A dish of lamb slow-cooked in a yogurt sauce – mention Mansaf to any Jordanian and you’ll instantly have a dinner invite, as well as a long and detailed conversation regarding cooking methods on your hands! Like all national dishes, everyone has their own opinion on exactly how it should be, and will guarantee you that only their mother/aunt/home town knows the correct way to make it…
Traditionally served at events such as weddings, and to celebrate Eid at the end of Ramadan, Mansaf is always made to serve a crowd (so much so that a number of recipes you come across will denote portions in terms of the number of lamb carcasses required!), and is assembled on giant platters with sherak (Arabic flat bread) forming a base, topped by rice and meat.
Though I’ve stayed true to the traditional presentation in this recipe, I have substituted one of the traditionally important ingredients – jamid, the dried fermented balls of goat’s yogurt that are usually re-hydrated to form the basis of the Mansaf cooking sauce. The problem is, not only are jamid balls exceedingly difficult to find, even here in the Middle East, but they are also, it is fair to say, a bit of an acquired taste. For the travelling Bedouins, the ability to ferment and preserve yogurt in this way was no doubt invaluable, but for those of us who have access to the fresh stuff courtesy of the supermarket, the absence of need for fermentation might be thought of as an altogether fortunate thing!
A few other Westernisations also snuck into my recipe along the way – I’ve opted to marinate the meat in yogurt first, for instance, (as opposed to cooking the meat in it), then add a yogurt sauce at the end, so an ‘authentic’ recipe it’s not. Nonetheless, the sprit of the dish perseveres – slow cooked lamb, meltingly tender, served atop masses of soft, buttery rice, with a rich spiced topping of yogurt. And be sure not to skip the very traditional toasted pine nuts and flaked almonds scattered over at the end – they are almost the best bit!
- 2.5 kg total weight lamb pieces (shoulder with bone-in, and 6 shanks) – have your butcher cut the lamb shoulder into approximately 6 evenly sized pieces.
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon whole cloves
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons cardamom pods
- 2 tablespoons baharat spice
- 500ml natural yogurt
- Juice of two lemons
- Approx. ½ cup light olive oil
- 20g butter
- 200g pearl onions – skin removed
- 3 bay leaves
- Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup sliced slivered almonds
- ½ cup of pine nuts
- ½ cup of parsley – finely chopped
For the rice
- 3 cups medium grain rice
- 50g butter
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ cup golden sultanas
- 4½ cups water
- 4 slices of sherak (thin Arabic bread)
Baharat spice is a blend including allspice, cinnamon, cassia, coriander, cloves, and cardamon (amongst other things) and can be found in Middle Eastern supermarkets.
The lamb needs to marinate overnight, so start this dish the day before you intend to serve.
To make the marinade for the lamb, split the cardamom pods, one by one, and scrape the seeds into a mortar and pestle, discarding the empty pods. Add the cumin seeds and cloves to the mortar and grind to a fine powder.
In a large bowl, combine the ground spices from the mortar with the ground turmeric, cinnamon, and baharat spice. Add 200ml only of the yogurt to the spices, along with the juice of one lemon, some salt, and a generous grind of black pepper.
Mix with a spoon to combine the ingredients, before introducing the lamb shoulder and shanks to the bowl. Turn each piece to thoroughly coat in marinade, before removing to a large Tupperware container or zip lock bag. Scrape any excess marinade left in the bowl into the container and seal before placing in the refrigerator to marinate overnight.
When you are ready to cook the lamb, remove it from the fridge and preheat the oven to 160°C.
Before being left to slow cook in the oven, the lamb needs to be sealed over a high-heat. To do this, warm 3 tablespoons of light olive oil, together with 20g of butter in a large heavy-based casserole, and place over a high heat on the stove-top.
When the butter has melted and the oil is hot, fry the lamb pieces quickly, in small batches, turning with a pair of metal tongs until they are seared on all sides. A few minutes in the pan is all it will take to properly seal each piece of lamb.
Arrange the browned lamb pieces in a large roasting tray along with the peeled pearl onions and 3 bay leaves.
Next, swish 500ml of water through the marinade container, in order to mix as much of this as possible with the water, and then pour over the lamb and onions in the roasting tray.
Cover the tray with foil, and place in the oven to cook slowly over 3-4 hours. During the cooking time, check the lamb at half hour intervals, turning each piece over, and checking liquid levels. If the lamb looks as though it is drying out at any point, add up to 150ml more water.
Once the lamb has been the oven for approximately 2 hours, begin to prepare the rice by washing it several times in a sieve, before leaving to soak in plenty of water for 30 minutes. This will remove excess starch and ensure that the rice does not become sticky when cooked.
Meanwhile prepare to toast the almonds and pine nuts by heating just under half a cup of light olive oil over medium heat in a small frying pan. Fry the almonds first, then the pine nuts, removing these to drain on paper towel when golden using a fine frying sieve. Put the nuts aside to use later as a garnish, and retain the oil to use in cooking the rice.
When the lamb has been in the over for 3 hours, and has visibly softened, beginning to break apart, prepare to cook the rice by heating 50g of butter along with the oil that you fried the nuts in, together in a large saucepan.
Drain the rice, and add this, along with half a teaspoon ground of turmeric and the golden sultanas to the saucepan. Stir briefly combine the rice and sultanas with the spice and oil, before adding 4½ cups water, and placing a tight lid on the saucepan.
Bring the rice to a boil over medium heat, before turning the heat to a simmer and cooking slowly.
After 30 minutes, carefully lift the saucepan lid to check the progress of the rice (resist the urge to check earlier than this as frequent checking will enable the steam to escape leaving the rice water-logged!). If all the liquid has been absorbed and the surface of the rice is dimpled with steaming holes, remove from the heat, and place a tea towel over the top of the saucepan before covering once again with the lid and setting aside to steam for a further ten minutes. This will allow for any excess water to evaporate, giving the rice a nice dry texture. It will also allow you time to assemble the remaining components of the dish…
First, take the lamb from the oven. Using a pair of metal tongs, carefully remove the cooked lamb pieces along with the onions and bay leaves from the roasting tray to a clean dish or tray, and put this aside, covered loosely with foil.
At the base of the roasting tray, you should be left with a small amount of cooking liquid or gravy. Strain this through a sieve and retain the fluid to in order to make the yogurt pouring sauce.
In a small saucepan, mix 300ml of natural yogurt, the juice of one lemon, and between 2 & 4 tablespoons of the cooking gravy depending on how concentrated this is. Stir to combine, (according to Bedouin tradition it is important to stir in one direction only if you want to prevent the yogurt from splitting!), and heat slowly until warm. But don’t allow the mixture to boil or else it is likely to split anyway, and no amount of superstitious stirring will help you then!
Prepare a large serving platter to receive the mansaf by placing sheets of sherakbread on the base. Next, spoon the rice into a pile on top of the sherak, creating a shallow hollow for the lamb in the centre.
Arrange the lamb pieces on the rice, and then pour over half of the warm yogurt sauce. Garnish all over with the toasted almonds and pine nuts, as well as a handful of finely chopped parsley.
It is traditional for the person who has prepared the mansaf not to dine with their guests, but instead to hover around the table ladling over extra yogurt sauce, concentrating the most sauce on the most distinguished guest. Given this is a Westernised recipe however, Western serving traditions might as well prevail too, so place yourself down at the table, along with a small dish of the extra yogurt sauce, pop a spoon nearby, and let everyone help themselves!