With its strategic location in the Middle East, Jordan has been at the crossroads of human migration trails for centuries. Throughout history, Circassians and Armenians, Syrians and Palestinians, nomadic Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula, and even mysterious Nabateans have called Jordan home. This rich tapestry of cultures is reflected in Jordanian cuisine. Exploring the food that small, yet mightily hospitable Jordan offers is an opportunity to not only taste the flavors of this diverse country but also get a deeper understanding of Jordan’s history and place in the region. From the Levantine cuisine in the north with essentials like maqlubah (rice and stewed chicken or lamb served upside-down) to the Bedouin staples in the south like mansaf (a platter of rice and lamb cooked in yogurt) and zarb (barbecued meat roasted in an underground pit), these are the dishes not to miss in Jordan. Sahtein!
1. Mansaf at Kir Heres
- Where: Al-Karak in Karak Governorate
A hearty dish of rice and meat, the labor-intensive mansaf is the symbol of Jordanian hospitality, considered by most to be Jordan’s national dish. Some origin stories trace mansaf’s roots to thereed, an earlier meal of meat, broth, and bread for nomadic Bedouin people that’s mentioned in both the Qur’an and the Bible. Today, mansaf is a centerpiece of communal dining at weddings, birthdays, and holidays, or simply to welcome an honored guest. Garnished with toasted almonds, pine nuts, and parsley, mansaf is served on a large platter in which a wafer-thin Bedouin flatbread called shraak is topped with rice and lamb shanks that have been slowly stewed in a special jameed broth. Jameed is the ingredient that gives mansaf its distinct, slightly tangy flavor. It’s fermented sheep or goat milk yogurt sun-dried for storage and turned into liquid form for the mansaf broth.
At Kir Heres restaurant in central Jordan’s Al Karak Governorate, meters away from Karak Castle, a massive crusader fortification complex from the 12th century, mansaf dining (from JD20/US$28) is a multi-hour affair. Don’t let the simple interior with yellow- and green-clothed tables fool you: This is where you’ll find some of the best mansaf in Jordan because Karak is known for its outstanding jameed quality.
Tip: For the authentic mansaf experience, eat with your right hand directly from the platter by scooping up chunks of meat and forming a ball of rice around them, then drink the lightly salted jameed broth as it’s often served in a cup next to the meal.
2. Maqlubah at Beit Sitti
- Where: Al Weibdeh in Amman
- Make a reservation
The classic Palestinian maqlubah is famous throughout the Levant countries of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. One pot of this beloved centerpiece dish can easily feed dozens during special occasions and celebrations with family and friends. And what’s not to love when layers of rice mixed with shereya dried vermicelli noodles are combined with stewed chicken or lamb, fried vegetables like eggplant and cauliflower, and flavors of turmeric and baharat—a household staple mix of seven spices like cumin, cardamom, and cloves?
Maqlubah’s ingredients are layered in a large pot for a rich and flavorful meal that is then swiftly flipped onto a serving dish. Deserving of its name, maqlubah is served upside-down (maqlubah means upside down in Arabic), revealing the most delicious bits on top. At Beit Sitti in Amman’s leafy Al Weibdeh neighborhood, sisters Maria, Tania, and Dina Haddad pay homage to their grandmother’s recipe with a maqlubah (from JD30/US$42) served on a shaded terrace alongside mutabbal roasted eggplant spread, farmer’s salad, and sweet semolina pastry called basbousa in an elaborate cooking class taught at their grandma’s home.
3. Mezze at Fakhreldin
- Where: Second Circle in Amman
- Make a reservation
An experience more than a meal, mezze is an array of appetizers served before the main dish, often with a carafe of milky arak, an anise liquor, by its side. In a mezze, you’ll venture beyond hummus to find such staples of Jordanian cuisine as kibbeh (minced raw meat), mutabbal (roasted eggplant and tahini spread), batata harra (spicy roasted potatoes), sambousek (crispy fried dough with za’atar spice and meat), tabbouleh (fresh salad of bulgur and parsley), muhammara (spicy walnuts with olive oil), dawali (stuffed grape leaves), and foul (fava bean spread). For the authentic Levantine mezze (from JD4.75/US$6.70 each) amid a grand setting of marbled floors, fireplaces, and columned halls, book a table at Fakhreldin in Amman’s Second Circle, where chef Rafik Nakhle and his team serve an extravagant selection of over 100 dishes in a traditional mid-20th-century Jordanian villa built by a former Jordanian prime minister, Fawzi Al-Mulki.
Tip: Plan your time accordingly to enjoy a session of after-meal Turkish coffee and leisurely people-watching. (Previous Fakhreldin guests include heads of state like the former king of Spain Juan Carlos I and celebrities like Naomi Campbell and Sting.)
4. Zarb in Wadi Rum
- Where: Wadi Rum desert
One of the most fascinating experiences you can have in Jordan’s Mars-like desert of Wadi Rum is staying at a traditional Bedouin desert camp. Here, you will most certainly be able to see the preparation of zarb, Bedouin barbecue, roasted for hours in an underground pit. Not much has changed in the traditional process: Foil-wrapped meat like chicken, lamb, or goat is placed in a round metal casing with coals, alongside spices and vegetables like potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and onions, then lowered into a pit in the sand, covered with blankets and sand, and left to cook for two to three hours until fragrant bits of meat start to fall off the bones. Once ready, zarb is served with separately made rice and a variety of side dishes like fattoush (mixed greens and vegetable salad), muttabbal (roasted eggplant spread), and hummus. Nearly every Bedouin camp in the desert features zarb on the menu, served at dinner when you book an overnight stay (price varies).
5. Falafel sandwich at Al-Quds Falafel
- Where: Jabal Amman in Amman
While the discussion around the provenance of the classic Middle Eastern staple, falafel, tends to get heated, there is one indisputable fact: A falafel sandwich is a favorite lunch-meal-quick-break-fill-me-up item on the streets of Amman. The best, as is often the case with street food, can be found at Al-Quds Falafel, the small, spotless hole-in-a-wall outfit on Amman’s festive Rainbow Street; one of the few pedestrian-friendly streets in the city, it stretches from the First Circle to downtown Amman through the quiet Jabal Amman neighborhood. Al-Quds Falafel has been perfecting the same falafel sandwich recipe—made-in-front-of-you fried chickpea balls jammed between two toasted bread buns alongside fresh tomatoes and pickled cucumbers, topped with spicy white garlic sauce (JD0.5/US$0.71)—since 1966.
6. Mulukhiyah at Jordan Heritage
- Where: Al Weibdeh in Amman
- Make a reservation
The spinach-like dark leafy green mulukhiyah, or jute mallow, is a native plant of the Middle East region that’s been used in Arab cuisine since at least the 14th century. It lends its name to the vegetable stew by the same name, loved by many and rejected by some due to its slimy, okra-like consistency when cooked. Few restaurants serve mulukhiyah and to taste it, you’d have to visit a Jordanian home where it’s often part of a weekly rotation.
That’s where Jordan Heritage restaurant in Amman’s Al Weibdeh neighborhood comes in. The restaurant is part of Jordan Heritage, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the country’s environmental, architectural, and cultural history and heritage through research, film documentaries, virtual reality exhibits, and more. The restaurant arm is working on documenting, reviving, and experiencing traditional Jordanian cuisine by serving unique dishes hard to find elsewhere in Jordan. In its spacious courtyard illuminated by strings of lights, guests can taste the traditional Ammani stew with finely chopped mulukhiyah (JD6.00/US$8.45), complete with a side of vermicelli and rice and a pop of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Tip: To get a taste of Jordan’s regional flavors, order plates like durzi tabbouleh (JD4.5/US$6.35), a garbanzo bean salad with pickled vine leaves from the Azraq wetlands region, ekbab obeidat (JD5.50/US$7.75), a steamed blend of lamb and chicken minced with bulgur wheat and cardamom from the northern city of Irbid, and haliva (JD4/US$5.64), a fluffy turnover pastry made with artisan Circassian cheese from Amman.
7. Knafeh at Habibah Sweets
- Where: Downtown Amman
No trip to Jordan can be complete without indulging in knafeh, a celebrated sweet and salty white-cheese-and-syrup dessert. Throughout the Levant, recipes of this iconic sweet vary nearly as much as its spelling (among variations: kunafeh, kanafeh, kunfah, and kunefe). In Amman, a Palestinian version—made with special brined white cheese that practically melts in your mouth (Nabulsieh or Akkawi versions are typically used), drenched in sweet rose-water syrup, and topped with shreds of pistachio—is a staple at family gatherings, birthdays, and other special occasions. Try your knafeh at the 70-year-old Habibah Sweets, a local institution that still makes knafeh in its original location in downtown Amman, near the Duke’s Diwan. While you wait in the queue that often stretches from Habibah’s tiny alley all the way to the busy main street, K. Faisal Street, you’ll have to decide which of two knafeh types to try first: knishneh knafeh, made with crunchy kadaif noodles, or naameh knafeh, made with a softer semolina dough crust. (Pro tip: You should get both.)