Jordan is a foodie’s paradise, drawing influence from the country’s Bedouin roots, neighbouring Lebanon and Israel as well as a rich history of serving up homely, heart-warming food for locals and visitors alike. Amman is the country’s cultural and culinary hub, but you can find good food paired with delicious coffee and sugary mint tea wherever you venture. Want to know what dishes you shouldn’t miss while you’re here? Read on…
We’ll start with a classic – though not one invented in Jordan. The origins of falafel are constantly debated, but the race for first place lies between Egypt and Israel for who can call claim to these fluffy, crispy balls of heaven.
Heralded as the best place for falafel in Amman, if not Jordan entirely, Hashem’s has been on Amman’s food scene since 1952, serving up incredible food in a menu-less restaurant where you eat with your hands and love every second of it. Sit down and food will be brought right to you – no fussing over what to order; you get what you’re given here. There’ll be dips: humous, of course – the smoothest, silkiest humous I’ve ever eaten – plus salty, protein-rich ful medames, a fava bean dip, and Mtabbal, a smoky paste made of oven-charred aubergine. You’ll also get soft, round bread to soak up all the dips and the best falafel at least this side of the Israeli border. It’s a simple meal, but honestly one of the best I’ve ever eaten.
Al Quds is Amman street food at its best. You can only get food to go, but why not wander through Downtown while you’re eating – it’s bustling in the evening. Falafel is served in sandwiches here, and the contrasting textures are nothing short of divine. Not to mention, it’s made right in front of you in a bubbling deep fat fryer, so the exterior is crunchy as anything. These little balls of heaven are all tucked in on a mattress of sesame bread, garnished with salad and their special sauce.
Shaped like a quesadilla but with a distinctly Arabian flavour, Ara’yes are Jordanian street food at their finest. These little pitta bread triangles are filled with a spicy minced lamb, onions and allspice seasoning that gives them a fragrant, slightly-cinnamony taste. We ate ours on the go, grabbing them in the middle of a long drive, and they manage to feel both like fast food and a hearty meal all at once. Don’t miss out on this delicious grab-and-go meal at some point on your Jordanian adventure.
If there’s one dish which sums up Jordan’s culinary history, it’s the humble Mansaf, reflective of an agricultural lifestyle in which meat and yoghurt were staple elements of the meal. This Bedouin dish is also the national dish of Jordan, and is served in restaurants and cooked up in homes all across the country on major holiday and days of celebration. It features lamb cooked in a jameed broth – a sauce of fermented dried goat’s yoghurt – piled on top of a thin shraak bread and rice. Salty and sour jameed combined with dense lamb and spices makes this dish unlike anything you’ll taste in Jordan, or anywhere else for that matter.
Literally translated as ‘upside-down’ this traditional dish originated in Jordan and Palestine, and can now be found around across the Arab world. Layered vegetables, chicken, rice and spices are loaded into a huge pot, then baked in the oven ready for a ceremonial flipping. We tried our first Maqluba at a cooking class at Beit Sitti (which I’ll croon over a bit later), and the flipping was the best part of the experience (other than eating it, of course) – it takes some skill and strength to flip it over and keep in shape. The cauliflower, aubergines and potatoes go soft and the chicken and spices infuse a delicious flavour into the whole dish.
Two words: Bedouin Barbeque. Zarb is an underground oven, commonly buried underneath the scorching sands of the Wadi Rum desert to create an unbelievably succulent meal. A metal stand with three tiers is loaded with meat, vegetables and rice, then buried in the ground and surrounded by hot coals. Queue a casket of sand and several hours cooking under the sun, then it’ll be dug up again for a good ol’ fashioned desert feast. It’ll be served with all the classic accoutrements, from bread and dips to sweet chilli peppers – the perfect fuel after a day exploring the expansive and awe-inspiring Wadi Rum.
Cheese, pastry and rose syrup. Add them all together and you get Amman’s signature dessert. You’ll find this being cooked up in giant pans on street sides, in the markets and in plenty of sweet shops around the city, and though it might sound weird, it’s one thing you just have to try. Be prepared to queue if you want some of the city’s best.
Start with Habibi, a 70-year-old bakery with multiple locations around the city, the closest one being just around the corner from Hashem’s. The kunafeh here is prepared the traditional way: stretchy Akkawi cheese doused in rosewater syrup – it’s kind of like a cheesy, rose-flavoured take on baklava, but chewier and less oily. If you’re staying in Jebal Lweibdeh, hit up Atir Desserts, a new, hip addition to Amman’s kunafeh scene. Alongside the usual toppings, you’ll get choices like Nutella or ice cream to top it all off, if you need that extra bit of sweetness on top.
Mint Tea and Turkish Coffee
You’ll undoubtedly drink an ungodly amount of mint tea here, sweetened with lashing of sugar, the Jordanian way. It’s actually deliciously refreshing on a hot day, and a good way to wash down all the food. We had it after most meals and were also served it in the desert by Bedouins mid-exploring. The Jordanians also love their Turkish coffee, which is viscous and hand-shakingly strong and brewed with cardamom. I have to say it wasn’t my cup of tea (of coffee, I suppose), but I know other people who loved it – and it’s definitely worth a try regardless.
Cafe Jafra, Amman
Just up the road from the centre of downtown, Cafe Jafra is one of Amman’s most famous spots, thanks to their delicious food, great coffee and tasty shisha. If you can, try to get a table on the balcony, which gives great views of the comings and goings.
My Mom’s Recipe, Petra
Our dinner here was one of the most memorable and delicious in Jordan, not least because it came at the end of one of the most incredible days I’ve ever had. The atmosphere is amazing; cosy and homely, and the food is even better. I had the Musakhen, a dish of chicken and rice served wrapped Bedouin bread.
Beit Sitti, Amman
Both a restaurant and a cooking school, Beit Sitti is an absolute must-visit in Amman. We spent an incredible evening here, learning to cook traditional Jordanian dishes (including Maqluba) with the owners. This place is run by three women, who teach their grandmother’s recipes in her 1950s house, which overlooks the city. The most incredible moment of the evening came when, mid-cooking, the local mosque rang out with the call to prayer. It really brought home where I was, and how lucky I was to be having that experience. If you’re looking for something to do one evening in Amman, make this top of your list.
Wondering how to spend your days in Amman? Check out my guide to 48 Hours in Amman here.