While Lebanon sits comfortably on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, with snow-capped mountain ranges running through the heart of the country, Jordan on the other hand is a mostly arid land with the vast Arabian desert occupying up to 75% of the kingdom’s total area. The peoples of the Levant (a region that is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine) share a lot of similar cuisines, but different geographical conditions like this play a huge role in creating variations of dishes from one country to the other.
You might remember Bethany from my previous post, a cookbook author and an expert on Lebanese cuisine who was also our guide in exploring Beirut’s diverse culinary scene, who told us that the za’atar in Jordan is even better than the kind made in Lebanon. That was among the reasons why James and I decided to go to this Middle Eastern kingdom just six months after our first visit to this part of the world. However, for our first meal in Amman, we opted for falafel and hummus instead, both of which are among the most well-known Levantine dishes that can be found across the globe. From our hotel in the eastern part of the Jordanian capital, we walked to Hashem, probably the most famous place in town for locals and tourists alike to enjoy these fried chickpea balls. The restaurant was packed when we arrived, but fortunately we managed to get a table as a group of people had just finished their lunch not long after we came. Without a menu or anything written on the wall, we had to ask the waiter who then mentioned a few dishes to which we said yes. In just a few minutes the falafel came, followed by moutabal (roasted aubergine mixed with tahini, olive oil and sometimes yogurt) and some pita bread. This satisfying lunch was a sweet reminder of the good times we had in Lebanon exploring its culinary offerings. But when we thought Jordanian food was very similar to that of Lebanon, we couldn’t be more wrong.
Another famous falafel place in Amman is called Al Quds. But there’s a second Al Quds where you can sample a wide variety of Jordanian and Palestinian dishes, and it was at the latter where we were truly introduced to specialties that are uniquely Jordanian. Al Quds itself is the Arabic name for Jerusalem, a city that is at the heart of a lot of animosities among neighbors in this region. Many Palestinians who once lived in the West Bank (at one point was administered by Jordan, then occupied by Israel, before being granted self-rule under the Palestinian Authority, although in reality many parts of it are still under Israeli control) fled their homes, seeking refuge across the Jordan River and resettling in the kingdom. And as in every refugee story across the globe, these people also brought their culinary traditions with them to their new home, which is why it’s quite easy to find Palestinian food in Jordan.
We visited Al Quds multiple times during our four-day stay in Amman to try as many dishes as we could. First we had mansaf. Widely considered to be the national dish of Jordan, it describes fork-tender lamb cooked in jameed (a hard dry goat’s milk yogurt) served with rice. I’m not always a fan of savory dishes with yogurt, for the sourness of the latter can sometimes overwhelm other flavors. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this was not the case with jameed. The lamb was tender and succulent, and the jameed sauce that came with the dish added a nice layer of subtle saltiness and richness to it. Then we also had fattet hummus, a Jordanian twist on the popular dish/dip/spread that can be found throughout the Middle East. In addition to its basic components – mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, lemon juice and garlic – there’s also bread that has been completely soaked in broth before being mixed with the other ingredients. The version we had, however, had some extra toppings – meat and pine nuts – which made the dish even more satisfying. We also tried musakhan. Consisting of roasted chicken with caramelized onion, pine nuts, sumac and other spices served over taboon bread, it’s considered to be the national dish of Palestine.
For the vegetables, we tried the restaurant’s version of tabbouleh (which was less sour than what we had in Lebanon), as well as Arabic salad, a light and refreshing dish made of diced cucumbers and tomatoes, mixed with parsley and onion, then drizzled with lemon juice, salt and olive oil. For dessert we tried knafeh, thin noodle-like pastry or fine semolina dough that is soaked in sweet syrup then layered over cheese and topped with crushed pistachio. The sweet and salty combination was so indulgent I wished I could have another serving had my stomach not been so full. Coming to Jordan just a few months after our trip to Lebanon, where we had so much good food, I tried not to set my expectations too high for Jordanian cuisine. But I was blown away by the flavors I’d had so far, and all these delicious delicacies were just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel!
One morning in Amman before we left for a half-day excursion out of the Jordanian capital, we opted to get our breakfast on the go, instead of conveniently enjoying what our hotel provided. Since the day of our arrival in the city, we had been eyeing this particular small shop that serves a wide variety of bread, including manakish, located on the same side of the street as our hotel. So this time we decided to go there. Fortunately, it was already open while other shops were still closed. We placed our orders, got our breakfast in no time, and returned to the hotel since the bread joint had no place to sit. Inside our room we carefully unwrapped the piping hot manakish and took a bite. After a brief moment of solitude while savoring our very first taste of Jordanian za’atar, we looked at each other and nodded in agreement. Bethany was right. This was definitely more nutty and rich than the Lebanese version of the dried and toasted herb mix, and it went perfectly well with the warm flatbread.
On our penultimate night in Amman, we went to a different place which was harder to find. Shahrazad is the name of the restaurant, and we made sure to check its location on Google Maps before leaving our hotel. However, when we were at where it was supposed to be, we didn’t see any sign of it. We walked around to see if we had missed any hints, and it suddenly crossed my mind that maybe this place doesn’t have an English signboard. With my very limited Arabic, I tried to read those curvy Arabic letters around us and tried to pick up one that sounded like the name of the restaurant. After a while, we stumbled upon a narrow alley. From afar I looked at one particular signboard and tried to decipher the letters: sh-h-r-z-d. Perhaps we had finally found it! We came closer, secured a table, looked at the menu, and pointed out a dish called arayes to the server. We also ordered shish kebab out of curiosity to how this place does the ubiquitous skewered grilled meat dish. Less than 10 minutes later, our dinner arrived. The pita bread of the arayes was nice and crispy, and the lamb filling was well-seasoned. However, it was only long after that trip to Jordan that I learned the true origin of this dish: it’s actually from Lebanon. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as Levantines dishes have always been traveling around this part of the world, evolving as dictated by the availability of ingredients in each locality, and being reintroduced and reinvented over and over again.
The Jordanian food scene had been amazing so far, exceeding my own expectations especially after traveling to Lebanon. However, we couldn’t leave Amman without dining at Sufra, which is a well-known culinary institution in the city for good reason. Situated in a quiet neighborhood in West Amman – the Jordanian capital’s other side that is modern, sleek and sophisticated as opposed to the east’s more historic, chaotic and down-to-earth feel – the restaurant occupies an old villa that had been turned into an upscale venue hidden from plain sight by blooming bougainvilleas and other flowers during our visit. We were seated next to a window, then perused the menu before deciding which dishes we wanted to try. First was Jerashi labneh, a variety of labneh (strained yogurt) originating from Jerash in northern Jordan drizzled with olive oil, sesame seeds and served with chopped green peppers. Then, this was followed by gallayeh/galayet, a dish made from boiled and pureed tomatoes mixed with olive oil, salt and onions – the version we had came with a hot pepper. Next up was mnazalet beitinjan which is stewed eggplants in casserole, and lastly fattet magadem – essentially fattet with lamb trotters (magadem). This feast of Jordanian regional dishes was a further affirmation of how good the food in this country really is, and the Lebanese patrons seated behind us seemed to have the same opinion.
Our culinary exploration in the kingdom continued in Wadi Musa, a small town that serves as the main gateway to Petra, the spectacular rock-carved ancient city that is probably among the most awe-inspiring places on the planet. For our first lunch in this relatively desolate part of Jordan, we had maklouba. Literally meaning “upside down”, this dish is cooked in a pot where meat or chicken and vegetables are placed at the bottom, then topped with rice. It is then flipped upside down when served on a plate, hence its name. We went to a touristy restaurant at the center of town to try it, but surprisingly it was quite tasty as opposed to how food usually is at most places whose customers are primarily non-local visitors. Further south in Wadi Rum, the very last place in Jordan we visited in October last year, we were introduced to zarb, a Bedouin delight of meat, potatoes, and mixed vegetables cooked in an underground oven. Watching how the staff members of our campsite dug up our dinner was as interesting as tasting the meal itself. This made me curious about how other foods prepared in a similar way in many parts of the world tasted in comparison.
At the end of our week-long trip to this fascinating, mostly-arid country situated at the crossroads of many ancient trade routes, not only were our taste buds and stomachs consistently happy, but we were also pleased to know that the Levant once again showed us that it not only has impressive heritage sites, but also a great culinary scene. Shortly before boarding our flight at Queen Alia International Airport, we got ourselves a bag of za’atar to bring home to Jakarta so that we could at least enjoy a bit of Jordanian flavors at home. And as if the universe knew how much we loved the food in this kingdom, on our flight to Doha (where we would connect onward to the Indonesian capital) we were surprised to find out what we got for lunch instead of the standard in-flight meal options: maklouba. We took a spoonful of this rice dish, quietly finished it in no time, and at the end we both said to each other, “that was a really good maklouba.” It’s among the most satisfying airplane meals I’ve ever had, really. Oh Jordan, what a delicious destination you have been!