THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


KAINAN SA DUWAR

Finding Home at a Filipino Restaurant in Amman

by Olivia Mayeda

Illustration by Olivia Mayeda

published March 13, 2020


 

Across the traffic circle, through screens of dust and exhaust, I could see that the long line of sandy buildings met an abrupt end. An empty lot opened up to a rare, sprawling view of the hills of Amman. The sun sat over the earth like a yolk, and I followed it to the vacancy. One month into my intensive Arabic program in Jordan, I decided to explore a neighborhood in Jabal Amman near Second Circle. I was missing home, severely out of place in a program designed for wannabe CIA analysts and American ambassadors to fill-in-the-blank country. Meanwhile, I dreamt up new ice cream flavors like miso-candied morrel or labneh chamomile when I was bored in class and made Palestinian Makloubeh and rolled grape leaves with my host mom, Faiza, on the weekends. I watched friends rap and perform slam poetry in Arabic at open mic night at the House of Dreams and rewatched the opening scene of Eat Drink Man Woman when it rained. 

When the light turned from frothy yellow to the deep orange of a duck egg, I turned back to the road, thinking of my parents’ cooking, and encountered a second sun. This one had abbreviated rays that terminated in round petals. Three buttery stars guarded the solar blossom on a triangular void, clasped onto two edges by blue and red stripes. Below, magnified photos of food laminated sliding glass doors. It wasn’t just any sun, I realized, all at once recognizing the pixelated plates of food as sinigang, lumpia, and pancit—it was a Filipino one, blooming on the flimsy plastic flag of my mom’s birthplace. I followed my feet in disbelief to the doors and slid them open. The smell registered first: simmering coconut milk and dried bay leaves and the pungent oil left over in the pan after my grandma fries tilapia. I was convinced that some inexplicable portal had opened to my grandma’s kitchen in the middle of the Ammanian hills.

Like Grandma’s kitchen, Kainan Sa Duwar was smaller than my bedroom on the other side of the city, cases of coconut milk cans shoved in the back corner. As a kid, I always knew it would be a good day at Grandma’s house if I saw those familiar brown and white labels peeking out of the garbage—a promise that coconut milk chicken adobo bubbled in a blue enameled cast iron pot on her stove. 

Displayed in what looked like a recommissioned gelato case were tubs of golden battered shrimp, stewed chicken liver, and whole fried fish towered one on top of the other in alternating orientations like tempura jenga, the glass windshield so scrubbed and scored in a past life to the point of fogginess. Lining the shelves on the walls were kutsinta, the caramelly medallion sticky rice cakes I would sneak from my grandma’s pantry. There was turon filled with banana and langka—jackfruit—wrapped in pastry and deep fried. When I was six, I crouched on a stool, helping my mom fold dough around slivers of brown sugar-dipped banana and langka for my grandpa’s surprise birthday party, but I was clumsy and didn’t tuck the dough into itself properly. I watched the filling bubble out of its wrapper, filling the pot of oil with cinnamon and loose fruit. “Oops,” my mom laughed, kissing me on the forehead. 

“Kamusta ka?” asked the woman on the other side of the counter, knocking me out of my haze. A golden Fortune Cat sat on the display case, rigid, save for its right paw, which boxed the air endlessly in anticipation of new customers. 

“Mabute! Kamusta ka?” I responded automatically with the only Tagalog I knew. 

“Are you hungry?” she asked in English, hearing my accent. She adjusted the fold of her hijab under her chin. 

“You don’t have halo-halo, do you?” 

“I’ll make it for you.” 

I asked her how much it was, and she waited patiently while my fingernails dug at the bottom of my backpack picking up grit and paper scraps. I was 85 qirsh short. 

“That’s okay,” she laughed, brushing what little change I had produced from the counter into her palm. “Sit.”

She slipped through two hanging canvas panels dividing the dining area from the kitchen. I sat at a long plank jutting out from the wall. Fraying duct tape lined the edges of the wood, serving no apparent purpose. At the plank in the opposite wall, two women ate from plates of rice and what looked like dinuguan: a stew of chili, vinegar, garlic, and pork blood. As a kid, I was ashamed whenever my mom made it. I would mimic the disgusted expressions of my friends when they came over to our house, horrified by our vampirism, but I grew to appreciate its unrivaled richness over time.

The chef returned with a familiar, psychedelic arrangement of layers of red and green Jell-o and sweet beans on a bed of condensed milk-drenched shaved ice nested with a scoop of deep purple ube ice cream, a square of leche flan, and, of course, Rice Krispies. I dug in, excavating each layer one by one, overcome with childlike bliss. The flan was dense, barely jiggling from the bowl to my mouth, just the way my mom made it—no skimping on egg yolks. 

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One of my earliest memories is of resting my cheek on the cold, granite countertop in my parents’ kitchen in the summer. Across the counter, my mom, wearing slippers taken from a hotel, scooped an overripe avocado into an old plastic bowl of whole milk. She spooned in white sugar and used a fork to mash the creamy avocado meat against the sides of the bowl so that deep green paste burst between the metal tines.

“This is what we would have in the Philippines when there was nothing else. Just milk, avocado from the neighbor’s tree, and a little sugar. Here, Olivia, try.”

She brought the rim of the bowl to my mouth. The milk was a muted, Hulk green and chunks of avocado stuck to the sides of the bowl, browning from oxidation. My mom, having grown up in a household where abundance was unfamiliar, raised my sister and I not to be picky. I took a sip without hesitation. Fatty, sugary molecules lathered the inside of my cheeks. It was rich and delicious. 

Afternoons in my grandma’s kitchen in Pinole, one nucleus of the Northern Californian Filipinx community, taught me the intuitiveness of good food. Pork stewed in coconut milk and oxtail served with fermented krill paste were some of my favorite meals from childhood. They were neither simple nor extravagant, but every bit as sumptuous as the fine dining at French or Italian restaurants in the East Bay. There was something just as indulgent about fork-mashed avocado, milk, and sugar as there was about a slab of pan-seared foie gras. 

Still, when the upscale Filipino restaurant—FOB Kitchen—debuted in Oakland, my parents complained about how expensive it was. The only Filipino food they would pay for was fast food halo-halo and breakfast combos of longanisa sausage, garlic rice, and a fried egg at Jollibee for a grand total of four dollars. 

“If we’re paying that much we should just go across the street to Pizzaiolo!” my dad groaned at the dashboard one night while we were deciding where to have dinner. There was something about exposed brick and imported prosciutto di parma that put an immigrant family like mine in the mood for 30 dollar chicken.

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Kainan Sa Duwar turned out to be something of a hub for the Filipinx community of Jabal Amman, and it didn’t pander to anyone. Produce was bought wholesale out of a van that came by every couple days. The woman who had served me was known tenderly by her patrons as Tita Thelma, or simply Ate, a term of respect used when addressing an older woman. Tita had been living in Jordan for over thirty years, and she had four daughters, all studying back home in the Philippines. 

When I returned two days later, eight men were sitting at the left plank eating shrimp. One of them was a soldier in an exchange program between the Filipino and Jordanian air forces. He was accompanying a fleet of jets on loan from the Jordanian military back to the Philippines in another six months. Another was a company driver, two of them students, here to study the Quran, and the other four were civil engineers. 

They met in a pickup basketball league in Amman and became a team. After failed attempts at English and Tagalog, we spoke only in Arabic. 

“Sit,” they said, and a bowl of rice and shrimp was assembled in front of me before I could sit down. I asked them if there were any other good Filipino restaurants in Amman. 

“Only this one!” 

Tita Thelma smiled and showed me a framed picture of her and the team she kept by the register. We peeled the shrimp with our fingers, and they told me that they missed the fuller tropical air of home. When all that was left were serrated antennae and translucent scales, I noticed a golden orchid painted on the bottom of my bowl, and I thought of my grandma’s garden in Pinole. Thick stems and waxy petals in various stages of life and death rocketing from the depths of repurposed paint cans. She would water each row, telling me that when she was my age, she would run lunch over to her grandfather while he tilled the family farm. We had taro, bitter melon, sweet potatoes, avocado trees, rice, corn, everything! 

The electric insect trap crackled a neon lilac, startling only me. The soldier, Romnick, rolled a log of baklava as dense as a roll of quarters onto my plate. I asked him how he liked living in Amman, and he said it was “okay,” breaking through layers of filo dough with his molars, “most of the time.” It was worse for the Filipina women who worked in the homes of Jordanian families as housekeepers, he said, who were tasked with nearly anything the family needed at all times. 

“They don’t get to eat with the families you know,” Romnick continued. “They have to eat in a separate room.” 

I asked him if that was the worst he’d heard, and he stopped peeling his shrimp, leaving it fleshy and half armored in its bowl. “No.” 

After finishing my homework and a plate of dinuguan, I took two cans of coconut milk home with me. I left them on my bedside table next to the tea candle, the avocado seed I was hoping would sprout but never did, and the persimmon Faiza had left for me because she knew it was my favorite: a makeshift shrine to all the women in my life who fed and cared for others before doing the same for themselves. 

I came back to eat Tita’s food every week for the next three months. I met a lot of the women Romnick had told me about. Like many of the women in my family, they had left the Philippines—their homes, their spouses, and their children—to find employment as domestic workers for affluent families in the Middle East. For decades, migrant Filipina workers in the Middle East have been the backbone of an otherwise debt-ridden Filipino economy. In theory, these women are granted the same rights as Jordanian workers under Jordanian labor laws, but domestic abuse against Black and Southeast Asian domestic workers is commonplace. 

One woman, Lorewina, left her home in Mindanao 15 years ago to work for a family in Saudi Arabia. She always came to Kainan with her best friend, Edna—also a domestic worker from the Philippines. They met at the supermarket in Galleria Mall while buying groceries for their employers. 

“Edna looked so lost,” Lorewina remembered. “I helped her, and we became friends.” They told me over pancit that it had been six months since either of them had been home to see their families, loops of translucent glass noodles hanging off the edges of our plates like necklaces. Neither of them had been given a formal day off by their employers until years into their contracts—for Lorewina, it took ten years of working for the same family. When Edna asked her employer, whom she called “Madam,” for a day off several months into her contract, “Every day is your day off” was the only response she got. 

“But Madam and her children like Filipino food,” she added, “they love pancit.” Edna and Lorewina hugged me before they went back to work. “You make me miss my daughter!” Edna said to me, tears in her eyes. 

I heard more stories: stories of physical and sexual abuse and pay witheld for months. While Jordanian law dictates that this kind of treatment is illegal, many women don’t go to the authorities. 

“Embassies trust Jordanians more,” Tita told me over lunch one afternoon, “If they report the abuse, they’ll be sent back.” 

Black and Southeast Asian domestic workers were everywhere in Amman. I never endured their experiences, but I brushed up against lesser symptoms: the wary closeness of store managers tailing me from one aisle of clothes to the next, cars packed with young Jordanian men slowing down to solicit my attention, sometimes in Tagalog, as I walked home from class. 

One evening, as I ate my usual Armenian sausage sandwich at my favorite barbeque restaurant in the neighborhood of Weibdeh, I observed a familiar scene: a family sitting around a table, enjoying the same wax paper-wrapped meal. The parents tapped their phones while their three children fought over an iPad. A woman looked on, not sitting, but standing awkwardly where the register met the wall. She had thick, dark hair that reminded me of my mom, which reminded me of myself. She was a shadow, still and unspeaking at the edge of the frame, materializing only when one of the children dropped a napkin or when the mother asked for her reading glasses. I felt myself fading too. 

Kainan was the one place I felt at home while abroad, a home open to the public seven days a week from 8 to 12 a.m. The restaurant was everyone’s grandma’s kitchen, brought from oceans away in worn-down bowls. It was where people, who looked like the pictures of my Grandpa Valentin when he was young and worked at a textile factory in Manila, came together after long shifts, after basketball games, and for the one day they had off every two months. 

Before I left Amman, I brought the two brown and white cans from my bedside to the kitchen in the next room. I poured one into a pot on the stove and simmered it with chicken thighs, soy sauce, and bay leaves for my host mom’s dinner. I used the other to temper six egg yolks whisked in sugar and canned ube. I cradled each yolk until the gelatinous white released through my fingers into the water glass below, leaving in my palm a yellow globe. I left the frozen coconut ube custard in an old pickle jar at the restaurant with the torn corner of a page. 

“For Tita.”

OLIVIA MAYEDA B’21 is still looking for Filipino food in Providence. Hit her up if you have insights. She is also looking to start an ice cream company that invents Filipinx and Japanese ingredient-based flavors and is in search of a business partner. Serious inquiries only.