Looking for a real foodie adventure? Here’s what to eat and drink in Jordan along with Jordanian dishes to look out for…
As dinners go, sharing slow-cooked goat with Bedouin tribesmen in the Wadi Rum desert is unmissable. Mohammed and his brothers cook a traditional ‘zarb’, an ancient method of cooking where they bury meat, vegetables and rice in a pit in the ground, add lots of embers, wrap it in blankets and bury it in sand. The zarb is put on in the early afternoon and by evening the meat is meltingly tender. Plates are piled high with rice, vegetables and unctuous, smoky goat and we gather round the campfire to devour it with ‘Bedouin whisky’ (tea) under a star-filled sky.
The highlight of a six-day group trip around Jordan, starting and ending in the country’s capital, Amman, the zarb is just one, very memorable, stop on travel company Intrepid’s latest Real Food Adventure. In the centre of the Levant, Jordan looks out across the Middle East (check out our best Middle Eastern recipes here), North Africa and the Mediterranean (discover our Mediterranean recipes here) and all of these influences can be seen in the country’s food
Designed to provide an immersive experience of Jordanian food culture, Intrepid’s trips are led by Jordanian ex-military man, Mohammed, and are a chance to get some first-hand insight into what local people eat (spoiler: it’s not all hummus, yoghurt, falafel and flatbreads).
Where to eat in Amman, Jordan
Having said that, we start by going straight for dinner at Amman’s favourite falafel restaurant, Hashem. On tables laid with plastic tablecloths we’re served flatbreads and crispy falafel stuffed with meltingly soft onions served screaming-hot straight from the fryer. The real showstoppers, however, are the add-ons: bowls of hummus scattered with slivers of toasted almonds, crispy pitta pieces, sumac and flat leaf parsley; silky smooth moutabel (it’s similar to baba ghanoush but lightened with yogurt) and ful medames (uscious fava beans slow-cooked with onion and garlic, and topped with chilli sauce).
Sitting outside gives us the perfect opportunity to soak up the late night bustle of an Arabic city. Amman really comes alive after dark, when the heat has dissipated and people are free to do their shopping, catch up on local gossip or, among the younger generation, congregate with friends to drink mint tea and share a shisha.
Pudding offers a chance to try another Levantine classic, knafeh, at Amman’s Habiba Sweets. This mozzarella-like cheese dessert is topped with katafi (crisp shredded pastry), drenched in a rose water syrup and topped with chopped pistachios. The crunch of the pastry and pistachios, and the cloying floral sweetness of the syrup, is offset by the salty, savoury cheese which also has a pleasing chew to it. It’s a fine way to end a meal.
Another Amman must-eat is a kaek bread sandwich at Salaheddin bakery, where bakers stand in front of a huge, roaring oven and pull thousands of sesame crusted, baguette-shaped rolls every day. The sandwiches are a hugely popular breakfast in Amman, with a constant flow of people coming in to stack bags full with them, and it’s easy to imagine the scene in front of us hasn’t much changed for hundreds of years.
We eat ours stuffed with soft cheese, slow-baked eggs topped with za’atar (a Middle Eastern herb and spice mix that often includes dried thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, salt and sumac) and harissa chilli sauce. Plus a salted goats yogurt drink, which is cold, savoury, a little goaty and better than it sounds.
What to eat in Petra, Jordan
As we leave Amman behind we get chance to eat not just in restaurants and cafes but in local homes. In Petra, a local family-style meal includes maqluba, whose name translates as ‘upside down’. In this traditional Jordanian dish fried aubergines, cauliflower and tomatoes are layered with chicken and rice, topped with chicken stock, cooked then flipped to serve. It has a rich flavour thanks to all the different ingredients being cooked together and watching the huge pot being flipped onto a serving platter by two or three people is a real spectacle.
Intrepid’s Food Adventures aren’t just about filling empty stomachs, though. As Mohammed acknowledged, food is only one element of local culture and the trip duly includes stops for a salty swim in the Dead Sea and for a visit to the country’s most iconic destination, Petra. After an hour’s walk through a sumac-coloured gorge carved out by an ancient river, with 30m sheer faced cliffs on either side, we round a corner and catch our first glimpse of the Treasury. A huge pillared mausoleum that was carved into the sandstone rockface nearly 2000 years ago, this amazing hidden feat of ancient human engineering is truly awe-inspiring. No matter how many times you’ve seen pictures of it in books or on Instagram, nothing prepares you for experiencing it in person.
Before our tour ends we try one more classic Jordanian dish, mansaf – gently cooked goat meat placed on turmeric rice and served with a distinctive, salty-sharp sauce that’s made using jameed, a dried, fermented goat’s yogurt. Jameed was traditionally made by Bedouin families because it lasts for several years once it’s dried and can then be re-hydrated to make a sauce. Later on the trip we have breakfast with some Bedouin goat farmers and, after trying our hand at a spot of goat-milking, we sit with the farmers to drink tea and eat labneh (yoghurt hung through muslin to thicken), hummus and a simple tomato sauce.
It is an insight we rarely get access to these days, a window onto a slower, simpler way of life. Sitting next to a Bedouin tribesman and staring out at the za’atar-coloured sand, sipping tea before the sun’s strength has taken its grip, with just the gentle tinkle of bells and goat bleets to distract us, is a superbly tranquil way to the start the day. It also leaves me with a new appreciation for the simpler side of Middle Eastern cooking.
How to travel in Jordan
Intrepid Travel’s six-day Real Food Adventure around Jordan costs from £915 per person, including four nights’ hotel accommodation and one night in a desert camp, most meals and excursions to local bakeries, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum and Petra. (https://www.intrepidtravel.com/uk)
Words by Adam Bush
Images by Hiran Thabrew