“How many are we cooking for?” I ask our guide, Sharaf, as she leads us through the maze of stalls in Aqaba’s market. Our task is to buy the ingredients for sayadieh, a celebrated Aqabawi dish of fish and flavoured rice. I select six large onions, five juicy tomatoes, and four chilli peppers. Sharaf has picked up a bag of rice, a bottle of corn oil and two large lemons, along with several large fresh fish (I’m surprised when the fish seller admits they’re from Cyprus, despite his stall being within a cast line of the Red Sea).
We spend a good 20 minutes at Al Baba’s spice shop, with the charismatic Ibrahim pouring generous measures of his colourful, aromatic wares into an old chocolate tin. We’re then treated to an impromptu culinary tour, with Ibrahim offering each spice and herb for us to sample. “I’ve been here for a very long time,” he says with evident pride. “My father and my grandfather worked here too. If my son is good he’ll want to take over too.” I ask him for tips on making a good sayadieh. “Every family has their own recipe, and everyone makes it in their own way.” He tells me that, in his opinion, cardamom is the key ingredient.
Sayadieh originated in Ottoman times. It’s also a well-known Lebanese dish; the inspiration (and the rice) for the Aqabawi version would most probably have come from the north via the Hejaz Railway, which once linked Damascus with Medina and passed not far from Aqaba. Whatever its roots, sayadieh is now an essential ingredient of any wedding or family celebration in Aqaba.
We bring our haul to the kitchen at the Berenice Beach Club hotel and hand it over to Ali, who presents me with an apron and immediately has me frying up the onions. “The secret of a good sayadieh is all in the onions,” he tells me. Undercook them, apparently, and they retain a sweet taste that doesn’t go with the rice; cook them for too long and they become bitter. He watches me closely and when the onions have turned just the right colour, he pours in fish stock and begins carefully adding the spices and herbs to the pot.
An hour later, we’re tucking into a ridiculously large plate of rice and fish, with side servings of a spicy tomato sauce and a yoghurt-based mixture. And he’s right — the onion really is a magic ingredient. I immediately set myself the challenge of replicating the aroma and texture of Ali’s onions in my future home cooking efforts. Despite the rich flavour of the rice and the hunger I’d built up while preparing the dish (which admittedly was pretty much all Ali’s work), the portion size defeats me and I am unable to reward the dish with the empty plate it deserves.
The cooking experience is part of Berenice Beach Club’s new Aqaba Kitchen, created with more than a nod to the highly successful Petra Kitchen initiative in Wadi Musa. A purpose-built kitchen-cum-classroom at the hotel is due to be finished shortly, and will allow groups of up to 30 to cook their own sayadieh from ingredients they source for themselves in the street and market stalls of Aqaba. My advice to anyone taking the course is to appear hopeless and let Ali take over with the onions. The cost of the Aqaba Kitchen experience is around 25JD (£25) per person.
Follow Andy and Sam over the next two weeks as they travel around the Jordanian region of Aqaba, blogging and posting on social media as they go #NGTUKnomad