There is a lot to say about the connection between food and politics in the Middle East. From the Fertile Crescent and the beginning of agriculture to, more recently, the bread riots that led to the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.
While I was in Jordan, a contemporary art museum in Amman called Darat al Fanun held an exhibition about the connection between food and politics in Jordan. From the location where the oldest loaf of bread was found and a country that used to produce twice as much grain as it needed…today, Jordan only produces less than 2% of the wheat it needs.
As one enters the exhibition, your eye focuses in on one cause of that decline in production: a bag of flour. This bag is a recreation of the bags of flour that the U.S. gave in aid to Jordan and other countries around the world at highly subsidized prices, which led many local farmers to eventually shut down their production.
Other interesting points of the exhibition were:
- Woven baskets, which instead of being used for their original function in wheat production are now just sold as wall decor at boutique furniture stores like West Elm;
- Bags of wheat produced in the U.S. but marketed as ‘traditional grains of the Middle East’ and imported to Jordan at premium prices, rather than Jordanian-grown grains;
- Images and stories about Jaffa oranges, which are native to Palestinian lands but are now primarily owned and cultivated by Israeli settlers.
Even with this backdrop of geopolitics and food insecurity, the Middle East region is known for fantastic food, from falafel to tabbouleh to hummus. There is some debate, though, as to where these popular dishes originated. In fact, the New York Times wrote an interesting piece on the debate over the origins of falafel as an example of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And there’s even a documentary film focused entirely on this humble chickpea dish.
But while countries may argue over the origin of dishes and while the politics and religions may differ greatly across the region, the Middle East has a lot in common when it comes to food.
On a recent trip to Jordan, I was able to try a number of this region’s quintessential dishes.
Popular dishes in Jordan:
- Falafel: fried chickpea balls, eaten on their own or in a sandwich
- Galayet bandora: tomatoes stewed until soft and pureed, with garlic and olive oil
- Hummus: classic dip of chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice
- Labneh: strained yogurt dip
- Tabbouleh: fresh salad of parsley, tomatoes and lemon juice – some versions include bulgur
- Fattoush: lettuce-based salad with lemon juice, olive oil and pita chips
- Moutabel: roasted eggplant dip similar to baba ghanoush, but better, mixing yoghurt in with the eggplant, tahini, garlic and lemon juice
- Manaeesh: Bread topped with ground meat, za’atar, cheese or a combination
- Ara’yes: similar to a quesadilla, two layers of pita bread filled with minced lamb, onions, parsley and allspice
- Fuul: a mashed fava bean dish for breakfast, topped with sumac, olive oil, salsa, etc.
- Mansaf: lamb cooked in fermented yogurt and topped with rice and pine nuts; Jordan’s national dish
- Maqluba: upside-down rice with eggplant and chicken
- Kanafeh: semolina pastry stuffed with cheese, drenched in rose scented syrup, and topped with a pinch of ground pistachios
- Muhalabia: milk pudding with rose water or orange blossom water and topped with pistachios
- Basbousa: semolina cake with rose water or orange blossom water
- Sahlab: a fabulous warm drink/pudding made from orchid tubers, milk and orange blossom water, topped with cinnamon and coconut
Recipes to cook at home:
- Beit Sitti: Cooking class in Amman, with recipes available for free on their website (Arabic Food Recipes | Arabic Dishes | Beit Sitti)
- Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen by Adeena Sussman
- While focused on Israeli cuisine, this is a great cookbook for the classic regional dishes of hummus, labneh, muhamarra and more.
- For quick and easy hummus, either by itself or hummus basar (topped with meat), combine in a food processor: 1 can of chickpeas, drained; 1/2 cup liquid from chickpea can; 1/4 cup tahini; 2 garlic cloves; juice from 1 lemon, 1 tsp salt. Top with olive oil and sumac.
- The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria by Marlene Matar
- Cookbook for meze, kebabs and more.
And for all of your Middle Eastern ingredient needs, check out Phoenicia Specialty Foods in Houston.
Places to eat in Jordan:
- Hashem, Amman
- Cheap, 24-hour spot serving great versions of the classics, especially the hummus and large falafel.
- Shams El Balad/El Maqha, Amman
- Trendy, stylish cafe for farm-to-table food (beetroot falafel with pink tahini, cauliflower fritters with green labneh) and alcohol (Taybeh beer from Palestine, Petra and Carakale beer from Jordan).
- Sufra, Amman
- Restaurant within a house with traditional, well-executed Jordanian dishes.
- Habibeh Sweets, Amman
- Known for their kanafeh cheesy pastry.
- Lebanese House, Jerash
- A fancy establishment open since 1977 next to the Roman ruins of Jerash.
- Tons of dishes to try, from muhamarra and tabbouleh to lamb ara’yes. No need to get the hummus or falafel as you can find better versions elsewhere.
- W Amman / Marriott Dead Sea Resort / Marriott Petra
- It’s not often that I highlight hotel food, but there is something special about a Marriott property breakfast buffet. In addition to Western breakfast items, Marriott buffets always have a fantastic selection of local dishes. In Jordan, this included the best fuul I had in country, a station with multiple types of halva and toppings, and mini za’atar manaeesh.
Places to eat in Houston:
- Massive portions at great value – best for sharing, or you’ll have lots of leftovers to take home.
- Particularly enjoyed the Zurbian lamb: cumin-spiced lamb and basmati rice with raisins and fried onions.
- Al Aseel
- My favorite spot for hummus, musakhan, lemon mint juice, and other Middle Eastern specialties.
- Read more in my blog post here.
- Cedar Bakery
- Weekend breakfast destination for freshly-baked maneesh.
- Read more in my blog post here.
Whether you’re driving to the Dead Sea or just driving to Al Aseel in west Houston, below is the perfect playlist.