Australia's favourite food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, savours the delightful fare of Amman.
The last of the passengers boards the flight. Men wear their thawb garments, the red and white Hattah fabric secured by a black agal cord on top of their heads. A hand holding a glossy bag full of sweets first catches my eye and then I look further up to the man holding the bag. His beard is the vivid colour of saffron. The red henna dye is now an oft copied style imitating what Mohammed the prophet did when fighting the war to help camouflage against the desert sands.
A woman follows him, her eyes kohled with exaggerated sweeps, her elaborate bun reminiscent of Nefertiti sheathed underneath the black abaya robes and hijab headdress. She is impatient that they are taking so long and she rolls her expressive eyes. The queue moves on and she glides past us, wafting the scent of rosewater.
I am on my way to one of the most intriguing areas in the world – Jordan in the Middle East.
It’s mid-morning when we arrive and our first destination is Amman, the capital. We spot street vendors selling boxes of strawberries, carrots, radishes and Jordanian bananas. Pure white camels sit amongst caramel coloured ones, and herds of goats nibble on grass on the side of the highway. Amongst the Arabic-scripted buildings are a Starbucks store and ads for Oreos. Limestone brick houses create a creamy white, multiple layered backdrop. A blue mosque sits alongside two churches.
Above: The streets of Amman, Jordan
Our first stop is lunch at Abu Jbara, which serves simple, traditional cuisine. The aroma of freshly made felafel proves irresistible as we take a seat. We drink mint tea, which is strong but not bitter, and gives the aroma of fresh mint leaves.
Up first is freshly made pita bread, served in a basket and accompanied with a plate of salty pickles, with whole chillies, spicy and salty. These are followed with a divine hummus – smooth as silk and lemony. On top is a butter made from goat’s milk, which is vivid yellow in colour, and spring onions, which enhance the flavour.
The ful medames is a fava bean salad which is tangy and full of flavour from olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and sumac. It’s a wonderful contrast to the creamy, silky hummus.
The felafel is crispy and crunchy but moist inside and it’s hard to stop at one. I split the pita bread, spread it with hummus, a slice of tomato, some ful medames, a salty chilli and half a crunchy felafel. It’s bliss.
We have dessert at Habibah, a few doors down. Metal trays of gleaming sweets a metre in diameter beckon to us. There are glistening baklava filled with nuts and topped with puffed, shiny filo or green pistachios and cashews. The wonderful staff behind the counter are kind enough to offer us a few to try.
But we are here for the knafa: a stretchy, pulled cheese not unlike mozzarella, topped with chopped pistachios and drenched in honey syrup. It’s sweet and quite a novelty to eat cheese this way, although I have to admit that the pastries really won my heart.
After stopping at the Turkish baths and checking into Le Royal Hotel, we go to Fakhr El-Din for dinner. It’s a beautiful Lebanese restaurant set in an authentic, Jordanian-style mansion. The building and entrance are elegant and we make our way through the restaurant to the conservatory towards the back, which also serves as a private dining room. Some of its more famous guests include King Abdullah and Queen Rania, Placido Domingo, Mikhail Gorbachev and many presidents and celebrities. Despite this pedigree, prices remain reasonable and the set menu is around $JOD35, or $50.
Arabic hospitality is one of the most generous in the world and the service here is exemplary. As per custom, there is an overflowing bounty of food. There are over a hundred items on the menu but we choose the set menu, which includes an impressive looking vegetable platter that causes everyone to take their cameras out.
Above: Fakhr El-Din's baba ghanoush
The hummus here is divine – and so smooth! It’s like the texture of sour cream but with the flavour of chickpeas, lemon and tahini. There is also the eggplant dip moutabal, which is similar to what we call baba ghanoush in Australia. This is studded with ruby-coloured pomegranate seeds. Then there is also their baba ghanoush which is eggplant dip with onion but no tahini, so you get a strong, smoky eggplant flavour.
The vine leaves stuffed with rice are delectable. There’s a curious dish called shanklish which is a cow’s milk cheese salad – the cheese is finely chopped and served with tomato. It has a strong flavour and when we enquire about this they are kind enough to bring out a log of the cheese for us to see.
The highlight of the dinner (apart from the hummus) is the kubbeh nayeh – raw lamb mince, flavoured and served so finely ground that it becomes creamy. The tabouli is fresh and lemony and the Aleppo olives are salty and spicy. We don't even get the chance to try the pickles as we are warned there is plenty more food coming – and there certainly is!
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