My left hand is firmly placed behind my back as tradition dictates and with my right, I reach out into a vast mound of rice and lamb, using my fingers to mould an odd-shaped ball that I pop into my mouth. On the platter before me is mansaf, the national dish of Jordan: one that is not only filled with tradition but speaks of the geography of this almost-landlocked desert kingdom.
Created by nomadic Bedouin tribespeople, the key component is a hard, desiccated, fermented yoghurt called jameed, which is easily transported and rehydrated when water is available. In the past, this broth would have been used to cook goat but these days lamb is more common in a recipe that’s become a symbol of the hospitality here.
Just a stone’s throw away from the rose sandstone glory that is the Nabataean city of Petra, I have come to Petra Kitchen to learn the secrets of mansaf, which takes its name from the large tray on which it’s served. Chef Tariq Nawafleh explains: “In Jordan if you want to appreciate somebody and be really generous, then you prepare them mansaf. It’s a very special thing. Here, we like to say ‘the nearest to the heart is the stomach’.”
Handing me a large spoon, he entreats me to keep stirring the liquid so that the yoghurt doesn’t split. When it’s just so, the lamb is added and as it simmers, I learn to make shorbat adas, the traditional, subtly-spiced Middle Eastern lentil soup; galayat bandura, a name that translates as ‘frying pan tomatoes’; and the Levantine classics tahina salad and the aubergine dip baba ganuj (or ganoush) which the chef tells me means, roughly, ‘sugar daddy’ in Arabic.
Later, when the lamb is falling off the bone, I remove the meat and strain the yoghurt sauce. Nawafleh then lines the platter with an almost diaphanously-thin local flatbread known as shrak. Next he spoons out rice. He explains: “Previously rice was not added because Jordan was not a rice producer but then we imported it in the 1920s and now it’s the cornerstone of the dish.” The lamb is heaped on top, but on my visit the chef has shied away from the more customary crowning of the dish with the beast’s skull because ‘a lot of the tourists don’t like to see it’. The remaining yoghurt sauce is spooned over it all before the chef finishes off the creation with toasted pine nuts and chopped herbs.
Most often mansaf is eaten whilst standing. Rolling the rice round pieces of lamb then finally forming a ball is an art in itself — one made all the more difficult by the residual heat. Nawafleh laughs at my attempts, his asbestos fingers making short work of this. When it’s a little cooler, I master the technique and discover that the lamb and sharp, tangy yoghurt-y sauce meld together perfectly with the rice. The chef cautions me that I must try to eat it without my fingers touching my mouth and my puzzled face is met with a ‘no double-dipping’ retort. And here is the essence of eating in Jordan: much of it is a shared experience, where large plates are communally consumed and a respect for each other, for the ceremony of it all, and for food hygiene, is crucial.
Jordan reasonably argues that it can hold its own in a Levantine food fist fight — for this is a country that takes the best of all its neighbours (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq) and makes the most of its position at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa. A key stop on the spice routes from China and India, the aromas of cumin, cardamom and sumac have scented the air in markets and kitchens here for centuries, and an influx and mixing of people over time has led to a diverse culinary culture.
In downtown Amman, I stroll around the souks then stumble across al-Homsi Mills, a little spice shop where the owner offers customers tiny cups of Arabic coffee scented with cardamom then opens old wooden drawers to show off his own blend of za’atar (made from any combination of thyme, sesame seeds, oregano and salt) as well as sharp-scented sumac.
From here I head to Rainbow Street, a funky thoroughfare lined with restaurants, cafes, hookah bars and antique shops. I try Arabic ice cream with pistachio and rosewater at the famous ice-cream maker Gerard. I fall in love with Sufra, a restaurant in a beautiful old family home that is filled with locals celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, and am hypnotised by bread chef Anwar as he places flat circles of dough inside a cauldron-shaped oven, poking and moving them until they are crisp and bubbly.
At Hashem, tables surge out onto the alleyway pavement and spill over with plates of crisp-fried falafel, fattet hummus (hummus made fluffier with the addition of soaked bread), moutabel (aubergine, garlic, sesame and olive oil dip), pickles, herbs, tomatoes and flatbreads. With its plastic-bag tablecloths and take-us-as-you-find-us ambiance, you’d never know that this place is the haunt of the Jordanian royal family and government ministers.
Bedouin culture forms the backbone of Jordan: desert dwellers were the original people here, and a nomadic lifestyle and seasonal migration were habits that informed their cooking and eating. I venture to Wadi Rum, with its vast red dunes and siqs, in search of Bedouin barbecue known as zarb. Arriving at a new camp, the nomads would dig a pit which would be filled with hot embers and stones from the campfire, meat would be wrapped in palm leaves and sand placed on top so that the heat could be sealed in. These days, iron racks are lowered into the ground and pots are used, and tinfoil and blankets are employed for further thermal insulation, but other than that little has changed.
There are dozens of Bedouin camps dotted all across the desert and many offer a zarb feast and Bedouin music after the sun goes down. I am staying at Captain’s Desert Camp and here they have buried lamb, chickens, carrots, potatoes and a giant pot of rice in their fiery hole in the ground. As this cooks, my guide Ramzi and I hare around the wadi in a pick-up truck, sliding down sand inclines at speed and clambering up a siq (sandstone slot canyon) to watch a watery but still beautiful sunset before returning to see our zarb feast being dug up with some ceremony.
The blankets are cast aside and the sand brushed away before the metal rack is exhumed from the ground by two men, who waft the smell of slow-roasted meat behind them. The pot of rice is tipped out in a cloud of scented steam whilst a chef deftly works what looks like an upended wok to cook piles of shrak. The lamb is exquisite, smoky, moist, the chicken dry and overcooked (it’s really not possible to get both of these right using the same cooking method for the same time) but nevertheless the whole experience is quite magical. It becomes even better when the coach party full of non-residents leaves and I walk out into the wadi to gaze at the stars. I’ve eaten the best of their food, and as I look up at the Bedouins’ inky ceiling and soak up the silence, I feel like I might just have had the best of everything.
A taste of Amman
Shams el Balad
Head to Jabal Amman to sit on the terrace of this cafe that ‘uses fresh, seasonal produce to celebrate the culinary heritage, craft and folklore of Jordan’. Try za’atar, where the spice mix is moistened with olive oil then spread on manakish, a baked flatbread topped with salty akkawi cheese, tomato sauce, olives and herbs. The apricot-sage labneh with hazelnuts, rose and chilli was glorious.
How much: Breakfast, sharing a selection of dishes, from around £15 per person.
Said to be the best Jordanian restaurant by far, Sufra is near Shams El Balad and set in an old family home with large, airy rooms. It melds ‘the zesty flavours of our northern cities, to the gusto of our southern coast’. The mezze were some of the best I tasted, and wild country greens, such as khobeyzeh, are dressed with lush olive oil and served with flatbread hot from the oven. A favourite was the sajeyet lahmeh, cubes of lamb fillet with onion and pine kernels.
How much: Three-courses (including two mezze) without drinks, from £26 per person.
Little has changed in this falafel joint in downtown Amman, run by the Hashems, a Turkish family, since 1952. The place is often rammed so come early for lunch or wait till mid-afternoon to avoid the queues then sit down and tell your waiter you’ll have everything — falafel, hummus, salad, herbs, pickles, flatbreads.
How much: Falafel and all the accompaniments, around £4.50 per person, not including drinks.
Five food finds
The national dish — this is a stew of lamb cooked in a yoghurt broth that’s piled on a large platter of rice and topped with nuts and herbs. It’s largely served on special occasions and is eaten with the right hand.
For a Bedouin barbecue, zarb is a meat and vegetable feast cooked under the desert floor.
Moistened flatbread crumbs are whipped into regular hummus to render it light and fluffy.
An aromatic blend of coffee made with ground cardamom. It’s served strong and rich, and sweetened with sugar.
A spice mix of ground thyme, sesame seeds, oregano, salt and sumac.
Royal Jordanian operates daily flights from Heathrow to Amman from £525. Rooms at Le Royal, Amman from 96 JOD (£105), B&B. Rooms at Crowne Plaza, Dead Sea from 95 JOD (£103), B&B. Rooms at Mövenpick, Petra from £85, B&B.
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)