Three Days in Jordan: When in Amman, Eat Lebanese

When an Israeli finally lets go of the dream of someday dining in Beirut or Damascus, she can still experience the miracle of Lebanese food in Jordan. A culinary journey.

Ronit Vered

The hummus was the final straw, the one that sparked the outburst. As soon as Moyin brought the piece of pita heaped with hummus to his mouth – each diner had been given his own warm pita, served up, with all due French ceremony, with tongs from a basket, by a waiter in a suit – his expression darkened. “No way a Lebanese made this hummus,” he said angrily, and immediately summoned the matre-d’ to the table.

The suspect hummus had been preceded by several warning signs: a tabbouleh salad and a fattoush salad, both of which were over-seasoned (causing Moyin’s brow to furrow); a bottle containing olive oil that was clearly past its prime and blended with another oil, though the bottle itself was quite attractive; and kibbeh nayeh, a dish of raw meat and bulgur, that had obviously been mashed by a food processor into a pinkish paste, and spooned by another waiter onto each diner’s plate. The fancy Lebanese restaurant’s kibbeh master then proceeded to shape it casually into oval pink leaves, which he then slit. “It looks a little like you-know-what,” giggled Rola, and everyone at the table stared somewhat dumbfounded at the row of pink vaginas on the plates. The furrow on Moyin’s brow deepened noticeably, and an air of doom began to hang over the table.

Even a bottle of good Lebanese arak, selected from a vast display of elegantly lit bottles, couldn’t salvage the mood of a gourmand who’d already gotten a whiff of a major culinary failure in the making. Not one of the dishes in the cold meze on the table had a taste that bore the slightest resemblance to the famous subtle flavors of acclaimed Lebanese cuisine. And then came the hummus (as ever in the Middle East, a small plate of hummus is enough to cause a big scandal).

“Good evening, how are you?” Moyin said politely to the matre-d’, before inquiring where the chef of the prestigious Lebanese restaurant in this Amman five-star hotel originally hailed from. “From Egypt,” the matre-d’ answered softly. “Our chef is originally from Egypt. The Lebanese chef we had before left.”

Silence. Moyin’s face said it all. “I told you it couldn’t have been a Lebanese who made these dishes,” he declared with a look of tragic triumph, after letting the poor host depart.

Ronit Vered

It had been three years since the last time he was in Amman and dined at the Burj al-Hamam restaurant, situated in the Intercontinental Hotel. That meal was still etched in his memory as an incomparable feast. “This is the best Lebanese restaurant in Amman,” he had said several times that morning, eagerly awaiting his return visit there. He had told us it was opened by a Lebanese businessman, who patterned it after its famous counterpart in Beirut. And now – such a huge disappointment!

The decision to halt the meal right there, on our first evening in Amman, and not continue on to the hot meze or the main courses was nearly unanimous (aside from one woman in the group who worried that this might amount to ethnic discrimination against Egyptian cooks). “Rubbish!” insisted Moyin. “I have nothing against them as people, but they are terrible cooks”).

The first day: shawarma that stops traffic

Two Christians, two Jews, a Druze and a Muslim – all Israeli citizens – travel to Amman for a three-day visit. A pretty common kind of trip for Palestinian Israelis, though less so for Jews. The main goal of this self-appointed delegation: to visit Amman’s top Lebanese restaurants. Friends have been telling us for years about the amazing Syrian-Lebanese culinary scene in Amman, and we have been trying to get a handle on the magic of this cuisine for Middle Easterners (even the most diehard optimists among the Jews have given up on the dream of going to Beirut or Damascus). Until at last Rola Dib and Moyin Halaby, the couple who own the Rola Levantine Kitchen restaurant in Haifa, agreed to take us Jews for a Lebanese “baptism” in Jordan.

The six of us cross the border, east of Beit She’an, pile into two taxis and drive an hour and 50 minutes to Amman, through the foreign, yet familiar, scenery of the Jordan Rift Valley. Moyin, an inquisitive type who likes to engage people in conversation, asks the driver where he’s from (he’s Palestinian, from Ramle), and what kind of impact the million and a half Syrian refugees are having on the Kingdom of Jordan. “Rent has gone up and the minimum wage has gone down. It’s tough,” the driver replies.

In the back seat, the Jews struggle to understand their conversation, having never learned Arabic, even though it is Israel’s second official language. (“At last, a little affirmative action for the Arabs,” Moyin says teasingly, seeing the Jews’ inability to easily blend in into this environment).

We arrive at our hotel, put away our luggage and head out to eat at Reem, one of Amman’s most acclaimed shawarma places. The tiny eatery, painted bright red inside, is situated in the second of the seven famous traffic circles that bisect the hills of Jabal Amman. The line outside is long, with dozens of cars double- and triple-parked in the street; this must be the only shawarma place in the world that can tie up traffic for hours. Hungry pedestrians take advantage of the chaos to cross the street with something like safety (Amman has hardly any crosswalks and drivers seem to accelerate the second you take your foot off the sidewalk).

The shawarma is fantastic: sliced from a huge skewer of delicately seasoned lamb, and served with tangy, lemony tehina, sliced tomato and onion sprinkled with sumac, in a thin, rolled-up pita.

Next we take a taxi to the center of town. Amman is a vast, sprawling city, and the best way to get around is by taxis, which are surprisingly cheap. The pattern from that first taxi from the border to the city continues throughout the trip. Moyin sits up front and engages the driver in a lively conversation in Arabic. The taxi drivers are all Palestinians – even those who are the third generation in Jordan make a point of saying they come from Palestine; and the Jews sit in the back feeling dumb and frustrated.

Shahrazad restaurant occupies an entire alley in an area near the shuk, and is a universe unto itself. It has two dining halls: one for men only, and one for clientele of both genders. There’s an enormous taboun stone upon which fresh pitas and pitas stuffed with seasoned ground beef are baked; a huge charcoal grill piled with dozens of skewers (“Arabs are known for their tendency to kill the meat,” says one of the Arabs in our group a bit dejectedly, seeing how the meat has been overdone); and dozens of round platters laden with hot tehina or tomato sauce, over mounds of meat.

Ronit Vered

Outside Habibah Sweets, across the street from Shahrazad, the line is just as long as it was at Reem. People sit happily outside nibbling various kinds of sweet goodies. At a nearby book shop, one of the most popular in town, copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and “Mein Kampf” in Arabic translation are among the items for sale.

But you don’t go to Amman to eat Jordanian food – a vague term associated with a political entity that only came into being in the early 20th century and has no clear culinary tradition of its own – or Palestinian food (“Palestinian cuisine is somewhat looked down upon in the Arab world, except for two things: olive oil from Rama and tehina from Nablus”). People come to Amman from all over the Arab world, and from Israel, to eat in its upscale Lebanese restaurants. As noted, however, our first such meal was a terrible disappointment.

The second day: Identity games in Fakhr el-Din

Our taxi driver snorts with scorn when he hears our destination: Hashem’s hummus restaurant, downtown. “That’s tourist hummus,” he says about the place opened by Hashem, who hails from Jaffa, back in the 1950s. “You have to come to us, to the Palestinian neighborhoods, if you want to eat really good hummus,” he says. (“The Jews say, ‘We have no other country,’ says Moyin after a long conversation about the complicated lives of Palestinians in Jordan, “but the Palestinians have no other country either.”) Hashem also takes up an entire alley. It operates 24 hours a day, and the dozens of simple Formica-covered tables surround different preparation stations: In one corner, the chickpeas are mashed; in another, pickles are heaped onto plates; and through a window in the corner you can watch someone preparing the tea and coffee. You could sit here all day long and never get tired of the amazing hummus spectacle.

“A ’48 is here, walking around, watch out,” shouts one of the vendors in the market. The term ’48 is used to refer to Palestinian Israelis, ’67 refers to Palestinians from the West Bank. But the vendor happens to be referring to the Jewish woman in the group. We wander through the market in search of the copper man, the fellow who makes pots for cooking ful (fava beans) by the traditional method.

The capital city is so dreary and derelict looking that even the colorful market fails to lend it any real charm. On the way back to the hotel, the driver seems to suspect that Moyin is really a Jew, an agent of the security forces who speaks Arabic at a high level. There’s no break from the Middle East here in Amman, a city that doesn’t for a moment try to peddle any illusions of being some exotic foreign resort destination.

At night, at the fancy Fakhr el-Din restaurant, the identity games continued. Seated at the tables in the restaurant, which is housed in a private villa that was once the residence of Jordan’s first prime minister, are groups and families from Jordan, Syria, the Persian Gulf states, Egypt and Yemen. The Jewish members of our group, deaf to the different Arabic dialects and blind to the cultural nuances, can’t easily tell one from the other.

“Where does the chef responsible for the cold meze come from?” Moyin warily asks the waiter, but as soon as the food begins to arrive, the relief is palpable. Whenever the glasses are emptied, the professional waiters are right there to pour more splendid Lebanese arak, with water and ice. The anise flavor of the drink goes wonderfully with the flavors of lemon, garlic and olive oil in the cold meze, which consists of muhammara, a paste of red peppers and walnuts; makdus, small pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts; a creamy labaneh with nuts and mint; regular hummus and Beirut-style hummus (a little more tangy and less tasty); roasted eggplant in olive oil, lemon and garlic; and a delicate and unforgettable fresh ful salad. The lovely platter of fresh vegetables and herbs – a pièce montée of lettuce turrets, cucumber and radish towers, and wreaths of hyssop and mint – sparks more discussion about Lebanese cuisine and its high stature in Arab cuisine in general.

The term “Lebanese cuisine” doesn’t necessarily refer to the cuisine of the modern political entity of Lebanon, but rather to the cuisine of the Levant, of the northern region of Greater Syria, as it was known before the political boundaries were set early in the 20th century. Western scholars attribute the greatness of this cuisine to French influences, which are a legacy of the colonialist period. They say that the sophisticated French cuisine helped moderate the local cuisine and raise it to a higher standard. It’s a rather patronizing theory, and it fails to take into account the relatively brief duration (1923-1946) of the French Mandate. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region for 400 years, had a much bigger impact on the local cuisine).

“Lebanon was always a crossroads,” says Moyin, who now appears to have shrugged off the previous night’s culinary fiasco. “Just because of the complicated political history and the waves of conquerors and conquests, the area became the home of different religions and nationalities and minorities, and this pluralism helped the cuisine to develop. Armenians, Druze, Maronites, tribes that came from southern Turkey – they all left their mark on this cuisine, which carried on the complex Arab cuisine of the Middle Ages, and these flavors became stored in a collective Levantine DNA and etched in our memory. When you taste dishes from this cuisine, you immediately identify the aesthetic, the combinations of flavors, the seasoning. You can liken it to the tuning of the strings of a musical instrument like the oud. The food we sampled yesterday was all out of tune.”

After the cloud of smoke clears (in Amman, unlike in much of the rest of the world, people still smoke in public places, and the tables are filled with smokers of both genders puffing on narghilas or lighting up cigars and cigarettes between every course), we move on to the hot meze and the main courses: pastries stuffed with herbs, cheese and meat; kibbeh roasted on the grill in the form of kebab skewers; tiny lamb sausages; kebab baked in tomato sauce; bandura a-lahma, a simple and marvelous dish of Palestinian origin made with lamb and tomatoes.

The feast concludes with a huge tray of fresh fruit. The crimson grapes look like they were taken right out of a still-life painting; there’s a plate of figs and oranges, and apricots preserved in sugar. Then comes the kanafeh, and the othmaliye – two layers of crisp qadaif noodles that melt in your mouth, filled with a delicious cream.

The third day: Zalatimo!

We awaken to the long-awaited first autumn rain. Rain is falling in Amman, and in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, too, say the weather reports. There is hardly any free Wi-Fi in Amman, and at the hotel you can pay a premium for Internet access. Every minute, it seems, the phone is buzzing with an alert about another stabbing attack in Israel. We drive to Medina Street. The driver, a Palestinian from Haifa, tells us about his 96-year-old uncle who still remembers the Nakba and who, after the peace treaty was signed between Jordan and Israel, went to Wadi Nisnas in Haifa to see his family’s old house. He himself hasn’t been to Israel. Palestinians under age 40 do not get entry permits.

On Medina Street, we find one of the branches of the famous Zalatimo Sweets. On the wall is a picture of Mohammed Zalatimo, founder of the chain, which had its origin in Jerusalem’s Old City, and next to the portrait is an etching of the Dome of the Rock. Israelis are familiar with the bakery opened by Zalatimo in 1860 next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One of his descendants can be found there today, still making the mutabak, the sweet that earned the family its reputation throughout the Middle East. Made with paper-thin sheets of dough, filled with goat cheese, baked with butter and served with a coating of powdered sugar, it’s mighty hard to resist.

“If you came to Jerusalem and didn’t eat mutabak, it’s as if you never really came to the city,” the family liked to say. Over the years, Zalatimo and sons opened some additional modest establishments outside the Old City walls, on Salah a-Din Street, in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina and in Ramallah, and a few months ago, Muhammed, a young namesake of the founder, opened another branch in the Shu’afat neighborhood. He told us about the strict tests that any family member who wants to open a branch of the bakery must pass (handling the thin dough of the mutabak is one of the toughest).

It’s hard to say when we’ll publish an article about the Zalatimo bakery chain. Jerusalem is in the midst of unrest, warnings about disturbances in different parts of the city keep coming, and who is going to head into Shua’afat these days to buy mutabak, baklava and other sweets?

Descendants of Zalatimo who left Jerusalem after 1948 opened what became thriving branches of the family business in Jordan and Dubai. The shop here, on Medina Street, as befitting a brand that supplies sweets to the royal family and the Jordanian national airline, looks like something out of a fairy tale: entire walls covered with row upon row of nougat candies and rahat lokum (Turkish delight); baskets filled with ma’mul and semolina cookies; and gorgeous platters of miniature baklavahs.

Our brief Jordanian adventure ends as it began, in another upscale Lebanese restaurant. At Levant, a Lebanese restaurant that proudly touts its Armenian influences, we drink more delightful Lebanese arak, and eat, among other things, a terrific Armenian muhammara; miniature eggplants filled with rice and served cold; a hot sujuk sausage; tiny meat-filled dumplings served with yogurt; a fantastic skewer of shawarma made with beef fillet; tender beef baked in a clay pot; and ghazal al-banat, a beautiful and intricately prepared sweet. The waiter, a Syrian Druze, is excited to meet his Israeli fellow Druze, and tells us about the preparations being made to fight ISIS back in the city of his birth. As soon as he is needed, he declares, he will leave his job at the Lebanese-Armenian restaurant in Jordan and go to do his duty in the city close to the Israel-Syria border.

We drive back through the border crossing and into the hot and heavy air of the Jordan Valley. As drive through the outskirts of Amman, we pass through the neighborhood where the royal palace is located, and the large, highly guarded and fortified homes of the wealthy. At the border crossing, we wait more than an hour for the bus to take us from the Jordanian side to the Israeli side. It’s only 400 meters away, but one is not permitted to cross this distance by foot. Going in either direction, one must wait for the bus, and pay a not inconsiderable fee for the half-minute journey. So close and yet so far. And so idiotic.