When visiting Jordan, conversations with locals often start out the same: What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you think of Jordan? Have you tried mansaf?
Mansaf is a celebratory meal, served at weddings, graduations, births, and holidays. It is almost always served on Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha, and especially on April 11, Jordan’s Independence Day.
Mansaf – meaning ‘large tray’ – is a heavy, sticky, delicious heap of rice, lamb, almonds, and fermented yogurt, called jameed, as well as spices including cardamom, cumin and saffron. The jameed is an important ingredient, but an unfamiliar one to many visitors. This tangy, fermented yogurt is kept in cheesecloth and salted and rinsed daily to expel the whey, then dried in the sun. If you’re visiting Wadi Rum or other desert areas you’ll often see balls of jameed drying on top of bedouin tents.
The lamb is cooked in the jameed and spices to infuse flavor, usually in a large cauldron. Once the meat is cooked, it’s stirred into the rice along with the almonds. Finally, the mansaf is heaped over thin layers of flatbread.
The labor-intensive dish is eaten and often prepared communally, providing a time and space to gather with family and friends. It’s also been known to resolve conflicts. According to Bedouin tradition, when families or tribes fight, the head of one tribe will visit the other to talk it through. The host will sacrifice a lamb and cook mansaf out of respect for the visitor, and they eat the meal together to end the argument.
Bedouins have been making a form of mansaf for generations, but the dish didn’t always resemble the modern version people eat today. At first, mansaf was a mix of wheat, meat, and clarified butter. The next iteration involved spreading boiled wheat on a smooth surface and leaving it in the sun to dry before coarsely grinding it into bulgur, which was then cooked the way rice is cooked today.
Around 1945, bulgur was swapped for rice, partly because of new, wider trade routes. Almonds were added in the 1960s, around the same time jameed replaced the clarified butter. Soon after, people began cooking the meat in the jameed to intensify the flavor, resulting in the mansaf Jordanians eat today.
When it comes to mansaf, etiquette is important. Guests gather around a platter and eat with their right hand, while the left hand is placed behind the back.
Using your hand, create a ball of rice and meat and eat it in one bite. It’s easiest to grab a small handful, squeeze, then gently roll it around in your hand to shape it. Because you’ll be dipping your fingers into the tray again, you’re not supposed to let them touch your mouth. On this same note, you should not reach across the platter for a more appealing bite.
The tangy taste and smell of jameed can be reminiscent of yogurt gone slightly bad. This puts many tourists off, but to not eat heartily is an insult to your host, and after a few bites the fragrant lamb and crunchy almonds overpower any sour scent. Power through and you’ll probably be surprised at how quickly you acquire a taste for mansaf.
If you’re dining in a restaurant, silverware will be provided and is more than acceptable to use. In fact, many young Jordanians prefer to always eat mansaf with silverware, a development older generations say is ruining culture and tradition.
It’s not hard to find mansaf in Jordan. Ask around, and you might get invited to someone’s home to try it. If not, Al Quds restaurant, Sufra restaurant, and Deeritna restaurant in Amman all serve fantastic mansaf. If you’re visiting the desert and camping with a bedouin tribe, you’ll almost always be served a version of mansaf for dinner at your campsite.
As you dig in with your hands, forming the rice into the perfect ball, remember that not only are you feasting on rice and tender meat, but you’re also consuming history, culture, and generations of tradition in one bite.