My daughter, Grace, will turn 13 this year. She doesn’t remember the taste of her jiddo’s mansaf. His cooking and storytelling were central to his identity, and I want her to know who he was. I begin to wonder if there wasn’t some restaurant version that she and my husband, Scott, could share with me that might conjure the dish of my childhood. I hesitate, afraid it will be a disappointment, afraid that there is something too personal about mansaf, something that requires it be made at home or not at all.
A trip around the world through the lens of a vital grain.
– Tracing Mexico’s history through its ambivalent relationship to rice, a staple inextricable from colonialism.
– When scorched on the bottom of the pot by a skilled cook, rice transforms from bland supporting actor to rich, complex protagonist.
– Mansaf, a Bedouin dish of lamb and rice, is both a national symbol in Jordan and a talisman of home for suburban Detroit’s Arab American diaspora.
– Senegal, which consumes more rice per capita, most of it imported, than almost any other African nation, is attempting to resuscitate homegrown varieties.
THEY BOASTED AND joked about it — that mansaf was the “national dish of Jordan,” that it was “true Bedouin” and that our family, the Abu-Jabers, were “real Jordanians.” Dad said his own father wasn’t big on child-rearing, but he was infamous throughout the region for his generosity, taking in all sorts of visitors, throwing parties and feeding everyone.
In the Middle East, the idea of hospitality is both sacrament and bludgeon. Unsuspecting guests will find their plates heaped and refilled, whether they ask for thirds or not. Among nomadic peoples especially, such munificence is a matter of survival — anyone who’s crossed the desert on foot knows the importance of water, shelter and food. For centuries, the ultimate Bedouin gesture toward a guest was to kill a precious lamb or goat, then crown the subsequent feast dish with its cooked head. “The worst thing for which [a Bedouin] can be ridiculed is greed,” writes the American University of Beirut professor Jibrail S. Jabbur in “The Bedouins and the Desert,” translated from the Arabic by Lawrence I. Conrad in 1995. “When you are a Bedouin’s guest, it is his custom to take it upon himself actually to wait upon you, and when you partake of his food to make sure that you get the finest meat from the carcass of the animal he has slaughtered for you.”
Mansaf isn’t strictly the province of Jordanians; it’s popular in parts of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Sustaining and plentiful, it’s a direct expression of Bedouin provenance: The meat from their livestock, the wheat from their fields. The rice imparts its own subtle signature — “light and fluffy, tinged with a gold hue from the butter, ghee or oil, each grain glistening separately from the other” is how Tess Mallos describes it in “The Complete Middle East Cookbook” (1979) — even though, according to Joseph A. Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, it’s a latecomer to the dish. Pre-20th-century versions more likely consisted of camel or goat cooked in its own fatty broth; instead of rice, the meat was served atop locally grown bulgur or freekeh. Environmental changes caused Indigenous peoples to add different meats and grains to their diets, but some of the alterations were more politically deliberate, especially after the Council of the League of Nations in 1922 recognized the semiautonomous territory of Transjordan, previously part of the Ottoman Empire, as under the British Mandate, which ushered in unprecedented social and cultural change. As Massad writes in his book “Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan” (2001), “Although drought and raiding had reduced the size of the Bedouin flocks, the colonial state’s sedentarization campaigns transforming the Bedouins from nomadic camel herders into agriculturalists were the major factor.” If you want to construct a nation, in other words, you need its inhabitants to stay put.