“Food is the soul of the family. Food is our way of showinghospitality but it is much more than that. Our grandmother lived in this house and she loved cooking for us. We wanted to preserve her legacy and show how traditional Arabic food is made.” I was in the kitchen area of Beit Sitti (Grandmother’s House), surrounded by beautiful objects on tables and walls, including many family photographs, in the heart of Amman, capital of Jordan.
Maria Haddad and her sisters set up Beit Sitti in the family home to teach visitors how to cook and to offer a uniquely personal dining experience. Maria was explaining the history of the house, situated in one of Amman’s oldest neighbourhoods – Jabal al weibdeh – and the importance of Arabic cookery in Middle Eastern culture.
12 of us had gathered at Beit Sitti to learn how to make some simple Arabic dishes. The ingredients were laid out in front of us. Huge aubergines (eggplant), plump tomatoes, zingy lemons, tiny cucumbers, glossy onions, chubby garlic and bunches of herbs, scented the room with a taste-bud-tingling fragrance. “We’ll be making Fattet Makdous, a fried eggplant dish with toasted pitta bread, yoghurt and cucumber dip followed by Muhallabieh with Osmelieh (orange blossom milk pudding with vermicelli) plus some other side dishes.” Maria gave each one of us tasks and very soon the kitchen was a hive of busy cooker bees.
Arabic Cookery at Beit Sitti
I was put in charge of chopping the cucumber for the dip. Others were preparing the fattet makdous and osmalieh, making up a tomato salad and frying pitta bread. All the while, Maria told stories of her family and the development of this unique dining experience in Jordan. She and her sisters were keen to ensure it was a personal and informal. “We collected traditional recipes from our grandmother and others and wanted to share the love we feel for our food, teach some basic Arabic Cookery but also to give participants the chance to eat the food they cooked in homely surroundings.”
Once I’d finished chopping cucumbers I had to saute onions and tomatoes then add the aubergine mix to the pan, stirring for 10 minutes til cooked. Stefan took the pitta, which had been lovingly made into little circles, to the garden to get it cooked in the outdoor oven. From the raised garden there was a good view out across the city.
Another ‘cook’ made a paste from garlic and added yoghurt and mint to the cucumber, then scattered mint on top, creating a beautiful bowl of cooling dip to accompany the meal.
Whilst a large table was being laid with attractive plates and cutlery, the meal started to come together. Having assembled the cooked aubergine mix and fried pitta bread in layers in a large glass dish, Maria took a large pot of yoghurt and poured it on top of the mix in a thick layer. Then she swirled gloriously sticky pomegranate molasses across the top and it was ready to serve.
We sat down at the table and the dishes were spread out in front of us. Bottles of coke, Sprite and iced water were poured. Before we could start, there was a flurry of camera shutters as we all tried to capture this vegetarian banquet. Then we passed round the dishes and silence reigned as we enjoyed the culinary fruits of our labours …
After our meal I bought a jar of pomegranate molasses and a few other products key to Arabic cookery; when I got home I was going to try some of the recipes and I wanted the original flavours. Needless to say, no photo could capture the pleasure we got from its exotic flavours and scented delight. However, this little video may give you an idea of what we experienced.
I travelled to Jordan courtesy of Visit Jordan. Many thanks to our guide Berhan for his unfailing courtesy and indefatigable knowledge and to everyone I met in this beautiful, welcoming country. Read about fulfilling a lifelong ambition to see Petra here, one of the world’s most famous historic sites.