Vegan in Amman: Shams El Balad

For Dr HH’s birthday this year, I treated him to a choose-your-own-adventure: either a long weekend in Paris, or a whirlwind trip to Jordan. He opted for the latter. It was somewhat out of left field for us – it’s not really a travel destination we’d talked about before. We’re both opposed to visiting a lot of countries in the Middle East due to their use of an Asian workforce essentially for slave labour, terrible laws for women, and dreadful anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Jordan seems like the best of the bunch, I have a Jordanian friend who always raves about her home country, and Ryanair started direct flights from Prague to Amman last year, so it seemed like a good opportunity to go along and see what it was like. Everybody wants to visit Petra, after all!

We stayed in Amman, but basically used it as a base to go travelling further afield in the country. I would certainly recommend staying for longer than we did – we had two full days, and spent one of them in Petra, and the other on a tour of some ancient ruins in the north. Unlike our usual holidays, this one was all about the sights and adventures, not about the food, so this will be my only post about it.

I was not a big fan of Amman itself, besides the amphitheatre and citadel. We were staying downtown, and it was a bit of a dive really – there was lots of litter in the street, and a lot of stray cats picking over it. It was also a very male-dominated area: especially in the evenings, there were not many women out and about, unless they were part of a family outing. There were far more men, hanging around on the street in pairs or groups. An absence of women never makes me feel at ease, so I didn’t enjoy the atmosphere so much.

My friend had recommended a place called Hashem, which was listed as all vegetarian on Happy Cow, so we were keen to give it a try. It was packed when we arrived, but we managed to grab a recently-vacated table. We asked for a menu, but didn’t get anything, and nobody ever returned to talk to us or take an order. I was hungry and confused, so we bailed out. We went into a place further down the street that had falafel, hummus, and chips, and that was basically where we got all of our food on our trip.

We took some falafel, crisps, and Cliff Bars for our day trip to Petra, which was a good call as there weren’t many tempting options around Petra itself (though we did see a tomato sandwich…and there was falafel being sold at the entrance too, plus an actual restaurant inside that we didn’t take a look at). Taking a packed lunch to Petra is probably the best (and certainly the cheapest) option for vegans. There’s a lot of walking, we needed plenty of sustenance!

We wished we’d also grabbed takeaway falafel for our second day trip, a tour of Umm Qais, Ajloun Castle, and Jerash. Instead, our driver took us to a restaurant used by every tour company in the country, which had a massive buffet with no allergens listed, and a set price – so I paid four times more than I did at every other meal, and only had hummus and bread. We were fuming. Fortunately, the scenery made up for it…

…although at times the weather did hinder us a bit!

So all told, we only had one really noteworthy meal during our trip, which was this massive lunch at Shams El Balad before we headed to the airport to fly back to Prague. And if you’re only going to have one good meal, this seems like the place to go! It was a nice reprieve from all the things I disliked about Amman, right down to the fact that most of the diners were couples or groups of female friends. We sat out in the sunshine, looking out over the city, and enjoyed very good but unobtrusive service in calm, clean, peaceful surroundings. It was a wonderful haven!

The menu marked the vegan options, which is always appreciated. We decided to properly treat ourselves, as it was our only real culinary indulgence of the trip. The main reason we chose this place was because of the za’atar and olive oil bread on the menu. Just look at all that za’atar! This was everything I’d hoped for, it was really delicious – though the za-atar was quite loose and made a bit of a mess. Interestingly, the people at the table next to us were brushing all the za-atar off and just eating the bread base…clearly it was not what they’d been expecting.

We got some complementary bread as well, to accompany the two dips we ordered. This was the eggplant mutabal, which was charred aubergine, tahini, mint, and pomegranate. It was absolutely delicious! It can be quite tricky to get the aubergine nicely charred without being bitter, and this dish had the balance just right.

We also had this foul mdammas, which was qalayeh (some kind of bean), coriander, and garlic. It was also really flavoursome, and delicious with that soft, fluffy bread.

The harra potatoes were sensational – crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and very nicely spiced. I wish I’d had room for a second helping of these!

And then there were these little aubergines stuffed with walnuts and herbs. My Jordanian friend made me these once before, so I was very excited to see them on the menu here. I believe they’re called makdous, but the menu seems to have been updated since our visit so I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, they are small, full of flavour, and definitely worth a try if you ever come across them on a menu.

After all that food, we were also full! We sat enjoying some sunshine and reflecting on our wild adventures around Jordan, sipping a really flavoursome chai.

I certainly don’t plan to get into the habit of taking holidays which don’t have food as the main focus (or at least one of the guaranteed highlights), but this was worth it as a bit of a fluke just so we could see Petra and some of the other sights of Jordan. We had a lot of falafel, saw one of the wonders of the world, and discovered the joys of za’atar bread: definitely a successful trip!

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6 Responses to Vegan in Amman: Shams El Balad

  1. That’s very interesting about human rights abuses and that Jordan seemed best of the bunch — I didn’t know that! (It’s part of the reason I haven’t been to the Middle East, so good to know about Jordan)

    • Jenny says:

      Well, it’s better, but still not great. Marital rape is still legal, but at least women don’t get arrested for adultery if they report that they were raped, so…that’s something? Definitely do more research before you decide if you want to give them your tourist money!

  2. onesonicbite says:

    At least the sights look pretty! And you had that last meal that looked amazing.

  3. Kelly says:

    Those potatoes look heavenly!
    As an American, the idea of taking a long-weekend trip to Jordan tickles me. 🙂

    • Jenny says:

      Haha, it was a weird concept for me as well, but it seems much more doable from Prague than from the UK. It really deserves more than a long weekend though anyway!

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