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Brotherhood of mansaf

Jordan is multicultural, but if there’s one thing that unites everybody, it’s mansaf - a rich and plentiful melange of rice, lamb and rehydrated yoghurt. Such is mansaf’s significance and popularity, it’s considered to be the national dish. Yet it has its roots in bedouin culture, and is emblematic of survival and hospitality in the most inhospitable of desert conditions.

For the nomadic tribesmen who herded their goats and camels in search of pasture and water amid the harshness of the sands, mansaf was vital. Owing to the scarcity of water, it was made with dried ingredients such as rice and hardened yoghurt called ‘jameed’, which could easily be transported by the nomads. It would be served on a large platter, and everyone would get a share, especially wayward travellers who had been invited into the bedouin tents as shelter from the unforgiving dunes. Such a gesture of hospitality in the face of hardship still defines Jordanian culture today.

Mansaf is eaten at weddings, religious festivals and other special occasions. You can try it any time at many of the traditional restaurants in downtown Amman and beyond. Whether you choose between lamb or chicken, it will be cooked with a subtle blend of ‘baharat’ spices, and the plate will be garnished beautifully with pine nuts and chopped parsley.

But to really experience the magic of mansaf, head for the desert. The bedouin traditionally eat mansaf with the right hand, keeping the left hand firmly behind the back. They dig in standing up around a large platter - but you needn’t be standing for up too long. Mansaf is a notoriously heavy dish, so where better to kick back and recover than flat-out under the timeless canopy of desert stars?

Street eats

To know a city’s street food is to know the city, and Amman is no exception. Amid the jumble of traffic-clogged lanes and hills of the old east side, the clamour of daily life is perfumed with enticing aromas. They drift from little shops huddled at the base of apartment buildings, and stalls laden with bounties of seasonal greens; carts piled high with breads and nuts, and holes in the wall dispensing fresh juice with myriad health benefits.

From the crowded souqs stretching back from Al Husseini mosque, to the warren of narrow streets that wind through the Downtown area, food punctuates the rhythm of Ammani life. If the desert is the home of bedouin cuisine, then the streets give rise to a rich array of pan-Arabian treats, with influences from Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq.

Tables spill out into dead-end alleyways, where creamy hummus, felafel sandwiches and bowls of steaming ful medammes (stewed fava beans) are relished. Crowds descend on shawarma dens, where wraps of grilled chicken and lamb are slathered in tahini (sesame seed) sauce. People meet on street corners to sip juice freshly squeezed from bundles of sugar cane outside cramped kiosks.

And since no meal in Amman is complete without something sweet and sticky to finish, clusters of pastry shops send sugar addicts onto the pavements, excitedly clutching their wares in paper bags. Baklava pastries of every shape are eaten on the go. The sugar-syrup drenched kunafe - soft cheese with a crumbly orange semolina crust - can present more of a challenge for the casual street eater. But this is social eating laid bare - man or woman, rich or poor, nobody will mind if you drip a little sugar syrup on your clothes.

Hospitality

Unearthing zarb

An apricot sun sinks behind the rugged peaks, casting long shadows across the rippled sands. Sparks dance in the air above a campfire as cooking aromas drift on the gentle breeze. Miles from the nearest town or road, there is complete silence, but for the crackle of burning wood and the excited murmur of assembled guests. They are waiting for the bedouin to unearth one of Jordan’s greatest edible treasures - zarb.

As ancient and traditional cooking practices go, the zarb is perhaps the most dramatic. It consists of lamb or chicken, sometimes herbs and vegetables, which have been buried in an oven with hot coals beneath the desert sands. When it’s time for the meat to resurface, the sand is brushed away, the lid comes off, and the glorious slow-roasted fragrances billow into the air.

For centuries the bedouin have been cooking like this throughout the Arabian peninsula. When tribesmen roamed across the desert in search of water and pasture for their animals, they kept their cooking equipment to the bare minimum. An earth oven could be dug quickly, and hot embers and stones from the campfire could be placed inside. The meat would be wrapped in palm leaves, and a mound of sand would seal in the heat.

Eat zarb with the bedouin in Wadi Rum today, and you’ll see that only a few things have changed. The meat is still cooked underground, but often in an iron pot with a heavy lid that gets covered with sand. The meat may be wrapped in foil rather than palm leaves, but the lamb falls off the bone just as would have hundreds of years ago. And the glittering jewel-box of stars above shines just as brightly as ever.

Rasoun lunch

In a small house, in a very friendly village in the city of Ajloun, sitting with a woman who has set up a table in the middle of her living room, getting ready to teach her guests how to make all the wonderful foods there are to make in Jordan. You must roll up your sleeves, because you get to help! This village is filled with a variety of greens and vegetables, so of course the first meal you learn how to make is one that even some Jordanians don’t know about; cha’acheel. Alongside this strangely wonderful dish, she teaches you how to make mojadara, sabanekh, freekeh soup and motabbal.

The best thing about this experience is that you enjoy this meal with her and her family. There is no better way to truly understand and learn about the hospitality, traditions and culture of Jordan other than this beautiful family environment.

Holy olives

Jordan embraces the oldest olive trees dating back to the time of Jesus Christ. For 6000 years, olive oil has been used for food, medicine and beauty treatments as part of local cultural customs.

But, what makes Jordanian olive oil so different? Geographically speaking, Jordan’s environment gives its olives a well balanced chemical and sensual taste, which makes it a perfect addition to so many otherwise ordinary dishes. You can sprinkle some olive oil to your salad, blend it in with Hummus, Labaneh, or keep it simple by dipping your lovely peace of pita bread in a bowl of fruity, delicious olive oil. Let’s not forget the health benefits, with a high percentage of vitamin E and antioxidants, you can delay the ageing process and revitalize your heart.

You can’t have manakeesh without olive oil. Manakeesh is one of the simplest wonders this region has to offer. Simple dough, sprinkled with some olive oil and some white cheese, or za’atar.

The sugar rush

We admit it - Jordanians have a sweet tooth. In fact, it would be unthinkable to end a meal in Jordan without some kind of syrupy dessert. It's ingrained in the national psyche, but to find out why, you have to go back in time.

It may have been the natural sugar in dates that gave the ancient Bedouins a taste for all things sweet? But it was the spread of the Ottoman Empire - and Ottoman tastes - that really started the sugar rush in the Levant.

At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, the chefs of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul found ever more ingenious ways to combine paper-thin phyllo pastry, sugar syrup, nuts and dried fruit to make baklava. The sweets were distributed throughout the empire, but each region had its own interpretation, from Palestine and Syria, to Lebanon and Iraq. Since today's Jordan is a mix of cultures, the sheer variety of sweets available is nothing short of staggering.

Peek through a sweetshop window and you'll see mountains of baklava beautifully arranged on steel platters. Diamond-shaped pastries and 'burma' rolls; tiny vermicelli bird's nests stuffed with roasted pistachio and drizzled with syrup. Huge orange disks of knafeh are sprinkled with rosewater before being sliced up and packed to go with 'warbat bil ishta' pastries filled with clotted cream.

There are hundreds of varieties of traditional Levantine sweets. But in Jordan, that's not enough. You'll also find French pastries and Italian desserts, Japanese wasabi ice cream and American pie. No matter where it's from, if it's sweet, it's good to eat in Jordan.

Get a date

Walking in between the 15000 palm trees, around the desert areas of Jordan, you would never think that such sweet, succulent fruits would exist around this desert climate. The varieties of dates are endless, from blonde ones, to dark ones, to the almighty Majdool date, which is also considered the king of all dates. The diversity in which you can enjoy this fruit is endless! You can add it to salads, stuff it with almonds, walnuts, dried fruit and you can dip it in chocolate! Even if you have it by itself, it will not disappoint.

Love Affair with Jordanian Food

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Zikra initiative

Imagine you are coming to a country without knowing any of the cultural traditions and practices. Zikra initiative is an exchange program bridging communities together through exchanging resources and skills leaving you with a positive Zikra (memory) of Jordan, where you can learn all about these cultures and traditions through many programs, one of which is learning how to make Galayet bandora.

Galayet bandora is one of many things you learn to make, from picking and harvesting the tomatoes, to cooking them and making the beautifully thin shrak bread to go with it. This is the best way to learn not just about how Jordan uses spices, tomatoes and food in general, but why Jordan is very well known for its hospitality.

Eating with locals

A great example of this hospitality is found in many areas such as Ajloun, where you are invited to share a meal with locals who are more than happy to provide you with stories and share the local customs and culture whilst enjoying wonderful, local homemade food.

No Jordanian meal is complete without a cup of Turkish coffee or Arabic coffee with hints of cardamom that will help you digest the large variety of food that was made especially for you. It’s customary in Jordan to be presented with numerous cups of coffee or tea when you are visiting a family, or even if you are visiting a shop!

Let's Drool Over Some Jordanian Food

Every meal in Jordan can turn into a multi-course feast where several different small dishes are served for a combination of flavors. Read through as Andrea, a travel blogger from inspiringtravellers.com, details her experience with staples of the Jordanian diet’s every meal and explains their basic ingredients and components.

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Appetizers

Arayes: Arabic bread stuffed with minced meat, tomatoes, onions, garlic, lemon, chilli sauce, topped with olive oil and then grilled in the oven.

Baba Ghanoush: Mashed grilled aubergines mixed in with diced tomato cubes and capsicum cubes with chopped parsley, thinly diced onion cubes, pomegranate molasses, salt and lemon juice and garnished with pomegranates.

Falahiyyeh Salad: A salad with history, created by farmer’s (farmer’s salads) a long time ago consisting of tomatoes, onions, garlic olive oil and lemon.

Fattet hummus: Hummus with pieces of pita bread, tahini and yoghurt, often mixed with pine nuts and almonds.

Fattoush: A regular salad with a secret mix of ingredients (the secret is in the fried pita bread, sumac, and verve).

Freekeh soup: smoked green wheat, cooked in chicken broth, onions and small pieces of chicken.

Foul: Dried fava beans cooked and mashed with olive oil, lemon, chilli and tomatoes.

Galayet bandoura: Translates to tomato in a pan. It is diced tomatoes, onions, garlic sprinkled with a mix of herbs and spices and cooked with olive oil.

Kubbeh: For meat lovers! This is a ball of bulgar mixed with meat and stuffed with minced meat, pine nuts, onions and sumac.

Labaneh: Pasteurized yoghurt.

Lentil soup: Pureed lentils, often cooked with other pureed carrots, potatoes and onions with cumin, salt and pepper. (Best served with a twist of lemon and fried bread).

Magali: A dish of a variety of vegetables (cauliflower, zucchini and eggplants) fried with olive oil and sprinkled with lots of sumac.

Msabbaha: Regular pureed hummus with pieces of chickpeas, tahini, lemon and drizzled with olive oil.

Motabbal: A puree like mix of roasted aubergines with tahini paste, olive oil and lemon juice.

Sabanekh: It translates to spinach, but is often referred to as pastries stuffed with a mixture of onions, sumac and spinach leaves and lemon juice.

Sfeeha: A bread like pastry moulded into circles and topped with minced meat, tomatoes, pine nuts, lemon, tahini, garlic, onions and drizzled with pomegranate molasses.

Yalangee: Grape leaves stuffed with rice, rolled into little fingers and cooked with lemon juice, olive oil and potatoes.

Za’tar: Similar to sabanekh, but translates to thyme, it is a pastry stuffed with a mixture of thyme leaves and white cheese.

Main Meals

Cha’acheel: A local dish found only around the Rasoun area in Ajloun made of green leaves called loof with anti-cancer properties. The loof is sautéed with onions and made into balls by adding flour and eggs. It is then cooked with a yoghurt sauce called labaniyyeh.

Kofta: Minced beef or lamb ground with spices and onions and grilled to perfection.

Mjadarra: A rice dish, cooked with lentils, onions and cumin, topped with caramelized onions.

Msakhan: traditional taboun bread soaked in olive oil, and then topped with caramelized onions, sumac and pine nuts served with roasted chicken.

Oozy: A rice dish, cooked with minced meat and a variety of spices, topped with carrots, peas, nuts and grilled chicken.

Sayyadieh: Rice cooked with caramelized onions, an array of spices ranging from ginger to paprika, and topped with seared fish (grilled, baked, fried or cooked with the rice.)

Shawerma: Chicken, beef or lamb grilled on a vertical metal skewer, shredded and served in pita bread, or shrak bread and topped with tahini, pickles, tomatoes and onions.

Stuffed Lamb: A whole lamb cooked in the oven stuffed with rice, pine nuts and minced meat.

Sorar: Rice cooked with chicken or meat and peas, carrots, almonds and pine nuts, and a range of spices (cardamom, turmeric, cumin, salt and pepper) then stuffed in a thin layer of puff pastry.

Warak Dawali: Grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, and then rolled into little fingers cooked in beef stock with layers of beef cutlets and tomato slices.

Back to school

If there's a downside to Jordanian cuisine, it's having to leave it behind at the end of your trip. If you learn how it's made, however, you can take it with you wherever you go.

Cookery classes are becoming increasingly popular across Jordan, not only to pick up sumptuous recipes from all over the Levant, but also to learn more about food culture and family life in Jordan.

Sign up for sessions in cookery schools from Amman to Petra, and you'll get far more than a recipe for baba ghanoush. You'll get to see how a Jordanian kitchen works, and the part it plays at the heart of every home. Families often sit down to a big meal during the day, where all kinds of traditional dishes are shared.

Maqlooba is the famous 'upside-down' chicken and rice dish brought to Jordan from Palestine. Although the chicken, aubergines and cauliflower are at the bottom of the pan during cooking, it's flipped over onto the plate so they appear at the top. Flipping maqlooba and keeping the shape of the pan is a bit like building sandcastles. A cooking class is the best place to learn the art.

You can also learn how to roast aubergines to make the smokiest moutabel dip you've ever had. Acquire a knack for making flatbread puff up like a little hot balloon. And learn the secret of making kunafe that's so sticky and gooey you'll still be chewing it on the plane home.

That's not to say every cookery class student is a traveller visiting Jordan on vacation. You're just as likely to meet Jordanians keen on brushing up their mansaf skills as tourists. So it's an excellent opportunity to make friends as well as great Jordanian food.

Desserts

Baklava: a rich, sweet pastry made out of puff pastry, filled with pistachios and drenched in sweet honey or syrup.

Knafeh: A sweet pastry soaked in rose-water syrup, made with layers of shredded dough on top of akkawi cheese and fresh cream, topped with a sprinkle of pistachio nuts.

Ma’moul: Samolina pastry mixed with milk, shortening and butter, filled with dates, pistachios or walnuts.

Um Ali: A type of bread pudding cooked with raisins, dates, nuts, rose water, milk and heavy cream.

Herbs

Sumac: Ground auburn-red berry with a slightly acidic flavour.

Za’atar: ground thyme mixed with sesame seeds, sumac and salt.

Beverages

Tea: Sweet mint tea.

Arabic coffee: An aromatic blend of coffee made with ground cardamom, it is rich and often made sweet.

A Vegetarian Survival Guide, Jordan-Style

Worried that you will not be able to find vegetarian food while traveling? That won’t be a problem for you in Jordan as our cuisine offers an array of different vegetarian dishes ranging from appetizers, soups and main dishes to satisfy every appetite. Don’t take it from us though, here’s vegetarian travel blogger Shannon’s food experience in Jordan: http://alittleadrift.com/2011/07/vegetarian-travel-jordan/
 

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