A local chef tells us the best things to eat on the street in the Jordanian capital.
Amman, Jordan. Photo courtesy of Ronald Woan/Flickr.
In the Middle East, the history of street food goes back a long way. There are stories of people in Cairo bringing their own pieces of rawhide upon which to have makeshift picnics, after buying their lunch from street sellers. In 1502, Ottoman Turkey was apparently the first place to regulate the sale of street foods. Amman, Jordan, is no exception to the street food obsession: Like billions of people worldwide, the population of this city consumes food from street vendors every single day.
I grew up in Amman at a time when it was a small sleepy city in the hills of Jordan, surrounded by vast empty spaces. Even then, food vendors would roam the streets of downtown with their offerings—aside from a handful of restaurants, this was the way people ate out most of the time. Things have changed since those days, particularly because there are many more people, and foods, in the city nowadays—the product of all the refugees who have made Amman their home over the last couple of decades.
With Amman’s hot climate in the summer, many city dwellers stay up late into the night, when it’s cool and pleasant to sit outside. From barbecues on the roadside to street food vendors, there is always a smell of food in the air these days. Many people are out on the streets in the summer walking with friends or families, sampling the many different foods on offer together.
Based on my experiences in this city as a local and a chef, I’ve got some favorites for the best street foods and snacks in Amman today. (To clarify, “street food” in this city originated as foods that were sold exclusively on the streets, as there was very little in the way of infrastructure. Today some of those foods can be found at takeout spots as well as from street vendors, who sometimes pick up the foods from those places to sell on the street.)
There is so much good food to be found in Amman now, and so many places to find it—we are often spoiled for choice. But you gotta start somewhere.
Photos courtesy of Tariq Nasir, except where indicated.
Ka’ak is a circular sesame bread, in either a round or oblong shape, that is very often eaten for breakfast. It is regularly referred to as “Jerusalem ka’ak,” as this form of the bread evolved in Jerusalem. Many vendors will carry this in wooden trays balanced on their heads, calling out “ka’ak, ka’ak” while they make their rounds through the streets.
It’s usually eaten with za’atar and hard-boiled eggs—the vendors will always have these extras on their trays. (Za’atar is free; eggs are extra!) Ka’ak is a very famous type of bread in the Levant, and a definite must-try for anyone visiting Jordan.
Where to find it: Ka’ak is something you can find everywhere, as the sellers wander around calling for customers. But I would direct you to the source: a small hole-in-the-wall bakery in Swefieh called Abu Abdullah’s Bakery at the very end of Sobhi Al-Omari Street (map). Here they bake the ka’ak the traditional way in a pizza-style oven. It’s usually ready by 7:30am.
Probably the most famous food from the Arab world, and beloved all over the globe, hummus is essentially ground-up chickpeas mixed with tahini and lemon juice, creating a thick dip. Consumed either in a sandwich or as a dip for pita bread, it often comes with pickles and salad. Hummus is a cheap, filling way to eat, keeping you going for a long time. And it’s great for vegetarians.
Where to find it: There are many, many places that sell hummus in Amman, but one standout spot is at Abu Jbara on Madina Al Munawara Street in the Um Uthaina area of Amman (map). This place often has a line, but things generally move pretty quickly.
It’s my personal favorite. It started as a very small hole-in-the-wall with no seating, and even though it’s branched out to be a bigger place, it still incorporates a takeout counter and has lost none of its original flavor. One confession: When I walk down the street chewing on my hummus sandwich from Abu Jbara, it makes me reminiscent for the quieter Amman of my past.
Pronounced “fool,” this is a dish of fava beans that have been dried and reconstituted by soaking in water. They come either dry or canned, and are cooked with minimal effort with a bit of garlic, and then topped with onions, tomatoes, and olive oil. The lovely vegetarian creation that results is a fantastic dip for pita bread.
Where to find it: Hashem in downtown Amman (map) is a fixture on the city’s food scene, and it makes the best fuul. Located on King Faisal Street, it’s open 24 hours, so there’s no excuse not to make it to this iconic location.
Hashem is a takeout spot that adopts the street and alley as part of its space when the weather is nice. Bonus: You can get fuul and hummus sandwiches to go.
Made from chickpeas, herbs, and spices, falafel is an incredibly popular food in Amman. It’s nutritious, inexpensive, and easy to find. The deep-fried delight and staple Middle Eastern dish—typically served in bread, in this case a long submarine kind of bun, with tahini sauce, salad, and chili sauce—is frequently associated with breakfast, but it can be served at any time of day, and makes a particularly delicious late-night snack for those out on the town. It’s hard to beat the combination of soft fresh bread, spicy sauce, and crunchy falafel fritters.
Where to find it: Al Quds Falafel on Rainbow Street (map) is the place to go for this classic street food. This is a very famous street in Amman, right off the first circle, and easy to find. The king of Jordan is known to frequent this tiny place with his kids on weekends for a breakfast to go, as the only place to sit is a nearby bench on the sidewalk.
Just as advertised, this is buttery cooked corn served on the street. As a kid, I recall corn vendors used a big pot with a fire under it that boiled corn on the cob within an inch of its life! We loved it when we were young, but thankfully it has evolved to something better. Gone is the cob, and now it is just kernels that are put into a cup with butter and salt, eaten with a spoon.
Where to find it: A lot of shopping is done in Sweifieh, an uptown neighborhood dense with stores. There you can usually find a corn cart by the side of the road, either on Abd Al Rahim Al Hajj Muhammad Street, across from the Galleria Mall (map), or on Salah Al Shemat Street, across from Avenue Mall (map).
Hamleh is simply fresh green chickpeas still in their pods, often still on a stem. The pods are roasted until the chickpeas inside are cooked, and then it is split open and eaten. These pods are usually served in a cone-shaped newspaper wrapper, and enjoyed with salt. It’s a delicious early summer food.
Where to find it: The best place for finding this (in season) is from a vendor right downtown across from the Grand Husseini Mosque on King Talal Street (map), not far from the iconic Roman amphitheater. They’re normally sold on a wooden tray—look for that!
Known as a poor man’s food, turmos are lupini beans, and they’re a tasty and unique snack. If these beans are not soaked long enough, they are very bitter, which is perhaps why many people don’t take the time to prepare them at home. Turmos has a translucent skin that’s bitter if eaten, so the best way to eat these is to put the bean in your mouth and use your teeth to exert some pressure so the bean pops out of its skin, which you discard (like edamame). The rest is what you eat, and it’s wonderfully nutritious. Like popcorn, one you start eating these it’s hard to stop!
Where to find it: Look for turmos on the street; there’s usually a vendor right downtown across from the Grand Husseini Mosque on King Talal Street (map), not far from the Roman amphitheater. This is the area of downtown where the street fruit-and-vegetable market springs up on a daily basis; a bunch of street food vendors set up around the market.
Shawarma consists of thin slices of meat (usually lamb, although chicken is also very popular) that are stacked on a vertical spit and then cooked rotisserie style. The meat is sliced off the edge as it turns around the spit and cooks, resulting in small pieces of grilled meat that are collected into a pita sandwich with salad, onions, and hot sauce. Shawarma is popular the world over (we have the Turks and their doner kebab to thank for this originally), but there’s no better place to try it than here in the Middle East.
Where to find it: By far the best place for shawarma in Amman is Shawarma Reem, at the second circle in Jabal Amman (map). This place starts in the late afternoon with a gigantic pile of meat on its skewer that is slowly whittled down to nothing over the course of the night.
This beautiful Palestinian dessert will blow your mind. There is no other way to eat knafeh than fresh out of the pan, so be sure to have room in your stomach when you go for it. It’s one of the best things you can eat in Amman!
Originating in the Palestinian city of Nablus, in the West Bank, knafeh is a true standout in the world of desserts, very simple to make but hard to get right. It is a layer of cheese with a thin, shredded-wheat pastry topping (think thin noodles, like vermicelli) that is cooked in butter, bathed in simple syrup, and often topped with crushed pistachios.
Where to find it: One of the best knafehs can be found at Palestinian Habiba Downtown at Marwan Madi Complex (map), at King Faisal Square. This is a tiny space with a separate kiosk outside where you place your order and pay. You then squeeze yourself into where the knafeh is made, handing over your receipt in exchange for a plate of this exquisite dessert!
Awameh is the Arab equivalent of a doughnut hole—a deep-fried dough ball that’s soaked in either simple syrup or honey. The name literally translates as “floater” because of the way it floats on the top of the oil as it cooks. It’s near impossible not to enjoy them.
Where to find it: Pick these up at Tamreyet Omar, 1 Abu Tammam St., Second Circle (map). This is a tiny little place on a side street off the second circle, in the old part of Amman. It’s just a counter where the awameh is cooked and the money collected, with a little “kitchen” space behind.
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About the author: Tariq Nasir is an Arab-American food blogger and founder of ChefTariq.com. He empowers the everyday home cook to bring Middle Eastern cuisine to their table.