36 Hours of the Best Food and Drinks of Jordan's Amman

Knafeh, Syrian Ice Cream and Free-flowing Beer: most residents of Jordan are religious – but the capital city follows its own rules

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People enjoying in Amman.
People enjoying in Amman.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Rotem Maimon
Roni Kashmin
Rotem Maimon
Roni Kashmin

AMMAN – Our trip started off on the wrong foot. We heard a rumor that the Jordanian capital has been quietly undergoing a culinary revolution over the past two years, and we couldn’t ignore it.

Those responsible for the rumor explained that this didn’t mean you wouldn’t find hummus in Amman anymore or that everyone was eating ramen now – but that you’re seeing more and more interesting and new things these days.

Foodies like us, who have traveled all the way to Taipei and Tokyo to check out the state of the nigiri, couldn’t ignore nearby Amman any longer.

Even before we set out, though, the wave of counterclaims had begun: “A culinary desert!” “Huge disappointment!” “Why are you going there when the security situation’s so tense?”

Even Haaretz’s correspondent for the Palestinian territories told us, “If you want to call a collection of Mizrahi restaurants a scene – then, yes, Amman has a culinary interest.” Mild despair began to eat away at us, but it was too late to cancel.

Qais the bartender at the Carakale brewery in Amman. For a truly local taste try the Dead Sea-rious Ale.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Our arrival at the Jordan River border crossing in Beit She’an wasn’t a good omen. We tried to cross into Jordan early, but hundreds of fans of the Lebanese singer Julia Boutros, who was performing in Jordan that weekend, had already had the same idea.

A crossing guard, N., who in normal times is mostly busy shooing away flies, wondered, “What’s going on here today?” As for the border crossing itself, where the authorities on either side do their best to complicate matters, maybe it would have been better if we’d spent the $600 on flights to Amman instead?

Before we move onto food, let’s take a minute to talk about Boutros’ fans. The singer “is like Israeli pop star Omer Adam,” D. explains to us, “but for the entire Arab world.” D. is a medical resident at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital and is thrilled at the chance of seeing her idol – who for the first time in 14 years is performing outside of Lebanon. It was no coincidence that the star chose Amman for the occasion.

In 2004, she told the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper she was calling a halt to her performances outside of Lebanon until further notice, and was calling on the Arab people to continue its resistance to Israel until the occupied Arabs were liberated. This was the only opportunity many of her Israeli-Arab fans had to see Boutros, and they showed up en masse for a short weekend in Amman. Many of them were forced to spend 900 shekels ($250) for a ticket to the concert, but the singer also called on the organizers to sell a few hundred tickets at 20 Jordanian dinars ($28) to preserve her image as a performer for everyone.

On the morning of the concert, the Jordanian press reported that “some 10,000 people from Jordan and elsewhere,” plus the production crew, had injected some much-needed life into Amman’s hotels.

Enjoying knafeh from Habibah in Amman.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The city was decked out in festive fashion and on the Friday night, 100 musicians from the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra took to the stage with Boutros for one of the finest productions seen here in years.

Many Arab states have tried to convince Boutros to perform in their countries. But she chose “Palestinian Amman, which is located only a few kilometers from Israel,” as she told the audience immediately after dedicating a song to Ahed Tamimi (the Palestinian teen who spent eight months in prison after slapping an Israeli soldier). The audience cheered.

Struggle for local beer

Only a few kilometers from Israel, but nonetheless, what do we know about Jordan? Desert, Muslim, religious, both expensive and poor at the same time, and, mostly, the home of immigrants. That’s what we thought.

On the surface, though, you can see the shoots of the revolution in Amman – and one of those is Jordan’s first and only brewery. The roots of the Carakale microbrewery date back to 2010, and can be traced to the new generation of revolution standard-bearers: The ones who left Jordan to study and returned replete with skills from the Western world.

Knafeh in the kitchen at Habibah. Sweet memories guaranteed.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The parents of Carakale founder Yazan Karadsheh sent him to study electrical engineering in Colorado and, while there, he fell in love with beer. He began investigating the history of brewing this golden beverage, which is when the idea of creating a Jordanian beer began to form in his head. A beer that would reflect the country so much better than the Amstel beer seemingly loved by so many Jordanians.

It turns out that Jordan, a country with a population that is over 94 percent Muslim – with most of them religious – drinks beer, and quite a lot of it. Three years ago, alcohol was produced in a select number of sites in the country, but only Christians are allowed to make it and run associated businesses (Karadsheh is himself Christian).

While he was trying to receive the licenses to build a brewery that would use local ingredients – his argument was that if you’re already drinking beer, it should at least be local – Karadsheh spent two years at his parents’ home conducting a number of brewing experiments. His explanations did not make much of an impression on the authorities, who rejected his requests time after time and erected many obstacles. Initially, he was allowed to sell his home brew only in the immediate vicinity of his parents’ house.

But Karadsheh is a tough cookie. He used his connections to receive a permit to begin construction on a brewery. However, when the construction crew discovered halfway through what they were actually working on, they downed tools – and never came back. It was at this point that he decided to name the brewery Carakale – after the large desert cat under threat of extinction and fighting for its life. The name is more than just symbolic.

Eight years on, in the brewery premises in a suburb on the outskirts of Amman, our bartender, Qais, wonders in impeccable English if he is allowed to speak with Israeli journalists. Karadsheh, who divides his time between New York and Amman, is not there. He usually speaks with the press and is also responsible for the company’s beer sales in the United States and Jordan. Qais makes a few phone calls and ultimately agrees to talk, offering us a tour of the large plant. “There is no production today,” he explains, “but we can do a tour.”

A Carakale beer with Jordanian hills in the background.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

We prefer to delve deeper into the actual beers and gaze down on the brewery from the heights of the bar, also open to the public. Its glass walls also offer a stunning view of the mountainous landscape outside. Qais accommodates our wishes and offers a long explanation about each beer during a tasting session that includes eight of the brewery’s finest ales.

Pride of place goes to Karadsheh’s first beer, Blonde Ale, and also “Dead Sea-rious” – the most local beer you can ever find, featuring as it does salt from the Dead Sea, pink grapefruit from the Jordan Valley and coriander seeds from Syria. It’s a gose-style beer that gives you a slap in the palate, shakes you up and brings you back to life. In the middle of the desert. Who’d have thought a beer could have the taste of the desert?

Another round of tasting ends with Black Camel Spider, a dark, thick, Porter-style beer with a rich, deep taste. One sip is enough to understand how beer can remind you of Bedouin coffee with a bit of cardamom over the campfire.

“Today, every café, restaurant or hotel that takes itself seriously here keeps out [Jordanian] beers and sells them in large quantities, even though they are boutique and more expensive than the international brands,” says Qais. He adds that everyone drinks nowadays: the religious and the secular, some at home and some in public. True, the authorities have imposed high taxes on alcohol, in the hope of reducing the desire to drink, but still “everyone drinks.”

So, is Jordan ready for another brewery? “I really doubt it,” says Qais. “Ultimately, everyone prefers to drink what’s cheap; the almost total monopoly of imported beers in the market hasn’t really been broken; and the authorities are continuing to put up obstacles. Who needs such problems?” he asks. At the same time, the dam has burst and the seeds of the revolution have been sown.

Julia Boutros in concert in Beirut, September 2014. Her performance in Amman featured a shout-out to Palestinian teen activist Ahed Tamimi.Credit: Ratib Al Safadi / Anadolu Agency

“Only the rich drink this beer,” the cabdriver taking us back to the city center tells us later. When we arrive, the streets are packed, like during every summer evening in a big city. People wait quietly in line, in an orderly fashion, in front of Hashem Restaurant – a local culinary institution that’s the equal of another famous hummus joint, Abu Hassan, in Jaffa.

This is where you can catch King Abdullah II of Jordan eating hummus like everyone else, along with beggars and families with lots of kids.

In an alleyway not far from Hashem, a long line waits for the cashier to give them a slip of paper for the tastiest knafeh we can ever remember eating. While we are sitting and wolfing down the knafeh of Habibah, the lane fills up with the young and old, standing or sitting on the curb. All of them have the same goal: knafeh. Is there anything nicer than watching people who just finished their workday crowding into a narrow alleyway, stopping on their way home for a rectangle of knafeh that drips with sweet syrup?

Actually, it seems there is. A few meters from Habibah stands another outstanding Arab culinary institution: The Bakdash ice cream parlor from Damascus, which has also survived the bloody horrors of war in its homeland. This branch is in a new and stylish building where they sell Syrian ice cream from a recipe that’s hundreds of years old and based on “mastica” – a flavor derived from the sticky sap of the Mediterranean mastic tree, which gives the ice cream an unusual consistency not readily found elsewhere. The mastic sap is the basis for this cold pleasure wrapped in pistachios, salty cashews and rose water.

It’s a summer delight for a 1.5 dinars. In a city divided between East and West, between rich and poor, this ice cream is shared by all – and it’s no surprise that many imitations have sprung up all over Amman.

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