Eating and drinking in Jordan
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Bedouin tradition values home cooking over eating out. As a consequence, most of Jordan’s restaurants are simple places serving straightforward fare. Excellent restaurants do exist, but must be sought out. Unadventurous travellers can easily find themselves stuck in a rut of low-quality falafel and kebabs, departing the country never having tasted the best of what’s on offer.
Unless you stick to a diet of familiar “international” cuisine and take every meal in upmarket hotels or restaurants, you’re likely to be eating with your fingers at least some of the time – especially if you sample local styles of cooking, whether at low-budget hummus parlours or gourmet Lebanese restaurants. In budget diners, the only cutlery on the table will be a spoon, used to eat rice and soupy stews. More upmarket restaurants will provide cutlery, but even here, flaps or pockets of flat bread (similar to the pitta bread seen in the West) count as knife, fork and spoon – torn into pieces for scooping up dips, mopping up sauces, tearing meat off the bone and constructing personal one-bite sandwiches.
Since the left hand is traditionally used for toilet purposes, Jordanians instinctively always eat only with the right hand. In restaurant situations no one will be mortally offended if you use your left hand for a tricky shovelling or tearing manoeuvre, but using your left hand while eating from a communal platter in someone’s house would be considered unhygienic.
Most people have breakfast relatively early, before 8am. Lunch is eaten between 1 and 3pm, and many people take a break around 6pm for coffee and sweet pastries. The main meal of the day is eaten late, rarely before 8pm; in Amman and Aqaba, restaurants may not start to fill up until 9.30 or 10pm. However, in keeping with the bedouin tradition of relying on home cooking, you’ll find that even quite large towns in the bedouin heartland of southern Jordan, such as Madaba or Karak, have a bare handful of small, plain restaurants that do a roaring trade in early-evening takeaways and close up by 9pm.
The traditional Jordanian breakfast is a bowl of hot fuul (boiled broad/fava beans mashed with lemon juice, olive oil and chopped chillis), served with a long-handled ladle from a distinctive bulbous cooking jar and mopped up with fresh-baked khubez (flat bread) – guaranteed to keep you going for hours. Hummus, a cold dip of boiled chickpeas blended with lemon juice, garlic, sesame and olive oil, is lighter. Both fuul and hummus can be ordered to takeaway (barra) in plastic pots. Bakeries that have an open oven (firin) offer a selection of savoury pastries, including khubez bayd (a kind of small egg pizza) and bite-sized pastry triangles (ftayer) filled with cheese (jibneh), spinach (sabanekh), potato (batata) or meat (lahmeh). Larger bakeries also have chunky breadsticks, sesame-seed bread rings (kaak), thick slabs of crunchy toast (garshella) and rough brown bread (khubez baladi). Along with some olives (zaytoon) and runny yoghurt (laban) or creamy yoghurt (labneh), it’s easy to put together a picnic breakfast.
Prices are nominal. A bowl of fuul or hummus costs around JD0.75; small baked nibbles half that. Bread is sold by weight, with a kilo of large khubez (about five pieces) or small khubez (about eleven pieces) roughly JD0.50.
Hotel breakfasts vary wildly. At budget establishments, expect pretty poor fare (thin bread, margarine, processed cheese, marmalade, and so on). Larger hotels, though, pride themselves on offering absurdly lavish breakfast buffets, encompassing hummus and other dips, dozens of choices of fresh fruit, fresh-baked bread of all kinds, pancakes with syrup, an omelette chef on hand and a variety of cooked options from hash browns, baked beans and fried mushrooms to “beef bacon” (a substitute for real bacon, which is forbidden under Islam). Some offer Japanese specialities such as miso soup and sushi.
The staple street snack in the Middle East is falafel, small balls of a spiced chickpea paste deep-fried and served stuffed into khubez along with some salad, a blob of tahini (sesame-seed paste) and optional hot sauce (harr). Up and down the country you’ll also find shawarma stands, with a huge vertical spit outside to tempt in customers. Shawarma meat is almost always lamb (only occasionally chicken), slabs of it compressed into a distinctive inverted cone shape and topped with chunks of fat and tomatoes to percolate juices down through the meat as it cooks – similar to a Turkish-style doner kebab. When you order a shawarma, the cook will dip a khubez into the fat underneath the spit and hold it against the flame until it crackles, then fill it with thin shavings of the meat and a little salad and hot sauce.
Depending on size, a falafel sandwich costs about JD0.50, a shawarma sandwich about JD1.
The cheapest budget diners will generally only have one or two main dishes on view – fuul, stew with rice, roast chicken and the like – but you can almost always get hummus and salad to fill out the meal.
In better-quality Arabic restaurants, the usual way to eat is to order a variety of small starters (mezze), followed by either a selection of main courses to be shared by everyone, or a single, large dish for sharing. Good Arabic restaurants might have thirty different choices of mezze, from simple bowls of hummus or labneh up to more elaborate mini-mains of fried chicken liver (kibdet djaj) or wings (jawaneh). Universal favourites are tabbouleh (parsley salad), fattoush (salad garnished with squares of crunchy fried bread), warag aynab (vine leaves stuffed with rice, minced vegetables, and often meat as well) and spiced olives. Kibbeh – the national dish of Syria and Lebanon and widely available at better Jordanian restaurants – is a mixture of cracked wheat, grated onion and minced lamb pounded to a paste; it’s usually shaped into ovals and deep-fried, though occasionally you can find it raw (kibbeh nayeh), a highly prized delicacy. Portions are small enough that two people could share five or six mezze as a sizeable starter or, depending on your appetite, a complete meal. Bread and a few pickles are always free.
Mezze are the best dishes for vegetarians to concentrate on, with enough grains, pulses and vegetables to make substantial and interesting meat-free meals that cost considerably less than standard meaty dishes. Filling dishes such as mujeddrah (lentils with rice and onions) and mahshi (cooked vegetables stuffed with rice) also fit the bill.
Main courses are almost entirely meat-based. Any inexpensive diner can do half a chicken (nuss farooj) with rice and salad. Lamb kebabs are also ubiquitous; the chicken version is called shish tawook. Lots of places also offer meaty stews with rice at lunchtime; the most common is with beans (fasooliyeh), although others feature potatoes or a spinach-like green called mulukhayyeh.
Jordan’s national speciality is the traditional bedouin feast-dish mansaf – chunks of boiled lamb or mutton served on a bed of gloopy rice, with pine nuts sprinkled on top and a tart, creamy sauce of jameed (pungent goat’s-milk yoghurt) on the side to pour over. You’ll also find some delicious Palestinian dishes, including musakhan (chicken steamed with onions and a sour-flavoured red berry called sumac) and magloobeh (essentially chicken with rice). A few places, mainly in Amman and the north, do a high-quality Syrian fatteh (meat or chicken cooked in an earthenware pot together with bread, rice, pine nuts, yoghurt, herbs and hummus, with myriad variations).
Good fish (samak) is rare in Jordan. Pork is forbidden under Islam and only appears at expensive Asian restaurants.
Simple meals of chicken, stew or kebabs won’t cost more than about JD5 for a stomach-filling, if not a gourmet, experience. Plenty of Arabic and foreign restaurants dish up varied, high-quality meals for JD10–12. It’s possible to dine sumptuously on mezze at even the most expensive Arabic restaurants in the country for less than JD20 a head, although meaty main courses and wine at these places can rapidly torpedo a bill into the JD40s a head without too much effort.
A Western-bred, guilt-ridden “naughty-but-nice” attitude to confectionery can only quail in the face of the unabashedly sugar-happy, no-holds-barred Levantine sweet tooth: most Arabic sweets (halawiyyat) are packed with enough sugar, syrup, butter and honey to give a nutritionist the screaming horrors.
The traditional Jordanian way to round off a meal is with fresh fruit. Restaurants may offer a small choice of desserts, including some of the items described below, but inexpensive places frequently have nothing sweet. However, all large towns have plenty of patisseries making halawiyyat fresh: it’s common to take a quarter- or half-kilo away in a box to munch at a nearby coffee house.
There are three broad categories of halawiyyat: large round trays of hot, fresh-made desserts, often grain-based, which are sliced into squares and drenched in hot syrup; piles of pre-prepared, bite-sized honey-dripping pastries and cakes; and stacks of dry sesame-seed or date-filled biscuits. The best of the hot sweets made in trays is knaffy (or kunafeh or kanafa), a heavenly Palestinian speciality of buttery shredded filo pastry layered over melted goat’s cheese. Baglawa (the local way to say baklava) – layered flaky pastry filled with pistachios or other nuts – comes in any number of different varieties. Juice-stands often lay out tempting trays of hareeseh, a syrupy semolina almond-cake, sliced into individual portions. Of the biscuits, you’d have to go a long way to beat maamoul, buttery, crumbly rose-scented things with a date or nut filling. Everything is sold by weight, and you can pick and choose a mixture: a quarter-kilo (wagiyyeh) – rarely more than JD2 – is plenty for two.
Large restaurants and some patisseries also have milk-based sweets, often flavoured deliciously with rosewater. King of these is muhallabiyyeh, a semi-set almond cream pudding served in individual bowls, but the Egyptian speciality Umm Ali – not dissimilar to bread pudding, served hot, sprinkled with nuts and cinnamon – runs a close second.
Curiously elastic, super-sweet ice cream (boozeh) is a summer standard. During Ramadan bakeries and patisseries make fresh gatayyif – traditional pancakes – often on hotplates set up on the street. Locals buy stacks of them for stuffing at home with nuts and syrup.
Street markets groan with fresh fruit, including apples from Shobak and oranges, mandarins and bananas from Gaza and the Jordan Valley. Local bananas (or the common Somali ones) are smaller, blacker and sweeter than the bland, oversized clones imported from Latin America. In the late spring, Fuheis produces boxes of luscious peaches; local grapes come from the Balqa and Palestine. Exquisite dates, chiefly Iraqi, Saudi and Omani – though there are now a few Jordanian producers – are available packed year-round and also fresh in late autumn, when you’ll also see stalls selling small, yellow-orange fruit often still on the branch; these are balah, sweet, crunchy unripe dates that seldom make it to the West. Look out for pomegranates around the same time, while spring and summer are the season for local melon and watermelon.
For picnic supplements, most towns have a good range of stalls or mobile vendors selling dried fruit and roasted nuts and seeds. Raisins, sultanas, dried figs and dried apricots can all be found cheaply everywhere. The most popular kind of seeds are bizr (dry-roasted melon, watermelon or sunflower seeds), the cracking of which in order to get at the minuscule kernel is an acquired skill. Local almonds (luz) are delectable. Pistachios and roasted chickpeas are locally produced; peanuts, hazelnuts and cashews are imported. It’s often possible to buy individual hard-boiled eggs from neighbourhood groceries, and varieties of the local salty white cheese (jibneh) are available everywhere.
The main focus of every Jordanian village, town and city neighbourhood is a coffee house, where friends and neighbours meet, gossip does the rounds and a quiet moment can be had away from the family. The musicians, poets and storytellers of previous generations have been replaced everywhere by TV music or sport, although a genial, sociable ambience survives. Unlike the contemporary espresso bars which predominate in West Amman and elsewhere, traditional coffee houses – which also serve tea and other drinks – are male domains and bastions of social tradition; foreign women will always be served without hesitation, but might feel watched.
The national drink, lubricating every occasion, is tea (shy), a strong, dark brew served scalding-hot and milkless in small glasses. The traditional method of tea-making is to boil up loose leaves in a pot together with several spoons of sugar to allow maximum flavour infusion. In deference to foreign taste buds, you may find the sugar being left to your discretion, but the tannins in steeped tea are so lip-curlingly bitter that you’ll probably prefer the Jordanian way.
Coffee (gahweh), another national institution, has two broad varieties. Turkish coffee is what you’ll come across most often. Made by boiling up cardamom-flavoured grounds in a distinctive long-handled pot, then letting it cool, then reboiling it several times (traditionally seven, though in practice two suffices), it’s served in small cups along with a glass of water as chaser. Sugar is added beforehand, so you should request your coffee unsweetened (saada), medium-sweet (wasat) or syrupy (helweh). Let the grounds settle before sipping, and leave the last mouthful, which is mud, behind.
Arabic coffee, also known as bedouin coffee, is an entirely different, almost greenish liquid, unsweetened and pleasantly bitter, traditionally made in a long-spouted brass pot set in hot embers. Public coffee houses don’t have it, and you’ll only be served it – often, rather prosaically, from a thermos flask – in a social situation by bedouin themselves, for example if you’re meeting with a police officer or government official, or if you’re invited to a family tent in the desert (see Gestures and body language).
Coffee houses also serve soft drinks and a wide range of seasonal herbal teas, including mint, fennel, fenugreek, thyme, sage and camomile. In colder seasons at coffee houses and street-stands, you’ll come across the winter-warmer sahleb, a thick milky drink made from a ground-up orchid tuber (or, nowadays, just cornflour) and served very hot sprinkled with nuts, cinnamon and coconut.
A coffee house is also the place to try a tobacco-filled water pipe, known by different names around the Arab world but most familiarly in Jordan as a “hubbly-bubbly”, shisha or argileh. Many upscale restaurants offer them as a postprandial digestive. It is utterly unlike smoking a cigarette: the tobacco is nearly always flavoured sweetly with apple or honey, and this, coupled with the smoke cooling as it bubbles through the water chamber before you inhale, makes the whole experience pleasant and soothing – though, in health terms, smoking one shisha is roughly equivalent to five or six cigarettes.
Although Jordanians drink water freely from the tap, you might prefer not to: it is chlorinated strongly enough not to do you any harm (it just tastes bad), but the pipes it runs through add a quantity of rust and filth you could do without. All hotels above three stars have water filtration systems in place, which help. Bottles of mineral water, both local and imported, are available inexpensively in all corners of the country. A standard 1.5-litre size costs roughly JD0.40 if you buy it individually, less if you buy a six-pack from a supermarket or grocery. Expect to pay more in out-of-the-way places – JD2 or so inside Petra. Check that the seal is unbroken before you buy. Inexpensive diners always have jugs of tap water (my aadi) on the table, but in restaurants waiters will quite often bring an overpriced bottle of mineral water to your table with the menu – which you’re quite entitled to reject. Recycling facilities for plastics are few and far between.
Most Jordanian towns have at least one stand-up juice bar; these are great places for supplementing a meagre breakfast or replenishing your vitamin C. Any fruit in view can be juiced or puréed. Sugar (sukkr) and ice (talj) are automatically added to almost everything; however, considering ice blocks are often wheeled in filthy trolleys along the roadside and broken up with a screwdriver, you might like to give it a miss – if so, request your juice bidoon talj (“without sugar” is bidoon sukkr). Most freshly squeezed juices, and mixed juice cocktails, cost JD0.40–0.50 for a “small” glass (actually quite big), double that for a pint. Mango, strawberry and other exotic fruit cost a little more.
More popular, and thus easier to find, are cheaper ready-made fruit squashes. Dark-brown tamarhindi (tamarind, tartly refreshing) and kharroob (carob, sweet-but-sour), or watery limoon (lemon squash) are the best bets; other, less common, choices include soos (made from liquorice root, also dark brown and horribly bitter) and luz (sickly sweet white almond-milk). All are around JD0.20 a glass.
Drinking alcohol is forbidden under Islam. That said, Jordan is not Saudi Arabia, and alcohol is widely available – but you have to look for it: the market streets and ordinary eateries of most towns show no evidence of the stuff at all.
Apart from in big hotels, the only restaurants to offer alcohol are upmarket independently owned establishments and tourist resthouses at some archeological sites. Most big supermarkets and some smaller convenience stores sell alcohol. Amman has a lot of bars, not all of them inside hotels. Places such as Aqaba and Petra that serve tourists (or Madaba, with a prominent Christian population) also have some bars. Elsewhere, expect to find little or no alcohol at all.
Drinking alcohol in public, or showing signs of drunkenness in public – which includes on the street, in cafés or coffee houses, in most hotel lobbies, on the beach or even in the seemingly empty desert or countryside – is utterly taboo and will cause great offence to local people.
The predominant local beer is Amstel, brewed under licence and very palatable. It’s available in cans and bottles, and also on draught in some bars: a large glass costs around JD5.
There’s a good range of Jordanian wine, with the best now able to compete on the world stage. Leading the way are the “Grands Vins de Jordanie” brand of Zumot (w zumot-wines.com) – notably the fruity Cabernet and Merlot labelled Saint George, which have won numerous global wine awards, as well as their fresh, very drinkable Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc, labelled Machaerus. Haddad, trading as Eagle (w eagledis.com), are best known for their bright Mount Nebo whites, alongside the Jordan River range which includes a Cabernet Sauvignon, a rich, plummy Shiraz and a light, spicy Chardonnay. These – along with widely available Palestinian “Holy Land” wines – are around JD6–10 a bottle, much less than imported wines. The top local spirit is anise-flavoured araq (similar to Turkish raki), drunk during a meal over ice, diluted with water. A bottle of premium araq – whether from Zumot, Eagle or more prestigious Lebanese distilleries – will set you back JD15 or so.
Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims are forbidden by both religious and civil law from smoking and from eating or drinking anything – including water and, in the strictest interpretations, even their own saliva – during the hours of daylight. Throughout Ramadan, almost all cafés and restaurants nationwide (apart from those in big hotels) stay closed until sunset, whereupon most do a roaring trade into the early hours. Markets, groceries and supermarkets are open during the day for purchases, with slightly truncated hours.
All shops close for an hour or two around dusk to allow staff to break the fast with family or friends – and this is a great time to join in. Restaurants of all kinds, including those within hotels, make the sunset “breakfast” meal iftar a real occasion, with special decorations, themed folkloric events or music and general merriment. Even the cheapest diners will rig up party lights and lay out tables and chairs on the street to accommodate crowds of people, all sitting down together to share the experience of breaking the day’s fast. Many people have two or three light dinners as the evening goes on, moving from one group of friends or relatives to the next.
For foreigners, nothing too serious will happen if you inadvertently light up a cigarette in public during the day, but the locals will not thank you for walking down the street munching a sandwich: if you do, expect lots of shouting and perhaps some unpleasantness. All four- and five-star hotels serve both food and soft drinks to foreigners during daylight, although they will only do so in places out of view of the street. If you’re travelling on a tight budget and are buying picnic food for both breakfast and lunch, you’ll need to exercise a good deal of tact during the day in eating either behind closed doors or well out of sight in the countryside.
It is illegal for supermarkets and the majority of restaurants (that is, all those below a certain star rating) to sell alcohol for the entire month. At the time of writing, it was possible for non-Jordanians to buy and consume alcohol during Ramadan in five-star hotels and a handful of independent restaurants (mostly in Amman), but you may find the rules have changed when you visit.
Jordan has a desperate tobacco problem: according to World Health Organization figures, around 60 percent of men and 10 percent of women are smokers – the highest rates in the Arab world. Although smoking in enclosed public places has been outlawed by the Jordanian parliament, enforcement is patchy at best. Most people aren’t even aware it’s illegal. As you move around the country you’re very likely to encounter smoke-filled hotel lobbies, cafés and restaurants. Sometimes an establishment will allocate a no-smoking zone (generally in the farthest corner and hardly ever with an actual physical barrier) but often it’s just a free-for-all. A very few eating places call themselves smoke-free – mostly espresso-style cafés and fast-food joints in West Amman. Find out more about the domestic campaign to have the law enforced at smokefreejo.com and on Facebook and Twitter.