The older I get, the more I enjoy cooking classes. With an opening statement like that, I’m in danger of whirling around in a cartoon swirl and remerging as an immaculately groomed housewife from the 1950s: hair set, rosy-cheeked smile, skirt that sticks out like a snipped triangle and the scent of freshly baked cookies following me around like a caricature cloud.
Those of you who know me – and I’ll accept for the purposes of this blog post a very loose definition of the word “know…” Reading a few posts here or tuning in to my ramblings on twitter (shouldn’t that be “witty and incisive social commentary”- Ed?) – would probably have clued you in to the fact that I’m not that kind of wife. Not that kind of girl.
But cooking lessons, I’ve learned (hoho!) provide two cunningly disguised opportunities:
1) The chance to eat a meal that puts the F into fresh and
2) The chance to really get chatting with locals
Oh, and every now and then I can reproduce the results at home. Not that any specific examples spring to mind right now… The odd bodged one here and there…Another couple that weren’t too bad…But it’s the taking part that counts, right?
Don’t answer that, at least not yet.
Enter Beit Sitti, a cooking school in Jordan’s capital, Amman
You couldn’t ask for a better sense of atmosphere…Hidden at the top of a barely-lit staircase, the smoky orange lights of the city glimmered both in the distance and up close as we arrived. The walls inside were fresh and white, punctuated only by a mirror with borders that glittered like jewels dipped in chocolate.
We weren’t in a school, we were in a Jordanian home. Not that we had long to appreciate it.
Maria, the English-speaking of our two chefs, moves at about twice my speed and speaks at about thrice my volume despite being half my size.
She confiscates my camera, my pen and my notebook and I’m set to work. Hands washed, sleeves rolled, apron tied, knife at the ready.
She eases me in gently, by giving me an onion to chop. I relax a little. 1950s housewife I may not be, but even I can chop an onion.
“You might find it works better,” she says ten seconds later, “if you do it like this.”
She pinches one side of the halved onion and slices it swiftly until it resembles a closed accordion. She then holds that tight, turns the knife on its side and cuts parallel to the table, aiming for her palm. After enough shifts spent stitching together fingers in my former life, I can’t help but flinch at the sight.
“Here,” she sets down a glass of cloudy liquid. “Have some arak. It’s like Arabic ouzo.”
Never has a description enticed me less.
Aniseed fires along my throat and we move on to chopping parsley. Later, outside in the balmy night air, I fry pitta bread and potatoes with Ali, our driver, a timely reminder that preparing food crosses all language barriers.
Back inside, I peel smoked aubergines under the supervision of our haja.
“Haja is a term of respect for older people,” Maria explains. “People who have completed the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Haj for men, Haja for women.”
Our haja smiles, adjusts the knife so that I chop ingredients into even smaller pieces, and Maria continues talking.
“I am a ‘trained chef’ in that I take professional cooking classes – although most of that is about French food, but really our Haja know more about cooking than me. Cooking classes of any kind are a strange idea for that generation because the women here learned it all as they were growing up, they learned everything they needed to know about food and cooking that way, at home, as part of normal life.”
So, are the meals we’re preparing (recipes below) fresh from fancy chef school or do everyday Jordanians make these meals at home?
“It’s a mixture,” says Maria, and our driver nods to agree.
“The mouttabal, fattoush and siniyet kafta people regularly make at home,” she says. “Whereas knafeh people tend to buy from bakeries for graduations… Or weddings…For special occasions.”
My hands fluff knafeh dough and ghee with squidgy satisfaction.
“We want to show people that they can make knafeh themselves – easily – at home.”
Tonight, Isabelle and I are the only guests but I wonder who their usual customers are.
Maria gives a wry smile.
“When we opened, around a year ago, we thought that our guests would mainly be tourists. But then with the riots and uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East, people stopped coming to Jordan even though we didn’t have trouble here.
“So, we started reaching out to people here in Amman and it’s turned out to be very popular.”
I wash my hands and head out to the barbecue where aubergine fizzes and spits on the naked flames.
Jordanian food relies heavily on fresh ingredients, often finely chopped. It throws in a hefty dose of subtle spices I’ve since struggled to find at home: sumac, tahini and bakleh. Most meat dishes come with salads that burst with their own flavour, rather than using separate salad dressing as a crutch, and meals usually take the guise of a self-service kind of affair. Broad ceramic dishes glazed in royal blue are set down on the table, from which everyone helps themselves.
It’s tasty and healthy, well, except for the knafeh that oozes with that kind of sweet, delicious moisture that you know can’t come from polyunsaturated lipids.
It’s also surprisingly easy to make. Although I rather wish I hadn’t told you that, in case I ever invite you over for dinner.
You should always remember, though, it’s good manners to look impressed.
Disclosure: I learned about Jordanian Food at Beit Sitti thanks to the Jordan Tourist Board. All views and mediocre cooking skills remain mine, all mine.