Jordan, cooked to perfection
n invitation to eat in Jordan is followed by the phrase “Sahtain wa ‘Afiya”, which means “May you enjoy good health and a pleasant meal”. Hospitality plays its part at every social gathering, with good food being the cornerstone of these events. The people of Jordan love cooking and are proud of their varied – and often quite daring – gastronomy. The food is influenced by the geographical area known as the Levant, which combines dishes from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean.
The eastern aromas of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and coriander filters into every dish and reminds the diner that Jordan has been a cultural and culinary melting pot for millennia. This blend of influences spills out from the kitchens into the streets. A walk in the capital, Amman, is a culinary journey through traditional food stands offering dishes of varied origin, including Egyptian shawarma (pita bread containing chicken, lamb or beef and vegetables), spicy meats from Iraq and baklava pastries from Turkey. In Amman, don’t miss the legendary Hashem restaurant, which has been run by a Turkish family for more than 50 years. Not even the Jordanian royal family has been able to resist sampling the best falafel in the city.
The people of Jordan observe certain table manners. No one should eat anything until all the guests have arrived. Eating with hands is usual practice, but always use just the right one. And don’t forget to praise the food your hosts offer you, and thank them for it - refusing a dish is considered rude.
Fresh-mint green and tomato red are at the centre of the Jordanian dinner table, which bursts with colourful foods. You can find everything from lamb stews and exotic vegetarian dishes to exquisite seafood and fish from Aqaba, fresh from from the Red Sea. Sample it at Captain’s Restaurant. This explosion of flavours will satisfy the most demanding of foodies. Any meal in Jordan will start with a mezze. This assortment of appetisers includes khubz or pita bread, yoghurt dip, fattoush (salad with pita bread), tabbouleh, warak enab (stuffed vine leaves), hummus, baba ghanoush (aubergine purée) and falafel.
The flavours of the Jordanian desert are reflected in the national dish. Mansaf is a Bedouin lamb casserole that is accompanied by jameed sauce and served with rice or bulgur wheat. Owing to the scarcity of water, the Bedouin used to cook this dish using dry ingredients, like rice and dry yoghurt (jameed), which were easy for them to carry. Ever present at important celebrations, like weddings, births and religious festivals, mansaf is eaten according to the Bedouin ritual: the plate or dish is placed on a high table and the diners stand around it, sometimes with their left fists behind their backs. They use their right hands to scoop the rice and meat into balls. Tawaheen Al Hawa restaurant, Amman, makes delicious mansaf, with the portions enormous and the prices affordable.
Added to this daring blend of flavours is a café culture that rivals that of Europe. The people of Jordan have acquired a taste for Turkish coffee, a direct inheritance of the Bedouin tradition. These tribes would regularly use this drink as a way of honouring their guests and settling arguments. However, remember to refuse the first cup of coffee a Bedouin offers you. To do otherwise would be considered rude.
No meal ends without something sweet. The strong culinary links to Arabic and Mediterranean countries can be found in the desserts served up throughout Jordan. The most traditional is the baklava, a pastry covered with syrup or honey and stuffed with pistachio or other nuts or dried fruit. There is also kanafeh, a rich Levantine dessert, made of soft cheese on a crunchy base with sweet syrup. So, remember to leave room for dessert, because a Jordanian invitation to dine means that you are to “bring nothing and eat everything”.