The Story of Mansaf

Our delicious Mansaf; Jordan’s national dish, that was recognized by UNESCO to be included on it’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list..

Mansaf is not just a dish, every bite tells a story!

Jordan's Minister of Culture Haifa al-Najjar described the dish; Mansaf does not only represent food but is an identity, culture and industry"

What is Mansaf?

Mansaf is a traditional Jordanian dish that perfectly encapsulates the richness and complexity of the region's cuisine. It consists of tender lamb cooked in a robust sauce made of fermented dried yogurt called Jameed, often served with rice. The dish is beautifully garnished with pine nuts and fresh herbs like parsley or mint, which not only add color but enhance the flavor. The incorporation of za'atar, a blend of herbs, sesame seeds, and sumac, adds a vibrant and tangy note that complements the rich flavors of the dish, providing a sensory experience that is both satisfying and authentic.

The dish hearkens to Jordan's bedouin identity and is often served at family gatherings, as well as ceremonial contexts like weddings and funerals. The dish also occupies an important position in the country's economy, where farmers raise livestock specifically for its production.

The traditional way to enjoy Mansaf

Since Mansaf was originally popular among Bedouins, much of the traditions that they used with the dish still exist today. The tray containing Mansaf is placed on a table where people gather around it while standing. Mansaf should be eaten with the use of a person's right hand only while the left is behind the person's back. The hand is used to create balls of rice and then the ball is placed in the mouth through the use of three fingers. It is frowned upon to blow on the ball of rice, no matter how hot. Many of these traditions are still used; however, it can also be eaten with spoons and plates.

The Evolution of Mansaf

The original pastoralist Bedouin mansaf underwent significant changes in the 20th century. The dish is said to originally have been made with simply meat (camel or lamb), meat broth or ghee (clarified butter) and bread. Following the popularization of rice in northern Transjordan in the 1920s, rice gradually was introduced into the dish, at first mixed with bulgur, and later on its own, until the dish reached its modern incarnation of being based on white rice. Similarly, the jameed sauce is a recent development, as the Bedouins did not historically feature jameed in their cooked dishes until their modern sedentarization.

Communicating through Mansaf?

 Mansaf also occupies a socio-political role in a country where tribal alliances still hold strong, especially in the rural south.

"Mansaf is used as a vehicle for transmitting non-verbal messages about reciprocity and alliance among households, extended families and tribes," a group of academics from Jordan’s Yarmouk University wrote in a 2021 paper.

The academics wrote that mansaf has historically been used to show generosity to members of visiting tribes or households.

This historical tradition has been adapted to a modern context by serving the dish to guests visiting one’s home. Academics also argued that Mansaf only began to gain prominence as the country's national dish in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Jordan's current national identity began to take definition. During the reign of Jordan's previous monarch, King Hussein, promoting bedouin elements of Jordan's history was a key part of the state's production of national identity. This was accelerated after a wave of Palestinian refugees came to Jordan and the country's monarchy turned to its tribal elements for political support. Non-Jordanian minorities, such as Palestinians and Circassians, would often serve Mansaf on special occasions or in ceremonial contexts as a way of signaling that they were part of the "Jordanian family."

Mansaf now plays an active role in settling tribal disputes in Jordan in what is known as an Atwa (truce) and a Ja'ha (peacemaking process). It is thought to signal the end of a conflict when the heads of conflicting tribes visit each other and the host sacrifices a sheep or a goat for a shared Mansaf, taken to be a sign of reconciliation

Mansaf is more than just a dish—it's a cultural symbol that encapsulates Jordanian tradition and hospitality. The combination of tender lamb, creamy Jameed sauce, and aromatic za'atar offers a unique culinary experience that is both hearty and satisfying.  Next time you’re in town, don’t miss out on the Mansaf, and pro-tip it's also customary to have a nice long nap after the filling meal!

Author: Basma Hayudini JHT On: 2024-07-09.
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