For thousands of years, people have traipsed across Jordan’s shifting sands. Caravans and camel trains followed trade routes from the north to the Red Sea; religious pilgrims passed through on their way to Mecca to the east; and the region’s nomadic Bedouin people still set up camps each summer before heading south for the rainy season. Today, I’m here on a pilgrimage of a different kind: a food lover’s tour of Jordan that takes me from the port town of Aqaba on the Red Sea, to the wonders of Petra, the Mars-like landscapes of Wadi Rum, and the homes of local Jordanians, who welcome us with fresh figs, sweet mint tea and boundless generosity.
This gourmet tour has been mapped out by Al Manara in Aqaba, a Luxury Collection Hotel from Marriott that provides a stylish base for our four-day stay in Jordan. After a four-hour drive from the capital Amman, we check into the sleek new resort on the edge of the Red Sea. Our first taste of Jordanian hospitality comes as we settle into the deep lounges in the lobby, sipping thimbles of cardamom-spiced coffee and tart hibiscus juice. Later that evening, we gather on the terrace for an arak cocktail, before wandering down to the beach. Here, the Al Manara kitchen team has created a ‘Bedouin on the Beach’ experience, complete with a banquet table and seating sunk into the sand. After an endless procession of mezze, we gather further up the beach to watch the chefs pull a tiered tray from the glowing embers of a fire pit buried in the sand. A specialty of the Bedouins of Petra and Wadi Rum, this lamb zaarb has been cooking underground for three hours, resulting in fall-apart meat and fluffy rice that is rich with spices and lamb juices. It’s the first of many main courses we’re served that night, including sumac-spiced chicken and oven-baked Dennis fish, each representing the regional cuisines of Jordan, and paired with Jordanian wines.
We sleep deeply that night, before bundling into minivans for the two-hour drive to Petra the next morning, where we’re joined by local guide Mahmoud Twaissi a botanist and archaeologist who grew up in Petra. As we walk through the Siq (a 1.2-kilometre canyon), Mahmoud points out carvings, inscriptions and tombs in the rocks, regaling us with stories of this ancient city, which was home to 30,000 people during its peak in the Nabatean era of 400 BC.
No matter how many times you’ve watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, nothing can prepare you for the sight of Al Khazneh (also known as The Treasury) emerging through a gap in the gorge. The russet-red structure carved into sandstone was originally built as a royal tomb, and today it is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. After posing for photos in front of the breathtaking backdrop, we continue on to the ancient city centre, home to an amphitheatre, sacrificial altar, and tombs carved into boulders. It’s as far as we go on this trip, but we’re left plotting return visits to venture deeper into the lost city and the mountaintop monastery.
Instead, now it’s time for lunch. Mahmoud has arranged a meal with a local family, who open their doors to our group of 20 for a shared feast. Gathered on cushions on the floor, we’re treated to maglooba, a giant pot of slow-braised chicken, rice and vegetables that is inverted onto a platter and served with yoghurt, tomato and cucumber salad, and an iridescent swirl of homemade goat butter that has what can only be described as a goaty funk. To finish, we share plates of freshly picked figs and apricots, and honey-soaked pastries filled with semolina custard.
Our next destination brings us deeper into the Jordanian countryside, as we visit Jarba Farm. This 25-hectare organic farm is dotted with apple, walnut and pomegranate trees, prickly pears, olive groves, grapevines and fields of lush green herbs. Owner Waleed talks about his organic practices as we snack on walnuts and dates, and sip thick, sweet red grape juice that was pressed fresh that morning.
We press on as afternoon eases into evening, arriving at the gates of Wadi Rum just as the sun dips behind the mountains. From here, local guides ferry us across the sand to Memories Aicha Luxury Camp. A candlelit table has been set up at the base of a cliff, where we share Arabic mezze of moutabal, hummus and pickles, followed by delicately spiced lamb, fish and rice. Our bellies full, we wander into the sand dunes for a spot of stargazing under the Milky Way.
It’s only when we awake the next morning that we can fully appreciate the scale of Wadi Rum. We emerge from our tents into an alien landscape of iron-rich sands and towering rock faces. (It’s little wonder the desert valley has provided an other-worldly backdrop to films including The Martian and Star Wars Rogue One.)
After a breakfast of fresh-baked saj bread, eggs, olives and jameed (yoghurt cheese), we jump into the back of the battered old pick-up trucks for a safari through the national park. Mahmoud guides us to Burdah Rock Bridge, where we scramble up boulders for Insta-worthy photos, then it’s on to Khazali Canyon, a narrow wedge in Jabal Khazali covered with inscriptions carved by pilgrims thousands of years earlier.
By now, the sun is high in the sky as Mahmoud leads us to a local Bedouin camp for lunch. Under the shade of the coarse goat-hair tent, we sit on handwoven rugs and drink glasses of sage and cinnamon tea. It doesn’t get more authentic than the meal that’s set before us: platters of mansaf, a Bedouin specialty of lamb, rice and yoghurt, with swathes of tissue-thin saj bread cooked over an upturned shield by a 65-year-old Bedouin woman who looks at least twice her age. Our host shows us how to scoop up the food with our right hand, using our thumbs to shovel it into our mouths. It’s humble, unpretentious, and utterly delicious.
We’re all quiet on our drive back to Aqaba, committing to memory the warmth of the people and the indelible landscapes of the past few days. To complete our gourmet adventure, we gather at Al Manara’s alfresco Kubba Levatin Bar for a cocktail class, before sitting down to one final feast at Kubba Levatin Restaurant. In contrast to the homey meals we’ve enjoyed in Petra and Wadi Rum, Kubba delivers a modern interpretation of Arabic cuisine. Beef kibbeh with hibiscus tahini sauce; chicken liver paté with sage tea jelly; and cheesecake made with local jameed are just some of the inventive dishes that come to our table.
It’s the balance of ancient and contemporary, rustic and luxurious that has made this epicurean journey so memorable. What stays with me long after I’ve returned home isn’t the majesty of Petra or the awesome landscapes of Wadi Rum, however, but the rugged resilience of Jordan and its people. Bordered by Syria, Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Jordan has long been in the centre of a hot neighbourhood, without any of the natural resources so readily found in the rest of the region. Life here is tough. It’s writ large across the faces of the Bedouins, weathered and wizened before their time, and in the shanty-like villages that crop up by the side of the road. But the Jordanians are proud, loyal and tough… and only too happy to share the wonders of this fascinating nation.
Sarah was a guest of Al Manara, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Saraya Aqaba