By Stephanie Twaissi
Diwali, or stuffed grape leaves, is a popular meal here in Jordan.
It’s nearly the end of May 2016 and we are beginning to feel the warmth of the summer sun here in Wadi Musa. The change in seasons is the sign that we should be picking the last grape leaves for diwali. We have to be quick, for when June arrives, the leaves become too hard to use for cooking and they are left on the vine to protect the grapes. Once picked, these lovely tender grape leaves are stuffed with a rice mixture, sometimes containing minced meat, and cooked for around 2 hours – the result, as we say here in Jordan is … lazeeza! Delicious!
I first ate diwali as a teenager in Greece. Known there as dolmades, they were often served cold as part of a mezze platter. I don’t remember disliking them, but they certainly weren’t something that particularly stood out for me. Little did I know then, just how important stuffed grape leaves would be in my life. They have now become one of my favourite Jordanian dishes. I love the whole process of joining with other family members, going to the olive grove, picking the leaves, rolling them and then experiencing the final joy of eating them with my family. It’s a perfect example of the beauty of being part of a Jordanian community.
I have been eating diwali since the first time I came to Petra, in 2005. Having been in the UK for 5 years, it was only in 2015 that I had the chance to head into the valley and pick my own leaves. I admit – I was clueless that it was grape leaf harvesting time until my mother-in-law called me, instructed me to get ready and bring a bag! We were heading to the olive grove! Members of the family take it in turns to go and pick their share – and I was definitely excited to finally get my turn.
The Olive Grove
The main olive grove for my father-in-law is situated not far from our house just across the valley. The valley is the home to numerous other olive groves, chickens, goats and horses and is one of my favourite places in the community. The trees are around 60 years old and surrounding the grove are pomegranates, apricots and grape vines. A ten-minute walk down a path that follows traditional irrigation systems and farmland brings you to my father-in-law’s land. It’s a path all of my husband’s family have been taking since they were young, to take turns watering the trees, sometimes in the dead of night or to participate in the yearly olive harvest.
Picking the Leaves
To my relief there is not much knowledge needed to pick the right leaf – although everybody has a slightly different preference to the size of leaves they pick. Personally I prefer a little larger; they are slightly less fiddly and time consuming to roll – only slightly! As a basic rule of thumb, the leaves shouldn’t be too dark or yellow and you shouldn’t pick too many around the fruit itself.
After our bags were full and the sun began to sink behind the mountains, we were joined by a sister-in-law and her daughters. In true Jordanian style, she bought with her supplies for making fire tea, freshly baked cake and juice. We enjoyed the rest of our time watching the sunset, chatting and sipping tea.
Rolling diwali is very time consuming (but well worth it!). Its unusual to pick your leaves and cook them the same day. Even rolling the leaves from previous harvests needs planning! It’s usually a task that is shared to make the time go quicker and is quite the social occasion. People gather, talk, laugh and roll!
My first experience rolling diwali was a little scary – the women here make it look so easy and as the newbie in the family (and the foreigner!) I wanted to get it just right. Thankfully my husband’s family were very patient and encouraging – I’m still nowhere near as professional as my in-laws but it’s a process I still enjoy and (hopefully) will keep improving on.
There’s no recipe!
Frustratingly for me, Jordanians seldom use recipes – they have a special touch in the kitchen that means they just seem to know and feel how much of everything to throw in. When I first began to cook Jordanian food I would often ask my in-laws how to make it. Without fail they would provide me with ingredients and the method but the quantities – well, they were always a guessing game. The result – when I replicate a meal is that it never tastes as good, or it may work one time and be a total flop the next!
For my sanity (and my husbands stomach!) one of the projects of A Piece of Jordan is to collect recipes from the wonderful cooks in our lives. Our vision is to turn these amazing recipes into a book.
Go on, have a go!
If you are someone who cooks by instinct like my in-laws or, like me, don’t mind having a go – the stuffing is prepared by mixing rice, onion, parsley, diced tomato, mint, curry powder and mince meat (although it’s often done without) in a bowl.
The grape leaves are boiled just enough for them to change colour slightly so they are softer to roll. The bottom of the pot is often stuffed with chicken and vegetables, which creates a beautiful stock to cook the leaves in. Once the leaves are rolled they are packed as tightly as possible into the pot – this is to ensure no rice escapes! They are then covered with water, stock, a little vegetable oil and lemon and left to cook slowly on the stove top. Diwali takes around 2 hours to cook but can be done in a pressure cooker in an hour.
Massive thank you to my sister in law Amneh for the pictures – Amneh has cooked stuffed white marrow and small aubergine with her Diwali – Zaaki (tasty)
Diwali it is not something that you eat alone – having said that, no meal in Jordan is eaten alone! Extended families are close and people love to share meals. Food is an integral part of Jordanian hospitality, there is always enough for last minute guests and it is always served with love and a smile!
To experience Jordanian hospitality at its best, check out our eco experiences page