A foodie tour offers first-time visitors to the Middle East a chance to enjoy age-old traditions and renowned hospitality in dramatic Jordan
The setting sun was painting the sandstone mountains gold, red and purple by turns when we arrived at our simple tented camp in the stark and wildly beautiful Wadi Rum. We had spent hours bouncing around the desert landscape in a Jeep, stopping frequently to scramble up wind-sculpted sand dunes, scale natural rock arches and marvel at ancient Nabataean graffiti. Now the day was turning a different kind of beautiful, and excitement was building over the prospect of a desert nightfall with some spectacular stargazing. It almost matched our anticipation for the mouthwatering dinner that would soon be served, once it had finished cooking underground.
We were in the domain, and care, of the Bedouin, whose method of cooking zarb — essentially Bedouin barbecue — has barely changed for centuries. A metal drum filled with glowing embers is lowered into a hole in the sand, followed by a two-tier tray heaped with goat’s meat and vegetables. Covered and left to slow-cook for hours, it emerges in a cloud of steam with meat that melts off the bone.
This meal was sure to be a culinary highlight of Jordan Real Food Adventure, and all of our group of 11 (the majority solo travellers) relished the feast when it arrived. Afterwards we sat by the campfire under a broad swathe of the Milky Way drinking cups of Bedouin “whisky” — tea blended with sage, cardamom and wild mint — while our hosts pointed out the constellations.
In a country famed for its monuments and dramatic landscapes, a tour focusing on Jordan’s food gave a new access point for understanding the land and its ways. At the welcome meeting in Amman our seasoned guide, Mohammed, explained that Jordan is a melting pot of cultures with a cuisine to match: national eating habits have been shaped by invaders and neighbours, from the Ottomans to the British, its Levantine neighbours, as well as the Bedouin themselves.
I had got a taste of what was to come while wandering the chaotic alleyways of Amman’s Souk el-Khodra. Stalls piled high with flat peaches and white mulberries spilt into those devoted to dates of all shapes and sizes, plump and withered, and wafts of cardamom-scented coffee drew me into Izhiman’s store, a treasure trove of fragrant herbs and spices.
‘There was a collective gasp of amazement at the rose-hued Treasury, carved into a sandstone rock face’
On our first evening together as a group we walked from our downtown hotel to the Amman institution, Hashem. The authentic dishes at this no-frills restaurant, opened in 1952, are as popular with Jordanian royalty and celebrities as with local families, and soon our outdoor table, sandwiched between two buildings, was laden with simple and delicious mezze. We ripped off hunks of khubz, the ubiquitous flatbread, to dip into olive oil-doused hummus and ful mudammas, then tucked into stuffed falafel, with with unbelievably fluffy centres wrapped in a crisp, sesame-crusted shell.
Down the road at the equally venerated, yet cupboard-sized patisserie Habibah, founded in the 1950s by two Palestinian brothers, the queue snaked round the block, everyone waiting to get their hands on some calorie-laden kanafeh, a salty cheese pastry treat drenched in sugar syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Mohammed recited the Jordanian adage: “Even when you’re full, you can still always eat 40 more bites of food.”
The next day, after stopping for a dip in the Dead Sea, we were back in the minibus and on the road to Jordan’s greatest treasure, Petra. The once-thriving Nabataean capital grew rich from the frankincense trade that stretched across Arabia, and as we entered the colossal site there was a collective gasp of amazement as the rose-hued Treasury, carved into a sandstone rock face, appeared through the Siq canyon’s narrow opening.
Away from the crowds, we followed Mohammed up 600 stairs to the High Place of Sacrifice and, stunned by the sheer scale of the ancient site, looked down on ant-sized people milling around its magnificent rock tombs and caves. These were home to the Bedouin when the city lay undiscovered by everyone else for five centuries.
The Bedouin may have swapped tents and caves for houses now, but their renowned sense of hospitality remains and, having notched up about 30,000 steps exploring Petra, that evening we left our shoes at the door when we paid a visit to a local family. The affable Amnah welcomed us into her living room to sit Bedouin-style on the floor.
This time mansaf was on the menu, the country’s national dish and the one served at every special celebration. With strong Bedouin roots, the filling dish was originally just goat’s meat and broth, but it has evolved into a rich mix of lamb cooked in jameed — dried balls of fermented goat’s milk yoghurt — spread over a bed of rice and paper-thin shrak bread, which takes hours to prepare.
Sitting round enormous communal platters, we were encouraged to eat with our right hands. Mohammed showed us how to use the rice to mop up the sauce, deftly rolling it with meat into a small ball before popping it into his mouth.
The skull of the sheep sat in the middle of the food. “If there’s no head, then your guests are not invited from the heart,” explained Amnah. “And if guests touch the head, they’re hinting that we haven’t served enough.”
The next morning Mohammed introduced us to Shuaib, an English-speaking Bedouin guide dressed in a dishdash and a red-and-white headscarf. He joined us on the drive to a rose-tinged rocky plain just north of Petra, where we were led to a tent, outside which a couple crouched beside a campfire. Shuaib made a guttural call and we were suddenly surrounded by floppy-eared goats, their loud bleats echoing across the valley as they began tugging at the tufts of green dotted across the otherwise parched landscape.
Traditionally nomadic, Bedouins move with their animal herds for grazing and Shuaib explained how their food is designed for a life on the move — jameed lasts for months if made right, and a ghee-like clarified butter mixed with antibacterial wild herbs can last up to a year when stored in a goatskin.
Suddenly Shuaib lunged at a goat and the black-robed goat owner, Sara, swiftly knelt down and began to milk her, nimble fingers aiming the frothy liquid into a kettle, so that our alfresco breakfast — including mashrou, za’atar, crumbly goat’s cheese and sweet and sticky date syrup — was washed down with a Bedouin shepherd’s take on a chai latte, the goat’s milk infused with aromatic germander.
‘Jordan is a melting pot of cultures with a cuisine to match’
Back in Amman, after our stay in Wadi Rum, we visited Beit Sitti — “my grandmother’s house” — a hands-on cooking school and social project rolled into one. Begun eight years ago by three sisters who wanted to keep their grandmother’s house and memory alive, it is filled with her family photographs, and copper pots and plates from Damascus. It also creates employment for local women.
During the class there was no talk of measurements. Instead the ebullient Jude Mseis ordered us to get our hands dirty, to feel the texture of the pitta dough that her assistant, Umbayan, was kneading like a machine. We learnt how to rustle up mouttabal.
However, the main event was maqluba. We started by putting the “sacrificial tomatoes” on the bottom of a giant metal pot, then chicken “pretty side down” and lightly fried cauliflower and aubergine, topped by rice boiled in such a heady mix of spices that even the professional chef among us couldn’t guess them all.
Once the meal had been cooked, a strong volunteer offered to flip the pot on to a platter, but it slipped and for an instant everyone held their breath — was our dinner about to end up on the terrace’s tiled floor? With biceps bulging, he righted it and our layered masterpiece was revealed.
To a soundtrack of competing muezzin, we sat down to enjoy the feast of Jordanian flavours that we had helped to create. “Betti bettak, my house is your house,” said Jude, which seemed to sum up our trip perfectly.
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Credit: Sarah Gilbert/ The Times/ News Licensing