On Mansaf, Tamam and Cooking without a Recipe

The path to the kitchen inside Tamam

Close your eyes. Take a step. Breathe in. That warm, heady scent is the cumulation of years of watching, listening, practicing. It is the spices Tamam is using tonight, cooking in the restaurant which carries her name.

We have gratefully escaped the cold snap which has enveloped Vancouver to visit Tamam this evening. We hoped for a glimpse into the connections between food, culture and identity in today’s world after stepping back into 19th century Tangier and Cairo. So here we sit, to enjoy some freekeh and fattoush while chatting to Sobhi, Tamam’s husband and co-owner of the restaurant.

edited mansaf
Our meal at Tamam: mouthwatering mansaf and fresh, flavourful freekeh

What does it mean, to carry the way you cook dishes through time and space? On the one hand, these differences in where and when we eat Palestinian dishes allows for new opportunities to enjoy them. Take mansaf, for example. The lamb with aromatic herbs, yoghurt and rice is the national dish of Jordan, while in Palestine it is reserved for special occasions. Yet we were lucky enough to experience its soft outer texture and the steaming flavoured rice on the inside.

Food, then, is an experience. It can unite or divide us. Sobhi provided some excellent insight on this. Amidst Palestine’s turbulent history, he said, traditional Palestinian dishes have been tools to resist and build self-identity. In Sobhi’s childhood there were times with no book stores, theatres, or music. Culture was eliminated. If there is one thing which has remained true for all people throughout time, however, it is this: we must all eat. Ancient Palestinian recipes provided an opportunity to maintain, and re-invent yourself and your culture. Back in Vancouver, Sohbi was quick to point out that Tamam is a proudly Palestinian restaurant. Some Palestinian restaurateurs avoid calling their cuisine Palestinian for fear that it will harm business. Sohbi sees it as an important statement, and a way to represent a different face of Palestine than the typical narratives of news and film.

Peek into Tamam’s kitchen with me, though, and you’ll see no cookbooks on the counters. She is the product of this oral passing down of knowledge and culture, and continues this tradition with her own children. We can make traditional Palestinian dishes if we have a written recipe, online or in paper, or try to recreate it from a picture. Will we know when to push the dough, rather than pull? Or how long to toast nuts before sprinkling them on? There are details which are learnt through experience and are often missing from written recipes. Take this online recipe for mansaf as an example. There are noticeable differences in its presentation as compared to Tamam’s. It also raises so many questions in the chef; what is jameed and where do I find it? Am I using enough bahārāt?

Glorvina Fort’s instructions on how to make ‘coos-coo-soo’

If we step back again into 19th Century North Africa, questions arise once again. This recipe for couscous which is found in Glorvina Fort’s ‘Coos-coo-soo: Letters from Tangier, in Africa” illustrates this well. There are no measurements, or details on how to complete each step. In a way, it is left up to our interpretation. As a form of passing on Moroccan traditions, though, more guidance would have been helpful. What was Fort’s reasoning behind including the couscous steps in her book? It could have been cultural appropriation, as an American visiting Morocco in the time of colonialism. Or maybe we are not giving Fort and other travel writers from her time enough credit. Perhaps they merely wanted to be pioneers in the globalization of food, to offer the opportunity to experience food from elsewhere, here.

Is it possible to recreate a dish exactly as it was made in the past? Should we? Tamam herself explained that as time as passed, couscous is no longer the labour-intensive process it was in 19th century Morocco and Palestine. As new spaces have opened up, chefs have also brought dishes to new corners of the world. Since each chef brings their own identity and interpretations of the dish, the dishes undoubtedly vary over time and space. There is something to be said for the preserving of traditional culinary practices, though, directly from a country’s history and culture. The answer may well be a blend of the old and the new. Of Palestine and Vancouver, of tradition and new interpretations. If that means more mansaf in my not too distant future, all I can say is  نعم من فضلك : yes please.


All the images used here were granted approval from the content owner. Some photos were taken by Logan, Rose and I at Tamam, while others were provided through Tamam’s website.



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