From Mezze to Mansaf: Eating Our Way Through Jordan

If you emerge from a visit to Jordan and you haven’t had enough to eat, you’ve clearly done something wrong. Or in the words of an American friend of Jordanian heritage, “If you don’t leave Jordan heavier, we haven’t done our job.”

Full Tray of Mansaf - Dana, Jordan
Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish.

Food played an outsized role in our visit to Jordan. We ate in homes, on the street, from stalls, and in higher-end restaurants. We ate on tables, we shared meals on the floor. (We did do more than just eat, however. Here’s proof.)

As we navigated the rivers of Jordanian food, we found that Jordanian cuisine makes copious use of sesame (the seed or as tahini paste) and herbs like thyme, sage and mint. Together, it all comes together in a multi-plate orbit of dishes and flavors, usually grabbed with a bit of bread in hand, shared by a host, among friends and among family.

And the goal? Eat ‘til you drop. At least that’s what we did.

Let’s dig in. Sahtain!

Note: As you read below, some of you might be saying: “Wait, isn’t that dish from ________?” (fill in your favorite country from the Middle East). Unless we call out a dish as Jordanian, it’s something we ate or found quite a lot of during our visit. That makes it present in Jordanian meals. Does that mean it originated from Jordan? Maybe, maybe not. Many of these dishes – and their variations – are found across the region and may have originated in places like Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean.

Jordanian Mezze

By far the most dominant style of eating in Jordan, mezze is the small plate, salad, appetizer, community style eating, aided by dipping, chunking and otherwise scooping with bread. Mezze plates are typically rolled out before larger main dishes, but you’ll find that they will easily fill you up by themselves and leave you wondering, “Now why are they bringing out those mains?

Eating Family Style in Azraq, Jordan
Mezze and Family Dinner in Jordan

In a typical Jordanian mezze, you might find any combination of the following dishes:

Hummus (hummous)

Chick peas boiled and blended to perfect smoothness with tahini paste, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and perhaps topped with a little parsley. By the way, 3 out of 4 Jordanians surveyed indicated that hummus was “probably invented in Syria.”

What is Lunch in Jordan Without Hummus?
Hummus in Jordan

Kubbeh (kibbeh)

Herbed, minced meat covered in a crust of bulgur (crushed wheat), then fried. Shaped like an American football.

Kubbeh Nayyeh

Steak tartare meats Middle Eastern cuisine. A minced meat and bulgur mixture similar to ordinary kubbeh, but the meat is served raw. Rich and exceptionally delicious when eaten with a garlic yogurt sauce. Our memories for this go to Fakhr Al-Din in Amman.

Falafel

Those delightful little balls of fried chickpea flour and the best of Middle Eastern spice. Eat them on their own, dip them in every mezze. You’ll notice that Jordanian falafel balls tend to come in smaller sizes than the falafel you are accustomed to at home.

Colorful Falafel Platter - Jerash, Jordan
Beautiful plate of falafel in Jordan.

Tabouleh

A salad of finely chopped parsley and mint turned with bulgur, tomatoes, onion and seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. Provides a balance of tartness to all those beans.

Rocket salad

Rucola (argula, rocket) leaves in Jordan are pretty large and when they are tossed with olive oil and lemon, delightful.

Fattoush

Chopped vegetable salad (e.g., tomatoes, cucumbers, radish, etc.) tossed with pieces of dry or fried flatbread and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and sumac. The crunchiness of the bread is a nice contrast to the soft vegetables.

Labaneh

Creamy yogurt, so thick you can spread it on your flat bread and make a sandwich. Becomes rather addictive, especially with za’atar and olive oil in the morning for breakfast. (See breakfast below!)

Moutabel (Moutabal)

(Also mutabal, mutabel.) Roasted, pureed eggplant with garlic. A great deal of confusion ensued when the first dish of moutabel emerged and we said “Babba ghanoush!” (as this dish is often referred to in the U.S.). We were swiftly corrected as to the Jordanian point of view. Also, after a reader commented to clarify below, it seems both begin with roasted eggplant, after which pomegranate molasses or chopped pomegranate, walnuts, tomatoes and parsley are added to baba ghanoush and peppers, chive (or even mint), garlic, tahini and yogurt are added to make moutabel, the preferred Jordanian dish.

Babba ghanoush

Roasted eggplant, cut into pieces and tossed with tomatoes and onions. More like a salad than a dip.

Makdous

Stuffed pickled eggplant, said to increase appetite — something we cannot imagine possible at a Jordanian table.

Haloumi/ j’ibna bedhah

Semi-soft white cheese. Not quite as salty, crumbly and dry as feta cheese, but somewhere in the neighborhood.

Zetun

Literally “olive.” Olive salad cut with carrots, green pepper, chili, and olive oil. Great way to clear the palate.

Foul (ful maddamis)

Crushed fava beans served with a variety of toppings such as olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, chili pepper, sumac and more. A hearty dish.

Hearty Dose of Foul (crushed beans) - Amman, Jordan
Dish of Foul in Jordan

Pickled vegetables

Jordanians seem to enjoy pickled anything – carrots, radishes, cucumbers, cauliflower, and whatever other pickle-worthy vegetables might be around. Just about every mezze features a plate of these to add some tang and tart to the meal.

Dolma (also, Warag Aynab)

Grape leaves filled with herbed, minced vegetables, meat and rice.

Manakesh (manaqish)

Flatbread dough usually topped with and an olive oil and za’atar blend. Other varieties may include cheese or ground meat.

At breakfast, you’ll often find a selection of mezze dishes above, especially hummus, labaneh, and haloumi, but you’ll usually also find bowls of the following:

Za’atar – a mixture of thyme and sesame seeds. You’ll sometimes find oregano, sage, or sumac also mixed in.

Olive oil

Tasty and plentiful, olive oil is one of the cornerstones of Jordanian food. For breakfast, dip your flatbread into the olive oil, then into the za’atar. Add olive oil to your labaneh and sprinkle za’atar on top, and you’ve got yourself the most divine of Jordanian breakfasts.

Sandwiches

Ara’yes

A word literally meaning bride, ara’yes are spice mincemeat-filled oven-baked flatbread sandwiches. A bit on the greasy side, but solid Jordanian street food that hits the spot.

Pre-Lunch Snack of Arayes at Sharazhad's in Downtown Amman, Jordan
Arayes on the streets of Downtown Amman, Jordan

Chicken schwarma: Everyone knows schwarma, the Jordanians, too. Herbed and spiced chicken on a spindle chopped into small pieces and wrapped in flat bread and served with vegetables, tahini and hot sauce. Another hearty and delicious quickie on the streets of Jordan.

Main Dishes

Fatet Batinjan

A traditional dish of the Druze people composed of labaneh (thick yogurt), roasted eggplant and minced meat. Rich, creamy and addictive. One of our favorites! Our memories go to a host family in Azraq for this one.

Galayet Bandora

Tomatoes sauteed and stewed with garlic, olive oil, salt, and topped with pine nuts. During our visit to Ghor al Mazra’a, fried eggplant was also added. Delicious.

Suniyat Dijaj

Chicken baked with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. What makes this dish really special is the aromatic combination of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, allspice and cardamom. A dish on the make-it-yourself menu at Petra Kitchen Jordanian cooking class.

Mansaf

A traditional Jordanian/Bedouin meal made from meat (usually goat) cooked in a mixture of dehydrated salted yogurt balls reconstituted with water. The meat is simmered for several hours until tender and is then served on a large tray atop a hill of rice. Mansaf is usually eaten with bread like shrak (traditional flat bread) and with your hands from the community tray.

Zarb

Bedouin barbecue. Meat and vegetables cooked in a large underground pit. It’s as much an experience to watch the barbecue rack being exhumed from the ground as it is to eat its contents! For a zarb experience, check out Captain’s in Wadi Rum.

Makloubeh (maglouba)

Also known as “upside-down chicken”, makloubeh is a casserole comprised of layers of rice, vegetables and meat. And where does the upside-down come into play? It’s cooked in one direction and served in the other.

Kofta in Tahini Sauce

Spiced, ground meat baked in a sea of tahini, topped with thinly sliced potatoes and pine nuts. Rich and decadent. Our memories of this go to Haret Jdoudna in Madaba.

Kofta in Tahini Sauce - Madaba, Jordan
Kofta in Tahini Sauce

In addition to all that, you will find endless plates of grilled meat, ground meat, kebabs, and shish taouk.

Breads

Kubz (Pita)

Literally, “ordinary” bread. Bread with pockets (don’t call it pita!). You’ll find it everywhere, every meal it seems.

Shrak

The traditional Jordanian bread thrown to great thinness before being tossed onto a hot iron griddle that’s shaped like an inverted wok. Read about a real-life lesson on how to make shrak.

Making Shrak (traditional flat bread) - Zikra Initiative, Jordan
Making Shrak (flatbread) with Zikra Initiative – Jordan

Abud

A dense, unleavened Bedouin bread baked directly in a wood fire by burying in ash and covering with hot embers.

Sweets and Desserts

Knafeh

A decadent dessert made from a gooey, white cheese base with semolina bits baked on top and covered in sweet syrup. Best eaten at Habibeh (Habiba) in downtown Amman, Jordan.

Halawa (Halva)

From the Arabic meaning sweet. A breakfast side or sweet-by-itself made of honey- or sugar-sweetened tahini sesame paste and infused and topped with a variety of bits, including pistachio.

Harisa

A semolina- or farina-based cake soaked in sweet syrup.

Oriental Sweets

While these morsels were not specifically Jordanian, they were exceptional, surprisingly light, and a knockout to look at. Thanks to the Four Seasons Amman for this spread. Keep your eyes out for sweet shops to create your own. (From left to right: Baklawa, Asabea, Mabrumeh, Asabea with Cashew, Ush Bulbul, Asabea, Burma.)

Evening Sweets at the Four Seasons in Amman, Jordan
Oriental Sweets at the Four Seasons in Amman

Drinks

Tea

In Jordan, tea is the drink of choice and can range from black tea to herbal (with any combination of sage, thyme, mint and even rosemary and verbena – wonderful for the tummy after all those beans) to black-herbal blends.

We’ve never really been tea aficionados, but Jordan brought us one step closer. Be sure to check out the Jordanian herbal teas from Wild Jordan. You’ll find them at the various nature reserve lodges across the country’s reserves.

Mint Tea on the Street - Amman, Jordan
Mint Tea on the Streets of Downtown Amman, Jordan

Coffee

In our experience, coffee in Jordan comes in two approaches, “Arabic” coffee and Turkish-style coffee.

Arabic coffee

This is typically the domain of the Bedouins and consists of ground fire-roasted beans and cardamom drawn thin and served in espresso-sized servings. Read more about the tradition and ritual behind Arabic coffee here.

Turkish-style coffee

This is the sort you’ll get at a roadside stand. It is significantly stronger than its Arabic brother. Water is heated in a long-handled metal cup and the grounds (and any sugar) are mixed in as the combination is brewed over a gas flame to bubbling. Some of the hottest coffee on the planet. Order it without sugar (order with your thumbs down), “medium” sweet (still very sweet, thumbs to the side), full sweet (instant cavities, thumbs up).

Lime-mint juice

Bits of just about every shade of green you could imagine. Refreshing and cleansing.

Lime-Mint Juice - Amman, Jordan
Lime-mint juice in Jordan

Jordanian wine

Although alcohol does not feature prominently in Jordan, it’s clear that Jordan has vestiges of the ancient Mediterranean instincts of grape harvesting and wine-making. We only tasted a few bottles during our visit, but we were surprised by the drinkability of Jordanian wine, in particular a Pinot Noir from St. George winery.

Photo Essay: Jordanian Food and Markets

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions (and understand what all this Jordanian food is), you can view our Food in Jordan photo essay.

 

Disclosure: Our trip to Jordan is sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board, but the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. Betty says

    Eating your way around the world is possibly the best travel theme I have come across. Very tempted myself!

  2. says

    My goodness, what an excellent post! I liked going over the picture as you instructed and finding out the name of the food. That was really cool-thanks.

    I live in OC, CA, and I’ve been wanting to patronize middle east restaurants. Now you’ve put me over the edge. It’s all your fault;)

  3. says

    What a great post. I was sitting here thinking of Turkish breakfasts and how much I miss them and then up comes this post. We spent 3 months in Turkey and spoke with many people who went to Jordan. We’ll definitely need to put this country on our list!

  4. says

    Please forgive me for commenting twice.

    I was looking through your site and you stated this: “In turn, through our personal interactions we seek to alter the view of America that people get from watching the news….”.

    In reading your bio, it didn’t look like either of you are from America. I guess I mush delve deeper in your website, but if you’re not from America, why would you want to alter others’ views of America?

    You have my email, so if you do respond, I would be thankful.

    BTW, America is responsible for saving more Muslims than all the Muslim world put together, and yet they still hate America. I admire your sincerity, but I don’t think there’s much hope.

  5. says

    Now I am so hungry! Jordan remind me of my friend family and how they believe you must be feed and other words eat or they havent done their job. At I guess I appeared rude because I would say I had enough and that is simply not an answer they want to hear. Thanks for the post.

  6. says

    you know, I just had lunch but you make me want more food!! Darn it :) Really love the post. Food is really a great way to explore culture.

  7. says

    @Stephanie: Glad to hear it!

    @Betty: It has served us well. Certainly kept us in a variety of cuisines.

    @Kirstin: Moutabel is terrific. We appreciated getting a lesson on the distinction between it and baba ghanoush. Glad we could help bring back some good memories.

    @Mike: Thank you! Am glad that the hover photo worked out. It was a challenge trying to understand and eat all of that.

    Am also glad we are to blame for sending you on the hunt for some Middle Eastern food.

    @Kyle: We’re taking one for the team. At some point, we are going to have to pay the price…as in some marathon training or perhaps another 3 weeks around Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit to wear it off.

    @Erin: Absolutely no doubt that vegetarians will be well-served in the Middle East. People will wonder and question why you won’t eat meat, but at least there are plenty of (very tasty) veg options…at least in Jordan.

    @Sabrina: Hummus and falafel…we rarely turn them down, either.

    @Melissa: Definitely add Jordan to the list. Happy eating!

    @Mike, I’m glad you continued looking around our site to see that we are indeed from the United States. Your comment made us realize we need to be more clear about our nationality on our About Us page.

    As we have spent a lot of time abroad – living and working in Prague, Czech Republic for five years and then as travelers for the last four years – we are acutely aware and sensitive to what people think of the United States and its policies. We sometimes hear an earful.

    Our experience, however, is that most people we meet – including those in Muslim countries such as all the “Stans” of Central Asia or Bangladesh (where we are now) or Jordan (where we were before) – are able and willing to differentiate between the actions of governments and the actions of the people. We have never encountered any problems being American (we do not shy away from our nationality), even in those countries with relatively hostile relations toward the U.S. government.

    Although we are not able to reach every country and each person, we feel that engaging with people one-on-one is the best way to understand one another and to improve relations. You might be interested in this article that talks more about this topic: Travelers as Diplomats?

    @Connie: What was your favorite Jordanian meal?

    @Agne: Miss you, too! I think you’d like the food in Jordan.

    @Kirk: You are quite welcome. We’ve come across many cultures that will feed you until you drop. Jordan is certainly one of them.

    @Juno: Glad you enjoyed it. Food is one of the best ways to explore a culture, for sure. We all have to eat. And once we realize we have that in common, a number of other similarities and shared interests arise from there.

    @Nicole: You are welcome. Glad you enjoyed it. Good luck on your hunt for Jordanian food.

  8. says

    Scrumptious!

    And you still had time to note all these down in detail?! Impressive. I personally would have passed out from a delicious food induced coma.

  9. says

    @Lola: Indeed. Food is a passion and a connection for us, so we do our best to document and take notes where we can. Where Jordanian food (and all Middle Eastern food, really) becomes tricky is that the English transliteration of the Arabic usually has a dozen or so spellings.

    We passed out, too. Usually at the end of each night during our time in Jordan. I’m not kidding.

  10. says

    Seeing this post of all the delicious food reminds me of 1) how much I miss it, and 2) an amusing anecdote from a driver in Jordan.
    We were heading back to Amman from the Dead Sea, and we negotiated a cheap ride from an unofficial taxi–well, really just a guy with a car (thank goodness it worked out). My boyfriend was in the front seat talking to him about how we were from New York and how much he’ll miss the food when we go back. In broken English, the driver asserted that the Arabic food in Patterson, NJ, where he has family, was better than the Arabic food in Jordan. I have to say that I’m skeptical.
    And yet another demonstration of Jordanian friendliness and helpfulness–the same driver showed us the best and cheapest place to get hummus and pita in our neighborhood in Jordan.

  11. says

    @Cathy: I too would be skeptical that Jordanian food in NJ is better than the Jordanian food in Jordan. By the judgment of my taste buds, what we ate throughout the country would be pretty tough to beat.

    Do you remember the name of the best/cheapest place for hummus and pita that your driver showed you? In what city/neighborhood?

  12. says

    Hello Audrey and Daniel,

    We met you at the Petra kitchen. We have arrived back home and found your card in our things and checked out your blog. It is a great resource. I enjoyed reading about the food in Jordan as this was one of my favorite places to eat during our travels (Vietnam was number 1). We have already made a traditional Jordanian dinner for friends who loved it a lot.

    It was nice to meet you and good luck with your travels.

    Jen and Dave

  13. says

    @Jen: Great to hear from you! Which traditional Jordanian dishes did you make — the ones from our night at Petra Kitchen or some others? I can never get enough hummous, but I thought the suniyat dijaj chicken was really unique.

  14. salwa says

    Dear Sir:
    10 years ago I collect most of jordanian food from eldary ladies who is age 90 years or more.
    my book published in 2007
    now I am looking for some help to publish it again
    as I knew jordanian food is healthy food .

  15. says

    OMG small world moment! I was just doing a google search to try to find the name of a candy I had in Jordan and I came across the picture you took of the guy pouring tea in the street, when I was there last week I totally took a picture of him too!! random!! haha

  16. says

    @Cailin: It’s a small, small world…especially online :) Glad to hear that the tea guy is still working away and making people smile with his tea! Sounds like you had a really fabulous trip to Jordan!

  17. says

    @Cailin: We always joke that we leave a place often with a longer wish list than when we arrived. When you get on the ground you learn about so many places and activities that you already start planning a return trip :)

  18. kathy says

    I have some new apartment neighbors from Jordan (they have been in the states for 2 years.)and need some cultural advice.

    They moved in a few days ago, and I saw them on their patio as I walked back to my apartment this evening, so I came over and introduced myself. After conversing for a few minutes, they invited me in for coffee (of course, though it was after 8pm, I accepted, and figured a few hours lost sleep was a small price to pay to extend friendship and make them feel welcomed;) We had a lovely time chatting.

    I would like to bring them a gift of food and explain that it is an time-honored american custom to greet new neighbors this way, but wanted to be sure it would not be considered inappropriate in their eyes. Was thinking homemade bread or cookies might be a safe bet??

  19. says

    @Kathy: How great to hear about your Jordanian neighbors and how you want to welcome them. I think your kind sentiment behind the food gift is most important, but I believe that either homemade bread or cookies would be great. I often make chocolate chip cookies or brownies (very typically American desserts) for such situations as it shares something from my culture at the same time as being a fun gift. Pies might also be good as well.

    And I hope that the food exchange continues – perhaps you might learn to make a few Jordanian dishes from your neighbors as well :)

  20. Doug says

    Guys Great Job, I spent a year working and traveling Jordan visiting all the locations you report on. I will provide one comment. Baba Ghanoush and Motabal are similar with the primary base of Roasted Eggplant and Tahini, but the remaining ingredients differ. Bab typically is made with pomegranate molasses and walnuts vice peppers and chives. There are many variations where I’ve had Baba with chopped pomegranate. What I found was that my many Jordanian friends strongly preferred Motabal.

  21. says

    @Doug: Thank you! We’ve made some adjustments to the text above on baba ghanoush vs. mutabal after your guidance and some additional research. Thanks so much for taking the time to provide such a helpful comment.

  22. kaisa tavastila says

    Hello dears, thanks for the introduction to the Jordanian food. One question, as a fish lover, NO FISHDISHES???? Love the Middle East cuisine with hummus and stuff, but i would miss my fish if I could not have some… (hoping to travel there soon..)

  23. says

    @Kaisa: I’m afraid that we didn’t eat much fish during our visit to Jordan. It was very meat and chicken heavy, especially with the kebabs. You could probably find more fish dishes near Aqaba and other seaside areas.

  24. kaisa tavastila says

    thanks, i was a bit afraid it could be like that.. well, the vegetable soups and the mezze will propably keep me alive.. :)

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