A foodie's guide to Amman, Jordan: the Middle East destination for food lovers
While most travellers head for Jordan with Petra high on the agenda, investing some food-fuelled days in the cosmopolitan capital Amman is a delicious idea. There’s so much more than cafe-hopping down Rainbow St for the best creamy hummus of your life or developing an addiction for cardamom-spiced coffee; this is a city of feeders, so bring your appetite.
Five days in Amman is idyllic (for true gastronomic commitment, put the new Jordan Food Week in the diary), but you can cover many of these culinary experiences (intensely!) in two.
Tour the souqs and the sights
Downtown Amman is the place to immerse all your senses. Any food lover will get excited about the abundance of exotic spices and colours on display at the souqs (markets of indoor and outdoor stalls). They're pulsating with atmosphere, with sellers keen to attract your attention to offload their wares. Generally, all the vegetables are grown in Jordan, as is most of the fruit. In spring, look out for the bright green janarek (sour plums), refreshing to munch on while navigating rows of bright pink radishes as big as your hand; big bags of juicy dates or perfectly formed rose buds. Don’t miss Izhiman Coffee on Petra St for not only restorative, freshly roasted coffee beans but also an incredible assortment of herbs and spices (popcorn and cheddar cheese spices being among the more obscure), and get an education on the difference between royal thyme, super thyme and special thyme.
When you’re done taste-testing and haggling, there are some impressive ruins nearby to build your appetite back up. Climb the many steps of the Roman Theatre or take a trip up to Amman’s Citadel for views across the earth-toned city from its highest hill, where the Roman ruins of the Temple of Hercules can be seen from all over town (just in case you get disorientated in a food coma and need your bearings).
Take a traditional Jordanian breakfast
The quickest way to feel like you’re integrating into Jordanian culture is to eat what the locals do for breakfast: fuul medames. You can request it at Middle Eastern restaurants (where it’s also often served as a side dish), but most hotel buffets will have a copper contraption full of warm fava beans, next to a selection of toppings to tailor the meal as you wish. Start with an empty bowl and smear it generously around the edges with your choice of hummus or tahini (never both!). Ladle the warm fava beans (the fuul) into the middle of the bowl, use a teaspoon to scatter a line of purplish-red sumac across the top and then criss-cross it with a line of cumin. This is the base that you build on. What’s next is up to you: diced tomatoes, raw onion, a dressing of garlic, lemon and chilli, olive oil and/or extra chilli. Fuul medames is served alongside either warm pita bread or falafel.
Dip into Amman’s diverse culinary heritage
Forget the dips you’ve bought in a supermarket at home or even tried in an adequate restaurant. The hummus in Amman really is incredible: thick, creamy, lightly smoky chickpea heaven. To take things up a notch, try it warm: the Hummus Fatteh at Jafra Café in Downtown Amman is a velvety, comfort-food dream of hummus mixed with toasted bits of bread, lamb, lemon and vinegar dressing topped with buttery pine nuts.
Jordan’s national dish is mansaf, meaning ‘large platter’, and it’s a meal of tender meat (usually lamb, though look out for camel) cooked in jameed (tangy sheep's milk yoghurt) on a bed of aromatic rice, garnished with toasted almonds and wrapped up in shrak (paper-thin Bedouin bread). It comes to the table looking like a parcel, which is then unwrapped in a cloud of steam to be eaten communally. One of the more authentic places to try it is at Tawaheen Alhawa Restaurant in its sprawling external courtyard of cushion-lined wooden tables around a fountain. Challenge yourself to eat it the traditional way: use your right hand only and roll some of the rice into a ball with a little of the warm yoghurt sauce. It’s polite to stick to your corner of the mansaf plate and eat a few balls of just the rice first before progressing to the lamb and almond mixture.
One of Amman’s best restaurants for Jordanian cuisine, and one of the prettiest, is pink-bougainvillea-draped Sufra, on Rainbow St in Jebel Amman. Start with a selection of mezze, along with warm bread straight from the oven (if you’re on the terrace, you’ll see the baker hard at work pummelling dough) and revel in the fresh flavours. Daily specials are scrawled on a blackboard – Monday: reqab mahschiyah (lamb neck filled with rice), Tuesday: fakharat riesh (chops tagine), for example – which may invoke wistfulness for a longer stay. Factor in a cheering postprandial stroll down Rainbow St afterwards or a 10-minute walk over to Draj Al Kallha, one of Amman’s most colourful stairways, lined with arty cafes and street murals.
Enjoy sweet treats with the locals
What’s that queue of white-shirted business types along the alley? It’s a pilgrimage to sweets haven Habibah, so join in the addiction and get a fix of kunafeh, a delicious treat of warm cheese pastry in rosewater syrup sprinkled with pistachios. Or take a seat inside at Al Quds (you’ll want to beat the lunchtime crowds to get a table) and order it with circles of Arabic ice cream rolled in pistachios for maximum delight.
Coffee or (mint) tea?
Accepting a hot drink is an important Bedouin ritual and generally signifies acknowledgement of hospitality. Traditional coffee in Amman is thick, strong, bitter and spiced with cardamom. The quality varies, but Sufra Restaurant has one of the smoothest, most addictive cups, offered with rose Turkish delight biscuit sandwiches to seal the sweet deal. If you’re not a tea or coffee drinker, you can always opt for lemon and mint, a crushed ice, syrupy, citrus concoction typically offered to Westerners in restaurants on arrival.
Cook with Jordanians or celebrate the new Jordan Food Week
Given Amman’s food scene has flown under the international radar, the inaugural Jordan Food Week, held in July 2018, was overdue. An initiative of USAID Jordan Local Enterprise Support Project, this celebration of the nation’s diverse culinary heritage features the wares of local producers and restaurants, live cooking demonstrations and talks, as well as shining a light on rare and forgotten recipes from rural villages. Most significantly, it champions the work of more than 70 female home-based artisanal producers who had previously struggled to build small businesses. It’s expected to be an annual event.
Another supporter of Amman’s female cooks is Maria Haddad, who established popular cooking school Beit Sitti with her sisters Dina and Tania in Jabal Lweibdeh back in 2010 to support and employ local women. Group lessons – grilling aubergines on open flames and chopping garlic on the flowery outdoor terrace before dining on your four-course meal in Maria’s grandmother’s house – are hugely atmospheric. Maria has plans for a new venture where guests dine authentically in Jordanian homes, so keep an eye on the website.