On the first day of touring Jordan, we drove past a roadside stand selling bright green watermelons when the driver, Mahmoud, made a comment that marked the beginning of an epic food quest. He said that one of his favorite things to do is to buy a fresh watermelon, some white cheese and bread and enjoy a humble, but delicious snack. Thus was born my quest to recreate this popular summertime culinary event.
At first I thought it was just a casual mention that would soon be forgotten. But in the spirit of hospitality so pervasive throughout Jordanian culture, my hosts were eager to have me sample the watermelon meal.
Melon, cheese and bread
First, some definitions. The watermelon found in Jordan is about the same as we find here in the US, except that the outside is a darker green and while delicious, the fruit itself isn’t overpoweringly sweet. White cheese is a little harder to explain. After some probing I learned that the cheese has no real name, everyone just calls it white cheese. It’s a goat’s milk concoction that is very salty and served throughout Jordan as a standard staple. Most of the time people just make it at home, although it can also be found in local markets. Bread was the final piece of the puzzle and as I learned throughout my sojourn in Jordan, it is an extremely important part of the food culture and it comes in a variety of forms. One of the most common is a large, pita-like bread that can be found just about anywhere. It’s especially great still warm from the bakery.
Jordan Watermelon Day
We designated the second full day of touring to be Watermelon Day. The watermelon was the easy part of the snack to procure; it was in season and there were hundreds of roadside stands selling them. The cheese proved to be harder. White cheese is usually homemade, and in the town of Karak where we found ourselves, it was a real challenge to find a market selling it. After some great perseverance by my hosts, we found the cheese and were finally off to the final stop for the bread, to be made just a few minutes before snack consumption. Most of the bakeries in Jordan were very simple, with no signs or storefronts, just a simple shop with a rotating oven and a few bakers hard at work making thousands of rounds of the pita-style bread. Jordanians love this bread so much, it’s actually sold by the kilogram. If you just want one round, it’ll set you back about $0.30 or so. I was in heaven.
While finding the watermelon was easy, the process of selecting the right one was a very serious affair. The prospective melon victims were eyed from every angle, thumped, turned upside down until, finally, the candidate was chosen. The vendor cut a small square from it to show us that the inside was indeed pink and ready to eat.
I have no idea where we were when we stopped, but it was a small roadside picnic area next to an even smaller shed in the middle of nowhere that sold water and snacks. The views of the valleys and mountains around us were stunning, and we stood in the middle of a grove of olive trees as we prepared the meal.
A blanket was laid out and Mahmoud began the cutting process and, once complete, showed me the proper way to consume this moveable feast.
First, a small slice of the sweet watermelon was consumed, followed by some bread with the salty white cheese. A true culinary oddity, it all worked together in a perfect melody of taste and texture. The watermelon cut the saltiness of the cheese, which in turn acted as the perfect compliment to the sweet fruit.
In true Jordanian fashion, too much food had been purchased and by the end, the snack had become a meal and we were all wondering what we would do at lunch. We sat back and relaxed, content from the simple, but delicious meal and looked across the road to the valleys below. It was a beautiful day and I marveled at the unique ritual into which I had been initiated.
More than any fancy restaurant or well planned lunch, that simple moment of food perfection was one of my favorite experiences in Jordan and one that allowed me another peek at what life is really like in Jordan.
What are some unexpected food moments that you’ve had while traveling?