Dig in to Jordan's "zaki" (delicious) cuisine
Food-themed tour gives travellers a taste of the Middle East
Calgary Herald, Oct. 6, 2018
“A dish is like a story,” says Jude Mseis as she sprinkles turmeric and allspice, cardamom and mastic into a stockpot layered with tomatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, chicken and rice.
Mseis is teaching our group of travelling food lovers how to make ma’aloubeh, one of Jordan’s top three dishes and one of her childhood favourites. Its name translates as “upside down” because it gets flipped before serving so the rice forms a savoury bed on the bottom of a serving platter. Ma’aloubeh is typically prepared for family gatherings and to entertain close friends.
Mseis sets the pot on the range to simmer, then orders me to chop roasted eggplant for mouttabal, her country’s version of baba ghanouj. My husband, meanwhile, is dicing cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley for the salad, which is rather like tabbouleh but without the bulgur wheat.
This hands-on, open-air cooking class in the heart of Jordan’s capital, Amman, is the culmination of a five-day food tour around the country with Intrepid Travel. At the outset, our guide, Mohammed Assaf, taught us the Arabic word “zaki,” which means delicious.
“We will be saying this a lot,” Assaf promised.
His words were prophetic: We’ve sampled everything from the ubiquitous hummus and hard-boiled eggs dusted with zaatar (a savoury thyme-sumac-sesame seed spice mix) for breakfast, to a Palestinian dessert called knafeh, which is a rich cheese and noodle pastry soaked in sugar syrup. In a country rich in history and blessed with natural beauty, it’s fair to say Jordan’s ancient sandstone city Petra, its Martian desert landscape at Wadi Rum, and the modern capital, have become an exotic backdrop for endless bowls of mezze and goat so tender and smoky it’s made me rethink my moratorium on that particular cloven-hoofed beast.
Now, at Beit Sitti Authentic Arabic Cooking & Dining school, it’s time to learn how the Jordanians make such “zaki” cuisine.
Culinary tourism isn’t new; foodies have long travelled to Europe to knock off a few Michelin-starred restaurants while seeing the sights. What is new is the growing interest in non-gourmet eats — the street food, home cooking and food traditions that define a people and place. And Middle Eastern cuisine, which is as healthy as it is hearty and about as local as it gets, has arrived — it’s been tapped as one of 2018’s big food trends by two very different sources: healthy grocer Whole Foods and Nation’s Restaurant News, an American food service resource.
“Middle Eastern food is becoming a little more trendy now,” says one of my Beit Sitti classmates, Catherine Policella, who runs a culinary team at a bakery in Chicago and who travels, in part, to ignite her culinary creativity. “I picked Jordan because the different mixture of spices interests me, and I like to immerse myself in the foods of other cultures.”
In fact, it’s becoming a lot more common for people to not just dig in, but also to break the proverbial bread, learn how to bake it, and then bring home the recipe. Since it opened eight years ago, Beit Sitti, which means “my grandmother’s house,” has experienced phenomenal growth.
“We used to only cater to small groups, but now we handle larger groups, often two in one night,” says Mseis, who leads classes on the patio of her grandmother’s family home with the help of local women.
“People want to learn how to make it themselves.”
Visitors from all over the world spend an afternoon or evening trying their hand at Middle Eastern favourites such as falafel or kafta (meat soaked in tahini or tomato sauce). They’re then sent home with detailed recipes so they can add the new dishes — or at least spices such as thyme and sumac — into their home-cooking rotation.
“When I return to Zurich I will cook this for my friends. I want to show them what I tasted,” says Bettina Müller. “After a trip like this you get so many inspirations. You remember that food brings people together around a table.”
Indeed it does. As the setting sun illuminates Amman’s white limestone buildings and the call to prayer sings out from a nearby minaret, we sit down to dine on our creations. We dig in to tender chicken and flavourful rice, scoop up the smoky eggplant dip with homemade pitas, and savour the decadent basbousa, which is a dessert made from semolina, coconut flakes and yogurt — all dishes prepared and eaten decades ago by Mseis’s grandmother in this very house.
In the waning light, I see that food is a universal bridge that spans cultural differences, and it’s one of the most direct ways to experience a country. It also makes one of the best souvenirs.
When I cook ma’aloubeh, mouttabal and basbousa back home, the dishes will indeed tell a story — their ingredients, textures and exotic spices will convey a real taste of Jordan, and transport me back to the patio in Amman where I learned how to make them.
Get cooking (and eating) in Jordan
· Beit Sitti offers hands-on cooking classes in Amman. After kneading, chopping and mixing, eat what you cook (be sure to bring your own wine) and take the recipes home.
· Make your own mezze, soup and main course at Petra Kitchen in Wadi Musa. You’ll leave stuffed and depart with tips for adding Jordanian staples and spices into your own cooking.
· Dive deeper into the country’s cuisine on a Jordan Real Food Adventure with Intrepid Travel. The tour company takes small groups to the country’s famous sites, including the Dead Sea, Petra and Wadi Rum, with plenty of food stops where you eat like — and with — locals.