AMMAN’S FOOD CULTURE SEEMS TO ATTRACT HIPSTERS. WE SMELL SOMETHING WONDERFUL IN THE KITCHENS OF AMMAN, WHICH BORROWS FROM OTHER COUNTRIES TO REINTERPRET ITS TRADITIONAL RECIPES BUT ALSO SET SAIL TO CURRENT TRENDS.
Amman, the capital of Jordan, has always had a roster of stellar restaurants beloved by locals but it was largely eclipsed by the dining and culinary cultures of Damascus and Dubai. Jordanian restaurants largely served traditional Middle Eastern food, expensive global cuisine, or run-of-the-mill fast food.
But a new generation of Jordanian restaurateurs is changing Amman’s culinary culture by forging new food trends inspired by traditions. Amman’s tastemakers take what’s trending on social media – from new food concepts to ingredients - and combine it with local cuisine. From the popular Jordanian rice dish mansaf to cereal-based meals, Amman is now a hub for global and local food trends.
The fact that the Jordanian capital opened its doors to refugees from all across the Middle East had a positive influence on its culinary identity. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon brought traces of their national cuisines to Jordan’s gastronomy scene. Now, Jordanian chefs are combining Levantine cuisine with food concepts emerging from around the world.
Zucchini is hugely popular in Jordan in a stuffed iteration: kousa mahshi, which is zucchini stuffed with meat. But Jordanian restaurants are instead offering up zucchini in all sorts of ways – as carpaccio and fried blossoms, and combining it with lentils to make a familiar dish seem completely new.
This twist on tradition is rooted in the artistic, older districts of Amman. Located in the old Jabal al Weibdeh neighborhood, the Joz Hind restaurant’s constantly changing menu features a salad, vegetarian and meat options, and fresh bread with traces of different cuisines. “The idea was to ‘bring our house, our kitchen’ in a dining format,” says Hind Dabbagh, who co-founded the space with her husband Luca in 2014. They prepare fresh food every day using organic as much as they can, and use local ingredients like freekeh or bulghur but in different ways.
There’s a growing trend in Amman for simple, home-cooking style meals prepared with organic produce from local farmers. On one of my first weekends in Amman, I spent a morning on the terrace of the Fann Wa Shai café for brunch, eating plate after plate of a pumpkin and eggplant moussaka, fresh salads and pickles. It was a far cry from my recollections of life in Amman almost a decade ago when a vegetarian meal essentially comprised of a falafel sandwich, and brunch meant pancakes and eggs.
The success of Joz Hind has seemingly inspired other ventures to reinterpret traditional food and ingredients. In the same neighborhood, there’s Muna’s Kitchen, which also has a menu of home-cooked style meals, while Najla offers traditional Arab cuisine in a living room-like space and serves everything from mansaf to musakhan, the Palestinian dish of chicken and sumac.
On a sunny weekend afternoon, I headed out for lunch to the packed terrace of the Shams El Balad restaurant in downtown Amman, with a view of the ancient Roman columns. It reinterprets Middle Eastern classics - hummus dips, copious amounts of bread, flatbreads with heaps of vegetables and dressed with sumac - with new ingredients such as cauliflowers. Prepared with seasonal ingredients, the dishes are served with impressive presentation. The restaurant’s traditional breakfasts – much like the breakfast cafés of Istanbul’s hip Cihangir neighborhood – are popular with locals and tourists alike. As I looked through the summer menu, I’m captured by a meeting of contrasts: traditional flatbread with akkawi cheese and mint leaves served with seasonal strawberries. And even though I’m usually wary of “sweet” breads, the pull of fresh summer strawberries is hard to resist.
Even dessert makers are riffing on tradition. Marmalade, a baking outfit, makes knafeh and halva but also serves cheesecake in glass jars. It recently tested a “volcano Lotus knafeh cake” – a mix of traditional knafeh, Lotus biscuits, and the lava cake that’s a staple of dessert menus.
The other spectrum of food trends in Amman encompasses traditions of a different, foreign sort. The global food traditions are reinvented by chefs around the world, who, in turn, personally take place in this movement.
In 2017, sushi burritos – a Mexican-Japanese fusion food that took off in the U.S. – and came to Jordan via restaurants like FishFace and the pop-up restaurant Sushiitto. “Ammanis love to be seen at the latest and trendy place,” says Hammour, who cites sushi burritos as a key trend in Amman.
“We want to make sushi more causal and affordable,” says FishFace co-founder Sahel Haddadin, who’d only seen sushi burritos on Instagram before he opened the restaurant. “People love sushi in general, and they love new trends.”
What’s next for Amman? Smoked meats, Haddadin ventures, could be the next big thing. He also wants to try his hand at Cronuts, the croissant-doughnut hybrid created by the Chef Dominique Ansel’s bakery. It would fit well in the trend of Amman’s culinary scene that fuses cultures and cuisines – and lends itself perfectly to cameras.