Besides being accomplished cooks and photographers, Ryan Bird and Christine Fannon are two travelers who aren’t afraid to venture off the radar. The couple met while teaching English in Taiwan, traveled to South America in August 2006, got engaged and have been on the road ever since. These days, they’re spending time in Turkey and Jordan, where they decided to try a taxi adventure in the capital city of Amman.
Our Jordanian gourmet adventure started just as we were about to catch the taxi – a crowd had stopped traffic, surrounding a group of four men dressed in charcoal-black undertakers’ clothes.
The coffin they carried acted as their prop as they carried it down one of the main streets of Amman, stopping every 20 metres or so to put on a mini-show and make the growing audience laugh with their slapstick antics, almost silent, uttering bits and pieces of languages, but almost no English. It was to be a funny forerunner for the rest of the evening.
After 20 minutes or so of trying to find a cab, we climbed in a taxi and asked the driver if he spoke English – there’s plenty of English in Jordan, but taxi drivers are definitely hit and miss and our Arabic mainly consisted of the foods we’d been eating.
He answered, “Sure. Yes,” using a full third of the words we later found out he knew. Our explanation of wanting to eat where he ate came up against a brick wall, so he called a friendly stranger over from the sidewalk to help. Disaster averted, the meter clicked on, and we were off.
As we wound north around and over the hills that make up Amman, simple sign language and easy words got us his name (Hamid), how long he’d been driving (12 years), and whether he was married (yes) and had kids (either one or two, he gave both answers at different times).
Eventually, we pulled up to fancy-looking place under an imposing black-and-orange sign that said SEREEN PARADISE amongst lines of Arabic. He gave us a thumbs up as we paid and thanked him, using another sixth of his English – “Good, good!” – and drove off.
The restaurant seemed the kind of place for a special occasion from a generation ago – mirrors on the walls, cast-iron chairs with pillows on them, a TV in the corner with the news.
It was a quiet night, but that may very well have been a combination of the later hour and the fact that it was Friday, the Muslim sabbath.
With no English menu, we had to point to dishes we thought we’d like.
I ordered a meat dish with shish kebab, shish tawook (the kebab’s chicken cousin), and kofte, an Arabic meatball/meatloaf with lots of spices and looking like a sausage this time around.
The kebab and tawook were decent, but the kofte stole the show. We’ve both had a few of these and this was one of the better ones. Delicate spices made each bite a pleasure and I was quite sad at how fast it disappeared. The grilled tomato helped raise my spirits a bit, but another stretch of kofte would’ve been better.
Chris ordered the signature Jordanian dish: mensaf. Most commonly made with lamb, as she had it here, it’s served at weddings and celebrations all over the country.
This was a pretty good specimen, with the lamb falling off the bone with a single nudge of the fork and the yogurt sauce, flavored with cooking fat from the lamb, in a nice tall bowl, ready for pouring. The sliced almonds on top are always nice, though we’ve also had it with peanuts.
A kind of curried soup accompanied the dish, and the standard mound of rice make this a hefty dinner for almost anyone – after both of us finished attacking it, there was still rice left over, though the yogurt sauce had vanished.
All in all, Sereen Paradise wasn’t a monumental find, as the dining downtown in Amman is just as good and much more accessible.
Since this was our dry run for an adventure in Istanbul, we learned a valuable lesson: language barriers can ground the best of adventures. It’s a good thing Jordan’s people are as wonderful as their food.
Corner of Ibn Muqlah Road & Nasser bin Jameel Road