AMMAN - At nightfall, Hammad Gaith walked briskly along busy King Hussein Street, past jewelers' storefronts hung with heavy gold chains and clothes shops glistening with beaded belly-dancer outfits. Gaith passed a newspaper vendor peddling his wares from the dusty pavement, then ducked into a narrow alley that wound up one of the steep hills here in Jordan's capital.
The crowd was already there: two dozen men milling beneath a garland of yellow lights that illuminated the inconspicuous entrance to a tiny, stone-walled shop. Gaith paid 40 piaster, or about 60 cents, at a booth by the door, and stepped into a fragrant kingdom of sweets.
In Boston, people go out for drinks after work. In Amman, they go out for Jordan's most celebrated and desired dessert: kunafa, a warm, sugary concoction of crunchy flour and soft, baked cheese saturated in syrup.
"Kunafa is a social activity, a reason for friends to get together," said Mahmoud Mohammad Habibah, who runs one of Amman's most popular kunafa chains, Habibah, which his family launched in 1950.
Kunafa shops open in the early morning, but they do most of their business after dark, when patrons, mostly men, come to chat over plates of warm treats. Last call for sweets in Amman is the same as for drinks in Boston: 1 a.m., although in the winter most shops close by midnight.
Each kunafa shop has its own character. The more modern ones have tables and serve cold drinks and tea. Gaith, an accountant who lives about 20 miles west of Amman, favors Habibah's main and oldest shop, off King Hussein Street. Fittingly, it is in the city's ancient downtown, near the oldest mosque and just a few sandstone blocks away from an amphitheater the Romans cut into the side of a hill 1,900 years ago in the city they called Philadelphia.
The shop is cramped, has no seats and barely any standing room, and the only refreshment is tap water from a granite sink in the corner. This is the most traditional way to serve kunafa, explained Bassam Shream, a tour guide who often brings American and European visitors here.
"Not just to eat sweets, but to feel the culture," Shream said.
When Gaith stopped by Habibah one evening in May, large, round trays of kunafa sat on a long counter that took up most of the room, and portable gas ovens with their burners turned to low kept several other trays warm. Busboys balanced tall stacks of empty trays on their heads as they carried them to the kitchen, pushing past customers who waited impatiently for their sweets. At the counter, two uniformed servers poured syrup over the dessert, then sprinkled it with green nuggets of chopped pistachios. With a quick, deliberate flick of a metal spatula, a server cut a square about the size of a paperback book, placed it on a paper plate, and handed it to Gaith.
"The kunafa here has the best flavor," said Gaith, picking with a plastic fork at the amber crust of flour to expose a layer of succulent, white goat cheese. "The cheese," he continued, between bites, "has to be soft." He had taken his kunafa outside, and was leaning against a sandstone wall as swallows twittered overhead, catching insects in the dusk. Two men stood next to him, silently indulging in their dessert, and a few paces away, a group of young men chatted, waving their utensils in the air.
In the back of the shop, Salah Shahad and Shaban Abu Hatwa, both 22, made the kunafa. Shahad smothered round aluminum baking sheets generously with margarine and heaped unbleached flour on top of it with his large, bare hands. He scooped clumps of fresh goat cheese into a large colander, to make sure all the liquid from the cheese was properly drained, spread the chunks over the flour, and slid the baking sheet into a two-tier gas oven in the corner.
When the kunafa was cooked, Abu Hatwa took each sheet, covered it with a clean tray, flipped the dish upside down and removed the baking sheet to reveal a golden crust. He stacked the kunafa on a shelf near the entrance to the kitchen, where busboys immediately picked up the fresh dessert and carried it to the counter up front. A shop can go through more than 100 sheets a day, said Faisal al-Qadi, the owner of a kunafa shop that carries his name. Located in the upscale Jabal al-Hussein area, it has tables and chairs and also serves ice cream, cakes, baklava, and cold drinks.
"In America, you have doughnuts," al-Qadi said with a note of condescension. "In Jordan we have between 30 and 40 kinds of sweets, and the most popular of them is kunafa."
Joseph Saatin, a self-proclaimed "kunafa purist" who eats at Habibah, said that "true kunafa is with goat cheese." Sahl Ahdar Sweets, which sells takeaway kunafa to customers who buy it by the pound to treat their families or dinner guests, uses sheep's milk. But al-Qadi swears that blending goat, cow, and sheep cheeses, as he does, makes the dessert softer.
It's not the cheese that makes kunafa good or bad, added al-Qadi, whose family has been making desserts in Amman since 1948.
"The freshness is the most important stuff," he said. "It's like pizza."
Al-Qadi sells other Arabic sweets, including baklava, the flaky dough filled with ground pistachios and honey or syrup that many of his out-of-town customers buy (at about $8-$10 a box) to take home. But kunafa only stays fresh for 24 hours. To try it, one has to come to a kunafa shop, al-Qadi said.
Traditionally, going out for kunafa is a man's pursuit. But in Amman, a modern city of 2.5 million people, women often buy kunafa, too - although they don't always stick around the mostly male crowd after they get their paper plates. Outside Habibah's upscale branch on Al-Madina al-Munawwara Street, sisters Ranah and Roz Marar indulged in the dessert in Ranah's car one night in May. Roz's two children, 17-month-old Sarah and 3-month-old Adam, crawled over the women's laps, giddy on sugar.
Roz grew up in Amman and lives now in Chicago, where she sometimes buys kunafa, though, she declared, "It's not as good." Ranah was only halfway through her plate when Roz had finished hers. Trying to restrain Adam with her right hand, she was using her left to pick at her children's unfinished dessert, which sat on the dashboard before her like a precious plate of molten gold.
Anna Badkhen can be reached at email@example.com.