Historically, the climate and culture of a place have influenced its lifestyle, food habits and even cuisine. In the Middle East, the local cuisine across the Arabian land has been infused with Bedouin culture. Bedouins were travellers that moved from one place to another in search of food, shelter, water across the desert land. The habits of the traditional Bedouins have given Arabian food a language of its own through the ingredients, spices and even cooking methods used. Local cuisine in modernised countries – especially in the GCC region – like Qatar, UAE, etc., is masked by the lure of other cuisines and cultures, given their increasing expatriate population. Although many of these countries are struggling to break through the haze of Western cuisine and culture, a lot is missed in the glamour of the latter.
What would probably be a window to the real cuisine is the rural areas – the areas not coloured by the greyness of concrete buildings or masked by the scents of over population. These places still hold on to their traditional practices and beliefs and remain rich in their culture. Today, while Bedouins do exist across the Arab land, those who have resisted the lure of the modern life continue to live in rural areas, desert land. Yes, there are people who still live in tents of made of hide, in caves roughed by the climate, while enjoying modern-day amenities.
And you can’t help but be privy to their life when in Jordan. Jordan as a country is absolutely beautiful. Wide landscapes, sandstone mountains, brilliant colours and long-winding roads are a road traveller’s dream. Located between some extremely strong Arabian countries – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine and Syria, this small little country that boasts of the beautiful Petra from 600 BC and the Dead Sea that it shares with Israel, has not been spared the influence of the Levantine cuisine that has made its name in the traditional cuisine of countries like Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, etc. Ingredients are similar, so are dishes like the mezze, arayes, basbousa, knafeh, etc. But at the same time, Jordan boasts of its own, quintessential dishes like the Mensef, Shraak, Fukhaare, Sawani or Zarb.
The dishes I am going to talk about in this post include some that I coincidentally had at a Jordanian restaurant in Dubai (Azkadenya, which, if I’m not mistaken is a branch of the original one in Amman) before my trip and the few dishes I had in Jordan itself.
Mezze & grills
No Middle Eastern meal is complete without its Mezze and grill. Hummus, muttabbal, fattoush, grilled meats like mutton and chicken (and sometimes beef) are healthy starters to any meal.
At Azkadenya in Dubai, I tried the Jordanian Fukhaara – grilled meat cooking in a clay pot with an array of spices. This one was the Fukharet Kaftaleta – Marinated Lamb Chops Slow Cooked with Seasonal Vegetables in the traditional clay pot. I loved the fact that the waitress asked me how I would like my vegetables cooked – al dente or soft. The lamb chops were delicious – sweet, spicy, tangy and savoury.
We also had a plate of grilled meats at the Oriental Kitchen in Petra, Jordan. The chicken was a bit tough, but the mutton seekh was moist and delicious.
This is the star of this article and the national dish of Jordan –Mensef. A generous preparation of rice, chunks of mutton with dried yoghurt made of goat’s milk, a few spices and fried almonds with a thin, whole-wheat roti like preparation called shraak. The method of cooking the shraak is much like that of a rumali roti. Paper thin rounds of dough made of wheat are cooked on the bowl side of a wok till it is brown and bubbles up. The mensef itself shows the bedouini culture of the dish – goat’s milk and meat are what would be more abundant in the desert than vegetables. Generally, the preparation is a bit dry and lack lustre, but the garnish of almonds and raisins brings the entire dish to life. It actually showcases the brilliance of a garnish in any dish. I had the Mensef at the Oriental Kitchen at Petra. It was served with a fragrant, nourishing mutton soup.
Jordanian cuisine Jordan is familiar yet new. And definitely, something to experience while you visit. I would have loved to have many more dishes at Jordan but maybe Azkadenya is waiting for me now!