They say our taste buds change every seven years. Foods we hated as children suddenly become more appealing as our palate matures, and, on the other hand, the sugary foods we craved as kids are just too sweet once we swerve into adulthood. For me, lots of seven-year periods have passed, but, for some reason, I’ve never liked yoghurt. This wouldn’t normally be an issue, but for a woman who’s married to a man that comes from a country where meat swimming in fermented yogurt is the national dish, this could be a problem.
Luckily, it’s not—I love Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish. The yogurt is part of the sauce, served on the side of the meal. Some people choose to flood their meal with a large amount of yogurt, while others, like me, enjoy the dish mostly dry, with just a sprinkle of yogurt sauce. I not only had to acquire a taste for the meal, but also for the way it’s eaten: communally.
Let me explain. If you decide to make it, you’ll probably serve it on a table with chairs, but in Jordan it’s eaten on the floor. It’s served on a large round silver platter and eaten communally, without silverware. In other words, everyone uses their fingers and just digs in. For an American like me, this type of eating took some getting used to. Sharing a plate of food with 10 other people was unappetizing at first.
Jordanians love to drown their Mansaf in yogurt sauce. If someone’s sauce were to leak into my designated eating area, I’d stop eating the Mansaf altogether. I thought of communal eating as an unclean violation of boundaries. But one day, that changed.
I began to think of communal eating as a beautiful tradition that we Americans dip our toes into from time to time. Think about it—if you were to order nachos as an appetizer, everyone at the table would dig in—no silverware necessary. I think the boundary for most Americans is what foods we consider “sharing foods.” Mozzarella sticks, jalapeno poppers, buffalo wings—these are all foods that go to the middle of the table for everyone. When the food is kind of mushy, like rice, that would be crossing the line. But not really; if you think about it, any meal you have with your family could turn communal. Maybe you’re eating a slice of pizza—if your child wants to taste it, you let them take a bite.
In Jordan, families are big and extended, and they enjoy eating these dishes together. Communal eating is not only an expression of love, it also helps the environment by saving water because you don’t have to wash as many dishes. In a country like Jordan, where water is scarce, communal eating is not only about enjoying a meal among loved ones, it’s also about doing your part to ensure that precious resources aren’t wasted when they don’t have to be. I hope you try this recipe for yourself—or at least enjoy my explanation of it. Sahtein (Bon Appetite)!
Cook chunks of chicken for two hours in a bath of water and cloves, cardamom, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and salt.
Take a quart of plain yogurt and sprinkle in cornstarch, mix with a whisk. Then add a box of Jameed (you can find this at specialty shops that specialize in Arab food). Whisk together furiously. Add chunked meat. Simmer for 20 minutes.
Cook 2 cups of rice with 4 cups of water. Add a pinch of salt and saffron.
Bring it all together
Toast slivered almonds in frying pan using olive oil.
Separate sauce and chicken into two bowls.
Lay bed of tortilla onto silver platter. Put rice onto tortilla. Put chicken onto rice.
Ladle a small amount of yoghurt sauce on top.
Sprinkle toasted almonds and parsley on top.
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