Why It Works
- Parboiling the meat and using whole spices instead of ground gives you the cleanest and clearest broth, ensuring mansaf’s distinctive white color.
- Using a mix of fresh yogurt and store-bought liquid jameed streamlines the process without compromising on flavor.
- White rice and lightly spiced meat allow jameed’s assertive flavor to stand out.
Mansaf is the quintessential dish of Bedouins, the nomadic Arab people that live across the Middle East and North Africa. While many have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle in favor of a more modern one, some parts of their traditions remain intact, and elements of their cuisine have entered the mainstream culture of the areas they inhabit. Mansaf and jameed, the dried yogurt that gives the dish its signature flavor, are primary examples. Today, this dish is considered one of the national dishes of both Jordan and Palestine, two places where many Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula emigrated to.
Mansaf was originally lamb cooked in a yogurt-based broth and then served over bread. Versions of it can be found in the oldest Arabic cookbooks on record from the 10th century. Originally, the kind of yogurt varied by season: If mansaf was cooked in the spring, they would use fresh yogurt, but in other seasons yogurt that had been dried to preserve it would be used. Today, though, mansaf’s distinct taste comes exclusively from jameed, the dried yogurt used to make the sauce.
Mansaf later evolved to include rice or bulgur on top of the bread, with those grains varying by region to this day. Today, the platter is first layered with flatbread that is basted with the jameed-based yogurt sauce. Rice is then scattered on top and basted with more sauce. Finally, meat (usually lamb, sometimes goat) is nestled on top and scattered with toasted nuts. It is very common to serve the remaining yogurt on the side for people to pour more over their individual plates, or even to sip it straight out of a cup like soup.
Jameed’s origin, like many milk products we enjoy today, is a result of the effort to preserve dairy from one season to the next. Jameed was usually prepared in the spring when fresh milk was plentiful. The milk would be soured into yogurt then churned to separate the butter from the buttermilk. The buttermilk would be heated until it curdled, and those solids would be strained, salted, and left out to air-dry. Afterwards, they would be shaped into conic balls and left out to dry for two to three weeks in the sun, at which point they could last for months, even years.
Today, with refrigeration and the year-round availability of fresh dairy products, it might seem counterintuitive to still rely on dried dairy in this dish. Why not just use yogurt instead, as was the case centuries ago when the seasons allowed it? The answer is, very simply, because jameed’s flavor has become synonymous with mansaf itself. Just as we still eat cheese even if its primary purpose isn’t to stretch the edible window of milk, jameed offers a unique flavor otherwise unattainable—strongly savory and tart, with the underlying aromas of goat or sheep milk. Fresh yogurt just doesn’t taste the same.
As hard as a rock, jameed has to be reconstituted into yogurt by soaking it in water before cooking with it. Today, commercial jameed is available across the Arab world and even in certain Middle Eastern grocery stores in the West. The quality, however, varies drastically from one producer to the next and it remains an item not easy to source. What is more readily available, however, is an already-reconstituted liquid form sold in Tetra Paks, similar to UHT milk. (Alternatively, if you can find liquid Iranian kashk, it is an almost identical substitute.)
For the longest time, I refused to even consider those Tetra Paks of reconstituted jameed, turning into my grandmother or one of her friends at even the thought of it. After all, I have access to good jameed because my parents mail it to me, and I can even make it myself at home if I really had to. But in the interest of science (and with some gentle prodding by my editor after I initially balked at the suggestion), I bought a pack to try out. To my shock (and biased dismay), it wasn’t bad! Is it identical to the original version? No. It’s marginally saltier than a good homemade one, but it definitely hearkens back to jameed’s flavor and will give you a more faithful, umami-rich result than attempting to make mansaf with fresh yogurt.
Now, even reconstituted jameed can vary from brand to brand, so I can’t recommend them all outright, but Kasih and Ziyad are recognized brands and even used by many in the Arab world. When using reconstituted jameed, you usually need to dilute it with a roughly equal amount (or a little more) of broth in the recipe, though the package instructions should be consulted. Still, I recommend always starting out with less broth, and then adding more as necessary to get the right flavor, which should be pleasantly salty and tangy, almost like a strong feta cheese.
As for presenting this dish, mansaf was traditionally served in giant platters more than two feet wide, around which people gathered and ate with their hands. Today, it is still traditional to serve it in very large platters, although each person will spoon a portion on a separate plate instead of eating it straight out of the communal dish.