We arrived in Amman after midnight, got to our hotel and checked in. Then the friendly Front Office guy said: “You know, you’ve paid for your room and it’s a very nice room, but for just JD35 more per night, you’ll have a much nicer room with a view, and you can use the Executive Club, which has drinks and snacks all day. If you like, my friend will show you both rooms and you can decide, no problem if you don’t want to change.” It was nearly 1am, and of course the Plus-35 room was much nicer and of course I said OK we’ll take it. Welcome to Jordan, where someone’s always trying to sell you something better than what you’ve already bought for just another $10, $20 or $50 more. It took me a couple of days to see that Upsizing was a way of life. But they’re always pleasant about it, you aren’t really being scammed, and after it happens twice or three times you learn to say No, thanks. So when in Jordan, watch out for offers to Upsize To A Better Deal.
Now that I have that out of the way, let me tell you that Jordan’s main attractions are simply spectacular. The capital city Amman is good for a stopover but no need to linger here because all the best sights are outside. There are some ruins in the city, and you can just whiz through all that in a morning or half a day if you like. But you cannot leave Amman without looking for the 24-hour Hashem Restaurant downtown.
“Hashem? You want to go to Hashem?” Our driver was aghast like, this was something he needed to be told two weeks in advance. Or it was the most ridiculous request on anybody’s first day in Jordan. “Yes, yes, it’s famous but there is nowhere to park!” He was not happy, but I was not going anywhere else. So he harrumphed and headed into some pretty nasty traffic, then took a wrong turn and tsk-tsked like I put all those other cars on the road. But we got there.
And YES we were at the world’s best falafel ad hummus restaurant. This has to be one of the more unusual famous eating places, because it occupies the alleyway between two buildings. Tables are packed along the alley and in rooms inside the buildings on either side. All the cooking goes on indoors and along the alley, and there’s a man sitting in the cashier’s box to collect payment. There are so many patrons, who all seem to know what to do, that if you’re a tourist you’ll stand there taking it all in and looking lost trying to figure out how or where to start. A waiter appears at my side suddenly and asks: “How many?” And he leads the two of us to a table where the people are finishing their meal and about to leave and he says: “Here.” Hey, I’m from Malaysia and Singapore, where we are trained from young to hover over people who are eating because We Want Their Table! I can hover.
In no time at all we are seated, the table is cleared and tidied and the same waiter reappears to ask what we want to eat, and I say: “Everything.” Within minutes, we had Hummus and Falafel, Ful Medames, pickles, salad and a pile of flatbread. This is a smashing vegetarian meal, the colours and sight and taste of the Middle East and reminds us of being in Syria and Morocco. Leicester Square too, where I ate my first falafel in a pita sandwich in 1978 and it was the best cheap meal on my first visit to London.
Sometimes I am seated at a table and suddenly feel overwhelmed with a joy I cannot explain because I am just so happy to be alive and gazing at the spread of food before me. When I taste the hummus , it is so smooth and creamy and drenched with olive oil and I clean the plate effortlessly. At first it looked like there were far too many falafels for just the two of us, but I was mistaken because they all disappeared. How can chickpea-and-spice cakes be so good, so perfectly crisp-fried and fragrant with cumin and what-not. I didn’t care for the Ful Medames, a mushy bean stew other people like.
Washing it all down with mint tea, it crossed my mind that I might never come here again so I wondered fleetingly if I should order Round 2? Because, didn’t I see the people at the other table have another kind of falafel that looked interesting, stuffed in the middle and had to be wonderful too? No, no, I stopped myself. But just look at these pictures, if there is only one reason to visit Amman, it’s Hashem Restaurant, downtown. Heaven on a plate, for $5. Everybody in Amman knows it.
Night out at Fakhreldin
We had a second spectactular meal in Amman before we left, and it was at the elegant Lebanese restaurant Fakhreldin, which occupies a couple of old villas in a leafy side of town. It’s a place where princes, politicians and famous people dine, but we didn’t have time for the other guests because our meal was sumptuous and we had great company. One of Hedwig’s students, Esna Ong was doing an internship with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and she is an amazing young Singaporean who has been returning to Jordan to do good work with refugees, and it was wonderful listening to her stories. She brought along Iraqi refugee Daived Joka Devoo, a young man waiting in Amman with his family to know where they would be resettled to. Two lovely young people, a memorable restaurant, great food, Jordanian wine and friendly service. We were happy to be in Amman that day.
No more food stories from Jordan. My list of Jornan’s most wonderful sights will follow.