Unless you stick to a diet of familiar “international” cuisine and take every meal in upmarket hotels or restaurants, you’re likely to be eating with your fingers at least some of the time – especially if you sample local styles of cooking, whether at low-budget hummus parlors or gourmet Lebanese restaurants. In budget diners, the only cutlery on the table will be a spoon, used to eat rice and soupy stews. More upmarket restaurants will provide cutlery, but even here, flaps or pockets of flatbread (similar to the pitta bread seen in the West) count as knife, fork, and spoon – torn into pieces for scooping up dips, mopping up sauces, tearing meat off the bone and constructing personal one-bite sandwiches.
Since the left hand is traditionally used for toilet purposes, Jordanians instinctively always eat only with the right hand. In restaurant situations, no one will be mortally offended if you use your left hand for a tricky shoveling or tearing maneuver, but using your left hand while eating from a communal platter in someone’s house would be considered unhygienic.
Most people have breakfast relatively early before 8 am.
Lunch is eaten between 1 and 3 pm, and many take a break around 6 pm for coffee and sweet pastries. The main meal of the day is eaten late, rarely before 8 pm; in Amman and Aqaba, restaurants may not start to fill up until 9.30 or 10 pm. However, in keeping with the Bedouin tradition of relying on home cooking, you’ll find that even relatively large towns in the bedouin heartland of southern Jordan, such as Madaba or Karak, have a bare handful of small, plain restaurants that make a roaring trade in early-evening takeaways and close up by 9 pm.
The traditional Jordanian breakfast is a bowl of hot fuul (boiled broad/fava beans mashed with lemon juice, olive oil, and chopped chillis), served with a long-handled ladle from a distinctive bulbous cooking jar and mopped up with fresh-baked khubez (flat bread) – guaranteed to keep you going for hours. Hummus, a cold dip of boiled chickpeas blended with lemon juice, garlic, sesame and olive oil, is lighter. Both fuul and hummus can be ordered to takeaway (barra) in plastic pots. Bakeries that have an open oven (firin) offer a selection of savory pastries, including khubez bayd (a kind of small egg pizza) and bite-sized pastry triangles (ftayer) filled with cheese (jibneh), spinach (sabanekh), potato (batata) or meat (lahmeh). Larger bakeries also have chunky breadsticks, sesame-seed bread rings (kaak), thick slabs of crunchy toast (garshella), and rough brown bread (khubez baladi). Along with some olives (zaytoon) and runny yoghurt (laban) or creamy yoghurt (labneh), it’s easy to put together a picnic breakfast.
Prices are nominal. A bowl of fuul or hummus costs around JD0.75; small baked nibbles half that. Bread is sold by weight, with a kilo of large khubez (about five pieces) or small khubez (about eleven pieces) roughly JD0.50.
Hotel breakfasts vary wildly. At budget establishments, expect pretty poor fare (thin bread, margarine, processed cheese, marmalade, and so on). Larger hotels, though, pride themselves on offering absurdly lavish breakfast buffets, encompassing hummus and other dips, dozens of choices of fresh fruit, fresh-baked bread of all kinds, pancakes with syrup, an omelette chef on hand, and a variety of cooked options from hash browns, baked beans and fried mushrooms to “beef bacon” (a substitute for real bacon, which is forbidden under Islam). Some offer Japanese specialties such as miso soup and sushi.
The staple street snack in the Middle East is falafel, small balls of a spiced chickpea paste deep-fried and served stuffed into khubez along with some salad, a blob of tahini (sesame-seed paste), and optional hot sauce (harr). Up and down the country you’ll also find shawarma stands, with a huge vertical spit outside to tempt customers. Shawarma meat is almost always lamb (only occasionally chicken), slabs of it compressed into a distinctive inverted cone shape and topped with chunks of fat and tomatoes to percolate juices down through the meat as it cooks – similar to a Turkish-style doner kebab. When you order a shawarma, the cook will dip a khubez into the fat underneath the spit and hold it against the flame until it crackles, then fill it with thin shavings of the meat and a little salad and hot sauce.