Food by VICE

These Sisters Turned Their Grandmother’s House into an Arabic Cookery School

The Beit Sitti or “Grandmother’s house” initiative in Jordan sees local women teach traditional cooking classes to tourists and locals, boosting self-esteem and providing them with an income to support their families.

by Zab Mustefa
Jun 29 2016, 12:00pm

All photos by the author.

In a stone house on the back lanes of Jabal Al Weibdeh, the oldest neighbourhood in Amman, Jordan, a cooking class is about to begin.

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Beit Sitti in the Jabal Al Weibdeh neighbourhood of Amman, Jordan. All photos by the author.

Instructor Um Hiba places a ceramic dish of fresh vegetables on the kitchen counter as she prepares for the session. Not long after, a group of American guests arrive and take their places in front of a chopping board. They are served fresh lemonade and the class begins.

"So, who here knows what Beit Sitti means?" cookery school founder Maria Haddad Hannania asks the group.

"I think it's 'Grandma's kitchen,'" a guest says.

"You're very close to the answer," Hannania smiles.

Translating literally to "Grandmother's house," Beit Sitti was started five years ago by Hannania and her two sisters as a way to continue the legacy of their grandmother's cooking.

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Cooking instructor Um Hiba.

The house has managed to keep its classic look intact. Framed family pictures cover the walls and lace tablecloths grace the hardwood furniture. In one corner, a Singer sewing machine sits unused but in immaculate condition.

"We used to come to my grandmother's house a lot and that's how we learned to cook Arabic food," Hannania says, perched on an antique chair. "When she passed away, we wanted to keep her memory going so we decided to keep her house open to teach guests how to make Arabic food the exact same way she did."

People often consider finger foods like mashawi and mezze platters as authentic Arabic cuisine, something the sisters challenge by introducing their students to traditional Jordanian rice and vegetable recipes like maqluba and molokhia, as well as the national dish of mansaf—lamb cooked with yogurt.

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Um Hiba and Beit Sitti founder Maria Haddad Hannania.

But Beit Sitti is about more than just food. By encouraging local Jordanian women to teach cooking classes, the initiative also provides them with a way to earn money and support their families.

"We try to have as many different women as possible," explains Hannania. "When we first started, it was very hard to convince the women that it's normal for them to come and work at night and that it is acceptable if there are men present in the class. In time, we slowly started noticing that they were opening up to the class a lot more and they became very open in terms of what they want to teach. Now, they realise what they're here to do."

Classes can range from individual sessions to groups of up to 85 people on the large balcony during the summer. Hannania adds that NGOs and corporate companies use Beit Sitti for team-building exercises because "cooking is the best ice-breaker for people." Locals also enjoy coming to Beit Sitti, using it as an opportunity to learn from the hajat or "cooks."

Hannania and her sisters take turns hosting classes and the cooks rotate with each session.

"We want to have a lot more women involved and we think plenty of them need help," she says. "Because it is a small business, we're starting to become stable and to grow."

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beit-sitti-jordan-chef Um Hiba with a Beit Sitti student.

Beit Sitti currently works with ten local women, all middle aged or older. However Hannania has hopes to launch a training programme directed at young female chefs.

"We're training them now to be able to do the classes," she explains. "It's nice when you get a younger generation and an older generation of women to work together because that way you see the dynamics."

Back in the kitchen, Hannania's current group is busy learning how make fresh Arabic bread.

"What I need you to do is take out four massive spoonfuls of flour and mix it in," she instructs one of the guests, counting out the quantity in Arabic. The dough is then kneaded and placed onto a circular baking tray.

Um Hiba has been working with Beit Sitti for almost five years. In her late fifties, she is the first female from her family to have a job and talks a lot about equality to her four daughters.

"I think more women should be doing what I'm doing because it's like one big family here," she says shyly. "I've learned so much about myself and I feel so confident from working in Beit Sitti. I have a very traditional family but they fully support what I do."

There was a time when working women were seen as taboo in Jordanian culture. Equality campaigns from Queen Rania have helped promote the female role in the workplace but the kingdom still has a long way to go.

"We have this culture in Jordan of women who are a little bit embarrassed," Hannania says. "It's difficult for them to work at night or work in the first place because usually the husband is the sole breadwinner. To convince these women that what they're doing is actually helping support them and give them independence was very important. It also showed them that they can do it."

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As the Muslim call to prayer echoes from a nearby mosque, Um Hiba shows one of the guests how to peel the skin from a cooked aubergine, before mashing it into a gooey paste. The vegetable is then combined with lemon juice, garlic, tahini, and yogurt to make moutabal.

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All of Beit Sitti's ingredients are sourced from a market in downtown Amman. The initiative also has its own organic spice range, prepared by women in different parts of the country. The pomegranate molasses comes from Ajloun, a small hilly town north of Amman, while sumac is freshly ground in Jerash. The signature Beit Sitti stock mix is made with saffron, dried onions, garlic, coriander, mint, turmeric, and flour—all ground by the women employees.

Back in the kitchen, Um Hiba presides over the preparation of today's main course, a chicken dish known as fattet djal.

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"We're going to put bread into the fattet djaj and then we're going to layer it with rice, and then add yogurt and garlic," explains Hannania. "I hope none of you guys are vegetarian."

While half of the kitchen prepares a salad under the supervision of Um Hiba, an assistant helps Hannania line up the ingredients for dessert—a sweet milky pudding called mouhalabieh.

"We have influences from India with regards to the Gulf market with the spices that come in," Hannania tells me. "We have influences from Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt and the Levant area. Arabic food from these countries is pretty much the same. When people tell you they cook Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanian—it's all one dish but they have their different takes on it."

As the fattet djal and aubergine dishes are served, the Beit Sitti take on Arabic cuisine certainly looks to be one of the most delicious.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December, 2015.