any harm. I saw far more peace signs being raised in the air than fists or weapons. People wanted freedom; they were fighting against more than 30 years of oppression and violence. Brutality was not on their agenda. In fact, as uprising go, the Egyptians have been extraordinarily restrained and organized. With a measure of self-control rarely seen in revolutions, the Egyptians have managed to channel their anger into constructive and effective protests. If fighting begins now, I can guarantee it will be put into motion by the regime, not by the people in the streets.

As I reached the end of the bridge, I saw burned cars and trucks along the side of the road. Gutted and abandoned, they stood testament to the unrest that was sweeping the country. 



Abandoned trucks which had delivered police could also be seen burned and often tagged with graffiti, all along the lines of “Get out, Mubarak!” 

Translation: Leave Mubarak, you traitor
Sirens and the occasional shot rang out, but mostly the air was filled with the chanting of the thousands who had gathered downtown to protest the dictatorship. Every five minutes a new wave of people would join the already swollen crowd in the square.



 I climbed up to a bridge in order to see the action better, but I was by no means the first with this idea. 


Almost as soon as I arrived, the afternoon prayer began. Men kneeled in the street, surrounded by their fellow protestors, all of whom mostly stopped what they were doing during the prayers. In the middle of a protest demanding basic human rights, the people were performing one of the few they have been allowed; freedom of religion. Hundreds praying together is a sight that moves me even without this historic backdrop. Under the circumstances, the beauty was overwhelming.




Almost as soon as the prayers ended, I saw something else that moved me almost to tears. Under the bridge, just below where I was standing, a young woman wearing a bright hijab was leading a call-and-answer chant among a group of youth. Beside her stood her companions, another young woman and a young boy. Together, they were rallying the crowd. 


This scene illustrates one of the most important things about what is happening in Egypt. Egypt is a highly divided country; gaping schisms separate the rich from the poor, women from men, young from old, and Muslims from Christians. But right now, during what might be the most difficult time in Egypt’s history, unity prevails. There is no one kind of person in Tehrir Square. Stories have been flooding the media about poor and rich, men and women, young and old all working together for freedom. Even more astonishing, countless tales of Muslims and Christians not only working together, but protecting one another, are being told. Less than a month ago, many people would have cited religious tensions as one of the greatest issues in Egyptian society. Now we are now seeing photos of Christians linking arms to protect praying Muslims and Muslims guarding Coptic churches. These uprisings have united Egyptians in a way no other force in history has been capable of.


Just as I began thinking it was time to start making my way back home, I heard cheering coming from down the street. Following the sound, I ended up in front of the Ramses Hilton, the hotel that my family stayed in when they came to visit me in the end of December. In front of this towering building rolled dozens of Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), topped with soldiers in fatigues and strapped with automatic weapons. 




The jubilation at the arrival of the army still seems strange to me, as no one is sure which side they fall on. Will they protect the people from the oppression of the government, as they did in Tunisia, or will they turn out to be pawns of the regime, stifling the uprising with overwhelming force? The people seemed convinced of the former, but I’m not so sure. I guess only time will tell.

Next up, the epic saga of my evacuation from Egypt and what’s next for me. Stay tuned!