She had been simmering the chicken for some time before I arrived, as the recipe required. I was feeling excited, not just in anticipation of tasting a dish from a cuisine I had never tried before, but also at the chance of being a ‘fly on the wall’ and get a sneaky peep at the cooking process. One of my happiest moments in life is to cook with women from other cultures. On this particular day, I swap my usual role at the helm of the demo, and am the observing student, scribbling all the little hacks and secrets I can absorb in my notepad.
Jordan – a land I have been longing to visit, but still haven’t managed to; always thwarted at the last minute by some unforeseen circumstances, but I have thoroughly researched its cuisine, though. Mid-morning, on an otherwise average weekday, my friend, being a truly generous daughter of her country, is cooking mansaf – the Jordanian national dish, which is usually only prepared for special occasions, or as a Friday treat for the whole family. There are plenty of old tales featuring mansaf, ‘the dish of peace’. When a conflict arises, the head of the tribe invites the opponent to dinner, and arranges for this treasured dish to be served as a gesture of respect. I was touched, to say the very least.
As the chicken simmers, I peer at the spice draw – cardamom, cumin powder, saffron… Noting my curiosity, my friend mentions that she cooks the chicken in a mix of spices especially prepared by her mum. The precise blend is a family secret – and the key to cooking the most exquisite mansaf. Not to waste any time, we soak the rice in water, and I pour out my questions about the problems women in Jordan face. “Income inequality is a big issue”, my friend explains. “Low salaries and limited opportunities for promotion. Despite achieving academic accolades, women are far more likely to be unemployed. Women face discrimination when looking for work, from employers and even from their own family. Sometimes fathers, brothers and husbands consider it ‘shameful’ for a female relative to work alongside men. If, let’s say, a woman is harassed at work, she would often be too embarrassed to file a complaint. What’s more, women’s ownership of land is less than ten percent, and property ownership is dominated by men too. Divorced and widowed women face a lot of problems in terms of the right to any property”.
Putting on the rice to cook, covered in warm water with a little bit of oil, it’s time to move on to the part which gives mansaf its distinctive flavour – jameed; a stone-like ball, made of dried, salted goats-milk yogurt. Transforming this into a sauce is a complicated recipe in itself. My friend blends the soaked ball of jameed with water in a food processor, and then very slowly brings it to boil. This is then mixed in with the chicken pieces and some of the cooking stock. We continue our chat about women’s choices in Jordan (or the lack thereof). “Due to social dogmas, many women face pressure from their community to have a baby boy, regardless of the number of pregnancies it might lead to. You might see families with four or five girls and one boy. Such a family model leads to limited access to education and health. Not to mention the limitations on women choosing their own husband! If you marry a non-Jordanian, your children have restricted rights…”
As we fry the almonds and chop the parsley, a poignant silence fills the kitchen. On top of the things my friend and I have discussed whilst cooking, I am all too familiar with a whole range of problems confronting women in the region; early marriages, limited divorce rights, poor access to family planning, honour killings, rape protocol, domestic violence…. the list goes on. Like the shrak bread my friend lays underneath the rice, before pouring on the jameed sauce and arranging the pieces of chicken, women are the foundation of every society. But women are too often treated like the garnish for mansaf – chopped parsley and fried almonds; for decorations purposes. Try to eat rice and meat without all these extras, and you will have a different type of dish, mainly serving to satisfy the hunger. After all, I loved the crunchiness of almonds and light saltiness of yogurt sauce poured on sticky pieces of shrak in the mansaf the most!