I sat cross-legged on an embroidered cushion on the floor, watching as dish after dish filled the mat in the center of the room. Within minutes, the mat held chicken, rice with peanuts, fried potatoes, flat bread, cucumber and tomato salad, pickled eggplants and yogurt.

I winced as each plate hit the floor. This was gonna be rough. But when a local family invites you for an afternoon, “visit and lunch,” code for feast, you go. At least I had the foresight not to eat the entire day preceding the visit…and the foresight to wear my stretchy pants.

My hosts started by giving me two plates. Then they filled them while I frantically waved my hands knowing that to be polite, I would need to at least go for seconds after clearing what I was served. I worked through my food diligently, but every time a spot cleared, they just piled more on.

In the Middle East, the traditional way of eating is to sit around the floor on cushions such as these.

I dropped every card I could think of: I’m a little sick today, I’m foreign, I had a big breakfast, I don’t want to get fat. Upon hearing the last one they said, “No no! The rice has no oil! No problem!”

I’m not sure about the soundness of that nutritional advice.

Whenever I find myself in these situations, I pat my belly and make the best, “I’m full and uncomfortable” face I can. But the concerned response remains the same:

Ok, so not ALL Jordanian food is so different from ours…

“It’s ok. Slowly slowly. Wait a minute, then eat some more.”

What is this, a long distance race? That’s the impression I get. In fact, there’s a popular Arabic phrase that means, “Even when you’re full, you can always take 40 bites.”

Also not sound nutrition.

Food As Love

I’ve visited quite a few “feeding” cultures; the cultures where no matter what you say or how you protest, they are bound to feed you more than you need. But I have never experienced anything like eating Jordanian style.

I should have known. The night that Rami and his wife, Zena, picked me up from the airport they asked, “Are you hungry?”

“No, no,” I assured them, “I’ve been sitting down in planes for 20 hours, just eating. I’m fine.”

A confused look passed between them.

My host family, cooking potatoes on the heater in the house!

“Laura,” Rami said, taking on a very serious tone, “in Jordan, people going to ask you three times if you want something to eat. By the third time, you must say yes.”

And so it began.

It’s not like the food is bad—in fact, I love it! Flat breads, rice, hummus, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, cheese, olives, yogurt…it’s just the amount that’s hard to take—especially as a visitor. A month in Jordan is testing the durability of my stomach and my jeans.

But feeding someone here isn’t all about nourishment—it’s an expression of love. It says, “Hey, I worked all day boiling water, shelling peanuts, stirring pots and chopping vegetables for you. I love you a whole chicken, a pound of rice and three cups of yogurt’s worth.”

Some of my favorite moments with my host family happen in the evening when Nourhan and Amjad (the mom and dad) sit down in front of the news, cut up fruit or roast potatoes and castor nuts on the heater and feed them to their kids and me. It’s not because we’re hungry. It’s just an outpouring of their care.

Just Go With It

I’m guilty of participating in the feeding frenzy as well.

Last week, I spent a few days helping with the hospitality side of an event for the organization I’m learning about. I made regular rounds through the waiting room with juice boxes and funky-tasting little cakes that people consistently received with, “yslamo edek,” or “bless your hands.”

Every once in awhile, someone gently placed their hand on their heart and regretfully declined my offer. I couldn’t help but try again…and insist…and maybe try a third time. I wanted them to feel welcomed!

Here is the overwhelming breakfast my host mom gave me one morning.

Most people continued to take juice boxes and cakes, but I realized later that many of them just stashed them away in pockets and handbags. They knew how to play the game. They might not have been hungry or thirsty, but they honored my gesture. It was more about my feelings than their own.

I’ve been trying to follow their example.

Sometimes I must eat breakfast twice. I always drink at least five cups of tea and coffee per day. I’ve accepted the fact that if someone around me stops for a snack, I must snack as well by default.

But that’s how it works here, and I’ve made some good friends by just going with it…or sometimes pretending I already ate.

Jordan travel advisory: walk as much as you can, and pack big pants.

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About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. Bonny Yegon said... 

    Reply

    November 30th, 2011 at 9:23 am  

    Nice eating story, i hope i dont find myself in the same fate as you. Pole

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 12th, 2011 at 7:44 am  

      Haha…don’t worry, Bonny–the food is great, so it’s not the worst problem to have!

  2. Steve-O said... 

    Reply

    November 30th, 2011 at 10:20 am  

    sounds like the perfect place for pajamajeans!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 12th, 2011 at 7:46 am  

      For sure :) I’ve been trying to walk it off here in Senegal!

  3. Jo Nading said... 

    Reply

    November 30th, 2011 at 10:53 am  

    Interesting that we don’t hear News Stories about obesity in Jordan. Is it what they eat that keeps them from being unhealthy? Do they walk everywhere? What is different? No processed food? It’s all “real” food – as in every ingredient is natural and actually has grown somewhere? just all very interesting to me. And, of course they don’t have….or do they…the western influence (or is it only American?) of skinny models being the goal body. Seems we get our hands smacked here in America when we mix social culture with food. But in other countries it is recognized as “the culture.” And we accept that. maybe because it really is not our culture to feed and offer food and the sacrifice of time as we prepare it as an act of love. We just open a can or jar or bag sometimes, put it in a pretty bowl, and put it on our island and stand around and eat and talk. I guess there is a huge difference. Thanks for giving perspective in a deep and yet light-hearted way. I love reading what you write. Blessings to you.

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 12th, 2011 at 7:52 am  

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jo. I’m not sure what obesity stats are on Jordan…there are definitely overweight people in every country, but yes–the Jordanian diet is a lot healthier, so large quantities don’t necessarily have the same effect. And there is a moderate amount of walking in the city, and of course in the villages.

      I picked up on a weird contrast between the, “eat more!” attitude and the fact that young women were expected to be thin.

      Also, guests get it a little harder than the locals…so maybe the Jordanian women are more effective at refusing second helpings :)

  4. Jessica said... 

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    November 30th, 2011 at 6:25 pm  

    I definitely gained weight both times I lived with Kenyan families:) But then I found out that was actually their goal! The solution to huge breakfasts that finally worked was convincing them that I don’t eat anywhere near as much at home…and that I actually preferred beans over meat for dinner sometimes! But it doesn’t work on your first time being a guest somewhere!
    Jo, I like your contrast with US culture, where providing food doesn’t always mean we worked really hard to prepare it. It means so much more when we do!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 12th, 2011 at 7:55 am  

      Haha–I feel your pain, Jessica! I just spent a couple of weeks in a village in Senegal, and the family was convinced that I needed double the food they did! The friend of mine who’s living there said that her host mom constantly pinches her collar bone and gets excited when she looks fatter…much to my friend’s dismay, of course :)

  5. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    December 3rd, 2011 at 12:38 pm  

    yeah, I’m wondering why obesity is such an issue here…is it that we don’t eat as much in community?

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      December 12th, 2011 at 7:57 am  

      I don’t know, Dave–I think it’s a combination of what we eat and how much activity we don’t do, between driving cars and sitting at desks.

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