Mansaf, rich in flavors and tradition, on the menu for Ramadan, Easter
No aroma in this world evokes more memories for me than the warm scent of home cooking. mansaf, especially the tangy yogurt sauce that simmers for hours on the stovetop.
Served at large gatherings to celebrate, feast and mourn, mansaf, made with rice and lamb, is a beloved Jordanian dish with a long history rooted in the culture of the region’s nomadic Bedouins. This spring, large round trays of hearty meals will sit on tables in Arab-American homes for Easter and for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
Make mansafyou boil lamb with onion and bay leaf, then you add it and its broth to jamed sauce made from fermented and dried yogurt. To serve, you place rice domes on trays over a layer of thin bread called shrak. Spread the pieces of lamb on top, and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and slivered almonds. To serve jameed sspiced with turmeric, in bowls for people to pour onto their plates.
When a pot is on the stove, the rich aroma spreads all the way to the front door. It easily reminds me of happy celebrations, like my sister’s big wedding in the hills of my father’s hometown in Jordan, and New Year’s Eve parties with aunts, uncles, and cousins, but also the death of my father, when hundreds of visitors came to our home to offer their condolences and to share trays of mansaf by our side.
The hearty meal is not fashionable or sophisticated, but it is home, it is tradition and it is an expression of the hospitality that is deeply rooted in the region. However, I had never thought of ordering mansaf in a restaurant until I saw it appear in the row of Middle Eastern restaurants in South Paterson.
Paterson has attracted Arab immigrants since the late 1800s, including Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Jordanians. Today, South Paterson has a bustling business district with Middle Eastern grocery stores, restaurants, and bakeries that serve local residents and visitors seeking ethnic fare.
Today, there are two restaurants specializing in mansaf, while others offer as the plate of the day. It’s no surprise that the owner of one of these establishments, Kan Zamaan, which means long ago or ancient times in Arabic, is from Jordan. Mansaf is part of the cuisine in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Palestine, but in Jordan it is considered the national dish.
“I specialize in mansafbecause the mansafit’s in my blood,” owner and chef Zayed Alabdalrazzag said as he hovered over huge pots of jamed that drew flavor from the lamb cuts.
The interior of the restaurant, at 247 Buffalo Ave., reflects traditional Jordanian decor, including majlis (living room) style of seats and tables and walls draped in richly colored tapestries in red dye. Surrounding the dining area are embroidered pillows and mosaic tables with ornate pots for the cardamom-flavored coffee that is usually reserved for visitors to the family home.
Kan Zamaan has several dishes on the menu, but mansaf is the most popular. That’s why Alabdalrazzag opened the restaurant in 2017, he said, explaining that friends often asked for his homemade version.
“If someone dies, you do mansaf for him,” said Alabdalrazzag, who came to the United States as a student in 1978. “If you have a special guest, you do it for him. If someone gets married, you do it for them. It is the traditional dish.
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On a recent weekday, Alabdalrazzag prepared an order of six 55-inch platters for a post-burial meal, with two sons helping in the kitchen and serving the customers who poured in for lunch. Everyone mentioned how mansaf was part of history, with Bedouins making the meal for many generations. But they didn’t know how far back the meal went.
To find out, I contacted Febe Armanios, Professor of History at Middlebury College and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Williams College, who has been teaching a course called “Food in the Middle East: A History” since 2013.
Nomads and hadith
The meal known today as mansaf evolved over the centuries, Armanios explained.
Bedouins, herders of goats, sheep and camels who traveled in search of water sources in the Middle East and North Africa, ate what was probably an early version of the meal called share, she says. Still popular today, share includes a base of meat boiled in broth that has been placed on bread.
“More commonly it would be mutton,” Armanios said. “They would have taken broth and probably day-old bread that had gone stale and dunked it in meat-flavored broth and served pieces of boiled meat on it.”
As Bedouins conquered neighboring regions with agricultural crops, they added embellishments to the dish, she explained. In the Abbasid Empire centered in Baghdad around 750 to 1258, where spices were valued, share recipes can be found in medieval cookbooks for the Abbasid court. Chickpeas, truffles, nuts and cheese, ingredients reflected in recipes of the time, may also have added layers of flavor to the dish, Armanios said.
In the first Arabic version, the bread was probably made from barley, not wheat, she added. Although rice was used by Abbasid elites, it was not widely consumed until the mid-1900s when it became more available and affordable. jammed was also a modern addition to the meal.
keep jamedgoat’s milk yogurt, the Bedouins dried and salted it until it looked like rocks, making it easy to transport. To prepare mansaf today the jamed is soaked in water, heated and stirred on the stove, then cooked with the lamb and broth to complete the sauce. A spice blend including turmeric, parsley, mint, cardamom, and several other spices can be added to the sauce while cooking.
The popularity of the dish can also be linked to religion. Thareed is rated as a favorite dish of the Prophet Muhammad in the hadithsthe record of sayings or customs of Muhammad and his companions, said Armanios, whose 2018 book “Halal Food: A History” focuses on Islamic food traditions.
“When Islam comes, it intensifies a bit because the prophet would have liked that,” Armanios said.
Some believe it was also referenced in the Bible in Genesis 18:6-8 when Abraham asked his wife Sarah to prepare a meal similar to share for visitors.
For Christian Arabs who generally renounce dairy products, meat and eggs during the Lenten period before Easter, eating meat mansaf at Easter “would be a celebratory act,” Armanios said.
But how did it become a national dish? Such claims are usually made as acts of pride or resistance, Armanios said. In the present case, Jordan’s claim to mansaf followed the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1946.
Usually prepared in large portions, it is a common dish; traditionally, the men gather around trays of mansaf – which means “large platter” – with the left hand behind the back and the right hand to pick up and eat the rice and meat dish.
“Binds Us Home”
Mansaf has been on the menu at several Paterson restaurants, usually as the plate of the day and as an option at Ramadan buffets. Kan Zamaan has made it a specialty, while another restaurant called Mansaf Baladna — baladna meaning “our country” – followed suit, opening last year at 939 Main St.
In addition to serving walk-in customers, Kan Zamaan has received orders for weddings, engagements, anniversaries, and funerals. Arab families will pick up trays to serve for Christmas and Easter and the two biggest Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
During Ramadan, the restaurant is only open in the evening, offering take-out meals and then a buffet with mansaf and several other Middle Eastern dishes to accommodate customers breaking their daily sunset fast. Reservations are recommended.
“Every time we eat mansaf, it’s like Thanksgiving,” said the owner’s son, Samer. “It brings people together. It brings families together. Being Arab-American is something that brings us home.
Samir Ileiwat, who is Palestinian and grew up in Jordan, is a regular customer. “When you eat mansafit gives you that sense of belonging,” said Ileiwat, who came to the United States in 1979. “It brings you back.
I admit I was a little apprehensive about trying the restaurant version of one of my favorite dishes. Tome, mansaf was a business that required the attention of a home cook like my mother, full of culinary talent and patience, who boiled the lamb, strained the broth, and watched the sauce pans for hours.
Its rice, cooked with spoonfuls of clarified butter called samna, bursting with flavor and texture and sprinkled with perfectly toasted pine nuts and almonds. The meal is served with plates of fresh pickles, onions and sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, offering something fresh and crisp to offset the heavy meal.
Fortunately, Kan Zamaan did not disappoint. the mansaf was quite good, with tender lamb and a gravy rich in flavor and portions too big for one person to eat – just like my mum – and all the other Arab mums – serve it.
Hannan Adely is a diversity journalist covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, prejudice and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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