Karak, Jordan – Nouf al-Jarajreh, better known as Um Faisal, has become a national icon for making Jameed, a Jordanian specialty consisting of balls of salted and dried yoghurt, made with sheep or goat milk.
The yoghurt acts as a key ingredient in Jordan’s famous lamb-based dish, Mansaf, which symbolises Bedouin hospitality. Jordanians say the country’s Bedouin citizens invented Jameed so that they would have something to offer their guests year-round.
“Our Bedouin ancestors are generous people and their main concern was to provide guests with something to eat,” said Um Faisal, as she sipped cardamom-flavoured coffee beneath an arch of grapevines in her garden.
If life turns against you, you have to turn to your skills... I began making Jameed to sell it.
After her husband’s alleged death by gunshot in Iraq, where he worked as a truck driver, 20 years ago, she became the sole breadwinner for her eight children.
“If life turns against you, you have to turn to your skills,” she told Al Jazeera. “I began making Jameed to sell it.”
Now, the 70-year-old uses modern technology to make the traditional dish, and producing enough to meet orders from hundreds of clients.
Abu Mahmoud, a local farmer, delivers fresh sheep’s milk to Um Faisal every day during the early hours of the morning. Jameed’s busy season runs between March and May, and according to local folklore, the city of Karak is known as the best place to make it.
The secret lies in the quality of milk that sheep produce in Jordan’s southern governorate, Um Faisal explained. “Here, [Karak] herds get to eat some herbs like Artemisia and Achillea, which makes the milk taste better,” she said, as stirred the milk in steady circles with a big wooden spoon.
Once foam forms on top of the milk, Um Faisal switches the stove off and lets it cool. She then works on perfecting homemade yoghurt – made by mixing the milk with active cultures and some ready-made yoghurt – which she later leaves to ferment for 24 hours.
Meanwhile, she opens plastic buckets of already-made yoghurt from the night before and pours them, with some ice, in a whirlpool washing machine for about 20 minutes. “Ice is crucial here as it picks up butter very well,” Um Faisal explained.
Decades ago, before washing machines existed, women would use a piece of goat leather, known as Sigaa, and hung it between two wooden sticks. “By moving Siqaa back and forth, butter would form from the mixture of yoghurt and cool water brought from the well… It was really hard work for us,” Um Faisal said.
This year, Um Faisal has upgraded to a locally-designed washing machine, specifically used to produce Jameed in large quantities. As the machine swirls, butter begins to build in the middle, and the yoghurt turns into a creamy liquid known as Shaneenah.
Um Faisal’s daughter, Lamya, brings out cotton sheets, which they fill with the liquid after it had cooled. During the busy season of Jameed, the 29-year-old beautician takes some time off from work to help her mother. “I can only help with simple things as I have not mastered the art of making Jameed yet,” Lamya said.
They fill several bags carefully and slowly without wasting a drop. After they filled each bag, they squeeze all the juice and then rope it. “This is important to drain all the whey,” Um Faisal said.
Finally, Um Faisal lines Jameed balls in rows on the table in her veranda, which is covered with a clear, cotton cloth. “I would leave them to dry here for a few days before taking them out,” she said. “Jameed is sensitive to heat and dust, especially during its first few days.”
During Jameed season, her terrace space functions as a drying and display space. She has trays of Jameed lined up to dry and to sell for clients, and says that she can make up to 100 balls of Jameed per hour.
In recent years, selling Jameed has become a major source of income for several families, especially those headed by women
Um Faisal has produced an average of 5,000kg of Jameed every year for the past 20 years, she says. She has regular clients who buy it every season, and who recommend her work to others.
An increasing number of women have begun producing the traditional food for extra income.
“In recent years, selling Jameed has become a major source of income for several families, especially those headed by women,” said Wesal Qsous, president of Women of Shihan Mountain Association.
“We have seen that women turn their basic knowledge and home kitchens into a workstation to survive financial hardships,” she said.
Fahmi Zubi, a member of the Jordanian anthropologists society, says changes to the economic situation of families have made certain social behavior acceptable.
“It used to be terribly shameful if a Bedouin sold Jameed and that is why families made enough to save for them and for their guests,” he told Al Jazeera.
“But economical systems have evolved from self sufficiency and bartering to capitalism, certain social norms and values have changed,” he added.
Despite increasing demand for Jameed, Um Faisal is concerned about keeping the tradition of making Jameed alive. “It has become commercialised as more people make it to live off it,” she said. “Maintaining good quality is the key challenge, as more elderly die without training youngsters to do that.”