Food in Jordan overflows with the flavours and colours of the Middle East. Served in large dishes and designed to be shared, its success lies in using ever-so-fresh and finely chopped vegetables, lashings of sesame-style tahini and plenty upon plenty of honey.
Don’t limit yourself to the tourist taverns, though. Wander down side streets and peer behind embroidered curtains to find the real taste of Jordan. Better yet, sign up for a cooking class at Beit Sitti, a grandmother’s kitchen in a real Jordanian home.
Cooking Lessons in Beit Sitti: Drinking the Milk of Lions
The glass in front of me is short and squat, with green letters splayed against its curves. The liquid inside is cloudy and the woman holding it is Maria.
Maria, like many women in Jordan, doesn’t wear a headscarf and she doesn’t wear a veil. She moves at about twice my speed and speaks at about thrice my volume despite being half my size.
She also wants me to taste what’s in the glass.
“It’s arak,” she says. “Like Arabic ouzo.”
Never has a description enticed me less – and my inclination sinks further when I discover that arak apparently also means “sweat.”
Still, I take a sip and before too long the aniseed dances around the sides of my mouth, warms my throat and eases me into tonight’s lesson.
The setting is perfect. Instead of a purpose-built school, we’re in a real Jordanian home, a building hidden at the top of a barely-lit staircase where the smoky orange lights of Amman glimmer in the distance. Inside, the walls are fresh and white, interrupted only by mirrored frames that glitter like jewels dipped in chocolate. It’s in this room that the sisters of Beit Sitti teach the secrets of Jordanian cuisine to both foreigners and locals alike. Tonight we’re tackling a few of my favourites:
Fattoush - a zinging salad made of finely diced tomato, cucumber and parsley with a splattering of lemon juice and sumac spice to liven it up
Siniyet kafta – minced meat covered with sliced potatoes and carrying the unmistakeable flavour of the Middle East via tahini, nutmeg and yoghurt
Mouttabal – a smoked aubergine or eggplant dish (depending upon where in the world you come from)
Knafeh – a ludicrously sweet, rich dessert that drips with succulent bad-for-you goodness.
Knafeh only usually makes an appearance at weddings, graduations and other special occasions, but everything else on the menu is typical food that most people make at home.
As if to prove the point, our driver joins in, turning aubergines over naked flames until their skins char and blister away to reveal soft, beige flesh beneath.
It’s our job to chop: sleeves up, hands washed, cameras confiscated, notebooks removed.
I give it my best but apparently I’m not doing it quite right.
“Chop a little harder, a little finer,” translates Maria, as our non-English speaking chef tries to reposition my hands. I do my best. I sense the frown. My knife is taken away.
“Like this,” Maria explains before her hand disappears into a blur of motion and a chatterbox of chopping sounds. The knife returns and I pick it up with poise, with anticipation, with readiness, with hope, with - “Before you start,” says Maria. “Just think of the person who annoys you the most!”
The knife descends and I clatter away. Chopping and chopping and cutting and slicing and drilling these vegetables into tinier and tinier pieces. It feels good – and it’s going to taste even better.
It’s quite a business these women have built up, here in the heart of Jordan during a global financial crisis and a catalogue of unrest elsewhere in the Middle East. I take another swig of my aniseed arak and lift the knife again. As the metal strikes the board, I mull over the other name for this drink and how apt it seems right now.
Arak. They call it the milk of lions.
Makes 4-5 portions
- 1KG minced meat
- 1 Onion
- ½ bunch parsley
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 3 medium sized potatoes
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- The juice of 2 lemons
- 2 cups of tahini
- 1 ½ cups of yoghurt
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- Season the minced meat with salt and black pepper
- Grind the onions and finely chop the parsley, massage both into the minced meat
- Spread the minced meat into a non-stick pan so that it forms a full layer across the base
- Cut the potatoes into circular slices and fry them half way so that they become slightly translucent
- Put the minced meat into the oven for about 20 minutes on medium heat and then broil for another 7 minutes
- In a pot, mix the tahini and lemon juice for 3 minutes until knotted and then add the yoghurt and 3 cups of water. Put in a pan over medium heat and keep whisking the mixture so that it doesn’t knot
- Continue whisking for around 10 minutes
- Remove the pan of meat from the oven, pour the sauce into the tahini and yoghurt mixture and whisk for around 3 minutes until the mixture thickens
- Cover the minced meat with a layer of the half-cooked potatoes
- Pour the tahini mixture over the meat and potatoes until both are immersed in it
- Place the pan in the oven for another 10 minutes then broil for 3 minutes so that the potatoes are golden on top
Serve with pitta bread. Enjoy!
Preparing for Jordan
A Taste of Jordan
About the Author
Abigail King is a journalist and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. She writes the award-winning travel blog Inside the Travel Lab and she’s also on Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and Facebook, where she does her best to be interesting, inspiring and informative. Ever so occasionally she manages to pull it off.
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