If you were to ask for zarb’s definition, we’d have to describe it as the ancient, traditional, and probably most dramatic, Bedouin style of cooking meat, rice or chicken by burying it in an underground oven of hot coals beneath the desert sands in such a way that it cooks the meat so tender, it literally falls right off the bones. If you’ve ever been on one of those Wadi Rum tours where you enjoy the hospitality of the local Bedouins, you know exactly what we’re talking about.
The good news is that this way of cooking doesn’t require a whole bunch of equipment and it’s been that way since the old days when Bedouins had to travel light as they roamed the desert in search of water and greener pastures. These days, however, we use metal ovens and wrap the meat in aluminum foil in place of palm leaves. With all of that in mind, for those who have been to Jordan and miss the delicious melt-in-your-mouth smoky flavor of it, or for those who can’t quite get to Jordan just yet to try it, today we’re going to teach you how to make zarb right in your own backyard. Cooking time is between four and five hours, so don’t think you’re going to do this right after work any night this week; instead, wait for the weekend and invite a small group of friends over to enjoy it with you.
Step 1: Dig It, Man
If you don’t have a pit available to cook your zarb in, you’re going to have to dig it yourself. Dig a big hole in some sandy soil, put in your large, all-metal pot for your oven (a Dutch oven with a rack is perfect for this), and then carefully put the sandy soil around the pot leaving only the top edge of the oven where you put the lid sticking out.
Step 2: Fire is Our Friend
Next, get some small pieces of wood together and make a fire with them, gradually adding a few bigger pieces of wood as the fire gets hotter. Once the fire burns these bigger pieces of wood, you’re going to be left with hot coals. Take these coals and put them in the bottom of your Dutch oven.
Step 3: Get the Meat Ready
Zarb is traditionally made with the meat from a sheep or from chicken. Whatever meat you decide to use, cut all of its pieces more or less the same size then wash these pieces. After the meat has been washed, you’re going to marinate it in a mixture of water, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper for about an hour.
Step 4: Eat Your Veggies
While you’re waiting for the meat to marinade, gather together some vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, cauliflower, eggplants, and sweet peppers. Clean them, skin them and dice them.
Step 5: Rack ‘em Up
Once we have our meat marinated and our vegetables cut in pieces, it’s time to start cooking. Place the cooking rack in the Dutch oven over the hot coals and layer your vegetables and meat on the rack. If you want a crispier outer layer on your meat, layer your vegetables first, placing your meat on top. Finally, place the lid securely on the Dutch oven
Step 6: Let’s Get Cookin’
Now that we have everything in the oven and the lid is securely attached, place a blanket over the oven and cover everything with sand to keep the heat in and the sand out. If you’re using meat like sheep or goat, cooking time is about 2½ hours. For chicken or other fowl, you’re only going to need about 1½ hours to cook.
Step 7: Get Your Sides Together and Eat
Now that you’re waiting for everything to cook, get your side dishes and traditional Jordanian appetizers ready like fattoush, hummus, and mutabal. After the suggested cooking time has passed, remove the sand and blanket, open the lid and enjoy that fragrant aroma of slow-cooked meat and vegetables wafting through the air. Pull the meat and vegetables on and place them on a large platter next to the side dishes. Now sit back, relax and enjoy all that succulent tenderly smoke-flavored meat and mouth-watering vegetables.
As the Jordanians say: “Sahtayn!” or “Enjoy your meal!”
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