One of the many joys of traveling to foreign countries is the confusing and disorienting process of learning the ropes of a new culture and language. (Not one of the joys of foreign countries are taxi drivers, but that’s another story.) Amman is a vibrant, interactive, exhilarating city and yes, fairly modern and liberal when compared to Jordan’s other Arab neighbours. But the raw truth is; I am a young, single white woman who speaks no Arabic in an Arabic Man’s City, and there is only so much individuality I can express here without a) offending the citizens of this lovely city or b) landing myself in some unwanted sticky situation. Earlier this week I realised that I am pathetically, a big cry baby (and not at all the traveler I sell myself as). My goal was to get some cash from the ATM: the helpful man at reception told me it was ‘just across the road’, and of course it wasn’t. It was about 800m away, down the street and across the bus station and I could only just see it in the distance. After the 4th man verbally harassed me I did a U-turn, in tears, and hurried back to my hotel without any cash and without any self-composure.
So after 2 days of being holed up in my hotel room, feeling helpless and hopeless and furiously venting to the Universe that I want to be in charge of my destiny, and I want to make decisions about my life and other self-indulgent, sulky rants I realised that when in foreign land: play by their rules. So I thought: What is a woman allowed to do in an Arab country? She can get married and have a few kids. (um. no. not even in my own country). She can go shopping. And then it hit me: She can go shopping for groceries and she definitely, can and should, cook a delicious Arab meal for her family and guests. And that’s just what I did: shopping and cooking. Rock on Gender Stereotypes!
Ok, so I had a little help. I made email contact with Maria at Beit Sitti, her family business that teaches Arab cooking, because let’s face it, there was no way I had the skills to do this on my own. Beit Sitti means ‘Grandmother’s House’ and I admit, I was expecting an Arab Strega Nona mixed with part Evita Bezuidenhout; a head-scarf wearing cultural ambassador of Jordan. (It’s weird inside my head…) Instead, I met Maria: young, beautiful, sassy, and a world-class chef. Maria and her two sisters started Beit Sitti as an homage to their grandmother, and the Arab cooking and traditions she taught her granddaughters. Beit Sitti (could it be Bite City?) is an open air terrace cooking classroom that is interactive and accessible for all levels of cooking ability, where we are all students, cooks and diners.
In the late afternoon Maria and I headed to the Amman Downtown vegetable market to pick up the ingredients for our dinner , and made it back to the kitchen in time to begin the evening class.
Being on my own, I was tacked onto a larger group made up of about 12 language exchange students from America, a group of Brits on vacation, and a few Middle Eastern tourists looking for a fresh take on Jordanian cooking. The class is fun and interactive from the start: touching, smelling, tasting and guessing ingredients. Very soon there is laughter and teasing, and furious-friendly shaking of the ‘naughty tambourine’ by our teacher Chef Lily. I joined the class with a not-small mental smirk, think ‘yeah, I’m a food blogger and a world-class traveler. I’m from a family of chefs, and I can cook y’all under the table.’ So yes, it appears Katy can’t chop an onion. I mean, I used to be able to, like, 10 years ago. But the last meal I cooked was, like 10 years ago. Massive fail. Luckily I feinted most of the chopping by taking a few pictures, result being I avoided shameful exposure as a foodie who can’t cook, but now I also have a camera that smells of onions.
Lots of deliciousness followed, tinged with a bit of science and chemistry, and wonderment on my part. For example, there is a weird and amazing chemical reaction between tahini (sesame paste) and lemon juice, that thickens the tahini instantly. Amazing. I had no idea. An hour or so passes while we try to remember Arab words, while chopping cucumbers and mincing garlic, and trying our best to live out our Master Chef dreams. Later dinner is served, which owing to the number of chefs involved, it’s a wonder that it tasted like anything other than onion flavoured mush.
Dinner was followed by yummy dessert. And then I won the Best Chef certificate. Just saying. Nehnehneh neh neh. Shake that naughty tambourine, while I dance around the table, suckers! That’s right, I am the best woman at doing womanly things. So there!
Beit Sitti visit their awesome website
Beit Sitti, Amman’s No 1 Restaurant. If TripAdvisor says so, it’s true.
First published Jun 30, 2013