Are you hungry?

pita-bread-zatarWhen I was a young child, I had three grandmothers.  Two of them lived in America, and were related to my parents. The third was Jordanian.

Umm Wasfi was a short, stout woman, in her late forties or early fifties. She lived next door to me, in a three-story apartment building.  Wasfi, her oldest son, lived on the bottom floor with his family.  Tenants rented the second floor, and on the third floor Umm Wasfi lived with Abu Wasfi and their other children Wajdi, ‘Esa, and Lillian.

I have very few early memories of Umm Wasfi. Simply the fact that I remember anything at all of her at such a young age testifies to how often I visited her.  I believe I traipsed up to the third floor with my mother and father at least several times a week. And every time, she would make me a zayt w zaatar sandwich.

Zayt is oil, and zaater is a mixture of sesame seeds, thyme, and a few other spices.  When combined on pita bread at Umm Wasfi’s, they were the closest a kid could get to culinary heaven.  Whenever I said I was hungry, Umm Wasfi would rush to the kitchen to make me zayt w zaatar. At any rate, my parents soon caught onto what was happening, and told me not to say I was hungry.  But then Wajdi, the second oldest, would come up to me and whisper in my ear. “Philip… aren’t you hungry?” I would nod my head.  And of course, we would rush to the kitchen for zayt w zaatar. I don’t remember if he got one out of the deal, too.

Time stopped in the kitchen.  Every time Umm Wasfi made me a zayt w zaatar, an age passed. My eyes drank in the golden river of olive oil as it flowed onto the pita and slowly seeped into it.  My hands were outstretched as the sesame seeds and the thyme rained from her hands onto the fertile plain of bread.  Then it was a quick roll and the treasure was in my hand.

Whenever you visit an Arab house for a meal, prepare to be stuffed.  Whether it’s Jordanian mensaf (rice with reconstituted yoghurt balls and meat), shish tawooq (marinated chicken kabob) or Omani shu’a (heavily spiced meat cooked in a pit for a day), you won’t go away empty.  But your hosts will always tell you that you haven’t eaten a thing, and will even put food in your mouth with their own hands.


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