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Eating my way through Jordan

We recently came back from an unbelievably great trip to Jordan and in particular, Petra. We were lucky enough to go as part of the National Jewish Democratic Council & The Solomon Project, who were here on a mission, which also took the logistics out of our hands. As is always the case, when we take a trip like this, my mind immediately turns to the food and what I can look forward to on that front. Suffice it to say that Marc Stanley, NJDC’s lay leader and veteran of several other trips to Petra, knows and likes good food and as a result we were in extremely good hands. His good friend H.E. Senator Akel Biltaji, the former Jordanian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, took exceptionally good care of us, with great food, a first-class hotel stay and army drivers not afraid of either high speeds nor Jordan’s winding mountain roads.

This was a two-day trip with the first evening spent overnight at The Dead Sea Marriott – a true 5-star resort.  We were greeted upon arrival with a red carpet welcome, cool towels to wash our hands and face, and mixed fruit juice. We also had large and lovely fruit platters in our room, which excited the kids to no end for some reason, that is, until they found the mini-bar. After swimming and drinking by one of the resort’s many pools, we were hosted that evening, first for cocktails on an upper patio, and then at the hotel’s Italian restaurant – Il Terrazzo. On the patio, we watched first the sun and then the new moon set behind Israel’s Judean hills, as both nearby Jericho and distant Jerusalem lit up across the Dead Sea from us.

While it was slightly surreal to be at an Italian restaurant in the middle of the desert, the setting was equally lovely. Outside, on a terraced patio, also overlooking the water, we were entertained first by Sen. Biltaji, then by a wedding DJ spinning all the same tunes for a Jordanian wedding reception you’d here at any similar reception in the States. The food – right, this is about the food – the food was delicious and the chef went out of his way to create a great meal, including a lovely first course of a mozzarella and basil salad, focaccia with green salad and arugula with mushrooms and parmesan cheese. This was followed by a mushroom or lobster risotto (your choice, depending on your kashrut observance), pasta, vegetables, and a beef tenderloin dish. The wine was poured liberally. They even brought pizzas over the kids. Given the amount of food and the flow of wine – I went to bed around 11 full and slightly tipsy.

Breakfast was a rushed affair the next morning. Still full from the night before, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for hotel breakfast as I normally do, but with a three-hour drive looming ahead and lunch not until after the Petra tour, we definitely needed to feed the kids and let’s face facts: When you’re sitting in front of a lavish buffet, it’s just plain hard not to eat – or at least it is for me. So after securing made-to-order pancakes, baked French toast and chocolate muffins for the Jake and Sammy, I took the full survey. And while I was tempted by the traditional Jordanian breakfast (which had it’s own station) of cheeses, olives and vegetables, I eventually settled on a bagel with lox, promptly scavenged by the 8 year-old, and continuing on with the international theme, a breakfast burrito with eggs, black beans, and salsa wrapped in a tortilla and covered with cheddar. This was definitely a buffet worthy of a longer seating but this would have to do.

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Since this is a food blog, I won’t elaborate on Petra – suffice it to say that if you’re ever in Israel you should take the time to get to Jordan – it’s amazing.  We spent 2½ hours driving there (more if you’re drive like a normal person) and then another 2½ hours wandering the Lost City. By lunchtime we were famished. After a 20-minute drive up winding roads in the city of Wadi Musa/Petra, we ended up at an Arab resort called Taybet Zaman.  Taybet Zaman looks like an old Arab village with low stone buildings, dim lights, and amazing views. 

We walked into the restaurant for lunch with a large square table set for 20 that was literally covered with dozens and dozens of small dishes of various salads and spreads and little bites. In the Middle East, these first course salads are omnipresent in traditional restaurants – whether in Israel or in Jordan. They easily can make a meal unto themselves, however they are usually followed by a meat entrée. And while some of my favorites deserve their own separate posting sometime in the near future, there are umpteen variations. The table was groaning under the weight of the spread: Turkish salad (a tomato-based salad with onion and cilantro and slightly piquant taste) to a smooth and delicious hummus, roasted eggplant, a salad of green tomatoes with boiled potatoes and cucumbers , vegetarian grape leaves, a delicious beet and orange salad which I couldn’t stop eating, green tehina (sesame paste with green herbs chopped and mixed in – another favorite of mine), a fetoosh salad of cucumbers, tomatoes in a vinaigrette and herbs – such as za’atar – with crispy pita straws, a white cheese with walnuts and mint, a tabbouleh salad (also tabouli or tabouleh – parsley, cracked wheat, tomatoes and herbs), kubbe (a wheat-based dough filled with beef and deep fried), phyllo with beef inside, a shrimp salad, little pizzas with cheese or beef, a chopped vegetable salad (like Israeli salad) and even more that I probably didn’t find on the table, not to mention the assorted breads that were  in constant supply.  We feasted on these salads for a good 30 minutes before the “entrée” was rolled out.

In this case, actually two entrees – the first of the two was called “Zarb” or a lamb and rice dish that is known for the method in which it was cooked – basically a mud pit where a fire was lit and then extinguished and then the lamb is cooked in the heat of the pit while covered (think Hawaiian luau but in the Middle East), and “freeka” with chicken. Freeka is a wheat product that is cooked with the chicken and tastes and looks like rice.  For the vegetarians and kosher among us, the restaurant graciously accommodated with a white fish simply broiled with olive oil and some spices and it was completely delicious. The whole meal was finished with Kunafa (mult. spellings), a cheese/and wheat pastry (think shredded wheat) that is sweetened and served with nuts.

As we rolled back to the vans for the return trip to Israel, I could only help but think that that I might not need to eat again anytime soon. But by the time we had returned to Jerusalem and folks were talking about heading to Moshiko on Ben Yehuda for schawarma, I was already thinking, “well maybe…..”

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