Written by: Farah Ghniem
Many foods I crave take a very long time to cook, ripen or even come into existence, since I often have seasonally misguided cravings and very little patience when it comes to food. I want green almonds and hamleh in the middle of the winter, Brussels Sprouts all the time and that burger within two minutes of ordering it. We’ve all been at a dinner table where everyone is irritable and speaking in short, borderline hostile sentences until the food arrives. When hunger has a specific, unfulfilled craving it is twice the monster.
No one speaks in short, borderline hostile sentences at Hashem El Balad. In fact, until there are only remnants of food in the little brown bowls, no one speaks at all. The food arrives in [literally] no time satiating your hunger before it grows an ugly mouth that traumatizes your friends, friends’ friends or worse, mere acquaintances.
It is an understanding amongst all of its patrons – locals and tourists alike – that you go to Hashem famished and leave in a food-induced coma. It is not a place for iffy nibbles. This video by Hashem-enthusiast Wa’el Liddawi demonstrates my point more eloquently using visuals, a guitar and song.
In the unlikely event that you’ve never passed by it and your nose has not led you to it, the place itself is almost childlike in its simplicity. It is reminiscent of the fake-restaurants of my childhood, where we would arrange plastic tables and chairs and convince ourselves that we’ve built a restaurant. Overflowing into an alley off of Al-Amir Mohammed Street, the main artery of Amman’s downtown, you will find those very same plastic tables and chairs arranged without any pretense of décor.
You have a choice of sitting indoors or outside in the alley overtaken by the restaurant, and a waiter will wipe your table down with a rag that looks like it’s existed far longer than is hygienic. If you are not a proponent of giving your immune system a little workout you should probably think twice before venturing into Hashem, although I am firmly convinced that despite the suspicious wipe-down rag, the table is always clean enough to eat off of.
Then there’s the food. There is no menu and the choices are limited and simple, really: hummos, fool, falafel, onion-stuffed falafel and fatteh. I’ve never asked for qudsieh or msabbaha but I’m pretty sure that they can be ‘arranged’. Everything arrives hot and drizzled with generous amounts of olive oil and spicy garlicky lemon sauce, complete with hot pita bread and a large plate of fresh mint, tomatoes and white onions. There is one beverage (unless you want Pepsi) and it’s the house special: sweet syrupy minty tea. Diabetics, beware.
At 1-2 JDs per person, Hashem’s prices are touchingly and admirably honest. Especially when we take into account it is the only place in town where the chickpea : tahini ratio in hummus is higher than 1:1 (measurement courtesy of several discerning foodies’ palate tests). Despite the speed at which food is churned out at Hashem, there is an inescapable feeling of it being made with much care and love. The fava beans in the fool are not ground into baby food consistency, and the falafel always arrives crunchy and hot. Everything is cooking and sizzling right there, in front of your own eyes. If you stare long enough, the staff will show you exactly how skilled they are with their cooking and serving utensils.
As much as it’s about the quality of the food, Hashem El Balad is about the people. Some reviewers of this restaurant argue that there is no ambiance, but the discerning Ammani would know otherwise. There are very few places in this city that bring Ammani citizens sitting on opposite ends of the socioeconomic, national origin and age spectra together so gracefully, with tourists thrown in for good measure. In fact, it is the only place in Amman where I’ve seen rowdy drunk teenagers, families out for a late-night meal, foreign construction workers, tourists, groups of retired men and taxi drivers on night shifts all metaphorically sat down at the same table enjoying a hearty meal, without any judgment, snickering or stares.
The sense of togetherness at Hashem El Balad is palpable. It could serve as a case study for a curious sociologist puzzling over the various divides in the city of Amman. And that is its ambiance.
There's even a song about Hashem! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0J-jcKfzz5s