Jordan journey

Petra, photo by DesBrisay

By day three in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan I was reproaching my girl-self for not paying more attention in Sunday School. Why had I not listened to what happened to Moses on Mount Nebo instead of endlessly colouring in my take on the Last Supper? Poor old Job kept cropping up, as we walked the ancient Land of Uz (considered southwestern Jordan) where the long sufferer had been put through his paces. We were at Bethany Beyond Jordan, learning about the stunning (and fairly recent) archeological studies that have identified this bit of the Middle East as biblically “It” – the ground where John the Baptist lived and worked his mission and later, on the Jordanian banks of one of the world’s great sacred rivers (now little more than a creek) where John baptized Jesus.

Everywhere in this remarkable country you stumble across evidence of the roots and relics of the three great Abrahamic faiths. But from the moment I landed in Amman, I was penitently aware of a how hazy was my biblical memory.

Fortunately, our merry band of North Americans had a superb guide in Mohammad. His knowledge of history was astounding and his stories brought this ancient land to vibrant life.

He also knew its food and where to find the good stuff, and that brought me to life at the end of a long day of feeling stupid.

“The king and his family eat here,” Mohammad tells me. We’re in an alley, effectively, at a restaurant called Hashem in downtown Amman. We’ve returned to this modern metropolis after visiting the ancient city of Jerash (Gerasa), some forty kilometres north of the capital. Conquered by General Pompey in 63 BCE, Jerash was one of the ten great Roman cities of the Decapolis League, buried in the sand for centuries until discovered, partially excavated and restored over the last hundred years. The ruins are widely considered to be the finest preserved Roman provincial town in the world. We wander and we marvel and then it’s time for lunch.

Hashem Restaurant was packed, tables spilling into the alley. No sign of the royals. Pita and hummus arrived first, then pickled almonds, and within minutes our table was groaning with the feast: foul medames and falafel, crunchy fattoush salad bright with sumac, smokey baba ghanoush, kibbeh and kofta, creamy labneh, a lighter version of hummus called laban ma’ hummus (with whole chickpeas and yogurt in place of tahini), a plate of fresh mint, pickles, sweet wedges of tomato, and olives.

After lunch, we waddle over to a place Mohammad knows well, called Jabri, for slabs of knafeh. The famous pastry is here baked in a round pan, spread with sweet cheese, anointed with rose water and crowned with chopped green pistachios. I buy another piece for later. I’m learning that it helps to be well nourished when contemplating the history of a region that spans nine millennia.

Ahlan wa sahlan.” We welcome you. There were many memorable meals in Jordan, but the one I remember with much gratitude and fondness was in Ajloun. In the home of the Dwaikat family. It began with that greeting (one we heard everywhere and often in Jordan) and then we were ushered into the family living room. Food had been spread on blankets on the floor. We sat on cushions. We ate olives from their groves. There were dips and breads and lovely salads, and a chicken stew, the soft meat baked with tomato and potato, fragrant of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and nutmeg. The platter I ate more than my fair share from was called cha’acheel, a quintessentially Ajloun dish made of green leaves called loof, sautéed with onion and garlic, fashioned into dumplings, then cooked in the lemony yogurt sauce called labaniyyeh.

Small plates – mezze – is the community style of eating in Jordan, as it is in many parts of the Middle East, and many of the dishes we found in homes, in restaurants, from street stalls and dessert camps are found right across the Arabic region. Food with shared roots in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine… What I was keen to discover were dishes that were quintessentially Jordanian. Mansaf is one. Considered Jordan’s national dish, mansaf is lamb (mutton) boiled in fermented yogurt broth. The tender meat is served on a hill of saffron rice topped with nuts, which is in turn atop a layer of flatbread (usually shrak) and flooded with its tangy sauce. But mansaf is much more than the sum of its parts. The celebration dish is a symbol of many things in Jordanian cuisine. It speaks to the agricultural and pastoral life that counts on meat and milk, and, at its core, it’s about generosity and honouring, community and sharing.

And mansaf is also a story of jameed, the chalk-white blobs of fermented and dried sheep’s milk yogurt the size of golf balls that store and travel well, and then get softened and diluted for cooking.

We found the jameed bag hanging from a tent pole in a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum. Suliman broke off a piece to show us. He was our nimble guide at a sunrise hike up the Al Shurah mountains and had invited us back to his family’s campsite for coffee. Suliman and his dad were in charge of coffee. Mum was mixing and working the bread, ready for burying in the hot embers of a fire. Flour, water and salt, kneaded together, fashioned into a flat round and baked in coals. Eaten warm with an oily tomato onion stew. Doesn’t get better after scrambling up a mountain.

And then the coffee ceremony – the katwa – begins. No switching on the Braun here. Green coffee beans are roasted on the fire, cardamom pods are added to the pan, and when the water has boiled, and meets the grinds and beans, the ceremony doesn’t end with the pouring. There is protocol. Again, all to do with showing respect, honouring guests, giving more to others than you take for yourself.

The holy grail of any visit to Jordan is the ancient Nebataean city of Petra. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the 2007’s New Seven Wonders of the World, The Forgotten City, the Red Rose City… it has its nicknames, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. The trick to enjoying the site is to take the entire day. Go early, and walk as far and as deep as you can, past the main tourist attraction of The Treasury, where most folk stop, snap and return to the bus, and down into the canyon. If it gets too much you can clamber up on a camel, or avail yourself of the donkeys and the – somewhat – more comfortable horse and buggy rides. Bring water, pack lunch, and if you make it to the ‘Top of the World’ with its spectacular view of the Monastery, there might be sweet sage tea as reward, offered by the Bedouin who calls this summit home.

We tucked into our final feast in Jordan in Wadi Rum. The stars popped in the desert sky, the drums were out, there was dancing and there was zarb, our Bedouin barbecue. It was dark when we were finally summoned to the back of the tent camp where the sand appeared to be smoking. A blanket was removed on cue, to reveal a clay lid. And then a layer of cloth, folded ceremoniously like a flag, was set aside. A thick sheet of foil was next peeled back, and then it hit us: the glorious smell of slow roasted meat – lamb, chicken and vegetables arranged on trays, and lowered into a pit of hot coals, uncovered and enjoyed with friends, old and new.

Food has a story to tell, and nowhere did I find the story as ancient, as compelling or as humbling as I did in Jordan.