Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Northern Food on tour: a week in Jordan

The first week of my holiday was spent in Jordan. It was actually supposed to be slightly less than a week, but trying to cross the border into Israel on a major Jewish holiday (Yom Kippur) proved to be a silly idea. It was very closed. So, a week in Jordan it was then.

Let's get the geo-political briefing out of the way with first. Jordan is small, dominated by desert, and sandwiched between higher profile neighbours (Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia). In such a tumultuous part of the world it's remained remarkably stable in recent years, apparently in no small part due to reverence for the Royal Family. There are pictures of the King all over the place, you can't miss him.

As you'd expect from the country's location, Jordanian food is Middle-Eastern in style. All the usual suspects are there: houmous, falafel, shawarma, flatbread in abundance, baba ghanoush, labneh, cucumbers galore, salads, fruit, exceedingly sweet things, houmous, bread and more bread. There are some specialities particular to Jordan, including Mensaf, a dish of lamb with spiced rice cooked with lamb fat and often served with the lamb's head. Disappointingly we didn't get round to trying that though.

I didn't get the impression that there was much of a street food culture in Jordan, casual dining places were scattered about but not with the abundance that you'd find in say Turkey or Egypt. We did eat well though, so here are a few thoughts on food in Jordan, followed up by several reviews of specific places.

Starting with breakfast, you'll probably get something similar to this in every guest house in the land:

There will always be bread, butter, jam, cheese (usually of the Dairylea/Laughing Cow persuasion), cucumber and tea. If you're lucky there might also be hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, bananas and coffee. And maybe a leftover felafel.

For lunch and dinner, mezze abounds. Lots and lots of dippy things to scoop up with your bread. There were plenty of Arabic restaurants (Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian) dotted around the place, and in Amman we also spotted Turkish and Lebanese. Western fast food was also readily available.

I was surprised to see how many of the places were vegetarian, the diet obviously being far less meat (read lamb/mutton/chicken) dominated than I'd expected. There were also plenty of seafood restaurants down in Aqaba on the Red Sea coast.

In addition to the reviews below we had houmous and felafel on a couple of occasions, and a picnic at Petra with houmous and cheese from the supermarket, and fresh bread from the bakery. This bread is worth a mention, as it was better than the stuff we ate at any of the restaurants. A flat bread topped with Za-atar, and a slightly sweet, chewy loaf coated in sesame seeds, which I think was ka'ak.

On the (alcoholic) drinking front, I wouldn't really bother. I've always found drinking in a country without a drinking culture to be a rather dull experience, and Jordan was no exception. It's always either expensive hotel bars, or expensive imitations of foreign bars (Rovers Return in Aqaba anyone), or find a liquor store and drink in your room. Far better to spend your time relaxing as the locals do, with copious cups of tea (black, sweet, with a sprig of mint) and a sheesha pipe to puff on.

That said, booze is readily available in Jordan should you wish to imbibe. The main brand of beer is Amstel, brewed locally under licence. Refreshing when icy cold, but otherwise crap.

Food prices were very cheap in anywhere frequented by locals, but far higher in anywhere with primarily tourist custom. Nowhere was particularly busy and it seems that the tourist trade has really suffered because of the instability in much of the Arab world. That's a shame because it was a genuinely hassle free, relaxed place to travel. Everyone was friendly and aside from a few cab drivers on the make (and what country doesn't have those?) there was little in the way of pestering or attempts to rip you off (I mention this as the contrast with certain other places in the region was notable).

Hashem Restaurant, Amman

Amman isn't really a big tourist city. It's a functional place without a great deal to see, although the Roman ruins and citadel are worth a visit as is Hashem. I'm told Hashem is a bona fide Amman institution.

Tables spill out across an alleyway and waiters hurry around fetching you plates from one of several cooking stations. One is for frying felafel, one for chopping salad, one for doling out houmous and so on. It's open 24/7 and apparently always busy.

Over two visits we ate big felafel, little felafel (big good, little a bit dry), salad, houmous and chips, all doused in vinegary chilli sauce and scooped up in bread.

The houmous was excellent, very lemony how I like it and quite possibly the best of the whole trip.

Less than 5 dinars for a feast for two people

Hashem Restaurant
Al-Amir Mohammed Street

Books @Cafe, Amman

We didn't try the food here, but it rates a mention as a rather splendid place to enjoy a drink, including those of an alcoholic variety. A huge terrace, good views, good coffee, shisha pipes, beer and comfy seats. Access via an actual bookshop, how very civilised.

8/10 for drinks and loafing

Books @Cafe
Omar Ibn Al Khattab Street
near First Circle

Iskender Kebap, Amman

A little Turkish takeaway with a few tables outside. The kebabs were ok but a bit boring, but the pide was very good. I think it was a type of pide anyway. I know pide are normally topped like a pizza rather than stuffed, so this was more of a pide calzone, but I've no idea what the Turks (or the Jordanians) would call it.

Whatever it was the bread was crisp and hot, and the filling meaty and spicy.

7/10 for the pide thingy
Around 8 dinars for a meal for two (kebab, pide, pickles, soft drink)

Iskender Kebap
Second Circle

Al-Arabi Restaurant, Wadi Mousa

Wadi Mousa is the tourist town immediately adjacent to Petra. Up the hill in the town centre is where you'll find the cheaper places including Al-Arabi, down the hill closer to the Petra entrance is where you'll find the upmarket chain hotels. The town appeared to be struggling more than most, as in addition to the nationwide drop in visitors they're also coping with the fact that the entry fee to Petra has been raised to a frankly well-over-the-top almost £50 for a day ticket. After shelling out for that you hardly feel like splashing out on souvenirs.

Despite this you can still eat well here for a good price. We shared a very good mixed grill which brought plenty of nicely charred, succulent meat (lamb and chicken shish, kofta) alongside an excellent tabouleh salad, a portion of moutabal and of course, a huge basket of bread.

Oh, and some chips as well. We'd done a fair bit of hiking in the heat that day, carbs were necessary.


around 20 dinars for far too much food for two normal people, including soft drinks and service.
Al-Arabi Restaurant
near the roundabout in the town centre
Wadi Mousa

Arabic Moon Restaurant and Al-Mabrouk Beach Restaurant, Aqaba

Owing to the border mishap we ended up in Aqaba for three nights. Plans are afoot to develop the place for mass tourism, the main draw being the year round beach weather (temperatures well into the 30's when we were there). There are a few signs that this is starting to take off (the aforementioned Rovers Return), but in the meantime it's still very much a tourist town, but for the Jordanians. Let's hope they don't get squeezed out, as it's the only bit of seaside they have.

We ate a few meals at the place we stayed for the first two nights. Decent stuff but I'll not bother writing about it here as it was around 10km out of town on the South Beach, and hardly worth a special trip. In town there is a whole strip of restaurants on Raghadan Street, directly behind the huge, shiny new mosque.

Arabic Moon is a regular houmous/felafel spot, cheap and tasty.

Al-Mabrouk Beach restaurant is one of several seafood restaurants in the vicinity, all of which appeared to have exactly the same menu. We ate the only seafood meal of the entire trip there.

For starters, a not remotely seafoody fattoush salad, a plate of labneh, and loads of bread. The salad was fresh and zingy, with great tomatoes and contrasting crunch from the toasted shards of bread, and I just love labneh. It sort of reminds me of philadelphia cheese only miles better. So wonderfully lactic and creamy.

The main event, the fish wasn't so great. I had sayadieh, a dish of fried fish on rice garnished with fried onions, chopped nuts and served with a herby tomato sauce. It was claimed as a local speciality, but the internet seems fairly convinced it's Lebanese. The rice and sauce were fine but the fish (white, indeterminate) was a bit mushy.

RP's grilled red snapper was cooked nicely but wasn't the freshest specimen.

about 4-5 dinars for lunch for two

Arabic Moon Restaurant
Raghadan Street

about 25 dinars for a two course meal for two including fish mains

Al-Mabrouk Beach Restaurant
Raghadan Street

......to be continued...


Pavel said...

Looks amazing! I've been wanting to go for a while now, one of our friends worked out there and loves the place.

Dave said...

Thanks Pavel - yeah it was pretty good. Definitely recommend it!

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