Written by William Dobson
One of the best things about living in Damascus was that it was an incredible base to further explore the region. It’s situated just two hours from both Amman and Beirut. Combined with the fact that it used to cost in the region of £5 to get a shared taxi to the respective capitals of Jordan and Lebanon, taking a weekend trip was both economical and comfortable. Furthermore, the journeys to both cities are spectacular. One of the my favourite things about travelling is the journey itself; sitting in the front seat of a car watching the scenery pass by as a passive observer and there is no better place to do this than the desert. I love the way that the colours change so subtly as the sun moves across the sky, from a sharp white in the midday sun to a deep orange as sunset approaches. There is also something, paradoxically, both comforting and melancholic about the huge swathes of emptiness that are typical of desert scenery.
Amman itself isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing city but that’s hardly surprising when you consider that until about 30 years ago it was a town of roughly 30,000 people and is now home to over 2 million thanks to the huge influx of Palestinian refugees. Indeed, according to Jo magazine, the population is expected to rise to 6.5 million by the year 2025. Of course, as with most cities it has its charm, especially when you’ve been living in a city devoid of Starbucks for a year, for me always an oasis of calm in the region. It’s also a country with such an incredibly rich history dating back to long before the times of Moses who first looked down upon the Promise Lands atop Mount Nebo, about half an hour outside of the city. Surely, too, there is no archaeological site to compare with the the ancient Nabataean city of Petra.
But more important than any of that, Jordan is home to mansaf, a traditional Bedouin dish of tender lamb, poached first in water, before being recooked in spiced yoghurt, flavoured with the stock from the lamb, and mixed with rice. It’s always presented on a large plate in the centre of the gathering for people to scoop up themselves with flat bread; a Jordanian biryani if you will. For me, no other country quite conjures up images of the traditional Arab nomads as Jordan and I can just imagine T.E. Lawrence or Wilfred Thesiger eating this while on their intrepid journeys. More recently, the wonderful and tragic autobiography of Frank Gardner, Blood and Sand, describes a period of his life when he stayed with some of the few remaining practitioners of this ancient lifestyle and I’m sure he would have been treated to some wonderful dishes of mansaf, probably cooked on an open fire beneath the vast desert stars.
I first tasted it in a restaurant called Al-Quds (the Arabic for Jerusalem incidentally) in Amman. It’s an institution there; ask any Jordanian and they will have heard of it and, indeed, probably dined there. It’s famous first and foremost for its baklava but they make a wonderful mansaf too and should definitely be the first port of call on any trip to Jordan. I think, more than any dish, this evokes images of a time gone by and a lifestyle which is becoming more and more difficult to preserve which makes me feel sad but also lucky that I have had some exposure to it before it finally dies out. It’s a really simple dish, as you would expect from its Bedouin origins; in the past it was reserved for special occasions and weddings but, as Jordan has urbanised, so too has this dish and has now become the national dish of the country.
Photo by Elsa Buchanan
- 2 large containers of yoghurt
- a mix of spices (cumin, turmeric, etc.)
- lemon juice
- 1.5 kg lamb (with bones - lamb shank works well)
- water to boil lamb
- 1/2 onion
- bay leaf
- large knob of butter
- 75g pine nuts
- 75g slivered almonds
- 1kg cooked rice, flavoured with a pinch of saffron
- salt and pepper
- Arabic flat bread
In a large saucepan, cover the lamb amply with water and add the onion, roughly chopped, and bay leaf. Bring to the boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer until the lamb is falling off the bone.
In another saucepan, boil the yoghurt on a high heat, stirring continuously in the same direction the whole time. Otherwise, it will curdle. Once it comes to the boil, remove from the heat immediately.
When the lamb is cooked, strain the stock and add about 400 - 500 ml to the yoghurt, the spices and the lemon juice and salt to taste. Stir in the same direction as before until everything is combined.
Add the meat to the sauce, return to the heat and, without stirring, bring to the boil.
Meanwhile, brown the pine nuts and almonds in the butter.
To serve, place the flat bread onto a large platter, top with the rice and then the rest of the ingredients.