Despite the conflict in the Middle East, Jordan is still safely on the tourist map, as Celia Paul discovers on a gastronomic tour.
As the sun disappears behind the cluttered skyline of Amman and the call to prayer echoes through the city, I’m sitting down to dinner. Like most evenings, it’s a meal I’ve cooked myself. But that’s about the only similarity to my day-to-day life. Here, in the artists’ quarter of Jordan’s bustling capital, lies a tucked away house, wreathed in scented flowers, intricately tiled with mosaics, and fronted by a shady terrace.
At Beit Sitti – which translates as Grandmother’s house – I’ve been tackling the basics of Jordanian cooking. After a day of wandering through the markets, stalls and shops of Amman, it’s a relief to distinguish between the aromas that have been bombarding my senses. Cardamom, cumin, fresh mint and cinnamon all play a role as I attempt – with a lot of help from my host Maria – to recreate some Jordanian classics.
We sit down to ouzi: filo pastry parcels filled with lamb and vegetables, flavoured with all-spice, cinnamon and cardamom; the charred aubergine dip mouttabal, thickened with tahini paste and given added punch with garlic; homemade bread baked in Maria’s bread oven, and we wash it all down with sharp, fragrant mint lemonade.
It’s all a far cry from the hurried suppers, convenient shortcuts and nuclear family-sized portions of a standard week-night. Here, food is lovingly prepared from scratch, and its purpose is to provide the focal point to a gathering of friends, family – or, in this case, visitors keen to learn some new skills.
Squeezed between Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Jordan is a country described by locals as a quiet voice in a noisy neighbourhood, managing to maintain stability and relative prosperity, despite the turmoil and conflicts that have rocked the Middle East.
Recently, more and more visitors have been drawn by the country’s thriving food scene – and from the falafel and shawarma stalls dotting the capital, to Rainbow Street, where the city’s teenagers gather to eat, date and hang out, and the welcoming terrace of Beit Sitti, where I’m lovingly taught generations-old recipes, Amman provides ample opportunity for me to get to grips with Jordanian cuisine.
The urbane, multicultural capital is a world away from rural life – but the strong sense of hospitality that marks Jordanian cooking and entertaining finds its roots in traditions that have been passed down the centuries.
And my next destination, deep in the desert to the south of the country, helps illustrate just how strong those traditions are. In the Dana Biosphere Reserve lies the Feynan EcoLodge – a remote outpost reachable only via a bumpy 4x4 ride.
Amid the arid, rocky hills that surround the lodge, on a blisteringly hot, hazy afternoon, I sit down with the Bedouin.
At the centre of Bedouin culture lies hospitality, and it’s a key part of their creed that no traveller is turned away. As half-dressed children scamper around us and baby goats provide an adorable distraction from the fierce heat, the most important of all the Bedouin rituals, the coffee ceremony, gets under way.
I’m shown how to behave appropriately during the ritualistic preparation and drinking of the cardamom-spiced coffee; how to bake bread in the ashes of the fire that’s still the Bedouin’s sole method of cooking, and how to line my eyes with home-made kohl.
I then trudge back to be served a rather different dinner. Soundtracked by the jangling bells of the goats and, at intervals, the call to prayer that can still be heard loud and clear deep in the desert, we feast by candlelight.
After an evening of moon-gazing on the roof terrace, using Feynan’s telescope to make the most of the clear, unpolluted skies, I’m not ready to head back into the modern world. Instead of the mosquito-netted comfort of my simple but elegant room, I opt for a mat on the roof, under the stars, and the cooling breeze that’s blowing across the desert.
It proves the perfect preparation for the Jordanian big hitter, Petra. Not, of course, that any self-respecting host in this country would ever consider waving us off for a day of sightseeing without a hefty breakfast of flat breads, dried fruits, honey and yogurt.
It’s a hair-raising journey through the mountainous back roads from Feynan, but gradually, the mountains start to take on a pink tinge and we enter the red sandstone landscape of Petra.
Half-built, half-carved into the rock, the city is a breathtaking feat of ancient engineering – hidden from the Western world until Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered it in 1812.
I enter through a gorge known as the Siq – a long channel lined with huge cliffs – and, through the narrow gap between the crags, I catch my first glimpse of Petra’s most iconic sight, the Treasury.
Carved straight from the pink rock face, over 40m high and incredibly detailed, it’s believed the Treasury was built in the early first century as the tomb of a Nabataean king. Of course, it’s also the setting for the final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Bedouin families still lived in the caves of Petra until they were relocated to a nearby village during the 1980s. Even in one of the world’s most visited sites, modernity and tradition sit hand in hand.
And there’s no better way to find that out than through the Jordanian food scene. Whether you’re indulging in high-end sushi in Amman, or you’re lucky enough to be invited to share in a family feast, meals are a social occasion, and the warmth of the hospitality you’re guaranteed to experience is the result of a centuries-old ritual.
• Celia Paul was a guest of the Jordanian Tourist Board. Visit www.visitjordan.com
MasterChef Travel (www.mastercheftravel.com; 020 7873 5005) offers a six-day/five-night tour of Jordan, priced from £1,245 per person, including flights, transfers, excursions, accommodation, with breakfast and other meals as specified. Splendours of an Ancient Land departs on November 4, 2014 and February 17, March 17 and April 21, 2015.