Shankleesh. A year ago, I’d never heard of it either, but on my first visit to Jordan last September we ordered it on a whim while having lunch at Umm Qais. We were eating at an interesting little place that is a study in contradictions. It is the lone restaurant at a tourist site, yet offers an appealing menu at attractive prices. It has a wonderful terrace with stunning views overlooking Jordan, Syria, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and Israel. It is an idyllic setting, set in a countryside that has known more than its fair share of conflict in both the distant and more recent past.
We had just spent the day wandering around the incredible ruins covering the immense site. The quiet was occasionally interrupted by distant rumblings from the direction of Syria, and by a middle aged couple mutilating an olive tree. We thought it looked rather strange at the time. The man had climbed into the tree, and was breaking off branches to throw to the woman on the ground. Presumably she was collecting the olives. We speculated, rather generously, that perhaps this was an accepted, if somewhat aggressive, pruning technique, but when we asked later, there was an overwhelming consensus; “I think it wasn’t their tree”. All of this is interesting, but it isn’t the main point. Today, we are discussing Shankleesh.
It is hard to describe Shankleesh if you have never had it before. It is a cold mezze (appetizer) consisting of a crumbly mixture of cheese, onions, tomatoes, and cucumber, eaten with taboon bread. The taste is sharp, pungent and filled with flavor. It is wonderful.
I was fortunate enough to return to Jordan recently, and we had Shankleesh again at Umm Qais. It was every bit as tasty as I remembered. We decided to investigate, and so began the great Shankleesh experiment.
The basic idea was simple enough. Everywhere we ate, we checked the menu for Shankleesh. If it was on the menu, we ordered it. We were pleasantly surprised to discover it was available everywhere. We had never noticed it before.
The basic recipe was always the same, but the taste varied widely. In Umm Qais it had a very sharp finish, and some of us found it a little too pungent, though others thought it was just right. In Amman it was mild, almost bland. Aqaba was somewhere in between. Jarash was much closer to Umm Qais, but just a little milder. In the end, it was a tie, with some preferring Umm Qais and others preferring Jarash. But in reality, it was all good.
We were talking about it on the drive back to Amman, and Jamal explained how it was made. A special goat’s milk cheese (dried yogurt) is formed into a ball and rolled in pepper and spices. It starts out rather soft and mild, but as it ages, it grows stronger and more pungent. That explained the range of tastes. To prepare it, you crumble the cheese, then mix it with olive oil and finely diced cucumber, tomato and onion. It is best enjoyed with Arak, the local anise flavored drink. (Come to think of it, almost everything is best enjoyed with Arak.) We tried making it on my last night in Jordan and loved it. Another mystery solved.