Alf Sahtain! Eating my way through Jordan

Somika Basu introduces us to mansaf, a nuanced dish from her present home in Jordan, served crucially, in times of celebration, dissent and peace-keeping.

There are many ways to become acquainted with a country and its people – through its heritage, traditions, customs, and art... but my favourite is possibly through its cuisine. Food, I find, lies at the intersection of history, geography, sociology and economy – a dynamic cultural record of daily life, anywhere in the world. 

My Jordanian journey of a thousand meals began with a single plate of mansaf. Immediately after I moved to Amman, I found myself seated alone at a corner table in a bungalow-turned-restaurant on Rainbow Street. The quirky neighbourhood in which I live, sits atop one of old Amman’s seven hills, first chosen by the Romans when establishing their city of Philadelphia in the Decapolis; a blend of the traditional and cosmopolitan, representing perfectly the Jordan that I have come to know and love – where old and new worlds jostle amicably to find their place alongside one another. 

If we ignore present-day political boundaries, it becomes easier to remember that the Middle East was the very cradle of civilisation. This was the Fertile Crescent, with River Nile to the west and the Tigris and Euphrates to the east, where the Garden of Eden is believed to have existed. Quite the opposite of the arid, sandy landscapes that we picture today. 

 Mansaf plays a key cultural role in Jordanian traditions, served on special occasions like weddings, births, and main Islamic holidays. It is made with rice and lamb, garnished with pine nuts, almonds and parsley.

Mansaf plays a key cultural role in Jordanian traditions, served on special occasions like weddings, births, and main Islamic holidays. It is made with rice and lamb, garnished with pine nuts, almonds and parsley.

While I ate my Jordanian meal by hand, as per the custom, the restaurant staff and I were in agreement that food simply tastes better when there's no cutlery involved. 'Sahtain!' they exclaimed several times, whenever they passed and caught my eye. (Literally translated as 'two healths', sahtain is a wish for someone's double helping of health, to encourage joyful eating.) 

Although Jordanian cuisine is considered part of the larger Middle Eastern food-universe, it is an exceptional vantage point from which to observe the linked culinary worlds of Asia, Africa and Europe. This region was the conduit that connected trade routes between empires on the famous Silk Road. As empires expanded, the diversity of trade and access permanently transformed the cuisines of the surrounding areas. 

Jordanian cuisine today is distilled from Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese and Bedouin influences while being shaped by the various communities who have made a home for themselves in Jordan over time, including Armenians, Circassians, and Iraqis. Through decades of conflict, families hold on to recipes and food as a source of comfort, pleasure and pride. Where recipes come from and how people cook them reveal family histories and origins. How ingredients are sourced and their costs are indicative of the geography and economy. The rituals of preparation might divulge the social stratification and status of women or their free time. Traditional recipes offer a direct portal into history – many having originated from villages and towns that exist only in memory, or are now long forgotten and lost.

On the streets, along with geopolitics, everyone is delighted to discuss food. There is as much passionate discourse when explaining the occupation of Palestine and the exodus of 1948 as there is in describing the best way to make a delicious one-pot maqlubeh – “Wallahi, no… the best way is to fry the onions first!”

Everyday foods tend to favour spicy-sour one-dish meals of vegetables and legumes, but celebratory festival foods are heavier on meat and richly spiced rice, like the mansaf and maqlubeh. 

 Maqlubeh (which literally means 'upside down') is a popular one-pot dish. Assorted vegetables, meat, and rice are spiced and arranged in layers. The meal is cooked in one direction and served in the other!

Maqlubeh (which literally means 'upside down') is a popular one-pot dish. Assorted vegetables, meat, and rice are spiced and arranged in layers. The meal is cooked in one direction and served in the other!

Drawing from its rural roots, today mansaf plays a large cultural role in Jordanian traditions, served on special occasions like weddings, births, and main Islamic holidays – it is a ‘celebration meal’ comprising rice and lamb. Mansaf has played an integral role in shaping Jordan’s identity over the decades, and continues to be a crucial part of the social fabric – quite often the dish takes on a diplomatic status in resolving conflicts between families or tribes. Should there be a dispute, the leaders of tribes visit one another in the interest of reaching a settlement. The host tribe or family will then sacrifice a sheep and cook mansaf as a sign of respect to their visitors. They then eat this meal together, around the communal platter, as a way of marking the end of the dissension.

The making of mansaf, however, begins well before the actual cooking of the rice and meat. The unique feature being the jameed – dried and fermented goat yoghurt, fashioned into hard balls. In the red valleys of Wadi Rum, one can spot these sitting on top of Bedouin tents to dehydrate thoroughly in the desert sun. The Bedouin origins of mansaf endure today in the customs of both the making and eating of it, dating back to an agro-pastoral lifestyle when meat and yoghurt were both abundant. Rehydrated jameed forms the gravy that accompanies mansaf – rich and creamy, with a very distinctive salty and sour, fermented yoghurt flavour. It is said that within the jameed lies the taste of the pasture and desert shrubs where the goats have grazed.

Large chunks of meat simmered in jameed broth are spread on top of the rice and, on very special occasions, the head of the lamb features in the centre of the dish. Pine nuts, almonds, and parsley have also recently been incorporated into the garnishing. The jameed gravy is added periodically throughout the meal to keep the dish warm and moistened. Traditionally, mansaf is eaten while sitting on the floor, or standing around a large communal tray – the right hand for eating, the left kept behind one's back.

Thinking back to that solitary meal of mine a year ago, I realise that I've never had the chance to eat mansaf alone ever since. 

Mealtime in Jordan is often a community event with immediate and extended family present – a delightful, frequent and lengthy endeavour, punctuated by personal questions and the sharing of one another's lives without inhibition. To dine with Jordanians qualifies you as part of the family. 

I'm asked: “How can you always be without your husband?” “Trying for a baby yet – or no luck?” “Can you digest beans?” In between these casual inquiries, I hear someone saying – ‘Alf Sahtain!’ (A thousand double helpings of health!), and handing over a plate heavy with knafeh – gloriously stretchy cheese, encased in shredded pastry, dripping with rose and orange blossom syrup.

As I let the warm, oozing, crunchy-soft, savoury sweet fill my mouth, this wonderful phrase alleviates any guilt of such an indulgence, because it is, after all, for my two healths. 

Somika Basu is a creative consultant for cultural and social development institutions. These days, she's losing (and finding) herself in Jordan, mispronouncing words in every new language that she attempts, while feverishly eating her way through the Levant. Stalk her on Instagram here.