Region: Arab Levant, Jordan
Category: Rice, Couscous, and Other Grains
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
A magnificent repast, and a sign of great generosity, prepared by the Bedouin of Jordan and Palestine is called mansaf. It is prepared for joyous occasions such as big festivals or family reunions. In Palestinian households it is traditionally made when there is an abundance of lamb.
Mansaf is perhaps taken even more seriously in Jordan. Palestinians make up a large portion of the population of Jordan today, but native Jordanians are, for the most part, Bedouin. Among Jordanians, great debates can ensue about the preparation of mansaf. One Iraqi woman told me that her relationship with a Jordanian man broke up because she admitted to not caring for mansaf.
My former brother-in-law, Omar, a Palestinian connoisseur of a great feast, told me that one of the root meanings of the word mansaf is "explosion," and it is truly that: the tastes and aromas are an explosion of flavors. The flavors come not so much from spices but from a curious little dried yogurt product called jamīd. Jamīd is defatted and dehydrated yogurt made from sheep or goat's milk and sold in rock hard nuggets prepared in the spring and summer. It may have been originally a nomadic Turkish invention. The butterfat of the yogurt is separated by churning, accomplished by shaking the yogurt in a goat skin bag called a shakwa. The separated butterfat is then used to make samna, clarified butter. The defatted yogurt, called makhīd at this point, is strained under high pressure through a cloth, concentrating it into jamīd. The jamīd is salted and formed by hand into small balls to be placed in the sun and dried until hard. To reconstitute the jamīd, which is now fifty percent protein, it is soaked in water and then melted, giving its distinctive earthy flavor to the mansaf.
Jamīd is made in the home for the most part, although one can find it in stores in Amman. It would be a perfect culinary souvenir to bring back from a trip to the Middle East. Though it probably is impossible to find in the U.S. (I never have), you might seek out a Middle Eastern market in this country, especially one run by Palestinians or Jordanians. If you are unable to find any, you must settle for my suggested, and not entirely satisfactory, substitute in the Note below. On the other hand, it's the one thing I ask someone headed for the Middle East to bring back for me.
How one eats mansaf is as important as how it tastes. Several overlapping sheets of a thin fine wheat flour flatbread, the size of a small pizza, called marqūq, are laid directly on the table or a large communal platter and are covered with the meat and rice. Another bread can be use, called shrak, a whole-wheat flatbread baked on a domed griddle over an open fire. It is very thin, as is marqūq bread. Everyone eats with his hands in a ritualized manner with a high degree of etiquette. Hands are first thoroughly washed and the right sleeve rolled up. Guests sit or stand around the table sideways, with their right side tilted slightly toward the food and eat only with the first three fingers and thumb of the right hand. Each person stakes out a small area of the mansaf that is in front of him and moistens it with the bowl of jamīd that is passed around. Grace is given and the eating begins.
One eats in one of two ways. Small amounts of rice and meat are picked up, compacted slightly, and brought up to the mouth. No food should fall from the hand or the mouth as you eat, nor should your fingers touch your mouth; the food is flipped into the mouth from about an inch away. In another method diners form a ball of rice in the palms of their hands, constantly flipping the ball in the air because it is quite hot. Then, for those who are and talented, the rice ball is flipped, sometimes from a foot away, into the mouth. In some situations the host will form the rice ball in his own hand for the guest of honor.
There are several essential ingredients in making mansaf, besides the jamīd. One is the spice mixture known as bahārāt. It is easily found in Middle Eastern markets but can be made at home. Another is the cooking fat called samna, clarified butter. Marqūq bread is sold in Middle Eastern and Greek markets and, in increasing numbers of supermarkets in the U.S. under a variety of names, but most often by the Armenian name lavash. This recipe is derived from the first time I had a mansaf, prepared by Mustafa Hamarneh, a Bedouin friend who now lives in Amman.
Yield: Makes 8 servings
Preparation Time: 6 hours
6 pieces jamīd (about 1/2 pound) or see Note below
3 quarts plus 2 cups water
10 tablespoons clarified unsalted butter
4 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder on the bone, cut into approximately 3/4 pound pieces and trimmed of excess fat
2 tablespoons bahārāt
3 cups long-grain rice, soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes and drained or rinsed well under running water until the water runs clear
3 to 4 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup blanched whole almonds
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 pieces marqūq, shrak, or lavash (Armenian flatbread), left whole or 4 large khubz cArabī (Arabic flatbread or pita bread) split open to make 8 pieces
1. Soak the jamīd in cold water to cover for 24 to 48 hours.
2. Drain and melt the jamīd in a pot with 1 quart of the soaking water over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 quarts soaking water as it evaporates until the mixture has the consistency of yogurt. This could take up to 2 hours and you should ultimately have about 2 quarts liquid jamīd. Strain the jamīd through a sieve and set it aside. Save three-quarters of the jamīd for the meat and the rest for the rice, which you will cook separately.
3. In a large, preferably earthenware casserole, heat 5 tablespoons of the clarified butter over medium heat, then cook the lamb until browned on all sides, about 20 minutes. Remove the meat from the casserole with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all the excess fat and liquid. Return the meat to the casserole with the reserved three-quarters of jamīd, reduce the heat to low, add the remaining 2 cups water, sprinkle on the bahārāt, and cook, uncovered, until the meat is falling off the bone, about 3 hours. Do not use any salt because the jamīd is salty, but if you are using the stabilized yogurt suggested in the Note, you need to salt the meat to taste. Stir the meat so it is mixed well with the spices and yogurt.
4. Meanwhile, prepare the rice. In a heavy flame-proof casserole or pot with a heavy lid, melt 3 tablespoons of the clarified butter over medium-high heat, then cook the rice for 2 minutes, stirring. Pour in 3 cups of the boiling water and the salt, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the rice is tender and all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Do not lift the lid to look at the rice and do not stir the rice as it cooks. After 20 minutes, if the rice is not done, keep adding boiling water in small amounts until the rice has absorbed the additional water and is tender. When the rice is done, stir in the remaining quarter of the jamīd, to make the rice a little watery.
5. Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon clarified butter in a small skillet and cook, shaking the skillet, until the butter is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and set the butter aside. Melt the remaining tablespoon clarified butter in the small skillet and cook the almonds until light golden, about 5 minutes, tossing the nuts. Add the pine nuts and cook until they are golden, about another 3 minutes. Set the nuts aside.
6. Clean off a serving, dining, or kitchen table with soap and water and then rinse well and dry, unless you are using a very large tray or serving platter. Arrange the marqūq or other bread directly on the table or tray, overlapping them some, and spread some jamīd from the cooked lamb on it so it becomes soft. Strain the meat and place it over the bread, now soft and broken. Spoon the rice over next and put the remaining jamīd sauce from the lamb in a separate bowl with a serving spoon. Sprinkle the pine nuts and almonds over the rice. Pour the reserved 1 tablespoon of melted samna over everything. Gather your guests around the table, hands properly washed, with their right hands closest to the food. Begin eating.
In place of jamīd, stir 3 tablespoons
tahini into 2 quarts stabilized yogurt