I visited Al-Karak for a tour of one of the largest Crusader castles in the region, Karak Castle. While the castle’s historical significance may be what brings many visitors the 140 kilometres from the capital city of Amman, Al-Karak is equally well known for serving the best “Mansaf” in Jordan.
What is Mansaf? An Experience in Jordanian Cuisine and Culture
So, you might ask, what is mansaf and why is this Jordanian dish an important way to experience not just food, but the culture in Jordan?
Mansaf is the national dish of Jordan. Served on a large platter with a thin flatbread, mansaf is a bed of rice, topped with lamb and a fermented yoghurt sauce called jameed. If you ask just about any Jordanian what food you should try while in their country, mansaf will be the top answer.
Drawing from Bedouin traditions, Jordanian hosts often prepare mansaf as a show of appreciation for their guests. It is also commonly served for special occasions like weddings or births and on holidays like Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha, Christmas or Easter.
We were told that the best jameed comes from Al-Karak, so when offered to try the mansaf just outside the castle, we were not going to let that opportunity pass. Reservations were made in advance, but many restaurants have it on the menu on a nightly basis.
Jameed, the dry yoghurt topping. It is made from boiled sheep or goat’s milk that has been left to ferment and dry. It is salted daily and strained through a cheesecloth before being formed into balls and set out to dry in the sun. Once dry, the hardened balls of yoghurt can be stored until they are rehydrated for use as a broth.
Sounds a bit strange to the typical westerner who is used to having yogourt from the fridge. But in most grocery stores in Jordan, you can buy a ball of jameed, with which to make your mansaf.
How to Prepare Mansaf
To prepare the mansaf itself, pieces of lamb are cooked in the jameed broth before being placed atop a large platter with flatbread and rice. The meat is garnished with almonds and pine nuts and served family-style. The creamy jameed is then poured over the whole dish by the host and everybody digs in together.
Traditionally guests will stand around a table with their left hands behind their back and scoop the rice into their right hand. After scooping the rice into one’s hand, it should be tossed around a few times making it into a ping pong sized ball. The ball is then popped into your mouth by balancing it on two fingers and flicking it with your thumb! The Host will continue to drench the rice with jameed for his guests to enjoy a moistened bite.
What does Mansaf taste like?
Mansaf has a distinct fermented and salty flavour as the jameed soaks into the bed of rice. The tender lamb’s flavour is enhanced with a Baharat spice blend, scented with cardamom and cumin to blend perfectly with the crunch of nuts and the moistened rice.
When visiting Jordan, you must try this traditional dish. Its roots lie in the welcoming bedouin hospitality that defines Jordanian culture today.