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Jewel in the crown

Jordan: from its dramatic desert castles and Ottoman architecture to its Bedouin tents and magnificent Roman amphitheatres, Jordan’s eclectic history has created a unique blend of cultures and cuisines. Rosemary Barron takes a closer look at this spectacular and most liberal of Middle Eastern kingdoms

The Bedouin – proud desert nomads whose way of life has captured our imaginations for generations – are certainly at one with their environment. Their waterproof, woven goat-hair tents allow the slightest breeze to enter so they can adapt their daily culinary tasks to the relentless summer heat. For celebrations, Bedouins prepare mansaf, a glorious dish made with a whole lamb and ingredients that are easily transported – rice, spices, nuts, dried laban (yoghurt), and flour. If lucky enough to be invited into their company, you’d join everyone sitting on the floor, their magnificent platters of food displayed almost ceremoniously in the centre.

Mansaf is a feast that’s made to share. Many Jordanians consider it their national dish – an apt and altruistic choice in a country where visitors are greeted with the words, ‘We welcome you’. In the kitchen of Iraq Al-Amir Women’s Cooperative Society, cooks Amena, Nwer, Latifa and Sabah prepare mansaf with chicken: ‘First, I tear shirak (bread, stretched into thin rounds by hand and lightly baked) into pieces and spread these over a large tray, like this,’ demonstrates Amena, ‘then I pour over chicken stock that we made earlier. Last night we soaked dried laban in water, to bring it back to life; then this morning we prepared one of our chickens, cleaning and jointing it before cooking it in the laban with spices.’

Over the bread she heaps rice, this too cooked in stock and spices and, on top, the chicken pieces; over all she scatters parsley and almonds fried in samneh, clarified butter. Before taking it to the table, Amena covers the mansaf with a round of shirak, the same size as the tray, to infuse everything beneath with the spicy steam. Lemon wedges, bowls of rich, deep-gold stock and handfuls of fresh rocket accompany this treat. Later, Anam Al-Abbadi, who oversees the co-operative, joins us for coffee, made gloriously aromatic with ground cardamom pods and poured piping hot from a flask into small cups. Coffee plays an important role in traditional society: if you’re accepted, you’re served coffee – a moment of relief, no doubt, for many a desert traveller passing through in the past.

Jordan is a relatively young country with a complex history. In 1921, following the collapse of the Ottoman empire and Arab Revolt, the French assumed influence over Lebanon and Syria; the British over the Palestinian territories, encompassing the Emirate of Transjordan (east of the River Jordan) and the British Mandate for Palestine (west of the river). In 1946, the emirate gained independence as The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan, with Amman as its capital (it was renamed The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1949). Modern Amman (Ammon, in antiquity) is the site of one of the largest Stone Age settlements so far discovered in the Middle East. Remnants have been unearthed, too, from the early Bronze and Iron Ages when present-day Jordan was composed of many small states. Then came the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks before the Romans re-named Ammon Philadelphia – one of the Decapolis, or ten cities with allegiance to Rome – and built Al-Qal’a, the magnificent citadel whose ruins still dominate the skyline. The link between these groups was their interest in the area’s importance as a trade route. And curious visitors can readily discover the influences this eclectic history has had on Jordan’s modern food story.

The Romans also discovered well-trodden route-ways here between the ancient empires of Egypt, Persia and Assyria. As they occupied the area they found skilled farmers, well-equipped kitchens, olive groves, orchards, vegetable gardens and an array of spice shops. With such a rich source of local foodstuffs and skilled labour the Romans thrived, building massive markets in the shadows thrown down by their imposing citadels.

“Enjoy some sugar cane juice with the knowledge that the sweet drink has refreshed the people of the Jordan Valley for over two thousand years”

In Amman today, your nose will guide you from the breath-taking Roman Theatre, its amphitheatre built to seat 6,000 people, to the small shops and narrow streets of the Spice Souk. Then it’s on to the noisy, well- stocked Downtown Souk nearby. Here, stalls are stacked high with seasonal produce – tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peppers, apples, plums, peaches – that startle in their vivid colours and intense flavours, the result of being grown with less water. Enticing aromas draw you, too, to the market herbalists. With sacks full of dried lemons, hibiscus flowers, geranium and sage, perfumed za’atar, fuul (dried fava beans) and trays of giant, dried sunflower-heads heavy with seeds, your senses will be overwhelmed with the scents and sights of their distinctive wares. Traders cry out, advertising their trinkets, olives and fresh herbs – huge bundles of mint, coriander, parsley and purslane to name just a few. And, nearby, stop to enjoy some sugar cane juice with the knowledge that the sweet drink has been used to refresh the people of the Jordan Valley for over two thousand years.

To the north of Amman are more superb Roman ruins. Gadara or Umm Qais – once described by a classical poet as ‘New Athens’ – is a place of wonder. Wander through its beautiful, colonnaded main street, taking in the stunning black-basalt theatre and carved black sarcophagi. And just over an hour away, great Jerash is a rival to the splendour of Pompeii. This is a land celebrated in both the Bible and the Koran, where the forested hills and rich, fertile valleys induce a feeling of blissful timelessness. To share a family’s food in such a place is an extraordinary privilege.

Travel information

The official currency is the Jordanian Dinar (JD). You can change money in hotels and banks. Jordan is two hours ahead of GMT. The climate is hot Mediterranean in the west and north-west; very short, but occasionally chilly winters; short and distinctive springs and autumns; long, hot summers and high summer daytime desert temperatures with no rain. Visitors will benefit from cooler nights towards the south and in the east.

Getting there
Royal Jordanian Airlines (rj.com) flies daily from Dubai to Amman.
Emirates (emirates.com) flies daily from Dubai to Amman.

Jordan Tourism Board (visitjordan.com) has useful advice to help you plan your trip.

Further reading
Jordan by Carole French (Bradt Travel Guides, $28.11). A guide to take you through the exotic mix of old- fashioned bazaars, tiny streets, desert treks and religious sites.

A New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden (Penguin, $41). Reproduce some of the wonderful, exotic and wholesome foods of this history-rich region in your own kitchen.

Jordan: Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons by Di Taylor and Tony Howard (Cicerone Press, $28.13). For the more adventurous traveller this guide will lead you through the wonderful landscapes of Ajloun, the Dead Sea Hills, Dana and Wadi Rum.

“This is a land that is celebrated in both the Bible and the Koran, where the forested hills and fertile valleys induce a feeling of blissful timelessness. To share a family’s food here is an extraordinary privilege”

In nearby Ajlun, host Mohamad Dwekat is justifiably proud of the beautiful array of dishes that his wife, Maysoon, has cooked and arranged on the courtyard table. The centrepiece, makmoora, is a local speciality – a delicious pie of stacked olive oil-baked pastry rounds separated by layers of both spicy meat and chicken. Surrounding it are bowls of lentil soup, yoghurt balls in olive oil known as labneh, warak enab or tiny stuffed vine leaves and moujadara (lentils and rice with onion slow-cooked in olive oil and sumac). Maysoon has also prepared baba ganoush (mashed aubergine), Arabic salad (diced tomatoes and cucumber with parsley and tart-tasting sumac) and purslane (a nutrient-packed wild green that’s appetisingly acidic in flavour) in a yoghurt and olive oil sauce. Tea is flavoured by sage that Mohamad plucks from a nearby bush, and dessert grapes are taken straight from the courtyard vine.

Olive oil is known locally as Roman oil, giving some clue as to the age of some of the dignified, gnarled trees in the olive groves that cover this region. Its flavour imbues the local cuisine as do dishes favoured by Palestinians, now a large proportion of Jordan’s population. Kitchens here are simple, with a few essential tools – a large, stone mortar and pestle for kibbeh (a dish often used informally to measure the skill of a household’s cook) and a small brass one, for herbs and spices. There’s a heavy-bottomed pan for yoghurt-based sauces and for making samneh, and a large, round, shallow pan for pastries. Store- cupboard necessities include fine and coarse bourghul or cracked wheat, tahini paste, dried beans, chick peas, dried mint, za’tar and rose-flower water.

Food Glossary

Baba ganoush Purée of aubergines, slow-roasted over an open flame until scorched, with tahini paste, olive oil and lemon juice.

Bedouin coffee Rich, sweet and aromatic, made with ground cardamom; served piping hot in small cups.

Burghul Cracked wheat, fine or coarse ground.

Fuul Cooked, dried fava beans mashed with olive oil, lemon and chilli.

Kanafeh Sweet pastry made with layers of shredded dough (kataifi, available in Greek and Middle Eastern stores) and white goat’s cheese, sprinkled with pistachio nuts and drenched in rose-water syrup.

Kibbeh Fine-ground bourghul mixed with ground lamb and onion, shaped into 4cm-sized ‘rugby-balls’ then fried – a popular traditional dish.

Laban Yoghurt that’s made from goat milk.

Labneh Yoghurt cheese, made into balls and stored in whey.

Maqlubeh A dish that is ‘overturned’, with meat sitting on top of rice.

Samneh Clarified goat’s butter, in the past made from buffalo milk.

Sumac Auburn-red berry with a slightly acidic flavour, ground – a regular flavouring for salads and slow- cooked onion-based dishes.

Za’atar A herb/spice mixture of thyme, marjoram, sumac, salt and toasted sesame; also the local word for thyme.

Greek-speaking and predominantly Christian Byzantium (now Istanbul) had a profound effect on this land. In Madaba, south of Amman, there’s a stunning 6th-century mosaic map, which is the oldest known depiction of the Holy Land. The surrounding area is as richly productive now as it was back in Byzantine times – with olive groves, fruit orchards and vineyards sweeping the landscape and the production of forest honey in full swing.

Zumot’s Saint George grapes benefit from the unique local growing conditions. Their distinctive characters are derived from grapes grown as close as possible to the desert, so they can take advantage of the big fluctuations in day and night temperatures. Jordan has been home to biblical-style plagues, so I asked Omar Zumot how he was able to grow organic grapes in such an environment. He explained, ‘We see pests – which are plentiful – not as something to destroy but, instead, as part of the life-cycle here. Our pigeon towers bring these birds to the area. They have taken care of the large numbers of wasps and we’ve also planted aromatic herbs between the vines to attract aphid-devouring small birds.’

History here can be roughly measured in blocks of a few hundred years. It wasn’t long before the Byzantines were overrun by the Ottomans and, at intervals, other followers of Muhammad – seeing Muslims replace Christians as the dominant religion.

This was a time of movements (and scatterings) of people. On the edge of the great Eastern Desert, in Azraq, near the fortress that was once the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia, Abu Amer bids us to enter his fan-cooled house. Inside his wife, Um Amer, has prepared a true feast. As members of Jordan’s small Druze community (who are also found in neighbouring Syria and Lebanon), their culinary repertoire includes dishes found commonly elsewhere in Jordan – kibbeh, moujadara, fattoush (a salad of bread, tomatoes and herbs), kabsa (spicy rice with chicken and fried almonds) and green pepper pickle. But the Druze also enjoy their own specialities such as fatet batinjan (baked aubergine, bread and tiny meatballs in yoghurt sauce with almonds) and shish barak (small pastries generously filled with ground lamb and onion made the Druze way using samneh, not olive oil, in a spicy, pale-ochre yoghurt sauce).             

Outside, in the courtyard, two hammocks are piled high with just-picked mallow (melochia), drying naturally in the sun before Abu Amer or his wife store them away for their winter casseroles (the dried leaves will turn a slow-cooked sauce velvety rich).

Don’t miss

Al-Balad (Downtown) Walking Trail Taking you along quiet side streets, where you’ll find delicious falafel, fresh fruit juices or coffee. Take tea in a traditional tea shop (at the First Circle or try the café at the junction of Sylyman al-Bustani Street) or indulge in an ice cream at Gerard’s. Wild Jordan, Othman Bin Affa Street, Downtown, Amman,

Desert Castles and Roman Ajlun Take a day trip to the Desert Castles or Roman Ajlun and stop for lunch in a local home.

As-Salt A small, interesting town with lovely Ottoman buildings and a delightful market, 30km north-west of Amman. Stop at the Historic Old Salt Museum, then pick up a map of the Salt Heritage (Buildings) Trail and take yourself on a walk around the town.

Paris Square Enjoy small shops selling ceramics, bric-a-brac and antiques. There’s also a variety of interesting architecture here, including some attractive modernist buildings (dating from the 1920s). 16 Mohammad Ali Al-Sa’di Street, Amman, beitsittijo.com

Iraq Al-Amir Women’s Cooperative Society Established in 1993 and funded by the Swiss government, this provides training projects for women from all villages in Wadi Seer and is run by female members of the Society. You can buy handicrafts, goat-hair rugs, hand-made fabrics and paper, and ceramics, and there is a showroom and tourism information centre. Book for lunch.

Madaba A Byzantine church containing a 6th-century mosaic map of the Holy Land. Nearby is Mount Nebo, the final stop in Moses’ flight from Egypt.

Jordan’s Desert Castles fire the imagination. They’re built in places it’s almost impossible to believe man can survive. Yet the inner walls of 8th-century Qasr Amra – a Unesco World Heritage Site set amid sand dunes and miles from anywhere – are covered with murals depicting hunting and feasting. Then there’s the majestic form of Qasr Al-Kharrana, a caravanserai (a type of inn with a courtyard for travellers) that rises out of the desert that can’t help but enthral.

You may also catch a glimpse of some beautiful birds here – the exquisite, rose-pink and grey Sinai rosefinch, Jordan’s national bird, or the red-rumped wheatear.

Closer to Amman is Ajlun castle. Built in 1184 by one of Saladin’s generals its purpose was to protect the area from the Franks and Crusaders and it remains a monument to Arab-Islamic military architecture. It’s also one of the network of castles which, in medieval times, used fire beacons and pigeon post to transmit messages between Damascus and Cairo in 12 hours.

Throughout these turbulent centuries, the Ottomans established themselves in towns such as As-Salt, north-west of Amman. Settled during the Iron Age, As-Salt’s magnificent Ottoman buildings with high, domed roofs, interior courtyards and beautiful, tall arched windows prove its importance to that influential empire. Under British rule, this was considered as a possible site for Transjordan’s capital, before Amman was eventually chosen instead.

“Olive oil is known locally as Roman oil, giving some clue as to the age of some of the dignified, gnarled trees in the numerous olive groves that cover this region, and its flavour imbues the local cuisine”

Befittingly, in a country where it’s possible to be outside for much of the year, Amman is a paradise for lovers of street food. Along the busy streets of Downtown, try fresh-baked sesame-coated bread filled with tomato, goat’s cheese and za’tar. Behind Paris Square, look for sublime fried doughnuts, liberally dusted with sugar and cinnamon. And don’t pass the Jerusalem restaurant, on Al-Rainbow Street, without sampling some of its delicious falafel.

A stroll along this interesting, café-filled street will take you past attractive architecture, including the birthplace of Jordan’s late King Hussein and balconied houses built by Circassians, people originally from the North Caucasus who were displaced by the Ottomans in the mid-19th century. In early medieval France this legendary land became known as The Levant, from levant – or (sun) ‘rising’ – a name adopted first by the Crusaders, then the British.

The Levant’s historic route-ways link the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, north east Africa and western Asia, and it’s this that forms the foundation of Jordan’s rich food story. You can find it in the Bedouin coffee you’re offered, in the syruped, pistachio-filled pastries of the Byzantines, in the exquisite fresh fruit juices and herb-infused teas, that are beloved throughout the Arab world, and at the tables of Jordan’s generous people.

Words by: Rosemary Barron.
Photography by: Gary Latham

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