The Middle East’s most unexpected foodie city break
The Sunday Times’ restaurant critic Charlotte Ivers tucks into Jordan’s lesser-explored capital Amman for a trip packed with history — and hummus
One day, when I am old and grey and reminiscing in my retirement home, I worry that I will think not of my wedding day, or of the birth of my first child, but of the hummus at the restaurant Hashem, in Amman, the capital of Jordan.
Hashem is rough and ready. When you arrive, the waiters cover your table with clingfilm, sling you a flatbread and make it clear that you won’t be getting a plate: you will eat off the clingfilm. Then, the food arrives: pickles, stuffed falafel, an aubergine dip called mutabal. And the hummus.
Don’t order hummus. I mean, you can, and it will be great. But if you order the “fatteh with oil” off the menu instead, you’ll receive a mound of hummus strewn with chickpeas, peanuts, sumac and little pitta chips (the fatteh). It resembles the hummus you’d get in Tesco in the same way that Boris Johnson resembles Kate Moss. You aren’t going to mistake one for the other and you know which one you’d rather look at. I ate it so enthusiastically that a man on the next table started laughing at me (dishes about £5; hashemrestaurants.com).
I do worry that I will still be trying to finish Hashem’s hummus when I am sitting in that retirement home. Nobody has ever left a Jordanian restaurant underfed. The food arrives on communal plates for you to pick and choose from, but these are not the miserly “small plates” that clog up UK cities. They are vast platters of joy, with more emerging from the kitchen every time you think you cannot possibly go on. Most people go to Jordan to see Petra and the astonishing Wadi Rum desert, and you should: they are as remarkable as everyone says. But you could also spend a week in the capital doing nothing but eating and pottering about, as I did in September, and come away happy. (Yes, even now. There have been protests in Amman after Friday prayers, and you should avoid those demonstrations, but overall the country remains safe; the Foreign Office cautions only against travel to areas close to the Syrian border.)
When it comes to pottering, start at Amman’s Citadel. Everyone who was anyone in ancient times had a crack at invading the land that is now Jordan, and you can see the remains of each attempt here: a Roman temple of Hercules, a Byzantine church, an Umayyad palace. The Ptolemies took their shot at Amman too, as did the neo-Babylonians, and you can see traces of them here as well. Round the corner is the Roman amphitheatre, still used for concerts and housing a museum explaining the lifestyle and customs of the Bedouin tribes who inhabit the Wadi Rum desert. As a metaphor for modern Jordan, you could do a lot worse.
Once you’re satisfied that you’ve done enough intellectual development to justify the air fare, start eating again. Try Sufra, in one of the oldest parts of Amman, for something traditional in an airy, shrubbery-filled courtyard: it offers a thousand and one ways to skin an aubergine and a waiter wandering about in traditional dress offering interminable top-ups of tea (dishes from £5; romerogroup.jo/restaurants/sufra).
If you want something a little more chic and modern, you can get an equally blissful courtyard experience at Shams El Balad, and eat through an array of Middle Eastern brunch dishes that will make you swear never to return to avocado toast again (dishes from £5, mezze tray £19; shamselbalad.com). In the evening, try Alee, a modern restaurant with glass walls and an unrivalled view of the city. The food here was seemingly made for Instagram. A perfectly formed bulgur salad and a spiced potato dish arrive, separated into their aesthetically pleasing constituent parts, and require the waiter to mash them together before they are consumed. Our waiter asks if I want to take a picture of the food before the mashing process begins, and hovers, looking disconcerted, when I say I do not. Don’t let that put you off. It tastes even better than it looks (dishes from £13; instagram.com/aleebyali).
If you manage to eat your way through Amman — and doing so would be a lifetime’s work — consider a quick drive down to the Unesco World Heritage city of As-Salt, less than an hour northwest by car. Much of Amman, as it stands now, was built in the early 20th century after the establishment of modern-day Jordan, but As-Salt’s buildings are much older, with those from the Ottoman era intermingling with the neo-colonial and art nouveau. Surrounded by hills, the city is built of a yellow local stone, which means that, in places, you could almost mistake it for the Cotswolds were it not for the Arabic architecture and dry heat.
The Jordanian government has been pushing As-Salt as a tourist location after it became the first city in the country to pick up World Heritage status. As part of this, some locals have begun to receive tourists into their homes for food and board. I go to the House of Fatima Alzoubi, a tiny guesthouse and dwelling down a leafy backstreet in the centre, where Fatima and her family serve traditional food on their roof terrace, which overlooks the city and surrounding hills. There, seated round a communal table with a family of tourists from Dubai, we eat mujadara — bulgur wheat, lentils and the crispiest fried onions — and maqloba, a rice dish cooked upside down with chicken and potatoes at the base, as well as the compulsory dips and salads that come with any Jordanian light lunch.
From there, we wander through the city to Al Khader Church — St George’s Arabic name — a tiny orthodox church that has a history of innumerable miracles, and to Hammam Street, the main market area where you can pick up Turkish delight and bright green za’atar that would make Ottolenghi fans swoon.
If you’re looking for more of a beach holiday, head south to the city of Aqaba, on the northernmost point of a narrow gulf off the Red Sea. From the shore, you can see Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Take a boat out onto the gulf and you can snorkel among the coral or — if you are feeling more intrepid — go scuba diving and swim among the many wrecks off the shoreline. I go on the Sea Guard, captained by Yazan Alsaed, and we sail down towards the border with Saudi Arabia for a swim before returning to eat a vast barbecue cooked on a grill off the side of the boat.
With the barbecue comes the ever-present range of fresh tomato and green-leaf salads, more aubergine and — naturally — hummus. I probably ate hummus with every meal I had in Jordan and still walked away feeling I could eat more. Petra and Wadi Rum will always make it onto lists of “things to see before you die”, and despite my wariness of “must see” places, I would agree. That said, if you did nothing in Jordan but sit and eat hummus and drink cups of tea, you could consider it a week well spent.
Charlotte Ivers was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board (visitjordan.com). Abercrombie & Kent has seven nights’ B&B from £3,999pp on a Classic Jordan trip, including flights, transfers and guides (abercrombiekent.co.uk)
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Three more ways to see Jordan
By Claudia Rowan
1. Trek and camp
Walk the length of Jordan on a trek from Umm Qais in the north to the southern city of Aqaba. The route includes five days’ trekking, accompanied by Bedouin guides, taking in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation in Wadi Rum as well as remote villages. You’ll camp in the desert, tuck into traditional zarb meals cooked in the ground and traverse ancient canyons. The trip ends with visits to Petra and Siq al-Barid — aka Little Petra — which also has magnificent buildings carved into the sandstone.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £1,449pp, including flights and some extra meals (exodus.co.uk)
2. Biblical sites
Discover the country’s most impressive historic sites, beginning just east of Amman with desert castles built by the crusader armies from the 7th to 13th centuries and ending at the lowest point on earth — the Dead Sea, where you can bathe in water that’s warm year-round. In addition to visiting Petra, you’ll spend one night under the stars in a desert camp, stop at Mount Nebo — Moses’s supposed burial place — see the Islamic castle of Ajloun and join scenic treks through Jordan’s countryside.
Details Ten nights’ B&B from £2,285pp, including some extra meals (trailfinders.com). Fly to Amman
3. Natural highs
Jordan is much more than huge desert landscapes — the country is home to greenery as well as canyons, mountains and nature reserves. A two-week tour means you can take in Petra and Amman, and get out into the countryside, travelling through the dense Ajloun Forest Reserve and the rocky Dana Biosphere Reserve, part of the Great Rift Valley — expect to spot ibex and foxes along the route as well as over 200 species of bird.
Details Fourteen nights’ B&B from £7,095pp, including flights (audleytravel.com)