Zarb is a typical dish or preparation of Jordanian cuisine. And as we explain on this page, the cuisine of this country can be considered the sum of two great traditions: on the one hand, Arabic and, on the other, Bedouin. The latter is typical of the nomadic desert peoples in the Arabian Peninsula and other points in the Middle East and North Africa through which they spread. In the following lines we explain in more depth what zarb is and how it is done, and also where you can enjoy one 100% in the traditional way.
Zarb: the ‘natural oven’ of the Bedouins
One of the defining characteristics of Bedouin cuisine is the use of the resources that the environment offers to its inhabitants. And since the Bedouins are a nomadic people who move through the driest desert, these resources are scarce, so this civilization was able to develop a great capacity for subsistence, often based on imagination.
That is precisely what characterizes the zarb: it is a hole made in the desert floor, like a small well, into which the embers of wood or charcoal are inserted and, next to them, the food to be cooked. To avoid direct contact with these embers, a kind of multi-storey metal container is introduced, inside which the food is actually kept. These, in turn, are usually wrapped in aluminum foil, a modern-day solution that does not detract from the final result.
After the container is introduced, everything is covered with a thick carpet, a metal lid and another pile of sand. This means that there is no oxygen in the hole with the embers and therefore there is no possibility of fire. However, it does perfectly preserve the heat in a perfectly stable way, favoring the cooking of food.
Actually, the word zarb is also popularly used to refer to ‘banquet’, precisely because this way of preparing food is usually linked to large celebrations and parties, with numerous diners, as these natural ovens are often large.
What can be cooked this way?
The possibilities of a zarb are very wide, as this unique oven can accommodate a wide variety of foods. There is no doubt that meat is always a winning bet, because after all, it is an underground barbecue. The most commonly used meat for this type is lamb, specifically the one called ouzi lamb. For this preparation, different spices are usually used, achieving a very tasty marinade.
With the meat already marinated, the rest of the ingredients are mixed, which are usually different types of chopped vegetables. It is also common to introduce potatoes, in this case whole and with skin. And as for meat, another common option is chicken.
This mixture is wrapped with aluminum foil, put it in the oven (preheated for about an hour) and cover as directed, remaining that way for about four hours, more or less. The heat of the desert helps the temperature stay high and stable inside the hole.
Where to eat zarb in Jordan
Finally, if you’re wondering where to eat zarb in Jordan, your steps will probably take you to the south, territory once populated by Bedouins who took advantage of the desert to cook in this way. Specifically, in the Wadi Rum desert which, thanks to its tourist interest, has camps where these delicacies are still being made underground… to the delight of its visitors.