It’s been almost two decades of living and traveling in the Middle East for me. In all this time, the best Arabic food I have had is in Amman, Jordan. After making seven trips over a two year period, I am convinced this is also where you find the region’s best hummus. My Syrian friends like to point out the best food is actually in Damascus. Which could very well be true, but since travel there is severely restricted I will have to stick to reminiscing about my incredible meals in Jordan instead.
I ate at all kinds of places – dives, hole-in-the-walls, nice restaurants – and tried traditional home-cooked dishes. My mother-in-law makes excellent makloubeh, a Palestinian dish of rice, chicken, spices, and eggplant that is served upside-down (makloubeh in Arabic literally translates to ‘upside-down’). In general, Arabs rave about mansaf, a fragrant rice and meat dish served with hot dehydrated yoghurt. While tasty, it is also extremely heavy. I prefer the flavours of makloubeh much more, probably because all the ingredients are slow cooked in one pot and taste so good together.
Hummus with meat and pine nuts, baked eggs with potato, falafel, fattoush, tea with fresh mint and khubz bread. The Arabic breakfast pictured below can be found in a small unassuming restaurant called Al Usra in the trendy area of Abdoun, and is a real treat. Dishes arrive within minutes and the table set-up is simple: no plates; just a napkin, Arabic bread and a plastic spoon. Mezze, or starters, like hummus and salads are served family style, so everything is dropped in the middle of the table for sharing.
Too many tasty meals to name them all, but here are a handful of highlights:
- Knafeh, ubiquitous and abundant in Jordan, is used to mark just about any occassion. Knafeh is a Palestinian pastry made with flakey dough and stuffed with a salty cheese which melts when baked, and is topped with rosewater, syrup, and chopped pistachio. There are a few spots popular with the locals, and some are owned and operated by newly arrived Syrian refugees escaping war in their own country. We were frequent patrons of Nafeesah, and also tried Al Quds, which I thought was better. We didn’t get to try Habibah, which many consider to be the best (in hindsight, not necessarily a bad thing because I have overdosed on knafeh on multiple occasions). Read more about this delicious dessert and the unifying cultural role it plays in Jordan in Daoud Kuttab’s piece, “Jordanians celebrate sweet success with kanafeh.”
- Lamb shawarma from Reem. My husband can’t stop talking about this shawarma. In fact, most people can’t stop talking about this shawarma. So much so that it made it to the front page of the New York Times. Read about it here.
- Chocolate eclairs and petits fours from Fairuz Bakery. Located in the bohemian neighbourhood of Jabal Webdeh, this old school bakery makes incredible eclairs and delicious petit fours in a variety of flavours. They stick to the classics and have wisely stayed away from trendy desserts and fancy, complicated pastry. It is owner-run, and right across the street from Cafe Rumi, my favourite cafe in the world.
- Turkish coffee at Cafe Rumi. It’s certainly not the best Turkish coffee in Amman, and definitely overpriced. But this joint adds a lot of character to the bohemian vibe of the neighbourhood. Inspired by the Persian poet Rumi, everything from the concept to interiors and coffee cups have been created by the owner. It has indoor and outdoor seating consisting of small chairs and tiny tables low to the ground. It is wildly popular with expats and locals, and packed every day of the week.