Jordan: Finding a Kick in the Kingdom

Fiery Foods Manager Middle East Leave a Comment

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Story and Photos by Patrick Holian

Finding a Kick in the Kingdom



Shatah (Jordanian Harissa Sauce)

Maghdoos (Pickled Eggplant with Chile Pepper)

Sawani (Lamb Shank Casserole with Cayenne)

Mixed Grill Shwarma Sandwiches

 The fearless author in Mohammed’s tent

I was in the Middle East and in trouble again. Fortunately, it was not the kind of trouble one expects to see on CNN these days. Rather, my month in Jordan was filled with extremely friendly people and extraordinary sights. The trouble centered around my inability to find any kicked-up, native hot and spicy food in Jordan’s capital city, Amman. I scoured urban grocery stores only to find bottled Louisiana hot sauce. I explored the mysterious alleyways of the central souk, the market, but to no avail. I scaled the ancient walls of Philadelphia, Amman’s original name, in vain.Something was wrong. I thought I would at least find harissa, a fiery, red pepper paste that had sustained me through past journeys in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. But when I asked for harissa at an Amman open air market, I was quickly escorted by a vendor to the candy section. “Here. Harissa. Special just for you.” he said smiling. I was handed a brown block of confectionery that tasted sweeter than marzipan.

Chiles and produce in the market, Amman



Chiles and produce in the market, Amman



Shokran,” I answered, thanking the man in Arabic as I winced from the sugar overload. I quickly fled around the corner and into the night.But wait! Above me in the dark sky was a beacon of color–a brightly lit sign in yellow and red. In English it said, The Chili House. Both the “i”s in “Chili” were in the shape of red peppers with green stems. I quickly climbed the stairs to the second floor entrance. My persistence had paid off.I rushed inside to a flood of blinding white, fluorescent light. It seemed like any fast food restaurant found in the States–a counter for ordering, a sanitized odor in the air, and the obligatory menu wall with color-saturated food photos. I scanned the possibilities. Spaghetti with a chili con carne topping seemed to be the house specialty. The rest of the menu was dominated by hamburger and hot dog offerings. Only the clerk and I were in the place. I went to the counter and asked, “Do you have any chile peppers here?””Yes. This is Chili House.” he said proudly.”No, you don’t understand. Do you serve food here with hot peppers–spicy food?” The server knew his linguistic limits better than I. He left at once and returned with the cook, Ahmad.

The friendly guys at The Chili House, Amman



The friendly guys at The Chili House, Amman



“Can I help you?””Yes. Do you have hot and spicy food here?””Oh, yes. Our world famous spaghetti. It is very, very good.” Ahmad gave me a taste of the sauce. It reminded me of Chef Boyardee with a faint zing of pepper. A bit like Heinz spicy ketchup. Ahmad went on to tell me the entire history of The Chili House. He was quite a company man with dreams, I’m sure, of leaving the dank kitchen behind for a spotless desk with upper management.Apparently, Mr. Ziad Tuameh, the original owner, had spent considerable time abroad learning the restaurant business. By looking at the cheese coney dog listing on the menu board, I was sure our country was to blame. He returned to the Middle East in the early 1980s with dreams of having fast food restaurants throughout Jordan. He succeeded. Today, The Chili House is the largest Jordanian-owned and -operated fast food chain in the Kingdom. Ahmad assured me, “Our chili mixture is different from the hot, Mexican food. We prefer a subtle use of spices.” I got the picture. I went back into the night minus spaghetti. 

The Arab League Café in downtown Amman could be right out of an old Humphry Bogart movie. This second-floor coffee house is an ancient establishment for men who wile away the day playing dominoes, smoking waist-high water pipes called najilehs, and talking. Waiters scurry through the vast hall with huge metal trays filled with sweet tea and strong coffee. The air is thick with tobacco smoke and the call for afternoon prayer mystically waifs through the place from the minaret tower of the King Hussein Mosque across the street. It was in this conspiratorial atmosphere that I found myself the next day. I was the only gringo in the house. I had a table to myself with a map of Jordan spread out and my third Turkish coffee in hand. I was planning my next move. Having exhausted pepper possibilities in Amman, I decided to venture outside the capital. Perhaps a journey to the desolate eastern “panhandle” of Jordan might reveal something? It looked interesting. Surrounded by Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the south, this vast stretch of land was crossed by only one road– the infamous “Baghdad Highway.” This route is Jordan’s lifeline for oil imports from the east, and it is known for its incendiary tanker truck accidents which occasionally light up the desert night. I gazed at the only village of size on the road, Safawi. I liked the name. I dropped a dinar coin on the table and began the journey.

Sorting ‘India

Sorting ‘India” chiles at Jorico




Chiles left to right, ‘Anaheim’,
‘India’ red and green,
‘Bullets’ red and green,
and ‘The Rocket’, below


Chile varieties

Maps certainly can deceive. Safawi was a letdown. Rather than an exotic outpost, it is a drab village existing solely to support the tanker trucks which roar through its center. The town sprawls along the busy highway with tire repair shops, quick-stop stores, and restaurants with dishes to go all vying for the transient trade. Safawi appears to be covered with oil. The road and all that surrounds it possesses a black sheen. The air is filled with the stench of diesel, petroleum products and the blast of truck horns. Maybe this was why I failed to find any tourist information about the place. I scanned the horizon away from the Baghdad Highway to get a feel for the land. As far as I could see, Safawi was surrounded by a bleak, rock-strewn desert known as the Eastern Badia of Jordan. It is a perfect place for NASA to test their next Mars rover. To walk here demands negotiating sharp, basalt rocks the size of large watermelons. They are so numerous that I was unable to look ahead for more than a few steps without fear of twisting an ankle. After a few minutes of this exacting trek, I returned to town.It was good that I did, for I had the splendid fortune of meeting Mohammed Al-Oun. Mohammed lived in the Badia and had an excellent command of English. I explained my dilemma of being unable to find fiery-food in Amman. “Do not worry. If you are searching for folfel har (hot peppers), I will take you to see more folfel har than you will ever eat.”We traveled to the Badia’s western edge where the relentless rocks gave way to rolling, agricultural land. Here, I met Abdallah Al Sodah who gave me a tour of the Jorico (Jordan River Company) chile farm that he manages. Imagine–a chile farm in Jordan!

Abdallah Al Sodah with ‘Bullets’ on the bush


Abdallah Al Sodah with ‘Bullets’ on the bush



“We grow several kinds of chiles here. There are Anaheims, India peppers, the Bullet and the Rocket. All of these are grown for export. We send the India pepper, both red and green, to Germany. The others we send to the U.K.””How about peppers for Jordanians?” I asked.”We do not eat many here.” he smiled. “We sell some in Jordan but they are quite mild.”After the tour, Mohammed and I made way for his home which is not far from the impressive ancient ruins of Um Al Jamal, the Mother of Camels. Under his Bedouin tent, he served me a delicious lunch of cheese, home-made unleavened bread, vegetables and long, mild green peppers. We continued our talk.”Perhaps Abdallah did not tell you everything about peppers in Jordan. We have maghdoos–pickled eggplant with peppers. And we have zaitoon makboos, which is olives stuffed with peppers and pickled in olive oil. We also serve a delicious dish called sawani, which is a mixture of goat or sheep meat with tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers. It is very, very good.” 

The lunch



Foody Hot Sauce 








The lunch


Foody Hot Sauce

As my travels in Jordan continued, I had several encounters with the country’s hot and spicy cuisine. In the Red Sea port of Aqaba, I had repeated encounters at the Altarboosh Barbecue & Pastry Café. I ordered delicious shwarma sandwiches nightly at this delightful streetside eatery. The cook would shave off either spicy lamb or chicken pieces from the skewered meat simmering above a charcoal fire. He then added tomatoes, pickled veggies and peppers–rolling it all tightly in a tortilla-like bread. It was superb. I also located a regional hot sauce called Foody. It is a cayenne pepper and vinegar mix from Jedda, Saudi Arabia.I even found harissa, that fiery red mash that I had expected to find upon my arrival In Jordan, however, it is called shatah. Once I learned that, getting a spicy kick to complement any meal was easy. As they say in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan–mish mushkela. No problem!


Shatah (Jordanian Harissa Sauce)

This sauce is thought to be of Tunisian origin, but is found throughout all of North Africa and the Middle East under various names and spellings. It is used to flavor couscous and grilled dishes such as brochettes, and also as a relish with salads. Cover this sauce with a thin film of olive oil and it will keep up to a couple of months in the refrigerator.

  • 10 dried whole red New Mexican chiles, stems and seeds removed

  • Water

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 5 cloves garlic

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds

Cover the chiles with hot water and let them sit for 15 minutes until they soften.

Place the chiles and remaining ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth using the chile water to thin it. The sauce should have the consistency of a thick paste.

Yield: 1 ½ cups

Heat Scale: Hot

Maghdoos (Pickled Eggplant with Chile Pepper)

I consulted some Middle Eastern cookbooks containing pickling recipes, and this was the best incarnation of maghdoos that I could come up with. Apparently, there are many, many variations on this pickle in the Middle East. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 2 pounds very small, thin egglants, washed and left unpeeled

  • Salted water

  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

  • 3 small dried red chile pods, such as piquin or de arbol, crushed

  • 1/4 cup minced celery

  • 3 cups water

  • 4 tablespoons salt

  • 2 cups white wine vinegar

Make small but deep incisions in each eggplant. In a pot, poach them in boiling, salted water for 5 to 10 minutes until slightly softened. Drain well.

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, crushed chile, and celery. Stuff the incisions with this mixture. Arrange the eggplants in a glass bowl. In a large jar, combine the water, salt, and vinegar, shake well, and pour it over the eggplants. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least four days.

To serve, cut into thick slices. This recipe will last for months in the refrigerator.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Sawani (Lamb Shank Casserole with Cayenne)

Typical of the Middle East, there are many variations on this dish, some with carrots instead of potatoes and some lacking tomatoes. Chopped fresh green chiles can be substituted for the cayenne if you wish.

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 pounds lamb shanks

  • 2 onions, sliced

  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne, or more to taste

  • 2 cups lamb or beef stock

  • 2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

  • 2 potatoes, diced

  • ½ cup sliced mushrooms

  • 1 cup wine

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • Chopped Italian parsley leaves for garnish

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and brown the lamb shanks. Add the onions and brown for 2 minutes. Add the cayenne and stock, transfer to a casserole dish, cover, and cook on low heat for 1 hour and fifteen minutes.

Add the tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, and wine and simmer, covered, for another hour, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste just before serving and sprinkle with the parsley.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Mixed Grill Shwarma Sandwiches

Since this recipe is based on personal observation, I asked editor Dave for some assistance and we have attempted to re-create these delicious sandwiches. If you want to substitute flour tortillas for the pita bread, we won’t tell.

  • ½ pound lamb meat, cut into strips

  • ½ pound chicken breast, cut into strips

  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • ½ onion, minced

  • 1 bay leaf

  • ½ cup lemon juice

  • ½ cup red wine vinegar

  • 6 large sections pita bread

  • 2 tomatoes, chopped

  • 6 slices pickled eggplant (optional–see recipe)

  • 3 serrano or jalapeño chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped

  • Yoghurt to taste

Place the meat in a glass bowl. In another bowl, combine the spices, salt, garlic, onion, bay leaf, lemon juice, and vinegar, stir well, and pour it over the meat. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Drain the meat from the marinade and pat dry. Grill the meat over a hot charcoal or gas fire until done, about 10 minutes, turning often. Divide the meat into the pita bread sections, add tomatoes, pickled eggplant if using, the chiles, and a tablespoon or more of yoghurt.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Varies

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