• Cook Afaf Shaldan garnishing fish sayadieh. (Donal Sheil)
Cook Afaf Shaldan gives visitors a unique taste of the Red Sea, cooking up fish sayadieh, a Middle Eastern staple.
Donal Sheil

The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour
22 Feb 2019 - 1:00 PM  UPDATED 15 Oct 2018 - 4:11 PM

Thick cuts of fish sizzle in a frypan next to a pot of rice prepared in a strong onion stock. The sweet perfume of cinnamon coats the air as the fish’s skin reaches a perfect crisp.

Fish sayadieh is found throughout the Middle East, but achieves its own unique flavour here in Jordan’s port city of Aqaba - especially in the kitchen of local cook Afaf Shaldan.

“Aqaba is by the sea and it’s known for its fish,” she says. And while slices of the locally caught ingredient are the dish's focus, Shaldan says they're not the most significant aspect of the meal.

“The most important part of cooking the meal is sautéing the onions,” she says. “They have to be a particular colour, they have to be a golden colour. They can’t be too dark or too light.”

Shaldan thinly slices brown onions and coats them lightly in white flour. The onions are then tossed into a pool of corn oil to reach the aforementioned golden hue. Once the batch is ready, the onions are mixed with a variety of spices, mainly cinnamon, then blitzed into a dark brown stock - giving the rice its colour and flavour.

Cooking for locals in Aqaba is far less rewarding than making a living by sharing her culture with travellers.

Shaldan used to make a living as a local cook catering for families and events in Aqaba, but for five years now, she has been welcoming foreign travellers into her home with her recipe for fish sayadieh. She says authenticity is key to the experience's appeal.

“This is our life, we do not put on a show,” she says. “This is what it is for real.”

“As work, it’s nice because you meet new people from different nationalities from all over the world,” she says. “And the income brought in is very good.”

While the rice simmers on the stovetop, Shaldan coats the fish with cumin, paprika, cinnamon, salt and garlic powder, then tops it with a thin layer of white flour to crispen the skin. Once the fish is lowered into the oil, it splashes and bubbles away.

Shaldan delicately flips the fillets as the aroma of cinnamon and paprika flavour the air. Just outside the kitchen, Shaldan’s twin grandsons ride around on identical green cars in matching sweaters. The kitchen's fragrant atmosphere lures them in from the courtyard. As the fish begins to fry, the rice absorbs the onion stock, now a distinct spice-shaded brown.

For Shaldan, cooking for locals in Aqaba is far less rewarding than making a living by sharing her culture with travellers.

“This is the right way of doing things,” she says. “It’s as though I'm doing something for my own home.”

Shaldan serves the fried fish and rice on a large circular platter, pointing out that sayadieh only differs slightly throughout the Middle East. In the Gulf, potatoes or dry fruit can be added, but the template for the dish remains the same. In Aqaba, fried almonds are the secret ingredient and they're presented as one of the garnishes here. The home cook also tops the towering dish with tomatoes, cucumbers, lemon wedges and a sprinkling of mint. On display is a true slice of Aqaba: the fish from its waters, the spice from its gardens and the rich culture of its people.

“What’s good about it is that there's nothing artificial, this is our real life,” says Shaldan. “The same kind of work we do, we create for the customer. The tourist will not see anything different.”

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The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour is a joint UTS and Swinburne University project, supported by the Commonwealth through the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.