An ancient land that once housed Petra, the rose-coloured capital city of the Nabatean empire, Jordan has a cuisine that is rooted in its past. It was once part of the Roman Empire and later the Turkish Ottoman Empire, both leaving their mark on the country’s culture and cuisine
Jordan, a relatively new country, was once part of a region called the Levant or Eastern Mediterranean which includes Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Northern Turkey and Southern Iraq. While it shares many culinary raditions and customs with its neighbours, it has a cuisine uniquely its own.
Jordanian cuisine also bears the imprint of the Bedouin way of life. Camel, sheep and goat breeders, the semi-nomadic Bedouin based their cuisine on meat, milk, cheese, yoghurt, rice, wheat, dates, and samneh or ghee. Combined with the Levantine staples of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and that unique spice blend za’atar, Jordanian food is hearty and robust in flavour and in keeping with the nomadic way of life, meant to be shared.
Mansaf, a Bedouin full-bodied stew of meat and rice served on a traditional large circular platter is the national dish of Jordan. Zarb, a Bedouin dish of roasted lamb and vegetables cooked in an underground pit and whole roasted baby lambs stuffed with rice, nuts and spices speak of the Jordanian love of large meals to be shared by family and the community at large. So ingrained is their welcoming attitude and hospitality that a perfect stranger is hailed in the street with the greeting “Ahlan wa sahlan!”or “Welcome!” Jordanian hospitality is the embodiment of the Arab word karam which means generosity and includes refinement and grace. Thus in a Jordanian home, guests are warmly welcomed and spoiled for choice with the range of small dishes or mezze that are placed before them, followed by a hearty dish of rice and meat surrounded by a myriad salads, yoghurts and other accompaniments, followed by fresh fruit, sweetmeats
While large community meals are today, reserved for feasts and festivals, a typical Jordanian will have just the one main meal eaten at mid-day when the family is expected to eat together. Lunch is a large meal of a single main dish of meat and rice or bread, accompanied by many smaller bowls of salad and other side dishes, including pickled vegetables, which are a national passion, and the ubiquitous Middle Eastern mezze of hummus, falafel, warag aynab or stuffed vine leaves and moutabal or puréed eggplant.
Particular lunch favourites are athan-al shayeb or shishbarak, a pasta dish akin to ravioli, that is stuffed with ground meat and served with a sauce made with jameed or dried goat’s cheese; their version of the popular Middle Eastern mujjadara – brown or green lentils cooked with rice; kousa mahshi which is zucchini stuffed with meat and rice; or suniyat dijaj, a spiced baked chicken and potato dish. Vegetable accompaniments would include galayet bandora or tomatoes stewed with onions and spices, dishes of okra, zucchini and eggplant lightly spiced and cooked with garlic, tomatoes and olive oil.
Breakfasts in Middle-Eastern fashion comprise freshly baked flatbreads, cheese, yoghurt olives, honey and fruit. Unlike in most other Middle-Eastern countries, here tea, and not coffee is the hot beverage of choice, especially tea flavoured with sage (merramiyyeh). Dinner again is a light meal and could be just leftovers from lunch or a meat and vegetable soup such as shorabat al farik a roasted green wheat and chicken soup.
At almost every street corner in Amman you will come across stalls selling breads, snacks and cooling drinks. While kebabs and falafel are popular, Jordanians love their ara’yes, a baked minced meat filled sandwich, and quench their thirst with Limonana a chilled mint and lemon drink or Shaneeneh a chilled goat’s milk yoghurt beverage. As you walk along you will be drawn by the aromas of freshly baked breads to bakeries which sell a variety of breads and pies including the Bedouin abud which is cooked in the embers of a wood fire, shrak – wafer thin bread cooked over an upturned wok, ka’ak – the ring shaped bread covered with sesame seeds and taboon. A variety of snacks are fashioned from the breads including kubz – the Jordanian pita sometimes stuffed with meat and salads, and taboon bread wraps stuffed with falafels, meat and vegetables. Manaqish – flat bread topped with za’atar and olive oil, its cousin Sfiha which is topped with cheese and meat and Mo’ajanat, triangular pastries like samosas/sambusaks filled with spinach or minced meat are popular snacks.
When it comes to sweets and desserts, Jordan shares the same range of sugary delights as its neighbours. Baklava, halva, knafeh – syrupy cheese-stuffed pastry, hareeseh or semolina cake are served on happy occasions or after a meal with qatayef or fried stuffed pancakes served especially during Ramadan.
While garlic and herbs like sage, mint and thyme, provide the predominant flavours to Jordanian cuisine, the one ingredient that sets this cuisine apart from all its other Arab cousins is jameed – the hard, dried goat’s milk cheese which provides a sour, salty note to a dish. Jameed or ‘rock cheese’ as it is referred to, is traditionally soaked for several hours and then reconstituted into a form of yoghurt by adding water to get the right consistency for use in a dish like Mansaf. Today, liquid Jameed is available all over the Middle East. Olives and olive oil are also indispensable ingredients in Jordan’s cooking, which is not surprising as Jordan is one of the largest producers of olives in the world.
Its Bedouin and Levantine heritage makes Jordanian cuisine a microcosm of the culinary landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean region. But at the same time it has forged its individual culinary identity with dishes that are uniquely its own and a testimony to its people’s generosity and community spirit. As every Jordanian would say before a meal, sahtain!
– Rita D’Souza