Somewhat surprisingly (though I don’t know quite why I am surprised), the food during our three weeks in the Middle East has been a highlight. Well, for me at least. The husband has been less thrilled, though he did like the hummus. It started off well, when Fifi and Paul introduced us to some Arabian specialities in Qatar. Some of them saw us through the next few weeks:
- Mint lemonade, as it is known in Qatar, can be found throughout the Middle East. A home-made lemonade (lemon juice) with lots of crushed/chopped mint added. Mint lemonade in plastic glasses for an exorbitant price at the corner of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) in Jerusalem. In Petra, in dire need of sustenance after descending from the Monastery, a Lemon Mint (same thing as mint lemonade) was provided with a sugar shaker to adjust sweetness, and a mint lemonade at the Four Seasons in Amman came in a carafe with another smaller carafe full of sugar syrup, for personal sweetening. I’ve always loved lime juice in Thailand. But mint lemonade is now a close contender for my favourite cooling juice drink. I will be attempting to make it at home this summer.
- Dips and bread. This is where they started. Hummus, home-made is best (thanks Fifi), with Arab flat breads. Za’atar (a herb and spice mix) on bread, a kind of local pizza. The delicious murtabal, an eggplant dip. And more. When we arrived in Jordan, we’d start our dinner with hummus and murtabal and flat bread. Fifi also
- Salads. Oh, the salads. The heat and dehydration made me crave salads. Fattoush (thanks Paul) was our first introduction, a lovely light salad with lettuce and cucumber and tomato and crunchy toasted or fried pita pieces. But everywhere we went, the salads were amazing. Maybe it’s just the time of year – the tomatoes (and the many divine cherry tomato salads I found in Israel and Jordan) were ripe and luscious and well, just my favourite fruit/vegetable on earth. But there were always zucchini salads, and eggplant, and Greek style salads with cucumber and olives and feta cheese. Which brings me to the olives. Oh yes, the olives here are wonderful. When we ordered a drink in Amman, it was brought with a big bowl of olives and cherry tomatoes. Bliss!
- Shawarma. You can’t visit the Middle East without eating shawarma, also called kebabs in western countries. Shaved barbecued spiced meats, wrapped in flat breads. I love them, but love the ones with the salads mixed in best. The ultimate takeaway food.
- Kosher food. Yes, I love kosher food. One of the rules of kosher food is that dairy and meats should not be mixed. A cheeseburger, therefore, is anathema. Pizzas with meat are not kosher, nor are pasta sauces with parmesan. And restaurants in Israel are often either dairy or meat restaurants, but rarely both. Or they have two completely separate sections – essentially two different restaurants, where even the seating is divided. So when we found places to eat in Israel, we’d often find dairy places. Pizzas with inventive, vegetable toppings, and pasta dishes with vegetable sauces. I was in seventh heaven. I could eat this way all the time. In Israel, I was a very happy diner.
- The serving sizes. We didn’t notice this so much in the Gulf states, but in Israel (and also sometimes Jordan) the serving sizes were huge. A single serving was enough for a family of four in Asia. We wondered why, assuming at one stage that it must be the American influence. Then on our tour to Masada, we met the hairy Oklahoma twins. We sat together at lunch, devouring enormous shawarmas. I asked them about the serving sizes. “Oh yes,” they said, appreciatively nodding at the shawarma. “Northern Europe has such small servings. The UK especially! At least here, they’re normal serving sizes!” They were so blissfully unaware that “normal” was only “normal” in the US and Israel, and maybe, we eventually agreed, Germany.