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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Ramadan in Jordan Part 1 - Unique Traditions and the Bedouin Jordanian Mansaf

Jordanian Desert Police, also Known as the Bedouin Police
Photo by Rawan Otoom

"Ramadan in my country means Home and Family. We like to eat at home during the Holy month, or at a close relative's home. We enjoy family gatherings, and raise our kids to appreciate them too, as we believe these family ties have a huge positive effect on our kids. Teaching children to be close to and appreciate family enhances virtues of kinship and love in their minds." 

- Rawan Otoom, Healthy Food expert in nakahat.com e-magazine
 and a Jordanian food blogger

A cuisine dictated by Geography
Characterised by a generously varied geography, Jordan houses the desert, a variety of agricultural plains, the valley that is home to earth's lowest below-sea-level spot (the Dead Sea), as well as pinning many high mountains. These environmental variations are very well reflected onto the country's cuisine, as the Jordanian cuisine differs from an area to another, both in ingredients and method of cooking.  The Jordanian cuisine is unique as it is the outcome of a marriage between Beduin food and the agricultural community's food. I say unique, because in most cases the food is either evidently Bedouin or characteristically agricultural, however, in Jordan it is very common to see both features in the same dish.

Bedouin Tents in the Jordanian Desert
Photo by Rawan Otoom

Ramadan in Jordan
Like every other country I have explored, Jordan has a unique Ramadan Spirit, consisting of mainly spiritual traditions such as the performance of Taraweeh prayers in mosques by most, practicing Silat Al Arham صلة الأرحام by hosting large Iftars for family members and visiting extended family throughout the month , as well as practicing Sadaqat صدقات (donating money to those in need, also including distribution of Ramadan Mooneh مونة رمضان to the needy, to include meats, rice, flour, eggs, pulses...) among others. Ramadan in Jordan is a month where most people turn their attention to helping the community, especially those who are in need.

With that said, Ramadan in Jordan has many cultural traditions too. From decorating homes with Ramadan themed nick nacks, lanterns and the hanging of lights on the balconies in the shape of the Ramadan crescent and star... to the restaurants and cafes all offering Ramadan Special menus and entertainment, including special menu items such as Atayef, Um ali, Osmalieh and other Arabic desserts as well as Turkish coffee, green tea and lately even Moroccan tea. Throughout the month, Shisha is almost offered everywhere, and some cafes will even go the length of offering Henna Tattoos, coffee cup fortune telling and palm reading as part of their entertainment. During the Holy month the days are quieter than usual, while the nights in Ramadan are buzzing and most people would be out in cafes and restaurants after Iftar, and these Saharat Ramadanieh سهرات رمضانية (Ramadan evening hangouts) would last till very late at night.

The Jordanian kitchen Preparations for the Holy month
I had spoken to the Lovely Rawan Otoom - who is one of the food experts of nakahat.com, a Jordanian online healthy food magazine - about the Jordanian Ramadan traditions. As we talked about the kitchen preparations for the Holy month she described them as such:
"We start preparing for the holy month weeks ahead. This also includes displaying Ramadan decorations (lights, lanterns and kids drawings and crafts). 
The kitchen preparations include preparing Monet Ramadan  مونة رمضان which includes buying a large amount of nuts (especially walnuts and pistachios) and dried Fruits (dates and dried Apricots). Monet Ramadan also includes lentils, bulgur and Freekeh (green wheat). 
We also stock up on the Ramadan beverages' ingredients such as Qamar El Deen قمر الدين sheets as it is the must beverage of Ramadan, as well as Irqsoos عرق سوس (licorice) and Tamerhindi تمر هندي (Tamarind) that make up the delicious selection of Ramadan Beverages. 
Once the ingredients are purchased, we would prepare the ones that need preparation such as the different types of pickles which require time to be ready for consumption. We would also prepare a lot of Samboosik, although samboosik is a new addition to the Jordanian Iftar menu, but nowadays we make it in large quantities with a variety of fillings (cheese, meat, chicken, vegetables or potato) and would then freeze them ready to defrost and fry daily for Iftar. In the old days my grandma used to even make large amount of sugar syrup to consume during Ramadan on a daily basis.
All these preparations and lots more are done in advance so we can enjoy quality family time and have time to do our religious rituals during Ramadan."

Yes, like most Levantine tables, the Jordanian table is one that is always rich with varieties and Ramadan Iftars are just another opportunity to showcase and indulge in these varieties. There is no way that you will sit to a Jordanian meal that offers just one dish or two, it is in fact culturally considered shameful to invite guests to a mediocre table that offers a dish or two. In Jordan - drawing from the Bedouin virtue of Karam al Diyafeh كرم الضيافة (generous hospitality) - you must always offer the best, always a variety of choices even if that means offering all that you have.

Jordanian Women preparing Shrak bread خبز شراك
Photo by Rawan Otoom

What the Jordanians Eat for Iftar
"During Ramadan, we concentrate on having soups, salads , beverages and stews as these are the foods that supply the fasting body with the necessary nutrients and a sufficient amount of liquid to compensate for what is lost during the fast." says Rawan and details as follows: 

"We break our fast with dates and water, then we go for the soup, Lentil or Freekeh Soup are the most popular choices. We then have the salad with one or two kinds of sambosik and finally the main course, all the while sipping on the Ramadan beverages and indulging in a variety of pickles and olives. 
After Iftar we Drink either red tea or Arabic Coffee, then head to pray Taraweeh. When we return from Taraweeh prayer we have the dessert. There is a wide variety of desserts, but Qatayef remains the most popular, especially that it is only made during Ramadan, so in a way Ramadan means Qataief. Other kinds of desserts that we like to serve during Ramadan are Bahteh, which is a rice pudding made using home-made starch*. There is also Zalabya, which in Jordan is a scented dough that is fried and then drenched in Sugar Syrup.  
In the old days, Lazageiat was the popular traditional dessert and it is a dough made without yeast, baked over Saj and then served with Samen Baladi (traditional home-made clarified Butter**) and drenched in sugar syrup. "

Jordanian Bedouin
Photo by Rawan Otoom
 * Home-made starch is usually extracted from wheat. The wheat is soaked in water for a while and then rubbed between the palms until all the starch comes out. It is then left for the starch to separate from the liquid and this starch will then be used in the making of the dessert. It is believed to be better tasting than the store-bought variety.

** Samen Baladi سمن بلدي is a type of clarified butter and every family usually has their own recipe for Samen. While in Jordan samen is available in most stores, many people would buy it from bedouin families known for it. This samen is used in the making of desserts, mansaf and traditionally used for flavouring foods as well as for frying nuts which are then sprinkled over the food.

As for Sohour
In Jordan there are two dishes that are a must. One is fool  فول which is brown fava beans with tomatoes, and the other is one of different kinds of Jordanian omelets. People also serve some readily available pantry foods such as labneh لبنة , white cheese جبنة بيضاء , olives, halawa  حلاوة  بالسمن البلدي with Samen Balady, zaatar زعتر , galaiet banadora قلاية بندورة (a tomato stir fry), date molasses with tahini طحينة بدبس الرمان , Qamar El Deen paste, Jameed paste with some olive oil جميد بزيت الزيتون ...etc. which are all eaten with freshly baked bread and of course dates and water are essential. After devouring Sohour, people usually pray Al-fajer prayer and then sleep.

A Ramadan Tradition Unique to Jordan
While chatting with Rawan, I was surprised to know that there is a Jordanian Ramadan tradition that I am not familiar with! She said:
"One of the most important Jordanian Ramadan traditions is that on the first day of Ramadan we should cook either white or green stews. This tradition has a beautiful meaning: Both white and green represent Muslims, since green is the color of muslims' clothes in heaven and white is the most mentioned color in Al-Quran Al-Kareem. That is besides the fact that these two colours are usually comforting to the eye, and are generally associated with peace and goodness . 
So my family, for instance, usually cooks Mansaf (the most Popular Jordanian Dish, that is mainly white) and on the side, we serve spring onions, rocket Salad, and sliced white onions, which are green and white, and also tend to bring out the flavour of the Mansaf."

 When I asked Rawan whether the Jordanians prefer eating at home or restaurants she explained that while the concentration of the food of choice during Ramadan is on Traditional cuisine, many Jordanians are open to cooking recipes from other cuisines, however, they prefer recipes that they have already tried and tested as opposed to trying out a completely new recipe. Most people, as every where else, would stay away from junk food as it has no essential nutritients and is believed to make fasting harder the next day and induce thirst. In the same effect most people prefer home-cooked meals for Iftar, either at home or a close relative's, but are also keen on going to restaurants that are known for offering good food and varieties of it. After Iftar, most people will either hang out in cafes and restaurants or visit family and friends.


Mansaf  منسف
A very old traditional Jordanian dish that used to be cooked only for significant occasions, as it is meant to reflect the generosity of the host. It is basically a Yougurt Stew called Mleaheyeh ملاحية that is cooked with large pieces of meat. Mansaf is served with Shrak bread  خبز شراك* and white Rice on the side, garnished with fried almonds and pine nuts.

*Shrak Bread خبز شراك is very thin bread, usually cooked over a Sajyeh صاجية (similar to an inverted wok over fire), This bread is similar to the Levantine Saj Bread خبز الصاج and Gulf Region's Rgag رقاق.

Back in the old days, Mansaf used to be made with bulgur instead of rice, to which a layer of rice is then added (over the bulgur). Nowadays Mansaf is made only with rice.

Jordanian Mansaf
Photo by Rawan Otoom
Rawan Otoom's 
Jordanian Mansaf Recipe

Mansaf is a Bedouin dish and eating it follows Bedouin traditions, which Rawan explains as: 

"Traditionally, Mansaf should be served in large round tray and eaten by hand. Usually we stand around the tray, the right hand on the front to eat with and the left hand on the back so it doesn't bother the person standing beside you. You must never use your left hand. Every one must eat only from the part that is in front of them, and never to eat from the middle of the dish.
The quantity of the meat used reflects hospitality, the more meat, the more generous the host. The host will continually keep inviting his guests to eat more, and will put more meat and yogurt sauce in front of them. This is what is referred to as Jordanian hospitality among other things."

You Need
For the meat
20 large pieces of meat on the bone
3 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
6 cloves cardamom, coarsely crushed
1 tsp black pepper corns
1 large onion cut into quarters

For Yougurt sauce 
2 Kg cow's yogurt
1 Kg goat's yogurt
1 Jameed ball grounded into powder
4 tbsp labneh 
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp  Samen Baladi

For the rice 2 Kg
(10 cups) short grain Egyptian rice
2 liters water
3/4 cup Samen
1/4 cup corn oil
1 tsp meskeh (mastic) ground with some salt
Salt to taste

To garnish 
generous amount of fried almonds
generous amount of fried pin nuts 

Soak Jameed powder in warm water over night.

Make the Jameed (yogurt sauce)
In a large pot, place the meat pieces along with the spices, onion and enough water to cover, and bring to the boil. Remove the brown froth that floats at the top, and then cover and let the meat cook for 2 hrs until nearly done.
In the meantime, gradually blend the yogurt with the soaked Jameed and labneh using the blender. Pour this yogurt-Jameed mix through a fine strainer into a large pot and stir continually until it hardly boil (stirring is very important to keep the Yougurt from splitting). Add the cooked meat with 4 cups of its stock and the tumeric and keep cooking together until the meat is cooked through and tender

If the sauce gets thicker with boiling, add more stock or boiling water until u reach the right consistency.

Make the rice Soak the rice in water for 30 minutes then wash thoroughly with water. Put the ghee and oil in a large pot, when melted add the rice and flip to toast several times until it absorbed all the fat. Add the salt and meskeh then add the boiling water (water should be one centimeter above rice level). When it is hardly boiling and the rice starts to absorb the water, lower the heat and let it cook on it's lowest setting.

To serve Put shrak bread on the base of the round try and then top with the rice and spread it all around the tray. Remove the meat from the sauce and arrange it evenly over the rice then garnish with the fried nuts. 
Strain the yogurt sauce into serving bowls and place on the side of the tray.

Meet Rawan Otoom
Rawan, the mother of 3 beautiful children, holder of a Pharmacy Doctor certificate is a woman passionate about food. So much so that she has recently plunged into the food world and started a food blog (Rawan's Kitchen) as well as joined the team of healthy food experts of nakahat.com, a Jordanian e-magazine focused on healthy cooking.

Rawan describes herself as: 
"I love cooking and baking. It's passionate, creative, inspirational and therapeutic somehow! This food passion of mine goes back to school days, and developed with all the support I got from family and friends, and off course due to my insistence to learn more and more every single day. 
Recently I established my own food blog in-order to share my food passion with everyone who likes to learn everything new about cooking and baking, and I am now working with the magazine Nakahat نكهات  to confirm the idea that everyone can enjoy eating delicious food based on healthy recipes and therefore enjoy a healthy life style."
So for those of you looking for healthy recipes, make sure to drop by her blog and check out her delicious healthy recipes on Nakahat e-magazine as well.

Most information, Mansaf recipe and photographs, are provided by Rawan Otoom and are her property. They are published on this blog with her permission. Please do not copy or use them without her permission.


Food For Thought
A lesson to learn from the Bedouins:
Despite scarcity, Giving is the most essential of virtues

Hope you have enjoyed getting to know Jordan and its Bedouin and Ramadan traditions a little closer. Rawan and I would love nothing more than to hear from you and see what you think of these traditions. If you have similar traditions, where you come from, do please share them with us, as we would love to learn more about your country and traditions.

Come back tomorrow and see how back in the day, some traditions were slightly different in Jordan.
Come back for 
Part 2 & Jordanian Zalabia Recipe :)

The world is beautiful, all its people are beautiful, all cultures equally important, and all the same in the end - all out there for us to explore...
Ramadan Kareem