On the first week of May 2016, I went on a week-long trip to Jordan as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. This post is a round-up of all the delicious food I discovered in Jordan. All I’m saying is – get ready for the onslaught of food pictures because I ate non-stop in Jordan!
Before coming to Jordan, I had never heard of Za’atar. However, I soon discovered the importance of Za’atar to the middle east cuisine, as it became a significant part of my days in Jordan – It’s practically on every meal!
Za’atar is the Arabic word for Wild Thyme, a well-loved herb here in the middle east. However, what most people would refer to as Za’atar is not just Wild Thyme – instead, it’s a blend of many herbs. The most basic ingredients of a Za’atar is Wild Thyme itself mixed with Sumac, Sesame, and some salt, but different countries would have its own blend with other herbs such as Oregano and Corriander added. The taste of Za’atar is a little tangy, savory and very flavorful, making it an excellent pair for bread with olive oil.
Just how significant is Za’atar to Jordanians? I was told you can most definitely find a bag of Za’atar in every household in Jordan. Basically, Za’atar is as staple as Peanut Butter is to American household.
Kanafeh is a Levantine dessert that is very popular in Arabic countries. It is made with white cheese, topped with crunchy pastry, then drenched in sweet syrup and what I originally thought was butter but turns out to be Ghee (goat butter) and topped with crushed up pistachio and cashew. It’s very decadent. My eyes nearly popped out of its sockets when I first bit into a fresh slice of Kanafeh – it was SO good!
Mezze comes from the Persian word “to taste”. As the name might have indicated, you get to have a variety of food in one session. The dishes are small so you can eat for hours and taste everything. Similar to the concept of tapas in Spain! Here’s my post on Mezze experience in Jordan. I had to write a separate post since there are just so much to say about it.
4. Hidden Meaning behind a cup of Coffee
Coffee is an important part of the Middle Eastern culture. During my visit, we drove around a lot and made copious coffee stops. I learned about how the way you offer coffee to your guest or the way your coffee is being served has plenty of hidden meaning in Bedouin culture.
For example, it is an unspoken rule that coffee must always be served to your left, even if the most important person is sitting on your right. You must never ever serve coffee with your left hand unless you’re purposely expressing disrespect or anger. Whenever a guest comes to visit, you must be ready with a cup of hot coffee because lukewarm (or even worse, cold) coffee is considered rude.
Since Jordan was part of the Ottoman empire, it’s not surprising that Turkish Coffee is a popular choice here. Cardamom is also often added to coffee in the Middle East, which was interesting since I am used to Cardamom with tea, but adding it to coffee is a new concept for me.
In Arabic, Maqluba literally means “upside-down”. The dish gets its name from the way it is served: All ingredients are all first cooked in a large pot, then when it comes the time to serve, the pot is brought outside of the kitchen and turned upside down onto a large metal tray. The pot is then lifted, resulting in a delicious pile of rice, chicken, potatoes, and cauliflower. It is then topped with fried peanuts and fresh parsley before eaten communally with yogurt and tomato-cucumber salad. No extra plates needed! So delicious.
6. Traditional Breakfast in Jordan
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. What people eat for breakfast often also tells a lot about the culture of the place, so I am always looking forward to waking up and eating breakfast when I’m traveling to a new region.
I discovered that Jordanians eat flatbread for breakfast (something I will expand in a future post) – especially Manakish / Man’ousheh with various topping, which I call the Arabic Pizza! My favorite Manakish is the one with White Cheese and Za’atar topping.
Other breakfast items include olives, pickled eggplant, grilled Halloumi cheese, as well as more bread with orange marmalade and goat butter (which by the way, is a HEAVENLY combination).
Aside from Manakish, they would also often have Falafel, Hummus, Muttabal and Ful Medames with bread. Falafel and Hummus can be commonly found outside of middle east, but Ful (a stew of fava beans with oil and lemon) was something new for me. Again, everything is eaten by scooping it with flatbread and adding Hummus. Someone in Jordan told me Hummus is basically like ketchup to them!
This breakfast spread below is the legendary Hashem restaurant in Amman. Hashem is actually a very simple restaurant that may even qualify to be called as a street food, but it serves a feast fit for a King, literally, as the Royal Jordanian family had been spotted casually having breakfast here. I personally really enjoyed the Stuffed Falafels on the top left, which is green falafels stuffed with onions and topped with roasted sesame. And of course, the silky Hummus.
Get yourself ready for this – Zarb is a Bedouin Barbecue feast that is cooked underground for four hours. Yes, they have an oven underground!
First, the meat (chicken and lamb) is marinated with a blend of spices and placed on a tiered tray with cut vegetables. Then the tray is placed into an underground oven that has been pre-heated an hour before. The oven opening is then covered with sheets of Aluminum foil and a carpet before being buried in sand and left for four hours.
After four hours, the tray is lifted out and the meal is served. The result is the most tender, juiciest meat I have ever tasted. What’s more is that because the vegetables are cooked together in the same oven, it has absorbed plenty of flavor from the spices and meat, making them even more delicious!
Zarb has got to be my favorite meal on this trip… and that’s saying a lot since I had tons of amazing food in Jordan!!
8. Limonana / Limonada
Limonana was my drink of choice in Jordan. It’s a popular drink in the middle east, made of lemon juice and fresh mint leaves served frozen as a slushie. They call “smoothie” there but there is no dairy involved. For me, in order for something to be called a “smoothie” it has to contain creamy texture – otherwise, it’s a “slushie”. What do you think?
Anyways, Limonana is the perfect drink to cool down on a relaxing hot afternoon by the pool.
9. Shawarma Wrap
Shawarma Wrap is yet another middle eastern cuisine that is so delicious that it has been adopted all over the world.
Shawarma is made by stacking slices of meat and fat onto a vertical spit, which will rotate and grill the meat for long hours – sometimes even an entire day. Once it is ready, the meat is shaved off with a large knife and collected at the bottom of the spit, before being made into a delicious wrap with onion, fresh vegetable, and Tahini sauce.
Barazek is a Syrian crispy butter cookie covered in toasted sesame, honey, and pistachio. This cookie is very popular in the Levantine region and often eaten with coffee or tea. I brought back a tin of Barazek for my office and everyone loved it!
11. Falafel Sandwich
Falafel is a made of finely ground chickpeas and fava beans mixed with herbs, then deep-fried to perfection. It’s often served in a flatbread sandwich which is grilled on the outside, stuffed with fresh vegetables and lined with Tahini sauce. It is perfect for Vegetarians.
I had the best Falafel sandwich of my life at Al Quds in Rainbow Street in Amman. This was actually my first meal right after I landed in Jordan. I originally told Ramzi, my guide for the week, that I only wanted half a sandwich since I wasn’t feeling hungry. However, one bite into the sandwich and I was sold – I ate the entire thing in less than five minutes!
The freshly fried falafel mixed with crunchy fresh tomatoes and the savory taste of tahini was a perfect combination on its own, but add the lightly grilled bread to wrap the whole thing up and you’ve got the perfect snack.
Aside from Zarb, this may just be my second favorite meal in Jordan.
Dates is a type of sweet fruit that comes from Date Palm. The thousands of palm trees around the desert of Jordan results in great varieties of dates, from blonde to dark to the almighty Majdool date, the king of all dates.
In Jordan, you can expect to find Dates in all kinds of form – in the desserts, eaten for snacks as dried fruit (also makes for an excellent souvenir to bring home), and even as juice, which I came across in the market area of downtown Amman.
The guy selling the Date juice was just walking around on the street with a huge golden jug with ornamental flowers on his back and cup holders around his waist. Whenever there is a customer, he would simply get one of the empty plastic cups and tip his body over to pour date juice from the jug on his back. Deliciously refreshing! It tastes a little bit like grape juice to me.
13. Goat Organs
In the Middle East, Lamb, Goat, and Chicken is the choice of meat here. You rarely find beef or pork (due to religious reasons). While most of the dishes contain grilled meat of those three animals, I got to try something different in Jordan – Goat innards (intestine, tripe, and stomach) stuffed with rice and served complete with the brain and an entire skull so that you can pick off the cheeks and eyeballs.
I wasn’t going to try it at first, but I YOLO-ed and tried a few bites of the intestines and stomach. It was actually quite good! The intestines and stomach had been thoroughly cleaned, boiled and stuffed with spiced rice, so what you taste is mostly the rice. I was not brave enough to try the brain, though I have tried cow’s brain before (It’s a delicacy in Indonesia) so I imagine the taste is similar. I also did not try the eyeballs (I would never) but the cheeks were delish.
Did you know that olives were first cultivated in Jordan? The earliest evidence for the domestication of olives comes from an archaeological site in what is today modern Jordan.
Olives can’t just be eaten raw – it must be processed either into olive oil, which you can then dip bread into with Za’atar (… so good!) or pickled to remove the original bitter taste. Pickled olives are a staple in the middle east – it was served at all meals from breakfast, lunch to dinner. Olives in Jordan was seriously the best I’ve had. After that trip, I haven’t found olives as good as the ones in Jordan.
15. Green Almonds
And did you know how Almond looks like before it matured? I sure didn’t before this trip! This is Green Almond, which is in season for a brief moment in Spring in Jordan. I was lucky enough to be in Jordan at the right time (early May), and these Green almonds could be found everywhere – you just buy a few and dip it in a salt before digging in! The green almond is a bit fuzzy on the outside, with thin crunchy apple-like texture outer layer. On the inside is the same almond nut we all know and love, but in its soft, jelly-like form. If left longer on the tree, the almonds will mature, harden and turn into the brown almond we all know and love!
Up until now, everything I have mentioned are middle eastern food that can be found in Jordan, but none of them were uniquely Jordanian. Finally here’s one dish that is truly Jordanian: Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, which I had at Al Qantarah Restaurant in Petra.
This dish consists of white rice cooked with Yogurt, Lamb and then doused with more yogurt. The preparation is similar to Maqluba, but the meat is cooked separately. It’s also topped with fried peanuts and fresh parsley and eaten with fresh tomato cucumber salad. Unlike Maqluba, Mansaf does not taste heavily spiced. Instead, it focuses more on the taste of yogurt and the pure savory taste of the Lamb.
After it’s served, this dish is also eaten communally but using your own hands! This doesn’t bother me (us Indonesians use our hands to eat too) but I imagine this would freak some folks out!
And that concludes the amazing food I discovered in Jordan! Stay tuned for more as I will be writing about more food experiences, such as Meze and visiting the ancient Nabatean city in Petra.