Seven trips to Jordan, and I still can’t stop thinking about the food.

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.

Hummus with meat and pine nuts, baked eggs with potato, falafel, fattoush, tea with fresh mint and khubz bread
Arabic breakfast in the heart of downtown Amman

Too many tasty meals to name them all, but here are a handful of highlights:

  1. 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.”

    A man serves traditional knafeh pastry at a sweets shop in Amman, Jordan
    Platters of different kind of knafeh, a popular Palestinian pastry made with flakey dough stuffed with cheese and topped with sweet syrup, rosewater, and pistachio
  2. 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.

    People line up for shawarma at the super popular take out joint Reem
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

    Decorative cups, Turkish coffee, and Turkish delight at Cafe Rumi in Amman, Jordan

High fashion, (more) music, and coffee in Lahore. A lot can change in for 4 short years.

A man walks across the street in the scenic neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan
A man walks across the street in the scenic and affluent neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan.

One of my favourite holiday destinations is Lahore, Pakistan, where I lived and worked for a year after finishing my graduate degree.

These days, I don’t travel to Lahore as often as I would like, but had the opportunity to visit last month after more than four years. Pakistanis make up one of the largest expat communities in the U.A.E., so both Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways have daily flights to different cities across the country. Admittedly, my timing was terrible. May marks the beginning of summer and unbearable levels of humidity. The short walk from the front door to the car leaves your fresh, starched kurta a damp mess. Frequent power outages in developing countries like Pakistan makes insulation from the heat a daily challenge.

But the weather in Lahore was nothing like I remembered, and evenings were pleasant enough to sit outside or explore the city. About a decade ago when I was intern with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, my drive to work meandered past a wobbly mound of garbage and household trash. The streets are still lined with beautiful old trees Lahore is known for, but swept clean of litter. From my base in central Lahore I saw lush greenery and people of all ages pounding clean pavements for their daily errands and walks. The megacity of Karachi in the south – population 27 million –  has outsourced it’s waste management to a Chinese company, and a similar arrangement had been made for Lahore. I would soon discover that this was just one of many changes that had transpired since my last visit.

It’s easy to summon despair over Pakistan’s prospects, given the reams of negative press it receives. But alongside the very real problems of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, and water scarcity, exist communities of creators, thinkers, problem-solvers, entrepreneurs, and celebrations of sufi saints.

Here are some of the things I discovered during my recent trip to Lahore:

  1. Pakistan Railways. In preparation for my trip, I spotted a stunning photograph of a train at a railway station in Lahore on Instagram by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan. The caption read: “Lahore Railway Junction is the central railway station of Lahore. It was built in 1860. The station served as the the headquarters for the Punjab Railway before partition.”
    A photography by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan of the Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan. Taken from Instagram @thesalmanalam
    Photo credit: Salman Alam Khan @thesalmanalam

    I took a screen shot of the image and quickly sent it to my friend; I absolutely had to check out this historical site. Further research revealed it was one of many tracks laid by the British during colonial rule of the subcontinent and stretches from Torkham in the north to southern port city of Karachi, operating both passenger and freight trains.Holding a platform ticket at Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan.

  2. We purchased platform tickets for 10 Rs. (10 cents American) and walked around, venturing inside a dining car which had tables adorned with white linen and a single red carnation. Our arrival coincided with the departure of an overnight train to Karachi. As the horn reverberated through the still night air, throngs of last minute passengers pushed and pulled, crushed by the weight of belongings packed in rope, plastic, cardboard, unstitched cloth, and suitcases. Amid hoots and cheers, the train heaved and pulled away from the platform. My friend remarked that many were probably on their way to celebrate an urs, or the death anniversary of a South Asian Sufi saint.  In a country with a staggering gap between the very rich and the very poor, it was heartening for me to see a relic of the past working to serve the needs of so many who cannot afford air travel, or the purchase of a vehicle.
  3. Cafe culture. There has been an explosion in the number of cafes since my last trip to Lahore four years ago. Both indoor and indoor, these cafes are serving up Italian espresso, handmade pastries, and artisan pizza in cute and stylish interiors. No Starbucks, which means homegrown, independent establishments have space in the market to compete. They are popular, and none more so than Rina’s Kitchenette, which I visited three times at their new location in Gulberg for their killer banofie pie. Yum.
  4. Organic, locally made beauty products. Pakistani women are known to put natural ingredients in their hair and on their skin. While making things by hand is the norm in Pakistani culture, commercially successful organic beauty brands are popping up. Leading the charge is KishMish Organics, a line of handmade skin and hair care items that is 100% natural and organic. It is the brainchild of Mariam Omar, a fierce, multitasking entrepreneur who simultaneously manages a beauty salon and is a single mother to two young children…and 10 pets! I tried the Papaya Fruit Mask and Miracle Cream, and noticed a marked improvement in the texture and appearance of my skin within days. If you can get your hands on these awesome products, be sure to stock up.
  5. Beautiful (and very expensive) high fashion. Pakistani textiles are beautiful, and the textile industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Pakistan. In the last decade, the fashion industry has seen explosive growth. Whereas a few designers dominated the retail landscape for high end traditional wear in the past, the market today is crowded with designers big and small, comfortable designing Pakistani and western wear alike and often blending the two to stunning effect. Top tier designers produce one-of-a-kind pieces, and charge heady prices. I walked into Faraz Manan’s boutique on M.M. Alam Road to enquire about the price of an outfit. Made with beautiful hand-stitched embroidery and gold beadwork on handmade rose-colored cloth, it had already sold for an astonishing USD 10,000. (Yes, totally outrageous. In a country marred by poverty, this is a reflection of the deep divide between the very rich and the very poor). Fortunately, one can find more reasonably priced options. While the trend is one of high mark-ups, today there is more choice and creativity in textiles.

    A model walks the runway in an outfit by Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya at Beirut Fashion Week
    Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya showcases her collection earlier this year at Beirut Fashion Week
  6. More and more music. I always get to experience live music when I travel to Pakistan. My friend is a talented and successful musician, and through her I listen to all kinds of new Pakistani music and meet other musicians. She showed me the inside of two professionally constructed independent music studios. Like the growth in fashion, Pakistan’s music industry has grown by leaps and bounds. I can no longer keep track of all the musicians and bands that exist today, working inside and outside the country. Musicians are now making their own independent production facilities with state of the art equipment, further expanding the space for artistic expression and supporting other artists. While religious extremists in other parts of the country rant and rave about the illicit nature of music and dance, the reality is they’re up against a formidable grass roots movement of musicians, producers, and increasing musical and artistic output. In fact, they’re pretty outnumbered, a fact that mainstream news consistently misses.