“He is from Karak. Ask him about Mansaf.”
“Have you had Mansaf? You know the best one is in Karak.”
“Have you heard of Karak? It is like the capital of Mansaf.”
Never have I been asked the same food-related question three times on a first day in any country. Since I arrived here almost a month ago, I have been asked “Have you had mansaf?” more frequently than I have been asked “How do you like Jordan?” That in itself is a clear sign of just how important this dish is to Jordanian society and conversation. My health, wellbeing, impressions, etc. always rank below mansaf on the list of “first questions.” It seems that for most, nothing else matters until I eat mansaf, until I have known what it is like to have my hands dripping with fermented goat yogurt.
Of the many food pilgrimages that one can undertake as a traveler, the mansaf pilgrimage is one of the most serious. A centuries-old dish served only in Jordan (and some parts of the West Bank), mansaf is far more than the national meal; it is a source of pride, the emblem and pinnacle of Jordanian hospitality. For families from the city of al-Karak in particular, mansaf runs in their blood….literally. The stuff hugs the walls of your arteries.
Just as I swore to complete the durian pilgrimage in Southeast Asia, I, purely by virtue of being in Jordan, signed up for the mansaf pilgrimage. As any of you who have traveled through the Middle East know, everything has a story here in Arabia. Everything has a reason, a history, and a purpose. Mansaf is no exception.
Karak is the historical capital of the Biblical Kingdom of Moab, a hilly empire sliced in two by the precipitous Mujib Valley. The area is verdant in spring, hot in summer, and wet in winter; sheep and goats thrive in Karak. As the inhabitants of this area centuries ago retained a semi-nomadic lifestyle, and as Karak frequently played host to sojourners who sought a pit stop on their long treks through the desert, residents needed a way to keep yogurt from spoiling.
Necessity breeds invention. Invention has bred jameed—the unique and almost indescribable ingredient that has enabled mansaf to thrive and has long allowed Karakis to preserve their abundant yogurt. To make jameed, you must let ordinary yogurt sit and ferment. When ready, the yogurt is slathered between two cheese cloths and pressed pressed pressed between two flat stones. Liquid gone, the yogurt is formed into what looks exactly like a brick of cocaine, and it then sits in the sun for a few days just to get extra hard, extra fermented, and extra pungent.
In its brick form, jameed can be transported long distances without spoiling. You could even build houses with the stuff. When needed, the bricks are cracked into smaller pieces, the little pebbles then ready for boiling with fresh water. Many Jordanians eat these pebbles straight up, tossing in a handful of the super salty bits—that smell like something dead—in their mouths before each big sip from the teacup. I can confirm that the tea does not wash away the taste.
Once the bits are boiled and dissolved, the now-liquid jameed is ready to be ladled onto the tray of mansaf, which requires a freshly-slaughtered lamb, rice, shrak bread, and a hefty handful of pine nuts. Just as ice cream sundaes are not complete without a cherry on top, the mansaf tray (the word mansaf actually means ‘large tray’) is not complete without the boiled lamb’s head—eyes cooked and glossy, tongue gray and flopped firmly out the side of the mouth.
The taste is salty. It is cheesy. It is fermented. It is heavy. I actually enjoy the taste, though the most challenging part, without doubt, is the delivery from plate to mouth. As I was invited into a Karaki home, I felt obliged to complete the mansaf pilgrimage in proper form—left hand behind the back, right hand lubed up with jameed, ready to scoop up bits of rice and meat and form somewhat intact balls for easy transport into my mouth. The rest of the family made it look easy, juggling the rice into perfect spheres, not spilling a grain on the table.
In this, I failed. Thirty minutes into the mansaf and my arms—both of them—were covered in rice and yogurt. I likely had bits of lamb in my beard, and the tablecloth in my general area was, well, all but ready to be burned. My brother fared no better, as when I first looked over to him he was trying to lick stray rice from his elbow.
We were told of the importance of the head of household removing and eating the lamb brain and tongue. As I finally put my hand down onto the plate (it was about three pounds heavier now, covered in all sorts of mansaf bits), I breathed a deep sigh, preparing myself for the skull-cracking. To my….relief….we were all too tired to eat the brain. And so ended my mansaf pilgrimage, with a serious scrubbing under the faucet and a slight worry that my poor hand-to-mouth form is beyond repair.