Eating Brains in Old Amman

On the motley advantages of Jordan's oddest sandwich

By / December 2014

I had been anxious to try new Middle Eastern foods when my friend Firaz told me he liked to eat sheep brain sandwiches. I asked Firaz to let me tag along the next time he was hankering for some brains, so he took me to the Abu Jehdi, a hole-in-the-wall where sheep organs are always on the menu.

The Abu Jehdi is a small restaurant located on a busy, one-way street near the old center of Amman. It has six café-style tables with seating for about thirty people. On the day in question, the place was empty but for a single customer eating and watching soccer on the flat screen TV hanging in the corner. Copious windowlight and dozens of small recessed bulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminated the space. Noise from honking cars, diesel trucks and passing pedestrians flooded into the room through the open glass door. We had to speak up to hear each other talk.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

On the right side of the room stretched a 10-foot long, buffet-style bar with a glass hood on top to shield food from anyone but the chef. Mohammed, dressed in a black chef’s uniform and bright red apron, waited patiently behind the bar to take our order. As I looked through the glass at the sheep organs floating in rectangular warming trays, Firaz ordered sandwiches with a side of brain broth seasoned with lemon juice.

Mohammed scooped beige, baseball-sized globs out of a tub of steaming water and laid them on 8-inch pitas. The lumpy folds of the brains, the rust-colored creases between them — it looked sculpted, as if someone had massaged the grey matter into shape using the palms of their hands. But the little busts came apart at the touch. Mohammed crumbled the brains with his fingers, then spread it across the flat white bread. He added parsley, onions, pickles, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Once the pita was rolled tightly and toasted to a golden brown, the sandwich looked fairly appetizing.

Still, my first bite was not what I had expected. I suppose I was anticipating new tastes, strange tastes, flavors that I had never encountered before, sheep thoughts made palatable. True, the brains gave the otherwise crunchy sandwich a soft, chewy texture, rather like the yolk of a boiled egg, but the only thing I could taste was parsley, pickles, onions, lemons, salt and pepper.

I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, just that I was surprised by the blandness of such a shocking dish. When I finished, I turned to Firaz. “I don’t think sheep brains have much taste,” I said. “What?” he asked, unable to hear me over the road noise outside. I said, “The sheep brains. I don’t think they have much taste.”

“Most people eat it because of tradition,” he conceded, “but they don’t really like it.” He added that most Jordanians believe brains–which are high in protein and fat–have health benefits, especially old people, who say it relieves joint pain. “And young men eat it,” the old man watching football interjected, “because they believe it increases their sex drive.”

Say what you want about sheep brains, but seldom has a food, however devoid of color and taste, had such a miscellany of advantages.

 

Danny Wright is a writer living in Jordan.

 

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