Culture
21 September 2021

Rewilding the Kitchen | Recipe No. 1 | Barri by Namliyeh

Nahla Tabbaa

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Rewilding the Kitchen is an online/offline project embracing what we call ‘rewilding’— ingredients and food become actors with agency, activating processes that unfold as the ingredients ‘intend.’ Barri is the first of three recipes and conversations included in this project. The other artists presenting recipes and worldviews in the coming months are Moza al-Matrooshi and Salma Serry.

Barri, a recipe by ethnobotanists Namliyeh

I stumbled across Namliyeh in 2013 in Jabal Weibdeh, Amman, Jordan. Intrigued by what looked like a concept store for plants, I entered and met the pixie-like Aya. In what felt like a mix of apothecary, carpenter’s studio, book shop, plant shop, all rounded off with a cosy sitting nook, she handed me a dainty teaspoon, urging me to taste freshly made lemon curd. I was far too shy to ask for more. Instead, I hurriedly accepted the invitation to taste all their flavour combinations—sour plums and star anise, strawberry with peppercorns, tomato and saffron—while trying to maintain a casual expression, rather than that of an addict getting high on a new fix. Almost instantly, we became friends and collaborators.

A serendipitous quality infuses all my conversations with Aya Shaban and Manal Abu Shmais, the artist/architect duo known as Namliyeh. For this text, we began by savouring reflections on their architectural thinking, and how it led them to food and sustainability practices.

Based in Jordan, Namliyeh have been producing exquisite jams, teas and honeys that read the diverse landscapes and changing seasons. Their works celebrate the older trees peppered across the city. Namliyeh seeks to destabilise rules around food and foraging. Demystifying how one can source organic food, they counter the idea that Jordan is arid and scarcity-prone, and combat the taste for consistency and conformity in the kitchen, Namliyeh work collaboratively with nature. While this may sound grand, it boils down to embracing its uncertainties—from weather conditions to an ugly fruit—honouring the self-agency of ingredients.

As architects, Aya and Manal had always appreciated the diverse Jordanian landscape, one that prides itself in coalescing desert, valley, sea, forest, and mountains. They design buildings holistically, deeply mindful of land, people, and context. Unsurprisingly, this thought process led them back to the land, through the lens of permaculture and agriculture. Their love affair with soil and seeds sent them on a journey into food.

Urban foraging for wild pink peppercorn, Mahes, Jordan, (2020)

Bonding over a meal, or geeking out over a cookbook, both Namliyeh and I, as cultural practitioners, share a responsibility towards Jordan’s culinary landscape.

While this may be an old tune, the tipping point for all of us was our relentlessness to unlearn the narrative of Jordan. Fatigued both by a misleading perception casting Jordan as water-poor and the population’s resulting scarcity mentality, Namliyeh sought change in the form of jams and teas—two ubiquitous staples in the Middle Eastern ‘sufra.’

Each jam and tea label tells the story of a different landscape of Jordan; each jar encloses an explosive flavour cocktail awaiting the consumer. But to make this very concept palatable, Namliyeh were not only producing consumables, but also developing—through workshops and collaborations, experiences around reading these landscapes, visiting them, and participating in the process.

Wild foraging and salad making workshop at Eira Village, Jordan (2019)

A stifling dominant narrative is not just unique to Jordan: Manal recalled how her childhood memories of green spaces in Dubai were invalidated by her Jordanian community because of the skin deep perception around Dubai’s fast-paced, artificial, and allegedly inauthentic environment. As Manal contributes to the upcoming workshop component of Rewilding the Kitchen, she is determined to arm participants with the tools to validate their memories of green spaces in Dubai.

Another challenge in developing the Namliyeh brand within conventional food business models was their pushback against consistency. The duo humourously recall people’s unsolicited advice about starting their business, or finger-pointing about what they were doing wrong. “A strawberry jam needs to be consistent, whether it is produced in Jordan or Germany. Each jar needs to be exactly the same if you are going to succeed among your competitors.” Creating 1000 jar batches that taste alike is in principle suicidal for the team: they could not bring themselves to tame nature.

Spread Namliyeh’s jam on toast, or sip their tea, and you will conjure more notes than imagined possible. In every product lies a unique tasting note for the soil nurturing the fruits, an old fragrant tree, an auspicious rainfall, the time of the day the fruit or herb was foraged, the legacy of the family raising the tree, and the sensitivity of their dedicated team of jam alchemists.

And yet, as with every business, scaling up to a larger kitchen and team was inevitable. The founders had to distance themselves from the temptation of tasting every batch of jam made (the way they playfully did in their earlier years). Instead, they handed over the production baton to a trusted team of poetic jam makers. In doing so, they have allowed both nature, and the cooks, to have freedom and autonomy over the batches prepared, which circles back to what Namliyeh’s main objective has been— to rewrite a narrative about Jordan while making space for an individual’s tastebuds to make up their own minds.

Seasonal sessions at the studio focused on experiencial learning and sensory exploration, Amman, Jordan, (2018)

As we prepare for upcoming workshops with Namliyeh, expect to be presented with a toolkit that will help you read the landscape around you. The thrust of this toolkit is also to demonstrate how easy it is to be with nature, and how urgent it is to rewrite the narratives of places we are quick to dismiss.

Nahla al-Tabbaa is an artist, pedagogue and culinary ethnographer. Interested in urban research, materiality, and alchemy, she works within these realms to create social impact.

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