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.”
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.
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?”
In a typical Jordanian mezze, you might find any combination of the following dishes:
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.”
Herbed, minced meat covered in a crust of bulgur (crushed wheat), then fried. Shaped like an American football.
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.
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.
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.
Rucola (argula, rocket) leaves in Jordan are pretty large and when they are tossed with olive oil and lemon, delightful.
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.
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!)
(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.
Roasted eggplant, cut into pieces and tossed with tomatoes and onions. More like a salad than a dip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In addition to all that, you will find endless plates of grilled meat, ground meat, kebabs, and shish taouk.
Literally, “ordinary” bread. Bread with pockets (don't call it pita!). You'll find it everywhere, every meal it seems.
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.
A dense, unleavened Bedouin bread baked directly in a wood fire by burying in ash and covering with hot embers.
Sweets and Desserts
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.
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.
A semolina- or farina-based cake soaked in sweet syrup.
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.)
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.
In our experience, coffee in Jordan comes in two approaches, “Arabic” coffee and Turkish-style 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.
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).
Bits of just about every shade of green you could imagine. Refreshing and cleansing.
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.