Jolly good filos
There are times when it seems sweets, coffee and cigarettes are what keep Amman running. A sweet tooth is common to almost all Jordanians, who make daily visits to the country's countless bakeries to get their fixes. Arabic pastries, whose main ingredients are filo dough, honey, pistachios, sugar and more sugar, are practically the mainstay of the economy, and an excellent way to keep energised throughout a visit to Jordan.
The best bakeries have branches all over Amman, offering a range of Middle Eastern delights served up flaky, gooey and glistening from huge, round, silver pans. Generous and friendly to visitors, those behind the counter will let you taste whichever pastries you fancy, and watch eagerly to see if you like them. Pair a plate of these treats with a cup of super-caffeinated coffee with cardamom or hot tea with mint leaves, and you'll find yourself buzzing away alongside the locals. Here are five places to try:
Al-Malek Al-Hussein Street (King Hussein Street), downtown
Tel: +962 (6) 465 9444
Also, takeaway only: Faisal Street, near the Arab Bank, downtown
Tel: +962 (6) 462 3549
Perhaps the best known of Amman's sweet shops, Habibah has been in business since 1951 at its original location. If you prefer to sit down, you can get a coffee or tea at the tables upstairs at the branch on King Hussein Street, or you can visit the one-room shop on Faisal Street, which is takeaway only. Sometimes there are queues out the door of locals eager for a styrofoam plate of the city's best knafeh. This salty-sweet, cheesy dessert is served in large slices, warm, and optionally doused in a sugar-and-water syrup.
Wasfi Al-tal Street (Garden Street); other locations, including Zahran Street, between 5th and 6th Circles, Sweifieh district
Tel: +962 (6) 568 1700
Jabri's multiple locations are a testament to its popularity; it's truly one of the top places for sweets in Amman. A tantalising array of pastries is on display in big metal pans. Excellent warbaat, a flaky triangular filo pastry stuffed with a cream filling, is sold by the piece or by the kilogram, as is the large selection of baklava, Arabic biscuits and chocolates. Jabri sells lovely inlaid wooden boxes decoratively packed with baklava and borma that make excellent presents. (The pastry stays fresh for at least a month.) Some locations also have a full menu of food for lunch or dinner.
Rivoli Plaza, across from the UN Building, Shmeisani area; also on Garden Street
Tel: +962 (6) 568 1018
When it comes to sweets, Zalatimo dominates the high end of the market. Its branch in the upscale neighbourhood of Shmeisani is an excellent spot for a break - air-conditioned with lovely garden seating and plenty of ladies who lunch. An extensive selection of Arabic pastries can be found, and the borma, light-brown rolls of thread-thin filo dough wrapped around a core of pistachios, is especially good. Zalatimo's speciality is the made-to-order mutabak, a thin, flaky pastry folded around a filling of cheese, walnuts or cream and pistachios, dusted with powdered sugar and accompanied by a small jug of syrup. Chewy and crispy at the same time, it's a sure-fire winner.
Al-Malek Al-Hussein Street, downtown
Tel: +962 (6) 463 0168
Restaurant Al-Quds (Jerusalem) has a great reputation for Jordanian food, but its long-established branch on Al-Malek Al-Hussein Street also offers a couple of sweet treats hard to find elsewhere in Amman. The mahalabia is a creamy concoction of milk boiled with sugar and herbs until it thickens, then chilled in the refrigerator and topped with pistachios and almonds. In addition, Al-Quds makes its own Arabic-style ice cream, which comes in a roll stuffed with pistachios and is eaten in slices. Its also sells the usual range of baklava and other pastries, and has a large seating area.
Corner of Abdulhameed Sharaf and Ilya Abu Madhi Streets, Shmeisani
Tel: +962 (6) 566 8682
Ata Ali is a friendly place in Shmeisani where you can choose from a selection of treats, divided into cream-filled and pistachio-filled sections. It might win the prize for the city's best baklava, as the tiny cylinders, each about the size of the top joint of a pinkie finger, are incredibly moreish. While the dining area here won't win any prizes for style, it's a comfortable place to sit with a plate of goodies. It's also a good spot to pick up a few pieces of mahmool - small bready biscuits, individually wrapped, and filled with dates, pistachios or walnuts.
That's the syrup
The quintessential Middle Eastern pastry. Sweet and addictive, it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from bite-sized to the popular 'bird's nest' construction. Paper-thin sheets of flaky filo dough are compressed around a filling of crushed nuts, usually pistachios or walnuts, and sweetened with honey or syrup.
Knafeh is an ingenious marriage of sweet and savoury that manages to be almost a meal in itself. Best served warm, knafeh is a layer of hard or soft white cheese (naboulsi) topped with a crust of sweet, crunchy pastry and a sprinkling of pistachios, unified by a generous helping of syrup.
Laden with nuts and syrup, borma is one of the most common Arabic sweets. Made in long rolls and sliced into bite-size pieces, this dessert consists of thin filaments of dough wrapped together and twisted around chopped nuts, usually pistachios. These rolls are baked and doused in sugar syrup, which makes each bite crispy, chewy and full of flavour.