I travel a lot, probably about six months out of the year. But nearly all of that travel is work-related, which for me means going back to the same places time after time to update Lonely Planet guides. It wasn't until April of last year that I came to realise that I hadn't been to a new place -- nor travelled simply for the sake of travel -- in three years.
So, I went to Jordan.
This was my first visit to the Middle East, a region that couldn't be more different than Southeast Asia in just about every way. I knew a bit about the food, but my only experiences eating it were at relatively generic, pan Middle Eastern restaurants in Thailand and Europe. I was pretty excited to encounter the real thing on its home turf, and I wasn't disappointed.
I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but if there's one food item I was looking forward to tasting, it was the region's sweets. Luckily in Jordan, I didn't have to look far, and if a town had only a couple places selling food, one of them was inevitably a shop boasting a huge selection of nutty, crunchy, crispy, syrupy sweets.
Coming from Thailand, it struck me that Middle Eastern sweets are about exotic as it gets, in particular those made with pistachios (unequivocally the best nut):
But of the country's sweets, I, like most visitors, was most taken with knafeh (or kanefe, kunafeh, kunafeh, knafeh, or kunafah). Imagine a crispy, buttery base of fine threads or semolina crumbs topped with a layer of warm mozzarella-like cheese, which is then drizzled with scented syrup and garnished with crushed nuts. That's knafeh.
The most famous vendor of the dish in Amman, if not Jordan, is Habibah:
Like nearly all sweets shops in Jordan, Habibah is to-go only, and customers would carefully escort their foam dish to a nearby square (shown at the top of this post), not doing a lot of talking, but solemnly savouring every bite; I did the same -- on several occasions.
Habibah Al-Malek al-Hussein St
I also really enjoyed ful (or foul), stewed fava beans, served drizzled with olive oil and sometimes a lemony, garlicky, chili condiment that's not unlike the dip served with seafood in Thailand. I can't read Arabic, but I learned to spot ful by keeping my eyes peeled for the chubby, narrow-necked vessel the beans are cooked in:
Coupled with a warm, floppy flatbread, a few pickles and mint tea, a bowl of ful is one of the world's best breakfasts.
The type of places that serve ful also tend to do felafel, hummous, baba ghanoush and other standard Middle Eastern dishes. This is probably the most common type of restaurant in Jordan, followed closely by the type of place that does skewered, grilled meat served, again, with flatbread:
I ate this meal many times, but the one that stands out was served at a grungy restaurant in As Salt, a small town outside of Amman:
Here, the Syrian and Egyptian staff (just about everybody in Jordan is an immigrant -- not to mention is also extremely friendly and speaks some English) did simply-seasoned, smokey minced lamb and beef kebabs -- nothing terribly unique.
Most interesting was when they took the ubiquitous grilled vegetable sides -- tomato, onion and mild chilies -- and whizzed them in a food processor with a bit of lemon juice and salt. Served as a side, it was somewhere between a slightly tart gazpacho and a smokey salsa, and became a regular in my summer barbecue repertoire.
I also really came to love a mint tea and a nargileh (water pipe), occasionally taken in an fantastically atmospheric tea houses such as this Ottoman Empire-era place in As Salt:
That said, with the exception of the odd fast food or foreign cuisine restaurant, I didn't encounter much of a restaurant or street food scene in Jordan -- at least compared to that of Southeast Asia -- and the above are just about all the types of outside-the-home dining I encountered. In terms of an all-around restaurant with a menu, the best I came across was probably Al-Quds:
Also known as Jerusalem restaurant, and boasting a charmingly old-school vibe, it's here that I tried mansaf, said to be Jordan's national dish:
It takes the form of lamb that's been simmered in a lightly spiced broth with jameed, fermented, dried yogurt, and served over saffron rice, artfully topped with slivered almonds and a thin sheet of dough, and coupled with a bowl of the broth/jameed mixture. The lamb was fall-apart tender and broth was intensely rich, sour and funky all at the same time.
Al-Quds King Al Hussein St 8, Amman 7am-10pm
A few other restaurants I enjoyed:
Fakhr El Din
Housed in a beautiful villa, this is claimed by many to be the best Lebanese restaurant in Amman. We ate kibbeh (raw minced lamb; 6 o'clock in the pic), a salad of a Roquefort-like cheese, an incredibly fresh tabbouleh, Lebanese sausages, a dip of walnuts, and grilled lamb w a spicy chili paste.
Fakhr El Din 2nd circle, Amman
Probably one of the most famous restaurants in Jordan, this busy place does the usual repertoire of felafel, hummous, baba ghanoush and ful.
Hashem Restaurant Al-Amir Mohammed St, Amman 24hr
Charming restaurant in Madaba where I had a very good 'kifta sawani', patties of minced lamb in a tart sesame paste sauce with slices of potato and pine nuts, and baked in a wood-burning oven
Haret Jdouna Talat St, Madaba noon-midnight