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Travel Guide: Home cooking in Jordan

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

A cookery course in Jordan is a great way to not just sample some of the country's delicacies but to create them as well. ELISE RANA reports.

"Henry - don't eat all the brain! And where's the other testicle?" We may be in a Biblical homeland, but as last suppers go it still seems fairly unorthodox. I'm watching my fellow diners, Henry and Rosemary, tuck into a traditional Jordanian feast that we've all helped prepare, the grand finale of a week's tuition at the Petra Kitchen cookery school. If you thought cookery holidays were all about swanning around in an apron, drinking wine and eating amazing food with like-minded bon vivants, well, you're right. Even here in Jordan. It's just the ingredients at the Petra Kitchen that come as a surprise.

Wendy Botham is a laidback Texan who was just another tourist when she came here to Wadi Musa, the town that has developed around the ancient site of Petra. She never quite got around to leaving, though, and having been seduced as much by the local food as the country itself, she figured others might feel the same way. Despite the Middle East's rich culinary heritage, a lack of restaurant culture means that Jordan's is one of many of the region's cuisines that remain largely unexported and unexplored beyond its borders. Exotic it may be, but this is home cooking rather than haute cuisine, and all the better for it.

"Quite honestly I stole the idea from the Italians, but we have such great food in the Levant I thought it would work," says Wendy. "You'll have noticed, though, on the three-hour drive here from Amman - through the desert - that we have to rely on ingredients we can get locally. What we make is what people eat here in their homes."

It certainly feels like home when on day one, I've no sooner donned my apron than I'm put to work. Chef Mohammed Ibrahim talks us through the evening's menu then assigns us our tasks. Rosemary, a chef, is in charge of the dips. Henry, a restaurant owner, is in charge of the salad. I, a Geordie, am in charge of the chip-pan. Whether I've been unfairly typecast or not, we all at least end up dining like kings.


Cutting loose the apron strings, our days are spent exploring the reason most people come here. Seeing the rock-carved Nabatean city of Petra with your own eyes leaves little doubt that it's a shoo-in as one of the world's 'new seven wonders' - yet ongoing security fears continue to keep mass tourism away. (Wendy's courses has proved popular with US soldiers based in Amman, though the highest ranks, she says, don't make for the best cooks. They just want to supervise - they want things done for them!")

Driving between historical sites, we glimpse the realities of life in the harsh desert landscape that makes up about 80% of the country. Water is scarce, but where it exists life flourishes: at a bend in the road we come upon a small but lush orchard heavy with figs and grapes, and for a few pence paid to the gentleman sitting in the shade of an olive tree we gorge ourselves on the fruit. In the tiny hamlet of Shamak, fruit is laid out to dry in the hot sun, just as it has been for millennia. Elsewhere, roofless, sun-bleached stone shacks dot the hillsides, settlements deserted by inhabitants when the natural spring dries up.

Equally timeless, and equally essential to our understanding of the way this country eats, is the extraordinary hospitality of the Jordanian people themselves. Even with only a few days in our company, our gentle-natured guide, Mahmoud Twaissi, insists we come to his home one day so we can taste the delicious maglouba, a delicious multi-layered dish of rice, vegetables and chicken, as cooked by his wife. The best we can offer in return, apart from profuse thanks, is an offer that he join us on the final night of our cookery course for the farewell feast that's been promised.

What hadn't been mentioned is that feast in question is still hanging up in some guy's meat locker. Originating with the desert bedouin tribes, mansaf is the traditional dish Jordanians make when they've got something to celebrate - a wedding, a new baby, finally putting a roof on the house - and have invited everyone they know. So, first on the shopping list: one goat.
Accompanying Mohammed to the market to help with the shopping had been harmless fun up until this point. Perhaps because peppers and tomatoes don't have faces.

"OK, we will ask him for 5 kilos of meat," says Mohammed. The butcher opens the fridge door and pulls out an entire goat carcass, skinned but for the head. Expertly he cleaves the whole thing in half as I watch open-mouthed in horror. It's good to confront the reality of where food comes from, I tell myself, trying to adopt the same business-like demeanour as Henry and Rosemary as we pass a truck on the way out with an identical goat - live, for now - in the back.

It could have been worse. Were we guests at a feast, the animals (at least two, regardless of the number of guests, to show that there is 'more than enough') would have been slain upon our arrival to honour us. Wendy tells us that she ate her first mansaf with bedouins in the desert, and was given the eyeballs and tongue as a mark of respect.

The setting may be more prosaic but our version of the dish is no less impressive: a whole goat chopped into chunks, boiled in yoghurt, then served on a platter lined with flat bread and rice, with the head propped up in the centre, the jaws yawning skyward and stuffed with parsley and pine nuts. Mohammed, Mahmoud and Mohammed's assistants burst forth into song as it's brought to the table.

Fortified, Keith Floyd-style, with a few cheeky beers by this point, I dig in with relish but not quite as enthusiastically as hardcore foodies Henry and Rosemary, who immediately start rummaging about for the 'delicacies'. The Jordanians are quietly impressed. You wouldn't get this in Tuscany."