Lima Al-Azzeh

Food Therapy

In Cultural Anomalies on April 30, 2011 at 12:25 am

Mansaf: Jordanian National Dish, photo by Naciketa Datta

There are certain foods that are so filled with nostalgic appeal, that sometimes it’s hard to decipher whether a craving for said food is really a hankering after its flavour, or just a need to connect with a certain place, state of mind or emotional state that it invokes. That’s the definition of “comfort food” to me, or “take-me back-there food” as I like to call it.

Any immigrant will surely tell you that finding national dishes, made to your tastes, just the way you remember them, in a foreign country is enough to quell any feelings of alienness or otherness. It’s the perfect way to find that little place that brings you home within yourself.

In my family, we have many “take-me-back-there” dishes, but a particular favourite is Mansaf, a dish that is native to my father’s homeland, Jordan. Mansaf consists of layered flatbread and rice served with lamb that has been cooked in broth made of fermented dried yogurt and finally topped with almonds and pine nuts. Goat is also an acceptable protein alternative to be served with the dish. It’s unfortunate that the literal description of one of our favourite foods will likely force any gag reflex to react unfavourably, and admittedly it’s an acquired taste, like most national foods. However, Mansaf is a food of the ages, steeped in rich traditions and always making an appearance when making new ones.

Mansaf is one of those dishes that seems almost Darwinian; it evolved to survive the eating habits of the bédouins (Middle Eastern nomadic tribes). As it is usually prepared in copious quantities, it easily accommodates a large scale feeding of sufficient appetites, ideal for a group of people who make it their business to roam the desert.

The genius of the dish is that the soaked flatbread acts as a bonding agent for the grains of rice, flecks of pine nuts and ribbons of lamb. A handy trait considering the fact that bedouins eat with their hands (some do to this very day). What’s even more brilliant is that the soaked flatbread allows for easy manipulation so that the tribespeople are able to roll all the ingredients into a ball using only one hand (propriety dictates that the left hand be held behind the back while sharing food from a large platter, avoiding the incivility of  greedily digging in with both hands).

As time moved on, Mansaf became a celebratory dish, much like the Christmas turkey or Easter ham. Only Mansaf was more multifaceted, not being limited to religious occasions alone. It was often common to expect it at birthdays, graduations, or even at humble family gatherings and reunions. Over the course of my life, I came to associate Mansaf with happiness, togetherness and overall satiety, in belly and in life.

That was until my father’s funeral. Not to be overly dramatic, but Arab funerals are a bitch to endure. Most funerals are, I know this, they’re never joyous occasions, but unlike in the Western culture where it’s common to have a celebration of life, Arab funerals are aimed at making every mourner bawl their eyes out and then want to slit their wrists.

Wikipedia graciously describes the Islamic grieving process as a “3-day mourning period … observed by increasing devotion, receiving visitors and condolences, and avoiding decorative clothing jewellery.” Having lived through an actual Arab, Muslim funeral, I can attest that this translates to:  more than three days of listening to your grandmother wail at the top of her lungs, having your every move scrutinized and commented upon, particularly if you don’t seem to be mourning “correctly”, and a non-stop festival of Mansaf.

On the first day of my father’s funeral, the Mansaf offered a little solace and respite from the general mood of depression. It was also an appropriate tribute, being my father’s favourite dish.

On the second night, we were again pleased to indulge in our favourite food, again seeking comfort in its familiarity and thinking briefly on the happy occasions in which we shared this dish with our family and friends.

On the third night, we were perhaps willing to accept that Mansaf was simply a convenient dish to be served to a large group of visitors and mourners, and considered ourselves lucky that everyone at least ate from their own plate, using utensils.

On the fourth day, we couldn’t possibly fathom eating more Mansaf. The pile of beige and brown food, once appealing, even exciting, now proved to be a burden on us, not only emotionally, but digestively.

My sister and I were backed up.

We hadn’t had a piece of fruit or vegetable in days. Along with praying for our father’s soul to be invited by Allah into the heavens, we found ourselves ending each prayer with a little noncommittal “and if you don’t have anything to do after taking care of dad’s soul could you possibly arrange for a small salad or something green on the table later. We’d seriously appreciate it.”

My sister being 14 and myself being 11 at the time, both had some sense that our hearts may not have been entirely in the right place. We knew that being even slightly consumed by the issue of the ongoing Mansaf was irreverent and even highly inappropriate. We should have been consumed with our foreboding future, our father’s absence, and our mother’s grief. But constipation can be quite imposing on your ability to focus.

That night, dinner time approached, and we felt a slight dread in the pit of our stomachs ( along with guilt over our thoughts and three nights’ worth of Mansaf). Afraid to face yet another harsh reality after losing our father, my sister and I peeked around the corner into the kitchen to see if we could get a glimpse of what’s on the menu for that night.

And there it was. Layers upon layers of beige and brown, with not a hint of green in sight.

Dismayed, we hung our heads low and walked towards the sea of black in the main living room that was my grieving family. The whole experience was enough to warrant the demise of our love for Mansaf. It was simply too much, all of it.

That was until my aunt, sitting close to my bewildered, broken mother, called us over and cautiously whispered, “Girls, did you see any salad in the kitchen? I swear if I eat any more Mansaf I’ll never go to the bathroom again.”

That was our cue. The ripple of muffled giggles went around in a circle. First my aunt, then us, and then, even my mom.

The Mansaf came out of the kitchen with all its usual pomp and circumstance, and the visitors lined up to scoop their fill and move along. We were the last to serve ourselves, partly in reluctance, partly in reverence. We had to hide our smiles, of course, for fear of scrutiny, but it was that moment that sealed our love of Mansaf for years to come, for its ability to comfort us, to offer much-needed reprieve and to help us laugh to keep from crying.

Since then, Mansaf has always been a very special food in my house, that we now delight in on no particular occasion at all. I’ve even joked about getting a dog and naming it Mansaf. I suppose you could equate it to the same feeling that drove Gwyneth Paltrow to name her first-born “Apple”: it represents everything that is good and whole and right with the world. And it will always back you up when you need it most.

For more food-related tales be sure to check out the next Rain City Chronicles show at the Firehall Arts Centre on May 11th featuring stories on the theme “Recipe for …”. Get your tickets now before they sell out.


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