Sunday, August 30, 2015


When my mother-in-law passed away, I learned a lot of things about her that I didn’t know while she was living. During the first days after her death, my husband and his sisters would tell stories of her life, several that I had never heard before. One of the things I learned was that she was named after the small town of Taveta, Kenya, located about 5 km (about 3 mi) from the southern border with Tanzania near Lake Jipe. It’s also between Tsavo West National Park in Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania. One day, I would love to take my kids there to show them one side of their family heritage (I’m assuming at least part of her heritage was from this area since she was named after this super small town, but we all know how well records were kept during the slave trade, so who knows? 

The country of Kenya was named after Mt. Kenya, or rather the Kamba name for the mountain. Mt. Kenya is actually an extinct volcano. It was later Anglicized as Mt. Kenia and later as Mt. Kenya. Kenya lies in eastern Africa, surrounded by Ethiopia to the north, Somalia to the northeast, the Indian Ocean to the southeast, Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, and South Sudan to the northwest. Besides the Indian Ocean, there are several large lakes spread throughout the country, most notably Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. One of the great things about this country is that if you look at a map, the country is mottled with green areas denoting national parks. I always have to have a respect a place that sees the importance of retaining its green areas and natural ecology. Kenya sits in the middle of the Great Rift Valley with the deepest portion just north of Nairobi. The equator practically cuts through the middle of the country. Their climate is generally tropical, but it gets more arid and desert-like the further to the north and northeast you go. Generally, they have a long rainy season in the spring and a short rainy season  in the fall and winter months. 

Kenya is the site of some of the oldest human remains in the world. It’s no wonder that people often say this is the birthplace of civilization. In fact, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science sells shirts saying “We Are All Africans,” stemming from this idea. The first peoples here were nomadic, generally related to Khoisan and Cushitic peoples. Nilotic groups such as the Maasai, Luo, and Turkana began to move into the area from Sudanese lands. Bantu groups like the Kikuyu and the Kamba also began to move here as well. During the first century, Arab traders began spreading into this area, and their presence changed its culture. Islam spread because of this and so did the Swahili language. The port cities of Kenya became very popular places and were the most progressive and bustling areas of the country. During the late 1800s, the British took control of the land, renaming it British East Africa. One of the first things they did was build a railroad (as they did most places they took over). It was the British who called their colony Kenya. During the 20th century, European farmers got rich farming coffee and tea, especially in the central highlands. Kenyan coffee is fairly well known around the world. During the 1950s, there was an uprising against the British being there, and Kenya finally won their independence in 1963. Their first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was instrumental in moving the country into this new realm. There have been several presidents since then, and several coup attempts along with corruption scandals. The current president is Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta. 

The capital and largest city in Kenya is Nairobi. Nairobi is stemmed from a Maasai phrase meaning “cool water.” One thing that makes the city stand out is that there is a game preserve inside city limits—the only major city to have one. The city not only stands as the center of government but also as the center for education with several universities and technical schools, shopping districts and markets, sports arenas (including Africa’s largest ice rink), financial centers, parks, theatres, museums, and a growing restaurant/culinary scene.

Kenya’s low ranking on the human development index somewhat negates the fact that they have one of the strongest economies in the region. Recent droughts have plagued the northern regions of the country, and this alone has had a direct effect on their economy. There was a food shortage and schools had to close, forcing Kenya to appeal to humanitarian and foreign aid. However, Kenya has seen an increase in tourism (especially ecotourism), telecommunications, and higher education. Agriculture remains to be an important part of their economy, and they are in the process of recovering from the drought years. Products such as coffee, tea, legumes, cigars, various fruits and vegetables, fish, and fresh-cut flowers are shipped all over the world. They also have a growing market in petroleum products and hydroelectric power. 

A large portion of Kenyans are Christians with almost half of this number being Protestant followed by Roman Catholic. There are also smaller numbers of Reformed churches and Orthodox Christians. Surprisingly, Kenya has the largest number of Quakers in the world (who knew?). There is also a significant Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu population in Kenya as well. 

According to some estimates, there are nearly 69 languages spoken in Kenya. However, the country has two official languages: English and Swahili. Because of the British occupation for so long, British English is primarily used, but American English is making its way into certain words and phrases. Swahili (also called Kiswahili) is a Bantu language that is commonly spoken along the coastal regions of eastern Africa. (We gave our son a Swahili name: Jabari, meaning “fearless” or “brave”). There’s also a creole spoken called Sheng that is more or less a combination of English and Swahili; there is a lot of code-switching between the two languages. 

Kenya is widely known for its wildlife and safaris, which is partly why there are so many protected areas in the country. Animals like gazelles, cheetahs, crocodiles, hippopotamus, hyenas, zebras, rhinoceros, giraffes, leopards, elephants, a variety of birds and insects, buffalos, warthogs, and lions can be found here. Kenya is also known for its distance runners. Many of the marathon winners from around the world are from Kenya. One thing I don’t think people realize is how ethnically diverse Kenya is: there are people from many regions of Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, and other parts of Asia living and working in Kenya. This mix of cultures can be seen in their food, music, language, and art. And I’m excited to delve into this culture that I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.

Up next: art and music

Sunday, August 23, 2015


I’m grateful that we’ve finally had a taste of fall weather even though it’s still August. The kids are settled in school now, and my husband’s art is getting noticed. I’ve been having a little trouble getting any editing/proofreading work, so I started working toward becoming a book reviewer this week. I’m hoping this works out. But I’m grateful we are able to make food from Kazakhstan today. I’ve been looking forward to this all week. 

After some sugar, cinnamon, and cream cheese, this was the really good.

I started out making baursak, the Kazakh version of puffy bread, or like a doughnut of sorts. (The original recipe yielded a lot, as in it required 12 c of flour, and that is a lot! Needless to say, I cut the recipe in half and it was still too much. I made about half of this and froze the other half of the dough.) In a large bowl, I added 6 c of flour, 250 mL of lukewarm milk, ½ Tbsp salt, 2 Tbsp sugar, 1 pkg of active dried yeast, 1 egg, and ½ Tbsp melted butter. I mixed everything until it came together as a dough, but I had trouble getting it to be elastic. It was either too dry and crumbly or it was too moist and sticky. I finally found a happy medium between the two and covered it, letting it rest for four hours. After this time, I divided my dough into four balls, rolling out each ball to a thickness of about a ¼”. I took each flattened ball and then cut them into strips of about ½” width and cut them again to make them look like small rectangles. Once I heated my oil and it was ready, I dropped my dough rectangles into the hot oil and fried them. They fried up really quickly (sometimes too quickly), but they tasted plain with only a hint of sweetness. I forgot to research to see if they topped these with anything, so I topped them with a blueberry-lemon cream cheese, and it was delightful! I can’t wait to have some with my coffee. 

This may not be truly authentic... And it was a little oily... But overall, it was pretty good.
Next, I got started was manti, or Kazakh lamb dumplings. Now, I didn’t use lamb this time. I read many people use a variety of different meats including beef, chicken, and even shrimp. So, I used ground beef (mostly, because the ground lamb went up on their prices). I cheated a little with this recipe, and I know it’s not completely authentic, but I did it for the sake of time. Instead of making the dough to go with these, I had a package of wanton wrappers, so I used them. So, instead of looking like half-moons, mine will look more like triangles. To make the filling, I melted butter and oil into a skilled before adding in my ground beef and onions to brown. Once it was completed browned, I transferred this to a different bowl where I added in the parsley, cilantro, salt, and a little bit of cooked rice (I’ll go with a little less salt next time). I mixed this all together and let it cool to room temperature. I spread out my wonton wraps and put a bit of filling mixture in the middle of one and folded it in half and pressed them together using water to help make the seal. I also brushed them with an egg bath to sort of glue them together. Then I carefully fried these in oil until both sides were browned. These were very good albeit a little oily. Perhaps it was because I used wonton wrappers, I don’t know, but they didn’t seem to drain the oil very well. However, they were tasty nonetheless, and they were especially good dipped in the soup broth or with a little bit of sour cream on top. 

My non-pink borscht.
I found a Kazakh version of Borscht soup. I made a version of Borscht when I cooked for Albania, but it was meatless. This recipe was definitely a remnant left behind by the Russians. To start with, I thawed my whole roaster chicken last night. (With chicken, it generally takes 5 hours per 1 pound of chicken to thaw.) I put my chicken whole in a stock pot along with my beets (I just used a can of beets—the store I was at didn’t have any fresh. If I were smarter than I am, I would have realized that because I was using canned beets, I should’ve put them in toward the end. Boiling canned beets for an hour apparently takes all the color out of them. And my soup was lacking that distinctive pink color. Who knew?). Then I added in enough water to cover it all and boiled this for an hour. In the meantime I sautéed a little bit of onion and grated carrots in a smaller skillet. (I ended up throwing in my baby carrots whole. I found it difficult to grate baby carrots. Next time, I’ll either buy grated carrots or buy regular carrots to grate.) After the hour was up, I took the chicken out and cut it into smaller pieces. While I was doing that, I added in the shredded cabbage and let it cook for about 10 minutes (I used what’s called angel hair slaw mix—it’s just shredded green cabbage). Then I put the onions, carrots, and cut-up chicken back into the pot to simmer. Just before it was done, I added in a little salt, pepper, and cilantro. I topped mine with sour cream, but my daughter is vehemently opposed to sour cream, so this is entirely her loss. 

I'm actually really good and sleepy after this meal, which I believe, is the international sign of being a good meal.
Even though I should’ve anticipated the issue with the beets, I’ll never make that mistake again to be sure. But some mistakes aren’t always bad. When I was 13 years old, I was trying to learn some piano song, and I made a mistake. But that mistake actually sounded good and led me to writing my first composition. And since then, I have written over 50 pieces for piano, voice/piano, choir/piano, and others. So, even though my beets didn’t turn out, it didn’t ruin the soup (thankfully). It was still a really good chicken soup regardless of what it was supposed to be. And even though the dumplings weren't exactly authenic, they were still good nonetheless. My kids ate it, and that’s what’s important.

Up next: Kenya

Saturday, August 22, 2015


Kazakhstan is still very much in touch with its traditional music. This music, often considered the musical styles that were developed before the Russians arrived, is generally divided into two sections: vocal music and instrumental music. 

Vocal music is the larger of the styles and is sung at gatherings, ceremonies, and festivals. Most of the topics these songs sung about included historical events, love poetry, family history, or songs that teach a moral. Not only are there songs for soloists, but there are also songs written for duets, trios, and larger ensembles. Instrumental pieces, on the other hand, are often performed as solo pieces. These songs are often set as an accompaniment to a story, and the text of the story is often portrayed in the background. 

The Russians introduced European style music when they arrived in the area and opened music academies across the country. Music students were taught the ins and outs of modern European instruments and European music theory. Soon, these concepts blended with their traditional music styles. One of the major musical concepts the Russians introduced to the Kazakhs was the practice of musical notation, or how you put music on paper so that you can read it. This is a practice that has varied across many cultures and time. Kazakh traditional music wasn’t actually notated until the early 1930s. Up until then, traditional music was kept separately from European-influenced music. They adopted many ideas for ensemble make up, instrumentation, and stylistic features based on Russian music traditions and merged it with their own. 

Kazakh folk music relies heavily on the use of string instruments. One of the most common instruments you’ll hear is the dombra. This long-necked lute has two strings that are tuned in 4ths or sometimes 5ths; it can either be plucked or strummed with just the fingers. Another instrument you’ll hear is the qobyz (also spelled kobyz). This instrument stands between the legs and is bowed like a cello. It’s typically made of wood with animal skin resonators, and the bow is made from wood and horsehair. 

One dance from Kazakhstan I came across is called the Kara Zhorga (also spelled numerous ways). It’s considered one of their intangible cultural treasures. This particular dance combines grace with speed and agility; it’s tied to the horse riding traditions and often uses riding whips as props. These days, you’ll likely see this dance performed at festivals and other gatherings. The beginning of this video makes me think this dance is Mr. Bean approved.

Even in the music today, which mostly consists of re-creations of folk-style music, rock, and jazz, there are many influences from their traditional music that can be heard coming through. This gives their music a unique Kazakh-ness to it. 

I took a listen to several Kazakh bands during the past couple of weeks. The first one I listened to is a metal band called Roman Khrustalev. Their music is quite melody-driven, and string instruments often intertwine with the guitars. They like to combine the ethereal with just plain old loud metal music. It actually reminds me of Yngwie Malmsteen at times. There aren’t any lyrics (at least none I’ve heard on the album Tethys)—it’s all instrumental. I really liked what I heard. 

Another rock band I listened to is Ulytau. You can really pick up on the traditional Kazakh instruments in their music, particularly the dombra. Like a lot of other types of Kazakh music, it relies heavily on string music. The combination of the traditional instruments with the modern rock instruments is written so nicely that it has a very nice effect. I listened to the album Jumyr-Kylysh, and they have a couple of Baroque classical songs performed in a quasi-rock-classical-Kazakh style. I have to say, I was amused and entertained. Like the Roman Khrustalev album, this one didn’t have any lyrics either. 

Roksonaki is far more acoustic than the last two bands and makes use of traditional instruments. The melody lines in the instrumentation are simple and almost relaxing. The vocal styles caught me off guard—at least for one song. It was quite guttural. I couldn’t quite tell, but at times it almost sounded like he was singing two notes at the same time and one of them was a drone note (like a vocal representation of a didgeridoo). I’ve heard of this practice when I was in college studying ethnomusicology, but I’m not sure if this is an example of that or not. I might be two people. Who knows? It amazes me that his voice is so extremely low—it’s like he’s a super bass. Not every song is sung like this, though. However, harmonizing on the fourths, fifths, and octaves is a common practice from what I heard.

I also listened to an album by Mamer, and this confirmed my theory about their open harmonization. Like Roksonaki, I believe they also utilize the mouth harp. Whenever I hear this instrument, I always think of the music of Appalachia (mountain music) in the US, and I was surprised it’s used here as well. But their music is also quite melodic and somewhat relaxing.

I also took a quick listen to Rosa Rymbaeva. Her music falls into the soft rock category, which is not so much a favorite of mine. You can hear the Russian influence on her music and in her voice quality. 

Finally, I listened to a band called Urker. Their music reminded me of a cross between Bollywood and Middle Eastern rock/bellydancing music. I actually like this a lot. It has a nice beat, and the lead singer’s voice quality matches the song’s genre. I added in the album Made in Kazakhstan only a couple days ago, and I wish I had known about this one earlier. I would’ve liked to listen to this more. (I mean, I can always listen later.) Seriously, I’m glad I found this.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Because of the Kazakh’s tradition of primarily being a nomadic, horseback riding people, traditional arts were mainly relegated to having a practical use. Not that it didn’t look artistic at the same time, it just had to be useful. Textiles such as clothing, hats, and carpets/rugs were designed using a variety of embroidery and beading techniques to decorate it.  Felt, wool, and leather were often used in making these items. Wealthier people were able to afford clothing with gold and silver threads in it. Silver jewelry items were also commonly made. 


The traditional Kazakh home is called a yurt. These rudimentary homes are basically like a round tent with walls made of latticed wood or bamboo and a pitched cone-like roof. Many of these homes are designed to be packed up and carried with them to another location, much like how the teepees of the North American Indians were designed. A few designs, however, are built on wooden platforms for a more permanent design. 

During the Russian occupation, every building that was built was done purely out of functionality. There was no life in these lackluster buildings. When the country gained its independence and the Russians left, mosques and other buildings began popping up across the country again. Some of these mosques are built rather elaborately with much skill and care. The city of Astana hired Japanese architecture firms to create the city as well as some of its most iconic buildings. This modernity adds to its futuristic skyline. Today, there is a national push toward preserving their traditional arts after decades of arts suppression. Arts festivals and galleries showcasing the best of Kazakh artists dot the major cities and an appreciation toward the traditional arts is felt across the nation. 

The earliest form of literature was in the form of oral poetry; however, there have been mentions of these poetic traditions found inscribed on rocks. Typically during this time, the vast majority of the languages spoken were various Turkic languages and dialects. Like other cultures during these days, a major portion of these poems was about kings, warriors, and heroic legends. Book of the Dede Korkut and Oguz Name are two of the most well-known examples of literature from this period. 

During the period of Russian occupancy, Russian language literature was produced in Kazakhstan. One of the most prolific authors of this period was Abay Qunanbayuli. He’s often thought of as the father of modern Kazakh literature. He spent much of his time promoting Kazakh culture and Kazakh folk stories. Not only did he spend his time trying to preserve his own culture, but he also wrote about his feelings and views on Russian colonialism, especially noted in his book The Book of Words

Abay Qunanbayuli

Today, the country has a strong feeling toward its own literature, and the government actively promotes and awards up-and-coming authors with a variety of awards and prizes. Pretty much every genre of literature is covered by Kazakh writers, from women’s equality issues to science fiction to poetry. They are also pushing to have many of their works translated into other languages as well. Although some writers write in Kazakh, many writers publish their works in Russian in order to have a better chance on the international market. And certainly, many Kazakh writers have been the recipients of several Russian literary awards.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, August 16, 2015


Whenever I think of Kazakhstan, I think of that movie “Borat” that came out a few years ago. I never watched it just because it gave me the feeling that perhaps it was putting the country of Kazakhstan in an unfair light. Purely based on the trailers, it just seemed that it was making these people seem so backwards and unaware of any American customs (or anything outside of their small village). Granted, this is a comedy. I get that. And there are always customs whenever you go to any country that may be new. I get that, too. Maybe I should give it a shot, but it just seems like there are so many other movies out there worth watching first. 


Following in the same format of several other countries, the ending –stan means “land of.” So, essentially this is the Land of the Kazakhs. The term “Kazakh” itself was stemmed from an Old Turkic word meaning “independent or free spirit” and was in reference to their nomadic horseback riding traditions. (In the popular Game of Thrones, the fictional Dothraki people were thought to be based on these horseback riding cultures. The Rohirrim of The Lord of the Rings also draws inspiration from this as well.)

Kazakhstan is a very large country. In fact, it’s the world’s 9th largest country by land. Not only that, but it’s THE largest landlocked country in the world, which should go right at the top of its résumé. It’s bordered by Russia to the north and west; China to the east; and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to the south. Kazakhstan’s land is quite varied with mountains, steppes, canyons, deserts, rivers, lakes, and hills. It does claim quite a bit of coastline of the Caspian Sea on its western border, across from Azerbaijan and Iran as well. Incidentally, the Caspian Sea is also the world’s largest lake, despite its misnomer. I wonder if they have ever used the tourism slogan “Everything’s Bigger in Kazakhstan,” or if Texas would get mad if they did. 

The earliest groups of people living here were Indo-Iranian nomads, the most well known being the Scythians. They domesticated and trained horses early on and many of the people of Central Asia became adept at their skills in riding. Later the Cumans and Kipchaks (both nomadic Turkic groups) joined forces and ruled the area. Although there were a few cities that benefitted from being near the famous Silk Road, they were more concerned with the Mongol invasions, which eventually did happen because the Mongols kind of took over most of Asia during the 13th and 14th centuries. Real estate moguls would be an extremely euphemistic term (I mean that sort of sarcastically, although their empire was twice as large as the Roman Empire). By the 15th and 16th centuries, the Kazakh people began to emerge with their own identity along with their language, economy, and culture, and the next couple of centuries would consist of fighting between various other nomadic groups in this region as they began to establish themselves here. During the 19th century however, the Russian Empire began to start stretching the boundaries of its territory. Not only did they push their way into other European countries, they also pushed their way into Central Asia including Kazakhstan. They would stay in control until Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991 (they were the last to break away from Russia). Even though there were many unpleasant things that happened while the Russians were there (as if forcing your way into another country wasn’t bad enough, there was also the stifling of the Kazakh culture in order to assimilate to theirs, forced collectives and mass hunger causing mass emigration, assassination of anyone involved in the arts, academics, and other people who think for a living, Soviet labor camps, using their land to test nuclear bombs, etc.), there were other effects of the Russian occupation: they adopted Russian cuisine, culture, and the Cyrillic alphabet and the Russian language as well as the building of schools, hospitals, train lines, roads, and other governmental buildings in an effort to modernize the country. The interesting part is that Kazakhstan has only had one president since 1991. Six years into its independence, the capital city was moved from Almaty along the southeast border to Astana, which is more centrally located albeit slightly north. 

Astana is the current capital city of Kazakhstan, and like Canberra, Brasília, and Washington, D.C., it is a planned city. It’s also had as many name changes as P. Diddy or whatever he goes by now. Located along the Ishim River, it was once a small village known as Akmoly. When it was actually granted a town status, the name changed to Akmolinsk. In 1961, the Russians changed its name to Tselinograd. After the country gained its independence, it was changed yet again to Akmola. However, once the decision to move the capital here, they agreed to change its name to Astana, which means “capital” (just so there’s no confusion). Today it’s quite a modern city filled with universities, world-renowned architecture, an economic and commercial center, sports venues, government centers, shopping and arts districts, and modern public transportation. Astana is known for its modern, futuristic skyline. 

Among Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan’s economy is the largest and strongest in the region. Economic drivers include crude oil and agriculture, and the country is also a leading exporter of uranium. Even during the economic crisis of 2008-2009, Kazakhstan’s economy remained fairly stable. The government implemented stimulus packages to the banks and other financial entities to promote growth. Part of what makes their economy strong is their abundance of natural resources. The country has large reserves of chromium, lead, uranium, zinc, iron, gold, copper, coal, manganese, petroleum, natural gas, and diamonds. They are currently working toward expanding their housing market and infrastructure. 

Nearly 70% of the population is Muslim while only a quarter is Orthodox Christian. Many times, countries will retain a large number of followers of the colonizing or occupying country. Not so in this case. Because the Russians banned religion during those Communist years, many Kazakhs looked to their own heritage and history once they gained their freedom back. There are several different denominations of Islam practiced in Kazakhstan as well as smaller populations of Roman Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Bahá’ís, Buddhists, and others. 

Kazakhstan has two official languages: Russian, which is the language used in education, government, many businesses, and often as a lingua franca between peoples of different ethnicities (although Kazakh is slowly replacing it on that term) and Kazakh, a native language that is spoken by roughly 65% of the population. Although currently, Kazakh is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, there are plans in place to change over to using the Roman alphabet within the next decade (I’ll be interested to see how easy of a change this will be, but since I live in the US, I’ll hear nothing of it here. I’ll be lucky if I happen to see it mentioned on BBC or Al Jazeera.). There are several other minority languages spoken throughout the land: Tatar, Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Ukrainian, and Uzbek. English and Turkish are popular second languages learned in Kazakhstan. However, unlike many other countries, there is very little that is translated into English, so you better brush up on your Kazakh or Russian if you want to survive your visit. 

Kazakhstan does have a lot of rural areas. The barren, flat areas called the steppes can attest to that. And there are many things they do differently, like I saw that many areas have their water pipes run above ground. (It would certainly make repairs easier, and according to my husband, it still has the same chance or slightly less of a chance of freezing whether it’s underground or above.) The other thing I read about is that it’s widely thought that apples originated from Kazakhstan, and many apple forests are still found there. It’s interesting because in the US, we have the legend of Johnny Appleseed who was actually a real person traveling across the eastern portion of the US planting apple trees; his grave is in Fort Wayne, Indiana, about two hours northeast of where I live. However, I didn’t choose any apple recipes this go around, but I did choose several other tasty dishes. And as I read on someone’s blog, “This country is nothing like the movie Borat.” For that, I’m glad to know.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Well, we’re back in the groove of school again. This year I have a 4th grader and a 1st grader. They seem to like their teachers and have a feeling this will be a good year, so I’m glad for that. But I certainly enjoy having my days kid-free again. I’m just having a hard time going to bed before midnight. And I can’t think of a more perfect way to celebrate surviving the first week of school than eating Jordanian food. 

Certainly one of the more interesting ways to cook bread. I hope I didn't ruin my pan for this.

After it was all done. I think would be great as a wrap with some hummus and fresh veggies.


First up on my menu is the bread: shrak bread. Yes, I think its says “Shrek” every time I look at the word. I cut this recipe in half because it yielded a lot of bread (so all of the measurements listed are after I halved it). I started out proofing my yeast by mixing 1 Tbsp yeast, 1 Tbsp sugar, and ¼ c warm water. I stirred this up just a bit and then set it aside for about 10 minutes until it looked foamy. In my large bowl, I mixed together 2 c whole wheat flour, 2 c all-purpose flour, ½ Tbsp salt, and 3 Tbsp olive oil. When this was mixed, I added in my yeast mixture to the bowl along with ½ c warm water and stirred. I basically kneaded and worked the dough until it was a smooth consistency, adding a little water as needed. Then I covered my bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest for about an hour. After this time, I divided my dough into nine pieces and formed them into balls, placing them on a cookie sheet and covering them with another towel to rise for another half hour. The object is that once these are ready, you flatten these out really thin and place them on an overturned wok that is directly above an oven burner on high heat to cook the bread, only baking it on one side only (like how I did with the Ethiopian injera). However, I don’t have a wok. So, I had to improvise. I took a metal pan that was fairly shallow and overturned that. It had a flat bottom that was perfect for cooking the bread. I had to watch that the edges of the bread that folded over the sides a little didn’t burn. It didn’t take very long at all—about 10–15 seconds perhaps—for the bread to start to bubble up. Once it starts to bubble, it only takes about 20–30 more seconds at the most for it to be ready. I thought it had good flavor and went well with the mansaf. 

The toasted/sauteed almonds really did it. I couldn't believe how expensive pine nuts became! They used to be cheap. That's why I didn't get any. But seriously, these almonds totally made up for it.
The main dish for today is called mansaf. Often considered the national dish of Jordan, it’s also been likened to the dish that people make when celebrating, or when you have to make a big decision, or when you are upset, or when you have guests. There are many different recipes out there with many variations. It is far more common to make this with lamb, but I went with chicken instead (which isn’t wrong, I found a couple recipes listing chicken or even beef). I cut my chicken up into cubes, put it in a bowl with water and let it chill for about four hours. When the meat was ready, I melted some clarified butter (I used ghee) and added in the meat (after I drained the water from it). When the chicken was browned, I added in a little salt and pepper and enough water to cover the meat, letting it simmer for about an hour. Then I added in some minced onion and let it simmer for another 30 minutes. In a separate sauce pan, I added in 32 oz of plain Greek yogurt and stirred it over medium heat. Once it was a liquid consistency, I added in an egg white and a little salt, bringing it to a boil and then bringing my heat down while stirring for about another 5–10 minutes. When it was done, I poured this into my meat and onion mixture and added in my spices: coriander, cumin, paprika, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. In a smaller sauce pan, I sautéed my almonds in some ghee and set it aside. This added a really great flavor to the food. Now comes time to put this all together. I placed the shrak bread loaves I made earlier on the bottom of my casserole dish (I couldn’t find my platter, but I figured my casserole dish would make for easy clean up), overlapping them, brushing them with melted butter. Then I spread cooked rice on top of the bread. Carefully, I poured in the chicken-yogurt mixture on top of the rice, topping it off with my almonds and some fresh chives.

My son thought this was the best part. Actually both kids pretty much ate this plate up.
We also had a side dish of a variety of pickles and olives. I went with sweet pickles and dill pickles along with green and black olives. Pickles and olives are often set on the table as a side dish. 

This right here! This was the best part of the meal. Hands down. I'm so glad I have leftover ricotta cheese and phillo dough.

I also made a side dish called warbat.  This one was fairly simple to make, but it took a little skill to do right.  I thawed out some phillo dough, taking one sheet and brushing melted butter on top of the sheet. Then I placed another sheet on top of that one and brushed it with butter again. I repeated this until I got ten sheets stacked on one another, but I didn’t brush the last sheet with butter. Then I measured this and cut it to a 15”x12” square, and then cut it so that I had 3”x3” squares (there are 20 in total). Then I placed a dollop of ricotta cheese inside each square and folded them diagonally so that it made a triangle and pressed the corners together. Then I brushed each triangle with melted butter and placed them on a cookie sheet. These went into a 400ºF oven for about 12-13 minutes until they are golden brown. When they were done, I took them out and drizzled some simple syrup on top of them and then put them back in the oven for 3-4 minutes to soak up the syrup. I could’ve made my own simple syrup, but it was easier to just buy it—I found some for $2 in the alcohol mixers aisle. 

It may not look so appealing to some, but this was actually really refreshing.
And to go with all of this, I picked a drink this time: mint lemonade. I had seen several references to this drink when I was looking through articles on Jordanian cuisine and on various recipe sites. I first prepared my mint by cutting the leaves from the stalks and chopping it up to tiny pieces. Then I squeezed eight lemons (and realizing every cut and nick on my hands in the meantime), added in about a cup of sugar and some water and blended it all together. I let it sit for a while in the fridge before drinking. I really liked this, but my husband thought it was a little heavy on the mint side. Perhaps, but it was still quite refreshing. We also thought it would be super awesome with a little gin mixed in. 

Overall, I'd say that this meal was really good. I loved everything about it.

I certainly have to say that I learned more about the country of Jordan in the last two weeks than I have in the last ten years. I suppose that’s the whole point of this blog: to bring life to countries beyond how they’re painted by the mainstream media. Sometimes our views on a certain group of people or a country are based on stereotypes or the negative aspects that we see everyday in the news. Or perhaps it’s not a tourist-destination country so it just doesn’t see media attention unless something major happens there. And even at that, we still can’t be certain we’d hear about it. Not in the US at least. I generally have to depend on BBC News or Al Jazeera News for world news compared to any other news outlet in the US. (With the exception of VICE on HBO, perhaps.) My blog is more or less a general overview on various cultural subjects and is certainly not super in depth. I realize it’s a textbook take on each country, but perhaps one day I’ll visit these countries and write a completely different blog. Perhaps I’ll pitch a show to the Travel Channel where I discover places through the eyes and palates of local musicians. I can dream, can’t I? (But seriously, Travel Channel, hit me up.)

Up next:  Kazakhstan

Saturday, August 8, 2015


The traditional music of Jordan has very ancient roots. One of the most noted styles of music comes from the rural communities and is known as zajal. It’s based on a style of poetry that is recited in a variety of Arabic dialects; the format is half improvised and half sung. It’s actually a style that is shared across much of this region from Lebanon to Palestine to Algeria. 


When it comes to their traditional music, there are several different instruments that can be heard. Some instruments like the rebab and the oud are used throughout the entire Middle Eastern region. You’ll also hear a type of flute called a shababa; the mijwiz and arghul (both are double-pipe, single-reed woodwind instruments); the tableh (a type of goblet drum); a riq (like a tambourine); the daf (a frame drum); simsimiyya (a type of plucked lyre often used by the Bedouins); and the gerbeh (similar to bagpipes). 

By far, the most popular type of dance from Jordan is called the dabke. It can be danced as women-only, men-only, or in mixed company. The general movements of the dance includes standing in a circle where the dancers either hold hands or put their hands on their neighbor’s shoulders followed by a series of stomps and kicks. Although it’s performed many places, it’s often seen danced at weddings. 

Jordanians are enamored with the current music coming out of Europe, the US, and other areas of Middle East. I found several Jordanian musicians on Spotify and have listened to them throughout the last couple of weeks. 

There were several musicians whose music fell into the “inspired from other areas of the Middle East.” Throughout this week, I listened to musicians like Omar Alabdallat, Diana Karazon, Toni Qattan, and Hani Mitwasi. Sometimes you could tell there was a little bit of modern inflections in the music and a few different instrumentations. But overall, these songs were primarily inspired from the traditional music styles of the Middle East and Northern Africa. 

There is also a surprising popularity of hip-hop in Jordan. I took a listen to El Far3i and Arab MCs. For the most part, Arab MCs’ flow is on point, and they toggle the verses with sung parts. From song to song, there is an obvious change between songs. I hate when I listen to an album and all the songs sound the same. You can tell with these guys that there is truly some skill in writing here. 

And I was surprised to find a couple of hard rock/metal bands originating from Jordan. The Middle East never comes to mind in terms of metal music, but I stand corrected now. It could also probably just be pockets of underground musicians and fans who patron to it, but at least it’s still there. Bilocate is a band that certainly doesn’t fail on the screaming lyrics and ominous guitar riffs. Strangely enough, it’s sung in English. Relics of Martyrs is another band that falls in this category as well. Their music is really high energy, but they do counter it with some slower sections and intros. They have some catchy instrumental parts to their songs, and it’s also sung in English.

The interesting part I was happy to see here is that Jordan also has a few indie rock bands. I really liked listening to Jadal. Although I have no idea what he’s singing about because I don’t speak Arabic, the sound of the language somehow fits this genre nicely. His music shifts from relaxing with acoustic guitars and catchy melody lines to more driving music a la Franz Ferdinand. I really like his music and am glad it’s available on iTunes. El Morabba3 is another band I listened to. It’s a little more on the psychedelic side of rock but yet still maintains distinct Middle Eastern elements in their melody lines and vocal techniques. You can tell Autostrad has been influenced by a variety of styles. There are some songs that definitely have a rock- and acoustic-influenced sound, but there are others that almost sound as if they tried to merge klezmer music (and other varieties) with rock and then changed up some of the instrumentation a bit. I’m not even quite sure how to describe their sound. But you can tell they’re having fun making it, so that should count for something.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Jordan’s traditional arts are highly influenced by Islamic art and other traditions from the region. Two of the most significant arts found in Jordan are ceramic arts and mosaic arts. Many of these pieces include Islamic motifs and themes as well as Islamic calligraphy. If you’ve ever seen Islamic calligraphy, it’s an art in and of itself. Some can be quite elaborate. Mosaic art has been discovered in many of the archaeological sites throughout the country and is a skill that is still being encouraged today. In fact the government started a mosaic school in order to preserve the mosaics that are found in these various historical sites. It’s set up in the city of Madaba, which is known for its large mosaic map of the Holy Land. 


Another craft known in Jordan is embroidery, especially that from the Palestinian women. They are known for their textile needlework and typically use a variety of colors to create patterns based on geometric shapes. It doesn’t stop there: Jordanians are also known for their rug and carpet making as well as basket weaving. Most of these items are designed for use in the home. Other small handicrafts such as decorative bottles and jewelry are also commonly practiced. 

Today, Jordanians also study painting and sculpture and other contemporary arts. Amman is the artistic center of the country, although other larger cities also have their own arts support organizations. Amman has many art museums and smaller art galleries spread throughout the city. These galleries not only showcase many of Jordan’s finest artists but also the works of artists from the entire region. Many Iraqi artists have fled to Jordan to escape the terrible conditions in their country, and there are some galleries designed just for Iraqi art. 

by Fadi Daoud

Prior to the 20th century, there really aren’t too many works of literature to note. Most of the early literature was in the form of religious texts, and today the vast majority of literature produced is written in Arabic. One of the first Jordanian poets to really become popular was Mustafa Wahbi al-Tal. Many of his poems used humor to discuss life in Jordan as well serious subjects like anti-colonialism and nationalism. 

Only in the latter part of the 20th century did Jordanian writers really take the stage. Many of the most popular authors often tout Mounis al-Razzaz as one of the instrumental figures in bringing contemporary Jordanian literature to the limelight. One of the main themes that run through his works includes the transition between small, traditional towns and the larger, more modern cities. 

Rifka Doudeen is a female author who has risen to popularity with her collection of short stories and a novel. Other writers such as Ramadan al-Rawashdeh, Mefleh al-Adwan, Basma Nsour, Abdullah Mansour, Abdel Raouf Shamoun, Hashim Ghareybeh, Jamal Naji, and Raga Abu Gazaleh have won many awards and prizes for their works, which are enjoyed throughout much of the Arab world.

There are a few Palestinian authors who have risen to fame as well. There are several authors, like Taher al-Edwan as well as many Palestinian/Jordanian authors who are living abroad, who have written first hand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and books that take place during events in this history. Many of these books have also won national and international awards. 

from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

During the past decade, Jordan has made significant pushes toward encouraging the film industry. Several big-name films have been filmed in Jordan (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, The Hurt Locker, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and others), and many more are on the schedule. They do make their own films, and many filmmaking companies across the region choose to film here for many reasons. The popularity of writing films taking place in Iraq has risen, but due to the instability of the security in that country, it’s not always safe to actually film there. Thankfully, the terrain in Jordan is very similar to Iraq, and there are many Iraqi refugees already in Jordan.

Up next: music and dance