When Arabic Biryani 'Mansaf' Brought Conflicting Tribes Together
Image Credit: Image credit: The Pluck, Pullman

The recent boom in popularity of Middle-eastern food in India is truly worth pondering upon. Throughout history, countless travellers, traders, and invaders brought a bit of the Middle East to the Indian kitchens, like the famous kebabs and kormas, which gained currency in India during the Mughal rule. Another successful import has been that of Biryani. No matter how small or big a party you are planning, it isn't quite complete without a handi of biryani, right? For most Indians, biryani is an amalgamation of fragrant rice, meat and masalas. For vegetarians, meat is substituted with paneer, soya or vegetables. But did you know? In middle-east Asia, which is often dubbed as the birthplace of Biryani, people would have no qualms in using bulgar or barley in their biryani? Or garnishing it with lots of dry fruits and nuts.

The Magic Of Mansaf, Jordan's Creamy 'Biryani'

Mansaf is an ancient Arabic biryani,  what distinguishes this biryani with most ‘Indian’ biryanis is the free use of yoghurt sauce, and a well-fermented one at that, lending a unique creamy touch to the biryani and also bringing in a bit of tang to the mildly-spiced dish.

Mansaf's Traditional Role In Encouraging Community Eating, Ending Conflicts

Mansaf is a popular lamb dish throughout the levant. The word ‘Mansaf’ is derived from a term that roughly translates to a large plate or a large tray. This is because it was traditionally served on a large platter in the Bedouin (nomadic Arabic or rural) communities where it was eaten collectively. People stood around the platter and took their servings directly from the tray using their right hand, with their left hand placed firmly behind their back. Then, they would make small chunks of the rice and meat and pop them in, irrespective of how hot the dish was. The tradition still persists in some parts of the Levant; however, many have switched to modern plates and cutlery to enjoy the dish.

Another fascinating fact about Mansaf is how it served to signal an end of tribal conflicts. The conflicting parties would visit each other, and the host would sacrifice a sheep. The mansaf would be prepared by the house's women to be shared and relished by everyone as a sign of Atwa or truce.

The dish is also the national dish of Jordan and is widely prepared on occasions such as Jordan’s Independence Day, Eid ul-Fitr, Eid Ul-Adha, Easter, Christmas etc. Why Mansaf, you ask? Because it best represents the pastoral culture of Jordan. The wide availability of lamb and yoghurt has influenced an enormous part of Jordan’s national cuisine. And while the original Bedouin mansaf was essentially just Lamb dish made with ghee, bread and meat broth. With the rising popularity of rice in the early twentieth century Jordan, rice with bulgar were added to the Mansaf, making it all the more wholesome, and the present-day Mansaf typically uses white rice.

Even Jameed, for that matter, the hard, dry yoghurt that is beaten to make a smooth yoghurt sauce is a relatively recent addition to the dish. Making Jameed is an art in itself. The milk of sheep or goat is first boiled and dried. It is then left to ferment in cheesecloth to make a thick yoghurt. This yoghurt is thickened with the addition of salt. Finally, this thick yoghurt is shaped into round balls.

Once the Jameed is prepared, the pieces of lamb are cooked in it. The dish is finally served in a large tray with layers of roti called markook or shrak, followed by a layer of rice, meat, almonds, pine nuts topped off with a creamy layer of jameed sauce.

Have you ever tried Mansaf? Here's a simplified recipe.