Breaking Bread with Lutfi Hussein, Culinary Artist
I think careful cooking is love, don't you?
When alumnus Lutfi Hussein (MA 2000; PhD 2006) came to ASU to study English and linguistics, he brought with him the memory of the foodways of his native Jordan. Dishes like the celebratory mansaf (chunks of lamb cooked in a sauce of jameed [dried goats' milk yogurt] and presented on a platter of spiced rice sprinkled with slivered almonds and pine nuts) and the simpler but just as tasty mujadara (lentils with spiced caramelized onions and rice) are common fare in the rural village in which he was raised. The recipes and techniques that go into the cooking of these splendid dishes are the province of the women of Lutfi's family, and in his frequent trips to Jordan since coming to the States, he has drawn upon the lore of these tradition bearers, adapting their detailed recipes to his own kitchen and tastes.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure to feast on many Middle Eastern delicacies at the home of Lutfi and his wife Heather Hoyt (MA 1999; PhD 2006), also an English alumna and a current faculty member. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention their two cats, Baby and Iggy, gracious hosts in their own right and discerning observers of all things human.
A Jordanian dinner at Lutfi and Heather's is an elaborate affair, beginning with nuts, stuffed grape leaves, goat cheese, and hummus. Wine flows freely (an American concession?) as Lutfi puts the finishing touches on the main course. Tonight, we are having magloobah.
It begins with sautéing onions in olive oil. Then, add chicken pieces, sauté, and add hot water and a mixture of spices: cardamom, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon sticks, and Persian seven spices (a product available in Middle Eastern groceries). Boil for 20-25 minutes. In another pot, sauté a few cloves of garlic in olive oil and add chopped tomatoes and sliced sweet peppers in four colors (red, green, orange, and yellow). Add a cup of hot water, and simmer for 20-25 minutes. When the chicken is tender, take out and save the broth. Then, sauté sliced potatoes, layer them in the bottom of a heavy pot, layer the chicken pieces on the potatoes, and sauté and layer sliced eggplant on the chicken. Add the mixture of peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, let the pot boil for a few minutes, add rice, and finally add the chicken broth until there is an inch to an inch and a half on top of the layered ingredients. Boil until rice and broth are level, then cover, lower the heat, and simmer for twenty minutes.
The final step of the ritual is to cover the top of the pot with a large silver tray. Then flip and slowly remove the pot.
A mound of rice topped with distinct layers of meat and vegetables graces the tray, tempting the cats who squat below in forlorn hope of snatching choice bits to supplement their evening meal of canned tuna in gravy.
The magloobah is dished out at the table, accompanied by small bowls of yogurt. Heather reminisces on her first visit to her in-laws in Jordan and how generous they were with dinner guests: "They'll give up eating their food just to give you more, so that you'll have the tenderest, the most flavorful, the best." And so it is with the substantial portion Lutfi spoons onto my plate. A challenge to the hungriest eater, and in the words of my Welsh great-grandmother, "an elegant sufficiency." It is expected that I will take home plentiful leftovers to stave off hunger during the coming week.
The magloobah is aromatic and delicious. Each of the layered ingredients adds a unique dimension of texture and taste to the perfectly cooked long grain rice. The creaminess of the eggplant is especially pleasant. Lutfi tells me that some cooks use cauliflower instead but that he prefers eggplant, and not only for its taste. "My mother used to like it," he recalls. "It was her favorite vegetable in this dish, and so I always think of that when I make it." Clearly, for Lutfi magloobah is tied to memory, not only of his family but of their village: "It always connects me to the house I grew up in, which is in a grove, an olive grove, so I always visualize and imagine the olive trees and the citrus trees." Here, his family raised their own produce and chickens, and he remembers as a child picking tomatoes for his mother as his father prepared a chicken, both of which would join other fresh ingredients from the village in the magloobah pot.
"It is one of the main dishes in Jordan," Lutfi comments. "Typically, it's invoked when people want to show that they care, because it takes a lot of time and it involves a lot of things you bring together, and you make it with such care." He adds that "if a friend invites me over and makes that dish, that means that they really like me, they care about me." Motivated by homesickness and a longing for good home cooking, he practiced his sisters' recipes. He recalls the evolution of his efforts with magloobah: "In the beginning, it wasn't easy to make everything work together, some things would be a little overcooked or undercooked, but after a few times I think I got the hang of it. Now when I go back [to Jordan] and cook it, even my sisters are impressed with the quality of the dish. So I've kind of made it my own now, with different levels of spices, different additions of ingredients."
Food is a wonderful way for people to come together. It transcends geographical boundaries, national boundaries.
After the main course, we have Arabic coffee and dessert in the living room as Baby and Iggy lounge cat-fashion on the backs of comfy chairs. Heather tells me the story of how on her first visit to Jordan, Lutfi's mother fired up a long-neglected bread oven that she had built decades earlier with her own mother: "She was determined she was going to make her bread for her new daughter-in-law, so it was a huge honor that she was doing that for me." The loaves were flat and as big as a platter, some of them plain, some stuffed with cheese or spices, and best eaten when fresh out of the oven. "That memory is with me always," Heather explains. "That was one of her gifts to me, firing up that homemade oven and baking that bread just for me."
Lutfi comments on the joy he takes in cooking for and breaking bread with others: "Food is a wonderful way for people to come together. It transcends geographical boundaries, national boundaries. People who might disagree on lots of issues, they might agree over a dish of food. Nothing gets as basic as the food we eat. It strengthens that bond that we as humans have."
When I finally set out for home, my hosts make sure I don't forget my bag of leftovers.
Image 1: Ellis's dinner hosts, Heather Hoyt and Lutfi Hussein. Courtesy photo.
Image 2: The ingredients for Lutfi Hussein's Jordanian magloobah. Photo by Hussein.
Image 3: Removing the pot from magloobah after flipping it upside down. Photo by Lutfi Hussein.
Image 4: The finished magloobah dish. Photo by Lutfi Hussein.