العقبة، الأردن [Aqaba, Jordan]

Sometimes, a country surprises you. I had high expectations of Jordan, mainly because of our next destination: Petra. But it didn’t take more than an hour of being in Aqaba, located on the Red Sea at the southern tip of Jordan, to already start to feel the immense hospitality that is so ingrained in Jordanian culture. [It was also amazing because I got to experience my first dive ever. More on that later, below.]

Hospitality is frequently displayed through tea. When we checked into the divers village where we were staying, we were offered a cup of tea and chance to relax and chat with the owner before we headed to our room. After our dinners, we were presented with a cup of tea. We had a warm cup while looking out to the Red Sea to relax during the afternoon. We were in Aqaba for a little over 36 hours, and I was drinking a cup nearly every six hours. Tea is served in smaller glasses or cups, with a little (or a lot) of sugar, and a few mint leaves (known in Jordan as na’na (نعناع )). It reminded me of Morocco, especially the sweetness, except that in Morocco more tea leaves were used, the tea was poured in front of you, and it was made with green tea.

Hospitality in a glass, served warm with mint (نعناع or na’na)… just some of the tea I drank in Aqaba
The market scene in downtown Aqaba

Since we only had roughly 36 hours in Aqaba (sigh, not enough time), I had to prioritize everything: what to do, what to see, and WHAT TO EAT. Jordan made it easy on me: they have this national dish called mansaf (منسف‎). In the Bedouin traditional that underscores a lot of Jordanian food culture, mansaf is made of goat or lamb or chicken, apparently depending on how highly you were valued as a guest. We were served chicken, and based on how good it was, anyone who gets goat or lamb must be the most holy, distinguished, finally-figured-out-world-peace-and-stopped-climate-change guest imaginable. I mean, look at it below. Can’t you just taste the charbroil in your mouth?

Our mansaf was presented to us almost deconstructed, opposed to its final form of really being stew. To the meat and rice and almonds, you add a sauce of jameed (جميد, a fermented, dried goat’s milk yogurt). Then, you take some of the shrak or markook (مرقوق، شراك) bread — a wafer thin, charred bread prepared on a special griddle — and, using it as a utensil, dive right into the communal dish. Because mansaf is a communal dish and is meant to be shared by all.

Mansaf (منسف‎), the Jordanian national dish

In fact, mansaf means large dish, and I wish I had known that because in addition to ordering mansaf, I also ordered sayadieh bi samak (صيادية السمك مرتين), the local Aqaba speciality of baked fish, caramelized onions and rice in a tomato sauce. Oof. So good, but I felt bad because in the end, it barely looked like we ate anything… and it was all so good. That rice was perfectly flavored with a Middle Eastern spice mix known as baharat (بهارات), combining pepper, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, paprika, and nutmeg.

Sayadieh bi Samak: Fish with spiced rice and caramelized onions and almonds

Jordan, like its neighbors in the region, also has a love affair with mezze. Our included the usual hummus, as well as a plate of dips including baba ghanous (بابا غنوج), labaneh jarashyyeh (لبنة‎ – yogurt with spices), bagdonsyyeh (باجدونسيييه– parsley and tahini) and pickled vegetables. And of course a thicker version of shrak bread, which has been my favorite so far because of that delicious charred flavor. Tasting this makes me wonder: Why isn’t all bread charred?

More mezze, consisting of hummus (حُمُّص‎) and a plate of dips including baba ghanous (بابا غنوج), labaneh jarashyyeh (لبنة‎), bagdonsyyeh (باجدونسيييه) and pickled vegetables
Shrak or Markook (مرقوق، شراك) – a very thin, perfectly charred bread made on a saj (hot griddle)

Like in Egypt, there is a huge bread subsidy program in Jordan, though in Jordan the subsidy is for all-purpose flour. The subsidy, which has kept bread prices stable over the last decades despite market fluctuation in wheat prices, is supposedly one of the largest government expenditures. I won’t go into it much again, but if you’re curious about the history and potential future of flour subsidies in Jordan here. Let’s just say that bread is artificially cheap here and there is a lot of it. I just stood inside this bakery, watching a worker bag khubz (the more traditional pita bread seen in the windows below) that were coming out of a convey-belt chute from the ovens in the back. It was fun to watch.

Need some bread? Bags of khubz (bread with pockets, aka pita bread).

Tea wasn’t the only thing we drank in Aqaba. بولو or polo is the most refreshing drink when it’s 100*F outside and humid. Our first night, the server at a local restaurant recommended it and I’m glad he did. He presented it as a lemon-mint drink, and initially I thought it’d be something closer to a tea with lemon and mint added to it. Instead, I got a frothy, blended combination of lemons, mint, and a healthy dose of sugar. Not so sweet that your stomach hurts, not so acidic that your lips pucker up… it was just right.

بولو or polo — the most refreshing mint and lemon drink you’ll ever have in the scorching desert heat

Most of this trip so far, I’ve been eating fairly healthy. (Eating my body weight in hummus is healthy, no?) All bets were off though the moment I decided to try kanafeh (كنافة‎), the jem of Jordanian desserts. Middle Eastern desserts share a lot of commonalities: a tempting combination of honey, pastry, and nuts. And sometimes cheese. They’re baked in these gigantic round tins, and when the slices are cut away you can see pools of honey remaining behind…

Kanafeh is made by sandwiching some soft white sheep’s milk cheese with shredded pastry very similar to the kataïfi pastry I had in Greece. A sugar/honey mixture is poured over, then it’s cooked, and at the very end little bit of rosewater is added. I also saw this a lot in Israel, except it was an unnatural neon-orange color (probably the simple syrup they pour over it is more intensely flavored?). The whole dish is so decadent and sticky sweet… I’d love to say I savored it, but really, it was devoured within ten minutes. It was worth it.

Kanafeh (كنافة‎), the queen of Jordanian desserts
So many sweets to choose from ! Just some of the many, many sweets of Jordan…

I would really be remiss without mentioning my first dive EVER. I had been snorkeling before, and while it was nice, it was so limiting to me. Especially as someone who loves swimming. I’m so glad I had the chance to do it because it was exhilarating. Actually beyond exhilarating. I was on a high from the moment I was submerged to … well, really I’m still smiling. One of our dive instructors/guides had an underwater camera to take pictures, and he got some real cool shots. Here are some pictures if you want to see:

PICT9167
Heading to a coral reef
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Me in front of a coral reef. It felt like being in an aquarium!
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Back to the surface (in the terrible dust storm!) and all is a-ok! Can’t wait to dive again.

Next we’re off to Petra… it’ll be hard to top Aqaba, but I have a sneaky feeling Petra will be worth the trek into the desert.

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