Jordanian food is built to share, making mealtimes a wonderfully social experience, full of flavour and stories for starlight. Join us on a safari through the highlights of Jordanian cuisine, with three easy Jordanian recipes to take home. And it all begins in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the oldest city in the world...
ABOUT JORDANIAN FOOD
Beit Sitti: A Cooking School in Amman
Nestled in one of Amman's oldest neighbourhoods, Jabal al Weideh, in the oldest city in the world, is the beautiful cooking school Beit Sitti.
You couldn’t ask for a better sense of atmosphere...Hidden at the top of a barely-lit staircase, the smoky orange lights of the city glimmered both in the distance and up close as we arrived. The walls inside were fresh and white, punctuated only by a mirror with borders that glittered like jewels dipped in chocolate.
We weren’t in a school, we were in a Jordanian home. Not that we had long to appreciate it.
Maria, the English-speaking of our two chefs, moves at about twice my speed and speaks at about thrice my volume despite being half my size.
She confiscates my camera, my pen and my notebook and I’m set to work. Hands washed, sleeves rolled, apron tied, knife at the ready.
She eases me in gently, by giving me an onion to chop. I relax a little. 1950s housewife I may not be, but even I can chop an onion.
“You might find it works better,” she says ten seconds later, “if you do it like this.”
She pinches one side of the halved onion and slices it swiftly until it resembles a closed accordion. She then holds that tight, turns the knife on its side and cuts parallel to the table, aiming for her palm. After enough shifts spent stitching together fingers in my former life, I can’t help but flinch at the sight.
“Here,” she sets down a glass of cloudy liquid. “Have some arak. It’s like Arabic ouzo.”
Never has a description enticed me less.
Jordanian Food After Arak
Aniseed fires along my throat and we move on to chopping parsley. Later, outside in the balmy night air, I fry pitta bread and potatoes with Ali, our driver, a timely reminder that preparing food crosses all language barriers.
Back inside, I peel smoked aubergines under the supervision of our haja.
“Haja is a term of respect for older people,” Maria explains. “People who have completed the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Haj for men, Haja for women.”
Our haja smiles, adjusts the knife so that I chop ingredients into even smaller pieces, and Maria continues talking.
“I am a 'trained chef' in that I take professional cooking classes – although most of that is about French food, but really our Haja know more about cooking than me. Cooking classes of any kind are a strange idea for that generation because the women here learned it all as they were growing up, they learned everything they needed to know about food and cooking that way, at home, as part of normal life."
So, are the meals we’re preparing (recipes below) fresh from fancy chef school or do everyday Jordanians make these meals at home?
“It’s a mixture,” says Maria, and our driver nods to agree.
“The mouttabal, fattoush and siniyet kafta people regularly make at home,” she says. “Whereas knafeh people tend to buy from bakeries for graduations... Or weddings...For special occasions.”
My hands fluff knafeh dough and ghee with squidgy satisfaction.
“We want to show people that they can make knafeh themselves - easily - at home.”
Recommended reading: 27 Ways Food and Travel Go Together (Not just for "Foodies")
Characteristics of Jordanian Food
I wash my hands and head out to the barbecue where aubergine fizzes and spits on the naked flames.
Jordanian food relies heavily on fresh ingredients, often finely chopped. It throws in a hefty dose of subtle spices I’ve since struggled to find at home: sumac, tahini and bakleh. Most meat dishes come with salads that burst with their own flavour, rather than using separate salad dressing as a crutch, and meals usually take the guise of a self-service kind of affair.
Broad ceramic dishes glazed in royal blue are set down on the table, from which everyone helps themselves.
It’s tasty and healthy, well, except for the knafeh that oozes with that kind of sweet, delicious moisture that you know can't come from polyunsaturated lipids.
It’s also surprisingly easy to make. Although I rather wish I hadn’t told you that, in case I ever invite you over for dinner.
You should always remember, though, it's good manners to look impressed.
The Jordanian Food TOP TEN
You'll find great similarities between Middle Eastern food and it's often hard to pin down which flavour belongs to which country. But does it matter? Here are some of the best things to eat in Jordan.
Mansaf arrives as a great celebratory platter, of aromatic rice, lamb, toasted nuts and paper-thin bread. It is a meal designed to share, with friends and with jameed, a tangy yoghurt sauce.
It's a traditional dish (often described as the national dish) with deep roots to the Bedouin and nomadic people of the Levant, and like much of Jordanian cuisine, you'll find similar versions from Israel to Iraq.
Ah, the beloved chick pea, smushed into a ball and fried. If you're feeling fancy, you can squish it into a pitta bread. Yet don't be put off by stodgy versions at home. Fresh falafel, spiced up with chopped mint and raw onion, is one of the best street foods you can find in Jordanian cuisine.
Another tradition that blends across the Middle East is the idea of Arabic Coffee. Roast over an open fire and served infused with cardamom, you drink it in smaller ceramic glasses. At a first tip, it tastes "thin" but the buzz is strong! It's polite for the host to take the first taste from a pot and for you to decline after three cupfuls. You decline by shaking your cup in the air.
Knafeh or Kunafa
Everywhere has them, I suppose. The naughty but nice hot streetside foods that define a city, to my tastebuds at least.In London, it's roast chestnuts, steam smoking into the winter sky while amber embers blaze. In New York, it's bagels, my first plaited bread sticks studded with cubic salt. Singapore surprised with the ice cream sandwich and in one of the oldest cities in the world, it was knafeh.
Knafeh, like the stone and sand of Amman itself, has a deliciously rich history (and flavour, but we'll come to that in a minute.)
It's claimed across the Levant (a term that broadly incorporates modern day Jordan, Israel, Syria and the Lebanon) and it's often bright orange.
It's also delirious with calories as a butter-soaked slab of cheese rolled or pressed between syrup-soaked angel hair and sprinkled with rosewater and chopped pistachios.
Piping hot, it's butteringly eye-wateringly delicious, (though the taste decays as it cools.)
Still, that doesn't matter. It's a snack to be shared on the run in the nooks and alleyways of the city as workmen and city men, veiled women and those with bouncing curls congregate for fleeting moments in the oldest city in the world (more or less.)
See, that's what I love so much about knafeh, roast chestnuts, bagels and even currywurst.
They're all flavours of great old cities that are still very much alive.
A staple of a gorgeous meze sharing platter, baba gahnoush not only has a bouncy, fun sounding name but it tastes good too. Aubergines (eggplants) are smoked on open flames, peeled and mashed to make this dip. Sometimes, chopped tomatoes or onions are added. It's often served in a small bowl with hummus and pitta (pita) bread.
It's also frequently confused with...
Mouttabel takes the start of baba ghanoush and adds in some tahini (a paste of sesame seeds, easily found in the UK these days.) You'll sometimes find it mixed with yoghurt as well, along with a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of lemon juice.
Well, we could hardly talk about middle eastern food without mentioning hummus, now could we? How can some countries take the humble chick pea and make it into something fabulous - when every time I try to do the same, it just tastes like floury glue? The secret? Fresh olive oil. And avoid tinned chick peas.
And you thought there was nothing more to say about hummus? Enter fattet hummus, a blend of chickpea puree with tahini, pita bread fragments and pine nuts. Hungry just at the thought of it.
Maqluba: Upside Down Chicken and Rice
Maqluba means "upside down" in Arabic and in the hands of an experienced chef, this dish is a delight! In the hands of, well, someone like me, it will still taste as good but probably lose something in the presentation.
Meat, rice, turmeric, cinnamon and garlic are cooked together in a pot. At serving time, the pot is flipped over to create an impressive tower on a plate.
Zaarb: A Bedouin Barbecue
The succulent mix of meat and vegetables in a Zaarb stew or platter is razzle me dazzled only more by the way it is cooked: underground.
Nomadic Bedouin people had no room for kitchens. Instead, they dug holes into the desert ground and used that as an oven instead. Zaarb takes several hours to prepare (and probably doesn't work as well in British soil) but you can find workarounds in a conventional oven too.
Making Siniyet Kafta
Disclosure: I learned about Jordanian Food at Beit Sitti thanks to the Jordan Tourism Board. All views and mediocre cooking skills remain mine, all mine.