The history of Jordan is inscribed in its cuisine. As a country, Jordan is very new, dating to 1946. As a place with its own history and culture, Jordan existed since pre-biblical times. Some of its food dates back to prehistoric times while other dishes evolved through interaction with other cultures.
Bread is the staff of life. Bronze Age Bedouin herdsmen made a simple bread called arbood or sometimes shrak. While their goats grazed nearby on the sparse desert vegetation, the herdsmen mixed flour, water and a bit of salt, kneaded it into a firm ball, and flattened it. They would then coat it with a sprinkle of dry flour and rake back a section of the campfire coals and toss the circle of dough onto the hot section of ash. They then covered it with ashes and embers. The result was a delicious crusty flat bread.
The method and recipe continued through the ages. In his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Lawrence of Arabia talks of making similar bread with his Arab companions on their campfires as they raced across Wadi Rum desert to capture the supposed impregnable seaport of Aqaba.
On a recent trip to Jordan, we visited a Bedouin camp and Um Khalid, one of the wives of the tribal elder, made this same arbood for us. We enjoyed it slathered with ghee (goat milk butter) while the goats that provided the milk romped around in front of the tent.
One of the most traditional Bedouin meals is zarb. It consists of meat and vegetables cooked in a taboon, a large, closed, metal pan buried on a bed of hot coals and covered with sand. Captain’s Camp offers authentic Bedouin experiences and is the place to go to experience this bit of tradition. You can also spend the night camped deep in Wadi Rum in a traditional goat hair tent.
Although it may sometimes feel that it does, even in the deserts of Arabia time doesn’t stand still. Before the rise of Christianity, outside influences left their mark on Jordanian food as well as its history. Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe all sought spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cassia, black pepper, and turmeric to season their food. These spices created a global economy that led to the rise of the fabled city of Petra. Spices were worth more than gold. Remember what Christopher Columbus was searching for when he “discovered” America: a shorter route to India to provide easier access to spices. Jordan’s crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa on the “Spice Route” brought rice and poultry into the local diets. Jordan can thank Columbus for the tomato which is so popular in many Jordanian dishes.
Mansaf is considered the national dish of Jordan. The recipe as it is served today developed following Jordan’s creation as a nation. Today’s mansaf evolved in the early 20th century from an earlier Bedouin recipe. It consists of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried sheep or goat milk yogurt called jameed and served with white rice. It is eaten with the traditional flat bread. In the original dish, camel meat was sometimes used and bulgar was the grain instead of rice. Rice only became popular in Jordan in the 1920s through European dishes. Bedouins traditionally didn’t use the jameed sauce then.
One of the best places to savor this dish and many other distinctly Jordanian feasts is at Sufra Restaurant on Rainbow St. in downtown Amman. The information on the menu tells the restaurant’s mission: “Sufra was born out of the idea that our unique Jordanian culture is better understood through a journey of our kitchens. At Sufra, we have carefully combined the elements and aromas of our beloved Jordanian kitchen to recreate and retell the stories of our ancestors through a culinary experience that celebrates flavor and tradition.”
Bread making here differs from the simple Bedouin way. You can watch the baker knead his dough, flatten it, and toss it against the insides of a tannour or oval shaped clay oven heated with wood or charcoal. The bread sticks to the side and browns in a few minutes. Then, the baker pulls it free and sits it on the plate to be served straight from the oven.
Today, no visit to Amman or Aqaba is complete without a stop at the souks, the traditional open markets. Here, many competing spice merchants display their merchandise. Huge open bags or baskets of spices draw your eyes and nose. The smell alone makes you salivate.
Just across the aisle you might see a vendor with open sacks of unprocessed wheat, beans, lentils, chickpeas and other staples of the Jordanian diet.
Another group of stalls display fresh produce. Radishes the size of peaches, tomatoes of many different hues, huge cabbages, shiny eggplants, dates, figs (both dried and fresh), olives, almonds (processed or raw), and more, offer an abundance of culinary delight.
When the Ottoman Empire captured Jordan in 1516, they cut off many outside nations from the spice trade. They ruled there until 1916 and added many dishes to the traditional cuisine, including sweet pastries with layers of thin phyllo dough, and very strong coffee. Coffee had already reached Jordan around the 13th century but the Turkish influence strengthened it to almost a ritual. Refusing a Bedouin offer of coffee is considered an insult. Tea arrived later with the rise of the British Empire in the 19th century and is a staple today in Jordan. Think Lawrence sitting across from Prince Faisal. Tea would be served. Today it is served well-spiced with thyme, cardamom pods, cinnamon, sometimes mint and sweetened with honey. You will be served hot, not iced, tea in almost any Jordanian home or restaurant.
A great place to sample some of these sweet treats is Habiba Sweet, an alleyway restaurant in Amman. Choose their delectable pastry known as knafeh. Don’t let the decor or location fool you. King Hussein and his family eat there.
In Petra, a visit to Petra Kitchen, across the street from the archaeological site, is a unique opportunity to learn to prepare the traditional Middle Eastern recipes that make Jordan’s cuisine so unique. It’s not a restaurant, more like an international cooking school condensed into one lesson.
The head chef and instructor, Tariq Alnawafleh, sets up the tables and shows you how to roast the eggplant and chop the onions, peppers, parsley and other vegetables used to prepare Baba Ganue, the traditional pureed roasted eggplant dish mixed with finely chopped tomato, pepper and onion and flavored with ground garlic, olive oil, lemon juice.
From lentil soup and mezzas, what we would consider salads and appetizers, through the main dish kabsah dijaj, chicken with rice prepared in one large black pot, you learn the traditions and skills needed to create a Jordanian feast. Some of the dishes such as the kabsah dijaj require a lot of care. Each ingredient has to be added just at the right time to make the magic happen. It takes a very skillful hand to be able to successfully invert the contents into the serving dish without dumping it on the table. Others such as fatoosh, a cucumber and tomato salad, and the Bedouin pizza called araies iahma are fairly simple and easily recreated at home.
Wherever you travel in Jordan, you will be offered food linked with the country’s history and traditions. It’s a culinary journey through time.
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