Cooking in Jordan: Only the freshest spices will do

Story by Lorena F. Aspe // Photos by Ryan Tyler Payne

At Alshahrori, a spice shop in Il-Balad, the dynamic downtown section of bustling Amman, owner Nasser El-Sadi sits in the corner surveying his vast collection of raw spices assembled in huge fiber sacs before him.

To the right are tin canisters holding mountains of ground colors – red paprika, orange sumac, yellow turmeric, green haeel and brown nutmeg. To his left, sacs of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and black pepper fill the store with their pungent aroma.

Shop owner Nassif El-Sadi behind some of the heaping canisters of spices at his store in downtown Amman.

This is the centerpiece of any Jordanian’s kitchen – where everyone from professional chefs to the women who are cooking for their households come to collect what they need to make their traditional meals.

“Spices are an important part of Jordanian cooking,” El-Sadi said through a translator. “I make sure that people who come to buy get the best. I buy them as plants and cultivate the seeds myself and with experience I know when to pick them and grind them. They have to be fresh.”

For the multidimensional flavors of Jordanian cuisine, cooks of every stature agree that spices are essential for crafting the perfect meal.

Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, is a rich meal of saffron rice and lamb topped with a thick dried yogurt called jameed. Another typical dish is Musakhan, which is bread topped with sweet onions and sumac, saffron and baharat, Jordan’s version of an allspice – cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves and cumin or cardamom. Mahshi is another popular Arabic dish composed of squash or zucchini stuffed with rice and meat in a tomato-based broth seasoned with cinnamon and caraway seed.

Tariq Nawafleh, the chef and supervisor at The Petra Kitchen in Petra, specializes in teaching tourists how to prepare traditional Jordanian meals, such as Mansaf, in an effort to make their travels more complete and give them an authentic experience.

His first rule: Know your spices.

“Spices are meant to give more depth to food. They are meant to enhance the flavor,” Nawafleh said. “They should be bright and have a strong aroma. The color and smell is what guarantee their freshness.”

Nawafleh understands the importance of balance and simplicity to Jordanian and Arabic cuisine – or any cuisine for that matter.  Therefore, he only uses a few spices for each dish.

“I prefer to cook with few spices to get all the flavors and so that the people can be able to differentiate the taste of each individual spice,” he said.

A "baharat" mix of spices, which is Jordan's version of "all spice" - before going into the processor. The spices are cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves and cumin or cardamom.

Although Jordanian cooking includes a wide variety of spices, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon are the most basic – called for in almost every recipe. However, Nawafleh believes that it is important to experiment because it really comes down to “cooking the food that you like to eat.”

Wild Jordan Café in Amman serves healthy food with a twist. They get all their products from the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) reserves. There are six in Jordan: Ajloun, Al Azraq, Dana, Dibeen, Shaumari and Wadi Mujib. Sameh Mamdan, 40, the executive chef, ensures that every ingredient they use is natural and free of any preservatives.

“We, in the restaurant, make sure everything we get is organic, including our spices. Everything should be fresh to get the best flavor,” Mamdan said.

Mamdan is also a minimalist when it comes to cooking and his use of spices. As an innovative chef, he likes to use them in ways that have never been used before.

“I like using some of the spices of Jordan, such as cumin, sumac, nutmeg and cinnamon to give different flavor to international cuisine,” he said. “It allows me to experiment with different flavor profiles that people never tasted.”

Jordanian women, who are typically in charge of cooking for their families, are more likely to stick to tradition. They encourage and teach their daughters to prepare the traditional meals because it’s likely one day they will have to cook for their own household.

Khadeeja Be’ah, 42, a homemaker and avid cook who always tries to get her daughter Lujeen, 12, to cook with her on weekends, demonstrates the way certain spices are supposed to look and smell. For example, haeel – a popular spice Bedouins use to flavor their coffee and used in many typical Jordanian foods – has to be a vivid green and have a pungent scent.

“Cinnamon is my favorite spice to use because it is strong,” said Be’ah. “Also nutmeg and cumin.”

Jordanian cuisine is not only flavorful but aromatic as well. It is a sensorial experience, which always begins with smell.

When it comes to spices there has to be a balance, cooks agree. Be’ah relies on the aroma of the spices because she never tries her food while preparing it. That is why it is essential for her to have the freshest spices, naturally the most fragrant.

There are no exact recipes when it comes to cooking Jordan’s typical dishes, especially for the spices used. But chefs and women alike concur that it should taste as good as it smells.

“Spices are related to your mind, like perfume. Some foods you just know what spices they have because of the smell,” said Be’ah. “When I was a young girl and come back from school, I could recognize what my mother cook from the smell.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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