Jordan is multicultural, but if there’s one thing that unites everybody, it’s mansaf – a rich and plentiful melange of rice, lamb and rehydrated yoghurt. Such is mansaf’s significance and popularity, it’s considered to be the national dish. Yet it has its roots in bedouin culture, and is emblematic of survival and hospitality in the most inhospitable of desert conditions.
For the nomadic tribesmen who herded their goats and camels in search of pasture and water amid the harshness of the sands, mansaf was vital. Owing to the scarcity of water, it was made with dried ingredients such as rice and hardened yoghurt called ‘jameed’, which could easily be transported by the nomads. It would be served on a large platter, and everyone would get a share, especially wayward travellers who had been invited into the bedouin tents as shelter from the unforgiving dunes. Such a gesture of hospitality in the face of hardship still defines Jordanian culture today.
Mansaf is eaten at weddings, religious festivals and other special occasions. You can try it any time at many of the traditional restaurants in downtown Amman and beyond. Whether you choose between lamb or chicken, it will be cooked with a subtle blend of ‘baharat’ spices, and the plate will be garnished beautifully with pine nuts and chopped parsley.
But to really experience the magic of mansaf, head for the desert. The bedouin traditionally eat mansaf with the right hand, keeping the left hand firmly behind the back. They dig in standing up around a large platter – but you needn’t be standing for up too long. Mansaf is a notoriously heavy dish, so where better to kick back and recover than flat-out under the timeless canopy of desert stars?