Home to friendly camels, luxury campsites, and mouthwatering food, Jordan managed to surprise and delight me at every turn. When I vowed to make 2017 the Year of the Middle East, I never imagined how easily I would fall in love with every aspect of Jordanian culture. One of the many experiences that contributed to this borderline obsession was cooking with A Piece of Jordan.
Cooking with A Piece of Jordan:
Just before 8 pm on a Sunday evening, two of my fellow travelers (Josie and Callum) and I slowly make our way downstairs to the hotel lobby, simultaneously exhausted and excited. We’d spent the better part of the day exploring the ancient city of Petra, hiking the uneven trails to the Monastery and the High Place of Sacrifice. My watch informs me that we’d trekked over 31,000 steps – the equivalent of 13 miles – so my exhaustion is warranted. Yet my excitement overpowers my tiredness since I’m about to do one of my favorite activities while traveling – a cooking class. This isn’t just any cooking class, however. This one is taking place in a local’s home without the frills of stainless steel cookware and a professional chef. A Piece of Jordan is run by locals in support of locals and I’m eager to learn more about Jordanian culture through food…after all, isn’t that what traveling is all about?
In the lobby of our hotel, we’re greeted by Bev, a kind American-British woman who I later find out has been living in Jordan for just eight months. The three of us pile into the pick-up truck and Bev expertly navigates the streets, sharing stories about her recent transition to Jordan from the United Kingdom. She’s moved to Jordan to run a bed and breakfast and be close to her daughter Steph, owner and founder of A Piece of Jordan. Ah, so that explains the British accent.
We arrive at the family’s house where sisters Fedaa and Baraah live with their parents. In Jordan, hospitality rules all, and everyone insists that we sit down and have a cup of tea before heading to the kitchen. Fedaa makes us tea with sage, which I’d never had before. Like everything I’ve sampled in Jordan thus far, it is delicious.
Before long we head to the kitchen, eager to start cooking and eating. We’ll be learning how to make the Jordanian version of Kabsa, a spiced rice dish with chicken, vegetables, and tomato sauce. Kabsa is actually the national dish of Saudi Arabia, but the Jordanians claim a variation of the dish as well.
Like most Middle Eastern dishes, we start by chopping and sautéing garlic and onions. Josie is tasked with chopping while Fedaa thoroughly rinses the long-grain rice and chicken. At this point Baraah joins us, introducing herself and jumping in with prep. We learn that she is a physiotherapist and her sister is an engineering professor, but both of them are passionate about tourism in Jordan – hence, the cooking class. I am admittedly spending all my time taking photos rather than being of much assistance, but the others have it under control. Fedaa adds the chicken to the pot, then tasks Callum with peeling and shredding a bunch of carrots. Fedaa and Baraah’s mom comes in a few times to make sure that we’re being taught “correctly.” I have to laugh because this is the point where I really feel like I’m cooking at home!
Then comes time to add in the spices and boy, are there a lot of them! Cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, salt, pepper, allspice, turmeric, fennel, and coriander are all generously added to the pot “to taste.” No measuring spoons in this kitchen!
The chicken is left to cook in its own sweet time and in a separate pan, we stir-fry green peppers, more onions, the shredded carrots, and peas. The aroma of the spices is hitting us full force and my stomach rumbles in anticipation. Luckily, there are only a few more steps left before we can grub. The veggies and rice are added to the pot of chicken along with tomato paste and a bunch of water. We take turns tasting and assessing the spice and salt levels and once we declare the dish to be perfect, we close the top of the pot once again and hungrily huddle around it in anticipation distract ourselves by prepping the salad, setting the table, and chatting. Bev shares the incredibly romantic story of how her daughter, Steph, came to marry her Jordanian husband. In a nutshell: love at first sight on a horse ride in Petra led to a whirlwind cross-continent romance. *SWOON.*
20 minutes later, the kabsa is ready. Fedaa manages to impressively flip the entire pot of rice onto a serving plate – magic, I tell you! – while Callum, Josie and I inhale the spicy aroma and try not to drool. Of course, nobody is allowed to eat until I take photos…how else am I supposed to visually capture the essence that is Jordanian food?
We dig in and the table is silent for a few minutes as everyone eagerly chows down, scooping yogurt and salad onto the kabsa as instructed by our hosts. That’s how the Jordanians eat kabsa, they inform us.
While the food is one of the best things about the experience, it is the conversation at the dinner table that remains in my mind to this day. We discuss a range of topics – everything from Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk to politics to religion to Islamophobia. No topic is taboo or off-limits. We talk about how tourism in Jordan is down due to the “bad neighbors” and are reminded that Jordan is actually safe, despite it being lumped together with the rest of the Middle East (especially Syria) in the media. We’re asked about Islamophobia in the United States and in Australia (Callum and Josie are both Aussies) and laugh about stereotypes we hear about the Middle East and vice versa. While learning how to cook a new dish is always a fun activity, sitting with a hospitable family (not unlike my own), discussing random topics, and eating home cooked Jordanian cuisine – now that’s something I will treasure for a long time.
About A Piece of Jordan:
Steph started A Piece of Jordan in 2015 as a way for visitors to experience the hospitality of Jordanian culture. Many tourists come to Petra to see the ancient city, but few have the opportunity to interact with locals outside of a merchant-customer relationship. Steph is hoping to change the perception of Jordan and the Middle East as a whole. Rather than painting the entire region as an unstable hotbed of extremism, A Piece of Jordan invites you to experience the true Jordan – the stories and experiences of real people – so you can return home with a true cultural understanding.
Travel is more than ancient sites and breathtaking landscapes. Travel is about experiencing life as a local. It’s about eating the cuisine and learning about the culture and the clothing and the religion. If you’re lucky, it means interacting with locals on a deeper level by being open-minded and getting out of your comfort zone. If this is the kind of experience you seek while in Jordan, make time for A Piece of Jordan. I promise you won’t regret it.
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A Piece of Jordan
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