Secret Ingredients

Turkish Coffee

Mama tilts the cup to the side, rolls it around, examines each line, dot, drop. They look like black, crusty Jackson Pollock paintings. She doesn’t take it too seriously.

“Ah, habibti, it’s a man in a hat. You’ll meet him soon, and he will be very important to you,” she says to my friend Danielle.

I ask my mom to read my cup next, and she shakes her head, says no because I actually believe in it.

She says, “We’re Christians. We don’t believe in this stuff,” as she peers into the cup.

She doesn’t trust that my faith is strong enough and worries about my intrigue with the unknown. She’s suspicious of my love of astrology, tarot, and ghosts. Once, in eighth grade, she discovered that my friends and I bought a Ouija board, and she stormed into my room in the middle of the night to find it. She took it to her room and covered it with two bibles.

When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor –the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.

“You’ve cursed this house! You’ve cursed this family!” she shouted.

More than suspicious, she prays for my soul daily. Mama just does it for fun. Everyone in Jordan does it—a party trick. They believe it’s forbidden, harram, but they’ll excuse it for its lightheartedness. Something the girls do when they come over in the morning for coffee, where they’ll serve it with something sweet, a date cookie, perhaps fruit too. This man in a hat turns out to be Danielle’s first fiancé.

*     *     *

I believe it because my cousin Christine’s aunt says she does it for fun but really doesn’t. Seven years ago, she read Christine’s mom’s cup and predicted that Christine’s mom would get sick, Christine would find love, and there would be two deaths in the family; one an older man, and one would be a young girl. That year, Christine’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Christine fell in love with a man who’d cheat on her two years into their relationship. He would later become a born-again Christian and meet his wife in church. It was also the year Dounia died. She was eight. George and I were the last ones to leave her grave; we just stared as they dumped gravel on the small, white, casket, while her mother kept praying for her daughter to find peace.

Allah yerhamek, Mama,” she said, until all you could see was dirt.

I can’t remember the old man.

*     *     *

My cousin Riham and I visit a psychic named Um Ahmad during my last visit to Jordan. Um Ahmad meaning “mother of Ahmad,” her first-born son. All mothers go by the name of their first-born son, unless, of course, they have no son at all. We drive to the outer edges of Amman. Riham’s mom’s friend gives Aunty directions and raves about how accurate Um Ahmad is and how she’s been seeing her for over a year now. She predicted her new job, and if all goes according to plan, this year (this very year) will be when she meets her future husband. She’s just had her lips done and they’re swollen and bruised. Riham and I can’t stop giggling at her. When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor—the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.

“If she’s so good, why can’t she afford a better place?” my brother whispers.

I tell him that sometimes the gift is the price. She uses the masbahah to focus, moving the beads one and then two at a time with her thumb, and prays to Muhammad. She tells my brother, Aunty, and her friend to drink their coffee and she’ll read it afterwards. They all decline. They don’t trust the cleanliness of the cup.

*     *     *

Orange Blossom

Anytime I had a stomach ache, I’d be doubled over in a praying position because it was the only position that would alleviate the pain. I’d moan and wail in fits of seven-year-old theatrics. My mom humored me and allowed me to be dramatic, babying me all the way through with back rubs and sympathetic “I know, habibti.” Eventually, she would bring the orange blossom water, the mazahir, and pour a tablespoon.

“Drink this, and you’ll feel better,” she’d coo.

I’d slurp the spoonful and within twenty minutes I’d be in the toilet (or the sink, or the trash, or on the floor, or the wall, once even on the ceiling) throwing up everything.

Teary-eyed, I’d shout, “I’m never listening to you again!”

Even though I knew what was to come, I didn’t actually stop listening to her about the mazahir until years later.

Habibti, now that you threw up, you’re going to feel so much better. Just wait, shoofee.”

I did always feel better. But, even now, I always associate the smell with sweaty pajamas and vomit.

*     *     *

My friend is Palestinian, and she said instead of the orange blossom water, her dad would rub arak on her stomach. Arak is a powerful Levantine stronger-than-vodka-proof alcohol that smells like licorice. Just the smell would be enough to elicit the same reaction the orange blossom did. I can bet this is exactly why it was so effective. My grandfather liked to have some to sip on when there was company over, or when he ate fish. The elders of the family especially enjoyed it on Easter. At church, everyone would break their Lent fast after liturgy with meat, chocolate, pies, cigarettes, booze, or anything else they abstained from for God. He also loved whiskey. Sometimes when we went out in Jordan, he’d bring a flask. He’d call it his “honey.” We visited Um Qais, the lake where Jesus walked on water, and Jido would sip from his flask, and say, “Thanks, Jesus, for honey! I can walk on water too!”

He also took it with him when we went on picnics. Occasionally, my brother, mom, aunt, grandparents, and my dad, if he happened to be in Jordan at the time, would drive and hike up the mountains for a picnic. Teta made black tea in a kettle over the fire, while Jido drank his “honey.” During one of our picnics, another boy, most likely a poor orphan, was also wandering the mountains. He began to sing an old folk song in Arabic. I didn’t know what his words meant, but his voice was velvety and rich with nostalgia. My grandfather’s eyes watered.

“Don’t stop, young one. Keep going,” he urged.

Jido wept. Velvet voice? No. The boy’s voice was honey.

*     *    *


It grew like weeds, straight through the cracks in our patio, right at the door. It was our own personal jungle of mint in our backyard. On summer nights, we’d invite my mom’s sister and my cousins, who lived next door, for tea. We would turn on the Christmas lights we’d draped around the patio and gather outside while we played Umm Kalthoum. Umm Kalthoum was an iconic Egyptian singer whose songs would famously last an hour each. My uncle told us that when she was having a concert, the shops would close early, and everyone would go home to watch her perform on TV. Umm Kalthoum was reserved for the night time, while Fairouz’s voice was one to rise to. My mom would have me pluck the mint for the tea that we all enjoyed outside. It was our way of replicating Jordanian nights in the Midwest.

*     *     *

Teta had mint leaves growing in her yard too. And parsley, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, mloukheya, oregano, boysenberries, pears, lemons, and a whole collection of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. She had a green thumb unlike any other. For her, life was about nature, herself, and God. My grandmother’s faith was strong enough to refuse locking her doors for four decades. People say I resemble her in the way that we act boldly and abruptly with the unwavering belief that God favors us. We would make tea and sit at the table with the deep purple table cloth, beneath the tree in her front yard. During the spring and summer months, she would close her eyes and enjoy the breeze as she held the cup to her lips.

I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken was dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days.

When I told her I’d met a boy I really liked, she said, “Mmm, be careful. All men in the military have hepatitis.”

And that was that. She had been widowed over forty years. Teta tells me that after Jido died, she ran the grocery store/butchery alone. A man would come every so often to buy cigarettes and asked my uncle if he could take my grandma on a date.

“Ask her yourself,” my uncle responded.

Teta told the man to bring her a bible, which he did on his following visit to the store.

“Let me keep this for a couple days,” she told him.

The next time he came, she had his bible ready for him. She highlighted some verses for him and denied him a date. She asked him not to ask again, and to shop elsewhere.

“A few months later, he came back. He said that he was a recovering alcoholic and the verses inspired him to stop drinking. He said I was a good woman. Then I never saw him again,” she says solemnly.

Teta came to America with nothing, yet she did everything. She sipped her tea. Teta didn’t need anyone but God.

*     *     *


Jido, my grandfather, would always get my brother and I apricots and chocolate and strawberry milk on his way back from work in Irbid. We’d visit Jordan some summers and he always made sure to have them stashed for us.

“Did you see the mish mish and haleeb? Make sure you finish it, so I can get more for you tomorrow,” he’d say.

We’d drink the milk through the straw and inhale it in forty seconds, then we’d split the apricots in half, throw away the seeds, and devour them.

Teta told us we could plant the seeds in the backyard.

“Bring everything outside. Let’s sit on the veranda,” she said.

In the back was a cement path with rose bushes and flowers on either side, and beyond the gate was a dust road that resembled nothing of the small desert paradise within their yard. We’d migrate beneath the grape leaves, and the grapes hanging would always be too tart and sour. I never had a ripe one any summer I went.

*     *     *

In Indiana, I’d sit outside on summer mornings where I didn’t have to go to work until the afternoon. The sun wouldn’t be as hot yet, and there was refuge beneath the leaves of the tree in the backyard. I’d make a cup of Nescafé, and bring a fresh plate of fruit with me, as I read Women Who Run with the Wolves and journaled. My brother might come down before I had to get ready for work to tan. I was with him in Barcelona when we had an apricot stuffed with cheese (Was it Manchego?) and honey. Revolutionary. He loved not living in Indiana. He even loved his host family more. I can’t remember a time when my brother has told me he loves me first. I know he does though because I got lost at the movie theater when we were kids seeing Madagascar for the second time. I moved to the front of the theater and, eventually, I turned around and saw the empty row my family was sitting in and then I headed towards the exit. When I opened the door, my brother was there with an employee, his face red and contorted, “Nicole, where were you? Mama called the police!” he cried.

He moved to California a couple years later during his gap year after college; all he does now is tan, work at Ross, and hurt my parents’ feelings.

*     *     *


Teta sends Baba home with a box of garlic, and when I visit her the next day, I see there are still two other baskets filled with garlic. I comment on how much she has.

“I know. I’m planning to start growing them. I just peeled some and gave it to your dad.”

She serves me a cup of cinnamon tea with walnuts, as I sit in the fluffy chair next to her usual spot. The chair looks out of place, but then again, so does much of her decor that she buys from Goodwill. I tell her about having to go to court in Chicago for driving with an expired license plate and not having my proof of insurance. She asks who I went to Chicago with when I got in trouble, and I tell her I went to a show with my boyfriend Rico. She turns it into a sermon about how one decision can change your life forever. She alludes to my dad’s estranged first daughter. She never says it. I let her talk.

“Thank you for telling me things. It means so much to me. Don’t stop. I only say things because I love you,” she says.

“If I didn’t tell you, I’d be putting a Band-Aid on an injury, and it would be infected. My words are the rubbing alcohol that stings but cleans.”

She begins talking about her fraudulent lawyers and everyone else who’s out to swindle her. One of her tenants called the cops on her for pushing his daughter, but I pretend I don’t know. I let her talk and explain the soap opera she’s watching. There’s always someone out to get my grandmother.

*     *     *

I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken is dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days. My mom and my grandmas are all excellent cooks, and they all somehow instinctively know how much seasoning to put in. They never use measuring cups as if it’s God that tells them when to cool it with the cardamom.

My mom is listening to Joel Osteen as she cooks. We were all baptized Orthodox, but we stopped going to the church that all the other Christian Arabs go to when I was still a kid. We quit it because my parents felt it was too much about the ritual of faith rather than the god of the faith. I agree, but I also hate Joel Osteen. I’m watching her, and she tells me to grab the garlic from the pantry.

“Put it in Tupperware and shake it,” she instructs me.

I shake it like a maraca, and it peels itself. My dad gets home from work and he’s already eaten. Junk. His diabetes is through the roof. Teta blames my mom, as if it’s just my dad, and not all her kids who have it. Mama warns me to marry someone who loves me more than he loves his mother.

*     *     *


Whenever a baby has their first teething, Arabs throw a huge party and invite everyone over. This gathering is called the Snowneeya, meant to celebrate that first tooth, and everyone gathers to eat berbara. It has a consistency almost like pudding and is made with spices like anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and it is topped with things like coconut, walnuts, and candy-coated fennel seeds, then more cinnamon on the top. When the first boy is born, there’s another huge party to celebrate that the family now has someone to carry the name. Not just the last name. Every child would carry their dad’s first name as their middle name, so you could trace their lineage to the very beginning through the name of the father, just like when the Bible introduces Jesus for the first time. Yes, boys are a big deal.

*     *     *

A dash of cinnamon goes into nearly every dish. Nutmeg and allspice too. I ask my mom what they season the meat in grape leaves with.

Arabic spices,” she answers.

“That’s vague, can you be more specific?”

She buys the seasoning pre-made in Jordan, or my grandma sends it with my grandpa or my aunt when they visit us in America from overseas. I went with her to the spice shop in Jordan once, where it smelled of cloves and was lined with wooden barrels filled with nuts and a museum of spices that encompassed every color of the color wheel.

My cousins and I help roll the grape leaves. There’s a technique to it, and I don’t nail it until I’m almost out of grape leaves to roll. My uncle tells us how he’s so proud of us and snaps a picture to send to the family group chat. That’s one of the only times my dad says it too—as I’m learning how to cook. He glows.

Habibet albi! Love of my heart! Learning how to cook!” he says.

He sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and he beams.

When I first got my period, my mom made a big deal out of it. She sent me with my older cousin, and we got our nails done and went to dinner. She sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and she beams. My dad looks disappointed. He’s afraid of what happens when a girl grows into her womanhood. But are either of these things what make me a woman?

*     *     *


Roses and oud. Staples of every perfume I’ve smelled between my aunts, my mom, and my grandmother. My grandmother is more of a rose and jasmine type of woman. I feel like a stereotypical Arab woman when I wear some fragrances and I chock it up to something in our chemistry. Maybe something that reminds us of home. Perhaps the pink roses in my grandmothers’ gardens. Both of them. My mother’s pashminas smell of rose and their soft smell lingers on them through the winter. It is my favorite perfume, and when I wear her scarf, my boyfriend says it smells like me. I must be my mother’s daughter.

*     *     *

Knafeh, warbat, awamat, qatayif—all sweets that wouldn’t be sweet without either a drizzle or a drowning of rose water syrup. We rarely have sweets at the house because they take too long to make and because my father is diabetic with no self-control. When I visit Detroit with Rico, my mother sends me a grocery list and a hefty request of items from the famous Middle Eastern bakery in Dearborn, Shatila. Rico waits in the car while I go inside. The place is buzzing with people; it reminds me of Wall Street, the way everyone is lined at the cases of sweets and shouting what they want at the employees. Another customer, about the age of my father, asks me where I’m from in Arabic, and introduces himself; I forget his name. He asks about my tattoo that’s written in Arabic script. He lives in either Columbus or near Chicago and asks where I live.

“I am always there to help if you ever need anything,” he says to me.

Sometimes Arabs are especially nice to other Arabs. He doesn’t talk to anyone else inside the bakery except his son and the employee taking his order. My midriff is showing, amidst women dressed conservatively. I doubt it’s because we’re both Arab.

*     *     *

My maternal grandmother is a beauty queen. She’s barely aged and hasn’t seen the sun in over thirty years. She’s the type to carry around an umbrella to block the sun and wear floppy hats, but I suspect the expensive eye creams that line her vanity help. She is much different than my dad’s mom, who was raised humbly in a small village in Jordan. That Teta talks to herself, doesn’t wear shoes, and hasn’t slept in a bed since the eighties. This Teta is a diva who wanted to major in English and always keeps a coral lipstick handy. Teta tells me that rose oil is good for my skin, and luckily, I can afford rose oil. At home, I boil the rosebuds in water, and put them in a mesh holder as if I were making a tea. I strain and refrigerate it—add it to the beauty regiment as a toner and use rosehip oil as my moisturizer. I’ll learn how to age gracefully like my grandmother, but I’ll never insist on dodging the sun. I let the oil seep into my skin, while I read Rumi. He writes, “What was said to the rose to make it open was said here in my heart.” I open. I write this. I write without a responsibility to anyone but myself and God. I create, and I see this as my growing into my womanhood. Somehow, it feels lighter.


Special Guest Judge, Terry Wolverton:

“Secret Ingredients” uses an inventive structure to explore themes of culture, diaspora, family and gender expectations. By focusing on traditional foods, the author brings us into the intimate customs and rituals of this Jordanian family living in the U.S., what is preserved of the homeland and what shifts, morphs, or is left behind altogether. The essayist makes her larger points without ever growing didactic; rather, she allows the reader to discover them in the tastes and smells, the activities within the family kitchen.

—Terry Wolverton is author of eleven books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including Embers, a novel in poems, and Insurgent Muse: art and life at the Woman’s Building, a memoir. Her most recent poetry collection is Ruin Porn. She has edited fourteen literary compilations, including the Lambda Literary Award winning His: brilliant new fiction by gay men and Hers: brilliant new fiction by lesbians. Terry also collaborated with composer David Ornette Cherry to adapt Embers as a jazz opera.
Terry has received a COLA Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles, a Fellowship in Poetry from the California Arts Council, and the Judy Grahn Award from the Publishing Triangle, among other honors. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and affiliate faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles.


Nicole Nimri is a Jordanian-American writer hailing from the Midwest. She received her bachelors in creative writing from IUPUI. This is her first published essay.