This article on the cuisine of Jordan – with recipes – has little to do with almonds; it has everything to do with the misunderstood terms of authenticity and fusion when it relates to national cuisines. Yet let’s take almonds as an example, in Jordan they do not coat this delectable nut in a tooth breaking armor of sugar. The reason is simple; Jordan Almonds are an invention of the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Jordan didn’t exist until the 20th century – let’s not get into the derivation of the name.
Salatat Khyar and Fatoosh are ubiquitous and refreshing cucumber salads, part of the common repertoire in Jordan. Yet their main vegetable, the cucumber, probably didn’t make its way into Levantine cuisine from India until circa 1000 B.C.E. – long after a thriving food culture had developed. The Spice Route and the Silk Road, legendary commercial links between Europe and Asia, intersected in Jordan and the greater Levant resulting in today’s timeless fusion Middle Eastern cuisine.
The many variations on classic cucumber salads found throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean mimic the layers of cultural influence made possible through commerce on the Spice Route and the Silk Road. Research Salatat Khyar and often the Algerian recipe appears, significant for the absence of yogurt in the recipe despite that dairy staple being otherwise well utilized. Why the Berbers and Moors of North Africa left yogurt out is a mystery.
Still this article is not about cucumbers, yogurt or almonds – although Jordan has wonderful raw almonds that are another story altogether. National cuisines – aka authentic – are a myth simply because cooking is regional; it’s all about what’s available. For most that was a 50-mile radius from one’s village. Yet for the Middle East that distance linked to the entire ancient world.
The delectable smoky flavor of baba ganouj – Jordan’s spelling – is known throughout the Middle Eastern culinary world. Except in Jordan tahini (sesame paste) is absent. Yet tahini was common in the region. Pomegranate molasses on the other hand was an import from Persia brought in by caravan. Concentrating juices of perishable fruits (dibs) was common. The addition of mint is a regional Jordanian variation as well not found in the more commonly known Lebanese baba ghanoush. The result for Jordan’s baba ganuj is a recipe for chopped salad rather than a dip. It’s a refreshing mezze (small plate) with notes of mint and sweet/sour pomegranate.
Baba Ganuj (serves 8)
Pomegranate molasses is available in better markets (Whole Foods, Trader Joes, etc) and Middle Eastern groceries. This recipe comes from The Petra Kitchen, Petra, Jordan.
- 2 pounds eggplant (approximately 2 medium size)
- 1 green bell pepper
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 large tomato
- 1 medium sweet onion
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- Prick the eggplants with a fork and roast on a baking dish in a 375° oven for 45 to 60 minutes until very soft. (Roasting over charcoal in a baking dish will impart a better smokey flavor. Turn the eggplants several times.) Allow the eggplants to cool. Split the eggplants and scoop out all the flesh discarding the skins. Place in a stainless steel or ceramic mixing bowl.
- Add olive oil, lemon juice and salt and mash with a fork until a chunky puree.
- Dice the tomato, pepper and onion. Crush and dice the garlic and add all to the eggplants.
- Stir in mint.
Garnish with parsley and/or additional mint and serve with flat bread.
Muhammara, redolent of roasted red peppers and walnuts, means brick colored in Arabic because that’s the color of the dip – the color of Petra sandstone. Yet variations are all over the world of the Spice Road and Silk Route as far north as Georgia in the Caucuses. It’s rich tasting yet light in texture, and this Jordanian recipe is simple to prepare.
Muhammara – 8 servings
- 2 ½ pounds red bell peppers
- 1 or 2 small hot chili peppers
- 6 ounces walnuts
- ½ cup wheat crackers
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Roast the red peppers until skins are blistered and charred using one of these three methods – (1) on a baking dish in a 400° oven for 10 – 15 minutes (2) over charcoal turning the peppers several times, or (3) over the open flame of a gas stove holding the peppers with tongs or a long fork like marshmallows.
- Place the peppers in a bowl and cover or in a paper bag for 15 minutes. This will steam the peppers allowing the charred skin to easily slip off. Discard the skins, seeds and membranes.
- In a food processor, grind the walnuts, crackers, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, salt and sugar until smooth.
- Add the red peppers and process until smooth.
- With the machine running, add the olive oil in a thin stream and then the chili peppers. If too thick add 1 to 2 tablespoons water.
- Scrap the puree into a stainless, glass or ceramic bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight for best flavor, although it’s fine to eat it right away.
Serve drizzled with extra olive oil and/or pomegranate molasses garnished with walnuts or pine nuts accompanied by wheat crackers or flat bread.
Labna (soft yogurt cheese) is more common than butter as a spread especially on traditional flat breads. It’s frequently on the breakfast table along with smoked fish. Flatbread with labna, smoked salmon, red onion, capers and dill is as common in Jordan as bagels and lox in America. Fusion isn’t the adulteration of cuisine; it’s evolution and creativity.
Disclosure: the author was a guest of Jordan Tourism North America arranged for members of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association. Royal Jordanian Airlines has non-stop flights to Amman from Chicago and New York. Baba Ganuj recipe courtesy of the Petra Kitchen, Petra, Jordan. Muhammara recipe from “The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean” by Paula Wolfert