Food is a serious business in Jordan and central to daily family life. Until recently, Jordanians were rarely seen eating out in restaurants. Eating in order to survive, as opposed to eating as a social event, was considered something you did in the privacy of your home with your tribe, extended family or your invited friends. The thinking stems from the Bedouin way of life, when cooking in the open air using the freshest of ingredients, and then dining with your close circle was the norm. Eating out was unnecessary and this still holds true in some areas. As a result, there is not a huge selection of restaurants once you leave the cities.
As a multicultural city, Amman has French, Mediterranean, Indian, Oriental and Mexican restaurants, plus lots more besides, and Aqaba has a whole host of fish restaurants, but get out into the less touristy towns and the choice becomes limited. This is even true of Wadi Musa, the town that serves the Petra Archaeological Park. In the Badia and Wadi Rum desert regions, restaurants are virtually non-existent. But this is slowly changing and more restaurants are opening.
(Photo: Market, Amman © www.visitjordan.com)
Jordanian food is delicious, but it may come as a bit of surprise when you find you will be expected to eat your food with your fingers or use the bread as a sort of scoop. More upmarket restaurants provide cutlery, as do hotels which all have their own international and often gourmet restaurants, but traditional eateries in the middle of nowhere may put only a spoon on the table for eating soup. An age-old tradition amongst Jordanians is that eating is done with the right hand, since the left hand is used for toilet purposes. As such, eating with your left hand in a restaurant, at a Bedouin camp or if you are invited to dine with a family in their home will be met with disapproval.
For information on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
Most Jordanians get up at sunrise and, as such, eat breakfast early. Typically, an Arab breakfast will comprise a dish of fuul. A mix of brownish cooked fava beans mashed up with olive oil, lemon juice and a good helping of spices, fuul is perhaps an acquired taste to the Western palate more used to eggs on toast, but it is tasty and should be tried at least once. It is served ladled from a big pot with flat bread (khubz) and side dishes of olives (zaytoon), cheese (jibneh) or a dip made from ground chickpeas mixed with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil (hummus). A Jordanian will complete breakfast with a strong black tea (shal or shy), or possibly a mint tea (shy na’na) or a coffee (ahwa or gahweh).
In hotels, breakfast is served around 06.00/06.30–10.30. The Petra Archaeological Park opens at 06.00 and you’ll find the hotels in Wadi Musa tend to start breakfast earlier than, say, the Amman hotels, but you will be told times when you check in. Breakfast in the smarter hotels is usually a buffet-style arrangement with all manner of dishes displayed for you to help yourself. It’ll be the usual international assortment: juices, cereals, cheese and ham, croissants and rolls with jams, honey and marmalade, sliced bread for toasting, boiled eggs, cakes and pastries, fruit and a cooked selection that will include sausages, bacon, tomatoes and potato. Poached or fried eggs or omelettes are usually prepared to order.
You will be offered tea or coffee and may have to ask for milk (halib) as it isn’t always brought automatically to your table (Arabs drink black tea and coffee). If you’re staying in a budget hotel it’s probably wise to assume the breakfast won’t be quite so lavish.
Lunch and dinner
Jordanians tend to eat a hearty lunch around 12.00, even if they are working, and then dinner quite late in the evening. Favourite dishes include falafel, which is a delicious combination of ground chickpeas moulded into balls and fried. It is a staple on the menu and often served for breakfast, as a fast-food snack between meals or as a starter with salad and dips for a main meal. Jordan’s national dish is the traditional Bedouin celebratory feast dish mensaf. Usually prepared and served in a large cast iron-style shallow pan, it comprises chunks of cooked lamb, mutton or sometimes camel on a bed of rice, smothered with spices and a creamy yoghurt sauce. It is served with potato (batata), flat bread (khubez), and dishes like fattoush, cubes of fried bread with parsley, and tabbouleh, which is a particularly flavoursome combination of chopped parsley with tomato and mint.
If you fancy trying Jordanian dishes, head for a good-quality Arabic restaurant; cheaper ones will probably have a handful of simple dishes on their menu and simplest thing to do is order a mezze, followed by a couple of main courses for everyone in your party to share. A mezze comprises a selection of dishes on small plates, from which you can help yourself. Typically, it will have dips such as hummus, a tasty aubergine dip (baba ghanouj) or an aubergine and sesame dip (moutabbel), flat bread and salad, followed by warag aynab (vine leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice and spices), sujuk (spicy sausages) and a delicious spit-roasted chicken (farooj). The speciality of many restaurants is magloubeh, which translated means ‘upside down’. Versions vary but it is typically a delicious dish of creamy chicken with rice and vegetables cooked with herbs. If you fancy something light try chicken with spinach (mulukhayyeh) or a chicken kebab (shish tawook). It is exceptionally rare for you to see pork on the menu, which is forbidden under Islam. Pastries dripping with honey, milk puddings flavoured with almond (muhallabiyyeh), or fresh fruit like apples (tfah) from the south, bananas (mooz) and oranges (boordan) from the Jordan Valley or the wonderfully juicy watermelons (batteekh) that grow in abundance and can be seen in the green-covered fields on approach to Wadi Rum in spring and summer are the traditional ways to round off a meal.
With so many classic dishes made from vegetables, spices, chickpeas and sesame seeds, eating out in Jordan as a vegetarian is a breeze. Simply order your chosen dish or join in with everyone in a mezze and help yourself to the many meat-free dishes that will be brought to your table on tiny plates. Try fataayir, which is a savoury snack or light meal made of paper-thin pastry cut in triangular shapes and filled with cheese or spinach, or a tiny egg-topped pizza known as a khubez bayd. Mahshi (vegetables stuffed with rice and cooked with spices) is a good choice too. Salads, especially tabbouleh – made with chopped parsley, tomato and mint – and fresh fruit are always served.
The national drink of Jordan has to be tea (shal or shy); everyone drinks it either strong and hot or flavoured with herbs or mint (shy na’na). Green tea (shy akhdar) and chamomile tea (babunaj or babohbidj) have become fashionable too. These will be served to you hot, or a refreshing alternative is to have them chilled in a tall glass. A close second in the popularity stakes is coffee (ahwa or gahweh). Every village has a local coffee shop, even two or three, which bear no resemblance whatsoever to the swish coffee houses found in the shopping malls of central Amman. Village coffee shops are rustic places where the men folk of the village meet, sip their strong Arabic coffee (ahwa Arbeya) or Turkish coffee (ahwa Turkeya), catch up with the news and join in a bit of gossip after a day’s work before heading home to the family. Women (other than visitors) and children are not allowed in coffee shops; they are the preserve of the village men.
The drinking of alcohol is forbidden under Islam and in a restaurant Jordanians will order a long iced mint tea, mineral water (mayat siha) or a juice (aseer). It is acceptable for visitors to drink alcohol, but it should be done with restraint and under no circumstances venture out while intoxicated – it is considered undignified and will cause offence. Some of the more upmarket restaurants, bars and hotels will have a reasonable wine (nibid) list featuring local red, rosé and white Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay wines that are quite acceptable, plus a choice of international wines and spirits, and beer. The local beer is Amstel, which is brewed under licence, and is available in bottles, cans or draught, but is expensive.
Whether you’re looking for a top-notch luxury hotel to base yourself while sightseeing or you’re travelling on a budget and simply want somewhere to lay your head at night and have a cooling shower in the morning, you’ll find just what you are looking for amongst Jordan’s diverse range of accommodation options. Of course, you also have the option to sleep under the stars in Bedouin tents in places such as Wadi Rum, or relax and rejuvenate at the Dead Sea’s collection of luxury spa resorts that are up there with the finest in the world.
The Jordan Hotel Association (JHA) (www.johotels.org) represents around 400 hotels in the kingdom and runs regular workshops and training programmes for staff to ensure they meet the standards expected by international travellers. In turn, the association grades hotels from one to five stars, according to the level of amenities offered, and checks that standards are being met and maintained. The system isn’t foolproof, however, and you may find yourself in, say, a four-star hotel that really only merits three stars if you were to judge it by similar establishments in other holiday destinations. There are five-star hotels in Amman and Petra, especially, that could do with a bit of TLC.
In the main, the luxury hotels that offer a health centre and spa, swimming pools, a choice of international restaurants and super-equipped guestrooms almost inevitably are graded with five stars, and certainly the super spa resorts of the Dead Sea fit into this category. Top names include Kempinski, InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Marriott and Mövenpick. At the other end of the scale, hotels offering only basic amenities will be awarded one star. Between the two is a range of mid-range hotels that are well equipped, clean and can offer excellent value for money.
If you stumble upon a budget hotel with no classification at all, it may well still be a member of JHA but with virtually no amenities other than a sleeping area, and probably a shared bathroom. It will still be inspected but listed as unclassified. Some are geared up for travellers who want to stay just a night or two before moving on, but many are designed more with workers who have travelled here for employment in mind. It’s probably better to steer clear of these establishments unless you are on the tightest of budgets.
Eco-lodges and campsites
The other option is to stay in an eco-lodge on a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), which is becoming an increasingly popular choice, or to camp. Jordan has very few campsites, and none at all around Amman, but those that do exist offer the most wonderful experience of sleeping under the dark night sky dotted with stars.
Most of the nature reserves run by the RSCN have campsites, as well as their lodges. At the Dana Nature Reserve, located between the Dead Sea and Petra, the Rummana Campsite provides tents for up to 60 people, complete with toilets, showers and catering services. In the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve near Azraq, the campsite is very basic, while in the Ajloun Forest Reserve north of Ajlun the campsite has tents with showers and toilets.
(Photo: Rummana Campsite, Dana Nature Reserve © www.visitjordan.com)
In the Wadi Rum desert, a number of privately-owned campsites have sprung up in recent years. Many are run by Bedouin families and have traditional tents made from black goats’ hair with blankets on the ground to sleep on, while others are owned by companies offering their clients the ‘Bedouin’ experience and have canvas-style tents. Amenities vary, but most campsites nowadays have a basic toilet and shower block, and an outside cooking area. If you’re planning to pitch your own tent, try to find the designated areas within campsites as random camping is largely frowned upon on the grounds of safety and preserving the environment.