Sister act: the female trio breaking barriers in Jordan’s food scene
Jordan has a very hospitable and family-oriented culture. Food is communal; it brings people together and usually the teta (grandmother) is the best cook in the house. Growing up, my two sisters and I cooked with our grandmother a lot. We started learning about Arabic food really young, guided by her years of love and experience in the kitchen.
When she passed away 12 years ago, we decided we wanted to open her house to guests, keep her memory alive and share the gift of cooking and hospitality that she gave to us. That was when our business, Beit Sitti, was born.
We decided we wanted to open our grandmother’s house to guests
My grandmother’s home is located in the Jabal al Weibdeh neighbourhood of Amman, one of the oldest within the capital’s legendary seven hills. A lot of work is being done to restore the old houses in this area: they’re filled with unique touches, such as 1930s Italian tiles.
Unlike many places in the city, Jabal al Weibdeh is very walkable. It has lots of nice cafés and art galleries and is typically a place where locals – rather than tourists – gather. It’s a great area for visitors to get a taste of how Jordanians really live.
I’m the resident chef, so I oversee the all the cooking
When we first decided to run a business together, my sisters and I joked, “We can do this – but we might end up killing each other.” However, it really helps that we all have our own distinct strengths. I’m the resident chef and oversee the all things cooking. After we decided to launch Beit Sitti, I retrained at culinary school and took on apprenticeships in London and the Four Seasons Amman.
My sister Tania is very artistic – she also runs her own fashion label – so she takes care of the design side of things. My other sister, Dina, is the boss. She’s in charge of the financials and HR, making sure we’re running everything properly. She’s the one who comes for me whenever I overspend.
Beit Sitti is about the local women we employ
On top of this, we also have our mum, Sherin. She’s the big boss. Mum ran a preschool when we were little. She renovated my grandmother’s house and helped us start the project. She also runs a restaurant, Najla’s Kitchen, downstairs, specialising in authentic home cooking. As entrepreneurs, she’s our constant inspiration.
Above all, Beit Sitti is about the local women we employ to host our Arabic cooking lessons. Typically, they are amazing chefs but they don’t have degrees. Jordan is developed in terms of women being part of the workplace but it’s still very much taboo for women to work in restaurants at night: most have children and would otherwise struggle to find employment. We allow them flexibility to earn a living and bring their children along if they need.
In classes, the hosts often share their stories first-hand
Beit Sitti breaks boundaries for guests, too. If travellers see our ladies in passing, it’s unlikely they’d be able to spark conversation, ask questions about the head veil, or what it’s like being a woman in Jordan. As many of our cooks now speak English, they get to chat and enjoy the social aspect of the job, as well.
In classes, the hosts often share their stories first-hand. Visitors see them in their element, realising that, just because someone wears a veil, it doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions or a voice.
When guests arrive at Beit Sitti, they learn to make four dishes: a main course, a side, a salad and a dessert. They are all meals Jordanian people eat at home, but are quite hard to find in restaurants; most serve Lebanese mezze, rather than traditional homemade rice and stews.
Our lessons give a glimpse into how Jordanians cook and eat
Our lessons give an authentic glimpse into how Jordanians cook and eat. We make sure guests are really hands-on with ingredients, too. Even people who profess to not enjoy cooking usually end up chopping herbs in the kitchen, especially after a few glasses of wine.
When you first travel to a new country, it’s hard to know what to order. Since eating is such a huge part of any new adventure, we recommend guests arrange a visit to us at the beginning of their visit to Jordan. This is because, along with sharing how-to recipes and a meal together, we also give tips on Amman’s best street food (like falafel sandwiches from Rainbow Street’s iconic Falafel AlQuds), plus what dishes to try and when.
It’s really about bringing people together
We might introduce guests to, for example, fattet magdoos, which are layered aubergines in tomato sauce, served with cold yoghurt on top of a panzanella-style fried bread. It’s a heavenly dish, especially when served with a handful of pomegranate molasses. For breakfast, manaeesh zaatar are a must-try: they’re pastries made with thyme, sumac and sesame, delicious served with a scoop of labneh (yogurt). Guests can also buy homemade spices from us, such as zataar, made by local women and used in our meals.
Our sessions are really about bringing people together. As well as cooking, our local women chefs might turn on music and teach you how to dance. We also get a lot of Jordanian visitors, so foreign travellers can meet people from Amman. One couple even got married after meeting at one of our classes. This made my mum very proud.
My grandmother’s legacy of family cooking lives on
Every time we come up against a problem in our business, it somehow works itself out. We have incredible karma. I’m sure that’s my grandmother’s magic at work. I imagine she’s very happy with what we’ve managed to achieve. Her legacy of family cooking and community really does live on.
Maria Haddad Hannania is co-founder of Beit Sitti, which features on Flash Pack’s Jordan adventure.
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Images: © Jacklyn Sophia and Flash Pack