Eating in Jordan is primarily a social experience, whether conducted over a chat in Amman’s cafes or sitting in cross-legged silence in a Bedouin tent. Anyone venturing beyond the bus-station kebab stands will quickly find that Jordanian food is not a tedious affair of falafel sandwiches but deliciously varied and culturally nuanced. Jordan is also beginning to be noted for its home-grown wines.
On the crossroads of Arab caravans, bringing spices from India and rice from Egypt, Jordan’s hybrid cuisine has absorbed many traditions from its neighbours, particularly from Turkey and Lebanon. Jordan’s home-grown fresh fruit and vegetables are a highlight. There are two distinct cuisines in Jordan, which for argument’s sake we’ll call pan-Arab and Bedouin.
The day starts for most Jordanians with a breakfast of eggs and locally produced olives, cheese, sour cream, fuul madamas (a fava bean dish with olive oil) and, of course, bread. Arab unleavened bread, khobz, is so ubiquitous at mealtimes it is sometimes called a’aish (life). A favourite breakfast staple is bread liberally sprinkled with zaatar (a blend of spices that includes hyssop, sumac and sesame) or sesame-encrusted rings of bread, which often come with a boiled egg. Either way, Jordanians are very sensitive about bread, and it is almost a crime to throw it away or wilfully waste it.
Lunch is usually the main meal of the day, which could explain the habit of nap-taking in the afternoons. Invariably, lunch involves rice or potatoes and includes some form of seasonal vegetable, prepared as a slow-cooking stew with a meat bone or chicken. In a restaurant, or for a special occasion, makloubeh may be on the menu: a delicious dish of chicken, rice, vegetables and spices cooked together and turned 'upside down'. This popular dish is often garnished with cardamom and sultanas, and topped with slivers of onion, meat, cauliflower and fresh herbs, such as thyme or parsley.
The evening meal is a ragged affair of competing interests – children snacking over schoolwork, mothers preparing dishes for surprise visitors and fathers sneaking out for a kebab with friends. At the weekend, Jordanians go out as a family. In cities that could mean a Thai curry, while in small towns it will be the chef’s special. In an Arab-style restaurant, the evening is whiled away over mezze – a variety of exquisite little delicacies, such as peppery rocket leaves, aromatic chopped livers, spicy aubergine dips or a dish of freshly peeled almonds.
Bedouin food consists of whatever is available at a particular time. Camel’s milk and goat’s cheese are staple parts of the diet, as are dried dates and water. Water takes on a particularly precious quality when it is rationed, and the Bedouin are renowned for consuming very little, particularly during the day when only small sips are taken, mostly to rinse the mouth.
The Bedouin speciality mensaf – consisting of lamb, rice and pine nuts, combined with yoghurt and the liquid fat from the cooked meat – was once reserved for special occasions. Now visitors can try such dishes in Wadi Rum and Wadi Musa. The dish is cooked in a zerb (ground oven), which consists of a hole in the sand and enough firewood to make glowing coals. The oven is sealed and the meat cooked for hours until succulent.
Spring Lamb cooked in a zerb (ground oven) will ruin your palate for mutton. Fresh, frothy camel’s milk is abundant and giant watermelons ripen in fields alongside the Desert Highway.
Summer The fruit harvest brings pomegranates, pistachios, peaches and limes. During Ramadan, fast with the locals (dawn to dusk) and see how hunger enhances the flavours of traditional evening sweetmeats.
Autumn Pluck dangling figs or grapes from the vine and sample corn drizzled with newly pressed olive oil from local groves. In the Jordan Valley bananas and mangoes ripen in subtropical warmth.
Winter Copper-coloured persimmons ripen for Christmas – a good time to try Bethany’s ‘Baptism Fish’. In winter it’s not carnage on the roads – it’s tomatoes. Crates of them fill the fields near Safi.
Local ‘fast food’ is safe, tasty and available in every town, usually from stands. The most popular dishes, none of which cost more than a couple of dinars, are as follows.
Shawarma Lamb or chicken sliced with great flourish from a revolving spit, mixed with onions and tomato and packed into flatbread.
Falafel Deep-fried balls of chickpea paste with spices, served in a piece of rolled-up khobz (bread) with varying combinations of pickled vegetables, tomato, salad and yoghurt.
Farooj Chicken roasted on spits in large grills in front of the restaurant, served with bread, raw onion and pickles.
Shish tawooq Spicy minced chicken kebabs, grilled over charcoal.
Jordan, like many countries in the region, has a strongly carnivorous bias in the national diet – at least in restaurants. At home, people enjoy their vegetables and dairy products, and often consider meat as something to be enjoyed during special occasions.
Delicious vegetable and dairy dishes can be found in many restaurants in Jordan, especially mezze, but the concept of ‘vegetarian’ is still an alien one. As such, there may well be meat stock within a soup or animal fats used to prepare pastries. The following restaurants represent some of the best in terms of the variety of vegetarian options, but not for their non-meat pedigree.
Amman Wild Jordan Center
Azraq Azraq Lodge
Dana Biosphere Reserve Feynan Ecolodge
Jerash Lebanese House
Madaba Haret Jdoudna
Jordanians have an incorrigibly sweet tooth, and there are pastry shops in every town dedicated to the sublime cuisine of baklava. The giant circular trays of filo pastry, trickled with honey, syrup and/or rose water and cut into lozenges, are almost works of art.
The sweetest highlight of travel in Jordan is kunafeh, a highly addictive dessert of shredded dough and cream cheese, smothered in syrup. Customers generally order desserts by weight: 250g is generally the smallest portion so have some friends (or a toothbrush) at the ready.
Jordan has a fairly limited range of eating options outside Amman. Reservations are only necessary at top-end restaurants (book one night in advance).
- Restaurants Jordan's restaurants lean heavily towards local and regional food.
- RSCN Lodge Restaurants Some of the best traditional food can be sampled at the lodges in Jordan's nature reserves.
- Cafes A relatively new Western-style cafe culture exists in Amman but the norm elsewhere is for people to congregate around snack shops selling falafel and Arabic bread and serving sweet black tea.
- Hotels/Resorts Brunch buffets are a popular option open to residents and nonresidents of large hotels.