Jordan A to Z: P is for … Petra!

Words cannot adequately describe Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabateans.  If you are unfamiliar with the Nabateans, they were an Arab tribe descended from Ishmael’s eldest son Nebaioth.  They lived in the area that would be considered modern day southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia.  They were merchants and artisans whose society flourished for hundreds of years using Petra as their capital and trading hub.  Eventually the Romans came on the scene, and also the z, and the Muslims.  All left their imprint on Petra before it was lost to the sands of time following a series of devastating earthquakes.

Petra was rediscovered in modern times in 1812 by Swiss Johaan Burckhardt who, after years of training, masqueraded as an Arab merchant on his way to sacrifice at Aaron’s tomb.  Along the way he discovered the ancient city of Petra.

Today Petra is Jordan’s most popular tourist destination and it is easy to see why.  It is truly breath-taking.

I should stop writing and just let the pictures do the talking.  I visited Petra 6 times this past year (with out-of-town guests) and each time I notice something new.  Here are some pics I like.  Hope you like them too.

(If a picture is worth a 1000 words – here’s to my longest blog post ever)

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Jordan A to Z: N is for … Nana (or more accurately نعناع )

Nothing beats the smell of fresh picked Nana.  It is so delightfully refreshing and Jordanians use it in a handful of wonderful ways.  What pray tell is Nana?  First of all it is really نعناع  which when transliterated correctly looks like “na3naa3.”  For those readers not used to seeing words spelled with numbers, 3 is commonly used in the transliteration of Arabic to represent the Arabic letter 3ayn, which we do not have a formal equivalent of in the English language.  the ‘3’ is pronounced almost like the ‘a’ in ‘father’ but the sound comes from deeper in your throat with a fair amount of voicing.  And it’s a consonant rather than a vowel.  The sound is difficult for English speakers … so many default to some version of an ‘a’ sound, especially in words like Nana.

Oh, right nana! What is it?  Nothing less than the wonderfully delicious and ultimately refreshing … mint!

Anyone who has grown mint knows that it is off and running like a weed.  This is a great thing if you have uses for it … and the Jordanians have many.  Besides the ubiquitous garnish on hummus, baba gannouj and other spreads, salads and dips, mint has three uses in Jordan that I am particularly fond of.

Nana Number One – Mint Tea

شاي بنعناع

Probably more popular than water, you are never more than 50 yards away from a mint tea seller in Amman.  Whether it is from a cafe, a restaurant, a falafil cart, or simply a guy walking around with a teapot, a stack of plastic cups and a wad of mint stuffed in his belt … you can always find somewhere to get your fix.  I must confess that in my university study days I may have gotten addicted to having a hit of mint tea before facing class each day.  It’s hard to say what is most enticing . . . the caffeine, the copious amounts of sugar, or the nice fresh minty flavor.

Tea for two, Jordanian style

Nana Number Two – Mint Lemonade

ليمون بنعناع

Limon bi Nana or Mint Lemonade - a must try while in Jordan!

Ok, seriously, it may not be too much to say that you have not truly lived until you have tasted a Jordanian Mint Lemonade, or as it is called here ‘Limon bi Nana.’  It is so unique and refreshing!  Each place that serves it up has a slightly different recipe and spin.  Some add ice to make more of a slushy, others serve it as a juice.  Some places have more mint, others more sugar.  But in the end they are all roughly the same.  A very tart lemonade made with fresh squeezed lemons blended together with tons of mint and varying amounts of sugar.  I would say that most places go light on the sugar (which seems counter-cultural here in Jordan).  The result is the perfect summer drink!

Nana Number Three – Mint Flavored Hookah

A typical hookah or arghile pipe

Hookah is very popular in Jordan as it is all over the Middle East.  The name for it here is ‘arghile’ (pronounced ar-gee-la) or ‘sheesha’ (pronounced like it looks).  I think the term hookah is of Indian or perhaps Persian origin and is only just catching on here.  Usually when they refer to arghile in English, Arabs will call it ‘hubbly-bubbly’ which I had never heard until arriving in Jordan, so I wonder if it is a Britishism.

For those unfamiliar with the hookah – it is a water pipe that has been used for centuries by the Arabs for smoking tobacco.  In the US, the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s has forever tainted the image of a hookah as primarily being used to smoke illicit drugs.  Such is not the case here in the Middle East.  It’s just tobacco!  The term ‘sheesha’ doesn’t help as many American English speakers will automatically associate it with marijuana … but that is certainly not the case!

Arghila tobacco is unique in that it is very moist.  It is blended with molasses and different kinds of flavorings.  Jordanians prefer fruity flavors, so options tend to be: apple, double apple, cherry, melon, fruit cocktail, grape, etc.  Another popular vein is mint flavors.  There is just plain mint, but they also mix it with other flavors particularly lemon or grape.

Mint-flavored arghile tobacco

So it is entirely possible on a Thursday night outing in Amman to sit at a cafe enjoying a nice cool mint lemonade with a hookah filled with mint tobacco and chase it all down with some mint tea.  Perhaps a bit much all in one sitting … but all three are delicious reminders of life here in Jordan.

Jordan A to Z: M is for … Mansaf or Msakhan!

MMMmmmmmm . . . It is only fitting that ‘M’ is for two of the most delicious meals offered in Jordan!  While it is true that there are many delicious Arabic dishes that start with the letter M (check out Jim’s delicious post on Maqluube), these two are often at the top of the list as favorites.

Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish

A platter of mansaf.

Anyone who has traveled to Jordan, or even has read about traveling to Jordan has probably heard of Mansaf.  A guidbeook section on Jordanian cuisine cannot be complete without mentioning this tasty meal.  Even government websites extol the virtues of Mansaf.  So (for the uninformed), what is Mansaf? It is lamb  cooked till falling off the bone perfection, served over a bed of rice, topped with warm jameed (yoghurt sauce), sprinkled with pine nuts and/or almonds, and often accompanied by large pieces of shraak (Bedouin style flat bread).

An individual portion of mansaf.

At a restaurant, or I suppose in someone’s house, you might be served an individual serving on an individual plate.  However, mansaf is traditionally served on a huge round serving dish, and is consumed as a communal meal straight from the platter.  Traditionally, the platter is set on the floor and 10 or so people would sit around it and eat everything with their hands.  This takes some getting used to for the uninitiated or cutlery-dependent, but really is not so bad once you get the hang of it.  (The trick is rolling the rice into a ball around a core piece of chicken.  Also, remember this has to be done only with the right hand as the left is considered unclean.)

Of course some Jordanians will offer you a plate and spoon or fork if you are visiting. But not all.  And if you are able to try your best at eating with your hands without batting an eye … your status definitely goes up in the sight of your host.  Once when I visited a bedouin village, I ate mansaf with my hands without hesitation.    Later when I was walking around meeting people in the village my host told everyone, “he eats like us …. with his hands!”

Eating mansaf Bedouin-style!

You say Musakhan, I say Msakhan

A typical platter of Msakhan.

Another delicious dish starts with ‘m’ but after that there everyone seems to disagree how to spell the word in English.  There are a handful of variants … but they all spell one thing in my  book … delicious!  Now I must say from the outset that msakhan, although very popular in Jordan, is actually of Palestinian origin.  But seeing as how 40-60% of the population are Palestinian or of Palestinian background, msakhan  remains a crowd pleaser here in Jordan.

A smaller plate of Msakhan to be shared with 2-3 people.

And really, what’s not to like?  Msakhan consists of carmelized onions, warm bread, and chicken cooked to perfection.  First a ton of onions are cooked in olive oil with a citrusy but purple spice known as sumac.  Then a layer of flatbread is arranged on a platter.  Some of the onion mixture is ladled over the bread, then the chicken is placed down, and often more onion mix and more bread.  The whole thing is cooked in an oven and the result is … soooo very good!

The chicken and the bread are often both crispy on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside.  The onion mixture bakes onto the bread creating a on-of -a-kind crust that is really hard to stop eating.  As with Mansaf pine nuts or almonds are usually sprinkled over the finished product.  It too is often served on a large communal platter and of the two dishes is by far the easier to eat sans utensils.

An award-winning platter of Msakhan in Palestine in 2010.

In Conclusion

Both meals are quite heavy and not for the faint of heart.  You will probably not be doing your cholesterol any favors, especially with msakhan.  But if you have an opportunity to experience either one … you must! Beyond tasting great,  both of these dishes hold a special place in Jordanian and Palestinian culture. One is a source of national pride and hearkens back to the country’s Bedouin roots.  The other is like Middle Eastern soul food that reminds many of grandma’s kitchen and table.

So the real question is … which do you prefer?  Answer the poll below and let us know!

Jordan A to Z: L is for … Love!

Why Love?  Because this weekend is the 12th wedding anniversary for my wife and I!

But what does love have to do with Jordan?  Well … there is a very important word you will start hearing quite often soon after you arrive in Jordan:

حبيبي

Habiibi (for saying to men)

Habiibti (for saying to women)

The phrase literally means “my loved one”  and I hear it several times a day.  Actually it is directed at me several times a day.  Are Jordanian’s flirtatious you may ask?  Not overly.  In fact it would be shocking to hear a woman (besides my wife) call me Habiibi.  You see, Jordan has a very high gender role separation.  Men and women generally fulfill traditional roles within the society (although this is changing), and this also means that men interact more in the public sphere with other men and women with other women.

So it is very common for men to greet there male friends as Habiibi.  Or stangers who are around your same age or younger.  The same is true for women greeting women.  If anyone here in Jordan is calling me their loved one it’s invariably another guy.  Which can take a little getting used to, but now it is quite normal for me.

However … a guy should never greet a woman who is not his wife (or daughter or perhaps little sister or other younger female relative) as Habiibti!  This would be shameful and embarrassing.  So I must say here in Jordan I have dozens of Habiibis, but only 3 Habiibtis.  (my wife and our 2 daughters!)

Guys don’t be surprised when you visit us here if I greet you on the cheek with a kiss and a hearty “my loved one!”  Please don’t punch me.

That said … there is only one true Habiibti for me … thanks for 12 wonderful years of marriage!

Jordan A to Z: I is for … Islam!

What can I say in a simple blog post of a few hundred words about the main religion of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan?  Whatever I say  in this short span of words could not do the topic justice.  So, I will just give a couple of stats, and a little food for thought.

Estimates vary on what percentage of the population here in Jordan are Muslim.  My best estimate pulled from a variety of sources is around 96%.  (out of aprox. 6 million people).  At such a high percentage one might think you should just say 100%, but there is a sizable Christian minority that is given a lot of religious freedom and has a definite impact on society.  The government even guarantees 10% of parliamentary seats to Christians.

It is probably safe to say that 100% of Muslims here are Sunni, although you may meet a Shi’a here or there … it is not enough to make a demographic blip.

Of course, Islam is famous for the so-called 5 Pillars or religious activities that every Muslim should perform:

  1. reciting the Shahada (“there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”)
  2. praying 5x a day (preferably in a mosque facing Mecca, but not necessarily)
  3. fasting during the month of Ramadan (no food or drink from sunup to sundown)
  4. giving to the poor (2.5% of your extra wealth each year)
  5. going on pilgrimage to Mecca (once in a lifetime if you can afford it)

Many outsiders think that Islam is a religion that solely revolves around the performance of these 5 activities.  I have often heard non-Muslims say that Muslims hope to go to heaven by doing these 5 things as “religiously” as possible.  Not to say that these activities are not important, I must point out that at the core of the Islamic system (as I understand it) is a system of belief or faith.  Besides the activities above (or perhaps before them) are the 6 core beliefs that Muslims have faith and trust in:

  1. The Oneness of God (I think this one speaks for itself)
  2. The prophets of God (Muhammad, Jesus, David, Moses, Abraham and most of the rest of the biblical prophets)
  3. The books of the prophets (Muslims consider the Qur’an, Gospels, Psalms, and Torah to be scripture)
  4. The Angels (believed to be the helpers of God, particularly the Angel Jibreel/Gabriel)
  5. The Last Day (that there will be a day of judgment that all will face)
  6. Fate/Destiny  (That God has ordered beforehand the events of our lives)

If a Muslim does not believe in these 6 things then  he or she is not truly a Muslim, even if they perform the 5 pillars perfectly everyday.

I will write more on Islam at another time.  The only other point I would like to make right now is that my experience as a Christian American living in an Islamic Middle Eastern country has been very positive.  I have been welcomed warmly and treated with respect.  This may not be the case everywhere in the Islamic world, but it certainly has been my experience here in Jordan.  I have met many people of deep beliefs who want peace not only for their families and country but for the world as well. Although there are significant differences between Islam and Christianity, I have found that many here prefer to focus on those things that we hold in common, rather than the things that divide us.

I say all of this because I know that Islam and Muslims are still caricatured by some in the west in a negative light.  There is still fear and mistrust.  My only question for people would be this:  where do you get your information on Muslims … from the media or from your Muslim friends? Don’t judge an entire group of people based on the actions of some of its fringe elements.  There are a lot of unsavory Westerners and even Christians by whom we would not like to be judged.

Jordan A to Z: H is for … Hummus!

Mmmmmm …. hummus!

Nothing beats a nice bowl of fresh Jordanian hummus.  I’m not talking about the prepackaged stuff you buy at the supermarket in the States or Europe with it’s designer flavors and mispronounced name.  No, I am talking about the stuff that is a labor of love … whose beans have been soaked for hours and whose ingredients are just the essentials.  Never yellow or beige, or (egads!) orange … it’s off-white color accented by bits of green parsley or mint or purple sumac speak of careful handcrafting.  It is smooth and creamy, and perfectly balances the bitterness of tahini with the tang of lemon juice.  Mmmmm …. hummus!

A local feast of hummus, falafil, batata, ful, and khubz at Hashem's in downtown Amman.

Truly, once you have tried hummus in Jordan, you will never be satisfied with what is offered up as hummus elsewhere in the world.  What, you may ask, is the difference?  First and foremost I would have to say texture.  Jordanian hummus is smooth … never chunky.  You cannot over blend your chickpeas when making hummus.  To get it right you have to let it go on the food processor for 15, 20, maybe even 30 minutes.  I learned this from a guy who has been making hummus for two decades.  Every morning you can walk into his hole-in-the-wall shop and see his industrial grade mixer that looks more like an outboard motor than a food processor churning away at a huge vat of creamy delicious goodness.

The next thing that sets Jordanian hummus apart is simplicity.  Not to mix haram and halal … but it’s like the Bavarian purity laws restricting the number of ingredients for beer in Germany.  The best hummus is simply:

  • Chick Peas
  • Tahini
  • Lemon Juice
  • Olive Oil
  • Garlic

And maybe some salt.  Baking Soda is used in the soaking process … but it is not a main ingredient.  That’s all you need.  Jordanian hummus tends to have a lot of tahini flavor to it followed by lemon juice and very light on the garlic, if at all.  That’s it … no sun-dried tomatoes, or greek olives, or roasted red peppers, or whatever other nonsense makes it into supposedly “gourmet” hummus these days.

That’s not to say there are not variations on the theme when it comes to hummus in Jordan.  It’s just that the additional flavors tend to come from toppings and are not blended in with the hummus itself.

Hummus bi snobar (with pine nuts)

Hummus topped with pine nuts. Mmmmm.

Hummus bi lahme (with meat)

Hummus topped with meat (typically ground lamb or beef)

Hummus bi shawerma (with shawerma – my favorite!)

Hummus topped with lamb shawerma ... also possible with chicken.

It’s like the classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial from back in the states, “Hey somebody put Shawerma in my Hummus!” “Hey, someone put Hummus in my Shawerma!”  Seriously you cannot go wrong with that combination.

Hummus in Jordan is also typically dressed with either olive oil, or a combination of olive oil and a citrus-jalapeno-garlic sauce that is amazing!

The last thing that sets Jordanian Hummus apart is it’s taste.  The flavor profile highlights the sesame of the tahini and the citrus from the lemons.  There should not be a “beany” flavor at all in the ideal bowl of hummus.

Jordanian Hummus at it's best!

Mmmmmm …. hummus!  If you are looking for the quintessential bowl of hummus in Jordan check out Hashem’s downtown (near the post office), Dream Restaurant in Ashrafiyeh (East Amman), or any of the Abu Jbara branches throughout the city.

Check out these other A to Z bloggers:

I’m trying to link to 5 other random A to Z bloggers when I have the time.  These are completely randomly chosen from the almost 2000 participants, so I can’t vouch for their content … but so far everything I have seen has been interesting.  Check them out if you have the time!

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And this one is not random … don’t forget to stop by and see how Jim, my friend and fellow Blogger-in-Jordan, is doing on the A to Z Challenge at  The Left Wright Brain.  Rumor has it great minds think alike when it comes to what H stands for in the country of Jordan!

Jordan A to Z: G is for …. Gelatin

Why, you may ask, does G day for Jordan have to do with gelatin?  2 simple reasons.

The first is most obvious … my brain feels like gelatin! A week of writing posts everyday is enough to make anyone’s brain wiggle and jiggle like a translucent block of brightly colored confection.  Probably with little pieces of fruit, or better yet shredded carrot, it it! On top of editing and teaching and being a family man … a post-a-day is quite demanding and I’m feeling it!

The second reason G is for Gelatin in Jordan is this . . .

Many brands of gelatin are not considered Halal for consumption by followers of Islam.  You may or may not be aware that Islam has a dietary code akin to the kosher regulations of Judaism.  I say akin because they are actually a number of differences, but the fundamental nature of both systems is similar … proscribing for the community what is and is not permitted to eat.  The how and why of the two systems vary greatly … but the essence is the same.

Most people are aware that permitted food is Judaism is considered “kosher.”  In Islam the term is “halal”  and the opposite is “haram.”  No that is not harem …. think /hah-rahm/.

In Islam Halal meat has been butchered in accordance to Islamic principles.  And it does not contain pork.  Petty simple.

Well we were told one time by a local that gelatin was Haram because it contained pork.  Of course we laughed, and explained to our friend that there was absolutely no pork in gelatin.  It seemed ludicrous to us …. Ham flavored jello?

As it turns out … pork in Jello … not so crazy.  It seems that the fine makers of most gelatin products have traditionally used pig cartilage as a key part in the gelatinizing process.  (yeah I just made up the term gelatinizing) .  So there you have it folks … check carefully before serving gelatin based products to your Muslim guests.  Halal brands will be clearly marked as such and generally use some sort of cow cartilage in lieu of pig.