As an American I get the best of many worlds in terms of food – we have a diverse immigrant culture in the United States and nearly every small town has its token ethnic restaurants: Thai/Indian/Middle Eastern/Mexican/Italian/Cuban. On the flip side, those mom-and-pop shops are perched alongside America’s huge national restaurant chains often serving up barely seasoned, run-of-the-mill generic dishes designed to appeal to the masses.
For years I considered food a mere accessory to my day, a pretty little add-on, often just a pesky necessity and rarely the focus. Then I left the US and tasted food. Fresh foods, foods unaltered by hormones and chemicals, local dishes seasoned with another culture’s palate in mind and so different from anything I had tasted before.
The foods had new spices and textures, new ingredients in combinations I had never seen. Globalization means I knew what Indian palak paneer tasted like before traveling to India, but fresh Indian paneer made the very same day it hits your taste buds? Now that’s a different experience.
So it’s with this in mind that I landed in Jordan with enthusiasm; the country’s national dishes and traditional flavors take a strong influence from neighboring Arab countries as well as the country’s heavy Bedouin culture and the result is a blend of flavors so delightfully different from the foods and flavors of Southeast Asia that my taste buds excited at the thought of ten days in the Middle East.
Jordan welcomed me warmly where the food was concerned; my vegetarian concerns dropped down to merely mildly present and with the meaty concern gone I was instead able to pay closer attention to the flavors in each dish and drinks.
Journey with me through a complete breakfast meal featuring a handful of Jordanian flavors and foods you may have tasted before, and may even sample regularly, while other dishes may be as new to you as they were to me!
Jordanian Foods, Flavors and Spices: Breakfast Edition
Something Sweet: Lemon & Mint Drink
Jordanians partake in their lemon and mint drink with a fervor and I had this drink each and every day – sometimes twice a day! As a native Floridian, I know my citrus well and the tart and tangy flavor in Jordanian mint and lemon drinks is refreshing in the warm Jordanian climate. The lemon drink is much like American lemonade but instead served with liberal amounts of finely ground mint mixed into the drink – offsetting the overwhelming tartness of some standard lemonades.
This drink is, in a word, delicious; as the heat soars in Jordan the lemon and mint was a refreshing summer drink and a yummy way to start each meal.
Something Flavorful: Za’atar Manakish
Discovering za’atar has, quite literally, opened my eyes to new flavor possibilities. I have sampled traditional Middle Eastern foods before but have never isolated the flavors in the way I was able to throughout Jordan. Za’atar is a seasoning used throughout Arab cuisine and is composed of a combination of any or all of these ingredients: thyme, savory, oregano, sumac and sesame seeds; the ingredients are then blended together into a single spice mixture.
Jordanians liberally use this spice mixture throughout their cuisine and my favorite za’atar dish was manakish, a baked flatbread dough (much like pizza dough) traditionally eaten for breakfast because it’s simple, quick, and easy to prepare.
The za’atar spice mixture accompanied my every meal in Jordan and added bursts of strong, intense flavor to the mezze (appetizers) and main courses.
Something Tangy: Foul Mudammas
My love of foul mudammas (also spelled ful medames) started on day one in Amman, Jordan. It’s not even that sophisticated of a dish, but I love it anyway! Mashed fava beans start the base of this dish and from there the fun begins as the local tastes dictate what toppings you’ll add to the foul. On the best days the dish is an absolute riot of flavors as several veggies and spices are sprinkled artfully on top before dousing it with a healthy portion of locally grown olive oil.
Food just tastes better when the ingredients are so close you could drive couple hours to find them, and this is the case with foul. Tomatoes and parsley add extra texture to the beans while two classic Middle Eastern spices round out the dish, sumac and cumin. The inherently warm and nutty flavor of cumin couples artfully with sumac’s signature lemon zest to create a dish that takes your taste buds on a roller-coaster with each bite.
Something Strong: Cardamom Coffee
Following up every single meal, including breakfast, is traditional Arabic coffee. Influenced by the Bedouin, or rather desert dwelling, culture throughout the Middle East, a cup of coffee most often comes with a bonus of mouth-tingling cardamom flavors. Cardamom is a spice used throughout India and the Middle East and up until this point I distinctly associated the spice with two countries: India for it’s tangy and flavorful sweets, and Guatemala for it’s gritty and overpowering traditional Mayan chocolate.
I’ll delve deeper into the traditional Bedouin coffee-making process later, but suffice to say cardamom is an assault to the senses for the unprepared and the uninitiated. You could never describe it as mild and it instead straddles the line between a minty coolness and breathy menthol flavor that packs a powerful punch of flavor into every sip of coffee.
Lead with Your Taste Buds
Looking at the foodie cultures all over the world, Jordan holds it own nicely and was a welcomed transition from Thai food. The past five months I lived in Chiang Mai were spent sampling foods and flavors from all over Thailand –spicy curried soups, sweet and spicy salads from the Burmese influence in the north, and many, many soy-sauced vegetable creations. Thailand provided range of flavors for any mood but with regional and cultural limitations – if the plants, fruits, and herbs aren’t grown in the region, then the chance of finding them in traditional Thai dishes is quite low.
My first few days in Jordan took me right back to childhood – until you remove flavors from your palate you forget what a child feels in that first moment as a strange and strong flavor overwhelms their taste buds; the sensations and wonder. And for adults, the memories pulled from the recesses of your mind can snap into focus in an instance when you taste a familiar flavor. If smell is the most powerful of our senses, surely taste comes second? Or perhaps rides hand and hand where food is concerned?
What is your favorite palate of flavors and do you have any strong memories associated with those flavors?