A Mansaf to Remember
Mansaf to the Jordanians is like sauerkraut to the Germans, crêpes to the French and koshari to the Egyptians. If you’re planning a trip to Jordan then mansaf should be somewhere near the top of your list – but proceed with caution! Just like any national dish, it is prepared differently across Jordan with some regions serving a chicken or fish mansaf (most people would find the sheer notion of anything but lamb mansaf blasphemous). And just like any national dish, mansaf is best when eaten at home. One of the unspoken rules is that it has to be made by somebody’s mother, aunt or grandmother.
I was on the lookout for restaurants that serve an authentic mansaf when my friend Juman graciously invited me to her house. She confidently told me that her mother makes the best mansaf – and how could I refuse? On a bright Tuesday afternoon, Juman’s father picked me up from my hotel and took me to their beautiful home. We chatted away as he maneuvered the car around mountainous Amman and parked it on the side of a narrow street. As we made our way up to the apartment, I wondered if I would even like mansaf. I hadn’t looked it up but I heard it consisted of rice, meat and yogurt. What if it’s too soggy or heavy? What if I couldn’t eat it? I tried not to panic.
My fears were completely unnecessary. Juman’s mother is an amazing cook. The aroma of cooked meat greeted us at the door and drew me to the table where I stood in front of a large tray piled with rice and topped with chunks of lamb. The rice (closer to Egyptian than Basmati) was warm and the lamb so tender that I got a little carried away! The dish is brilliantly brought together with large toasted almonds and warm yogurt that is drizzled on the rice and meat. Juman’s parents explained the origin of mansaf and said that people traditionally ate from one large plate during celebrations (apparently the word mansaf means large dish or tray). In that regard, it’s very similar to machbūs or mandi in the Arabian Gulf: rice dishes traditionally served in enormous round “communal dishes” – if such a term exists.
Juman’s mother also talked me through the making of mansaf. The yogurt intrigued me the most because it had a strange texture. It was thick but not lumpy, hot and high in fat but consistent and mild-tasting. The yogurt is made from something called jameed which is a ball of dried and hardened goat’s milk/yogurt. Although it can be found at local stores, some people make jameed at home by putting milk in cheesecloth and salting it daily until it hardens. Several days later, the milk turns into a thick yogurt which is shaped into balls and set to dry. To make mansaf, the jameed is reconstituted with hot water and fresh milk or yogurt. This warm liquidy yogurt is then used while cooking the rice as well as a sauce to soak the cooked meat. When it’s time to serve the mansaf (it’s quite the process!) the meat is strained and placed on the rice. The rest of the jameed is served in a bowl for people to pour over their plates as they wish.
I was fascinated by all this information and enjoyed my meal even more when I learnt of the complicated technique. Mansaf is unlike other dishes from the region because the spices are surprisingly mild and the texture is what stands out. The yogurt has to be a little tangy but not overpowering, the meat must be cooked to succulent perfection and the almonds add a significant nutty crunch to every mouthful. It was an unforgettable meal, which we ended with a large serving of kunafa and several cups of dark Arabic coffee. I can’t tell you what happened the rest of that day as I was in a sleepy daze for hours reminiscing about my Jordanian feast.