When I ask Atef what he would like to eat for lunch his response is more often than not “Cook anything you like”. I have learnt that this is actually not an open invitation to indeed cook anything I like, but really what he means is cook anything that is Arabic and cook it exactly like the way that my family cook it.
I find this extremely limiting and challenging. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Arabic food is delicious, I just don’t want to eat it for every meal, for every day for the rest of my life. Atef and indeed many others here in Wadi Musa are happy to eat it for every meal, for every day for the rest of their life. If Atef was served up Mansef or Magloobah for every meal for a year he would happily eat them and never complain about not having more variety. And herein lies one of my problems – I don’t really like Mansef. The national dish of Jordan and I’m not keen on the taste and I really don’t like how Atef’s family make it. Ooops!
The variety and the availability of all the different cuisines in Australia certainly means that we are spoiled for choice and can see you eating food and flavours from all over the planet. Here in Wadi Musa the choice is Arabic food or Arabic food. If I lived in Amman you can find restaurants such as Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Italian etc etc. It might not be to the extent of what is available in Australia, but for a change you can dine out on something other than Arabic food. There is also a far better range of ingredients and produce in the supermarkets in Amman that allow you to create international dishes in your own home. Of course the Amman is the capital and is catering to the needs of a large and varied expat community.
Wadi Musa is a small, traditional, country village and the supermarkets and markets are catering for the needs of the locals who like and really only know Arabic food. I find it limiting not being able to get the variety and range of ingredients that I took fore-granted in Australia. There are a couple of restaurants that you can buy pizzas from here in Wadi Musa, but for me they fall into the category of the frozen pizza with limited (and poor quality) toppings, which is to say that they don’t fill that craving for a decent pizza.
The other reason I find it challenging is I like to experiment and play around with dishes and treat recipes more as a loose guideline. Therefore I’m known to add, remove, increase and decrease ingredients depending on how I’m feeling. This does not go down well with Atef when I’m cooking an Arabic meal as I’m messing with a dish that has been cooked one way by his family for generations. I have been taught by his family how to cook the dish and there are to be no changes, additions, revisions of that said dish. His sisters cook it the way that his mum cooks it who in turn learnt to cook it from her mum and so on. Families are proud and protective of their version of a certain dish as their version is always the best.
A simple dish that I have been taught how to cook is Seneeyah. This is a dish of chicken and vegetables that is cooked in a tray covered tightly with foil on the stove top. Atef’s family make it with onion, chicken, tomatoes, potatoes and green capsicum. It was sacrilege that I dared to add yellow and red capsicum, it was almost grounds for divorce the day that I added eggplant and let’s not even mention the time that I substituted sweet potato for the potato. There is just no messing with the dish.
Anyway Atef was at work today so I got to make my version of Seneeyah.
1 large onion
1 chili (optional)
6-8 chicken pieces on the bone or a whole chicken jointed.
1 small green capiscum
1 small red capsicum
1 small yellow capsicum
1 medium eggplant (optional)
2 large tomatoes
2 large potatoes (can use sweet potatoes or a combination)
1 teaspoon of Arabic spice mix for chicken (see here for recipe)
salt and pepper for taste
Cut the capsicum into large pieces. Slice the tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant into roughly 1cm thick slices.
Dice the onion into large pieces. In a large deep frying pan or a deep dish like a lasagna tray add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and brown the onion. Add salt to taste. If using add some chopped up chili to taste. I didn’t add any chili this time as was making it for Alia and I.
Add the chicken to the onion and brown.
Add the Arabic spice mix and stir so that the chicken and onion are coated. Cook for a coupe of minutes to allow the flavours to release.
Remove the frying pan from the heat and remove the chicken from the pan, leaving the onion. I like to start with a layer of tomatoes and onions on the bottom for the Seneeyah as they break down during the cooking and make a nice sauce. Atef likes to have a mixture potatoes and tomatoes at bottom layer. I like to finish with a layer of potatoes on top. It doesn’t matter what you do.
Make a layer of vegetables on the bottom of the frying pan over the top of the onions. Add the chicken to the pan and add the rest of the vegetables.
Add enough water to come about halfway up the pan. Sprinkle some salt and Arabic spice mix over the top of the Seneeyah. Cover the frying pan tightly with foil or use a tight fitting lid. Cook over a low heat on the stove top for 35-40 minutes until the potatoes are tender, the chicken is cooked through and most of the water is evaporated There should be just enough liquid left for a nice thick sauce on the bottom. if there is still too much liquid but the chicken and potatoes are cooked then remove the foil, increase the heat to high and cook the Seneeyah for a few minutes until the liquid is reduced. Place the Seneeyah under a grill for 5 or so minutes until the potatoes are golden brown and crispy on top.
Alternatively the Seneeyah can be cooked in the oven. Instead of cooking on the stove top over low heat, place the covered Seneeyah into a medium oven and cook for 50 minutes to an hour. If there is still too much liquid after the Seneeyah is cooked in the oven then remove the foil and cook on high heat on the stove top to reduce the liquid. Finish off under the grill as before.
We eat the Seneeyah from the frying pan a a communal dish with lots of flat bread and natural yoghurt.