I like to fancy myself a citizen of the planet…I go places, I see, I do, I eat and I learn. And on the eating front, I take cooking classes in new places with the forever hope that someone eventually imparts in me the skills it takes to cook anything beyond a truly awesome American salad (now those I am good at!).
You see, my humble beginnings set me up for the woeful failure of a cooking experience I will soon share. My mother, for all that she did give us kids, it surely wasn’t talent in the kitchen. When I flashback two decades in my personal foodie history, images of me gagging down garbage soup float to the surface.
…and for the uninitiated who didn’t have the extreme pleasure of growing up in a large family, garbage soup is the term for adding the leftovers of every, single, thing, in the refrigerator to a big pot with a bland soup base before feeding it to your hungry masses (and then the cook (mom) is amazed by how quickly everyone’s hunger dissipates long before the bowls of soup are empty…).
Never one to accept personal failure without a real effort first, I take these cooking classes all over the world (Tibetan momos in India, traditional foods in Laos) and they lull me into a false sense of comfort that I can actually cook. You see, a cooking class is a magical place; each cook-in-training is often given a Martha Stewart-esque cooking space decked out with precisely the tools needed to make the dish. If you need a sifter, great, it’s there…steamer tray? Yep. An open flame? Copy that, they have a beauty of a device right there on your table.
Then the class starts and each tiny porcelain bowl holds your pre-measured ingredient as you follow along with the teacher and dump, mix, heat, flash fry and garnish. It’s good fun.
And you know why it’s fun? Because the food turns out beautiful! Like dishes in a magazine.
Let’s revisit the moutabel story now. Moutabel is a very popular eggplant mezze dish in Jordan and it’s quite similar to baba ghanoush, a favorite dish on Middle Eastern menus world-wide. Moutabel ingredients include: roasted and mashed eggplant, tahini, lemon, and olive oil. Simple enough right?
On my Jordan travels, the Tourism Board sponsored a cooking class for me at the Beit Sitti cooking school in Amman because I mentioned I enjoy learning to cook. The class was so lovely; wide marble counters and a steady supply of lemon and mint drink as we prepared and cooked moutabel, makloubeh, and knafeh (all three dishes explained in my vegetarian guide to traditional Jordanian foods).
I gobbled down the flavorful moutabel with fresh pita bread and noted to myself that this was a dish my parents would love…I resolved to cook it when I returned home to share a piece of my Jordan travels.
I tracked down tahini, purchased my eggplant, lemon, and garlic and got straight to work after returning home this past summer. The entire time my taste buds salivated at the prospect of tasting this dish after months separated from the creamy texture and smoky eggplant flavor.
After the garlic mincing, lemon squeezing, and eggplant mashing my masterpiece was ready. I even artfully sprinkled the olive oil to imitate the restaurants throughout Jordan because, you know, presentation is half the battle!
What I won on presentation though, I lost completely on the other end. I sampled and raised an eyebrow….why did it taste like that? Maybe not enough lemon?
With dutiful purpose I extracted the other half of my lemon from the fridge and generously squeezed more juice into the dish.
Gah! No! Crap, now there was too much tahini so I over-corrected with yet more lemon.
By the time my dad came into the kitchen ready for my much-touted masterpiece I was pouting…
Failure. Not an epic failure, both my parents humored me…my mom’s not a hypocrite so she stayed mum about anything off-tasting, and we all munched our way through the entire dish.
I giggle at the thought of attempting this again…I will at some point because I love the dish and think I went wrong by not roasting the eggplant for long enough…who knows though!
It’s worth noting too that I loved my cooking class in Jordan; Beit Sitti was such a fun evening with just the right combination of cooking and relaxing banter as the class prepared the traditional foods. My shortcomings as a solo cook (maybe I over-salted it?!) have never once stopped me from enjoying learning from the professionals in each new country because I love seeing the process behind a country’s foods, even if I sorely lack the skills to replicate that process ;-)
Any great cooks out there? Do you take cooking classes as you travel or have any epic foodie failures to share?