My Grandmother Taught My Mother Who Taught Me

Nellie Safadi teaches an American ex-pat how to make a Jordanian culinary staple

By / October 2016

The pungent yet not altogether unpleasant aroma of cooked mutton hovers over a simmering stainless steel stock pot as Nellie Safadi tastes, seasons, stirs, and tastes again. I watch and take notes, hoping to learn how to make mansaf, the national dish of Jordan.

Mansaf is a simple entrée of mutton served with a fermented yogurt sauce over a bed of rice or bulgur. It is usually the main course during family gatherings here and on special occasions such as funerals, weddings, banquets, holidays. It is often served to honored guests as a symbol of respect and appreciation.

Most Jordanians believe that mansaf came from the Bedouins, a semi-nomadic tribe that has roamed the harsh desert regions of the Middle East for centuries. The majority of Jordan’s indigenous population descends from the Bedouins and many Arab customs trace their origin to Bedouin culture. Nellie believes the Bedouins made mansaf because they were shepherds with abundant supplies of meat and dairy.

The key ingredient in mansaf is jameed, a product made from goat’s milk that gives mansaf its distinctive salty-sour taste. After the milk is converted to yogurt it is shaken to separate the solids from the liquid. The liquid is poured into a container of cheese cloth where it drains until the residue inside the cheese cloth is firm enough to shape into grapefruit-sized balls. The balls are placed in the sun to dry until they are rock hard. Dehydrated jameed can be stored without refrigeration for up to a year.

Nellie says the best jameed comes from Karak, a city to the southwest of Amman, and from the West Bank. Her husband, Abu George, brings back jameed every time he visits his Palestinian family. Abu George says the jameed is better in the West Bank because of the breed of goats and the quality of the fodder they consume when they are grazing.

The night before Nellie cooks mansaf she places a ball of jameed in water so it can fully dissolve before cooking. The next day she boils mutton with rosemary, onion, and bay leaves then removes the meat and strains the broth. She mixes the liquefied jameed with broth and seasons with salt, pepper, and saffron, which gives the sauce a creamy yellow color.

She relies on smell and taste to perfect the flavor. She puts the mutton back into the pot with the simmering mansaf sauce while she prepares the rest of the meal.

Nellie’s dark hair and effervescent personality conceal the fact that she is a seventy-year-old mother of four and grandmother of six. She learned to make mansaf when she was a young girl and has been cooking it for most her life. “My great-grandmother taught my grandmother who taught my mother who taught me. This is my favorite dish to prepare and serve to my family.”

Nellie is a retired teacher with forty years of experience teaching the Arabic language to expats. Ever the teacher, she relishes the chance to explain her rich language to foreigners. She explains that the root for the Arabic word mansaf means “blow up” or “explosion.” “When mansaf is placed on the table people eat it so fast that it looks like it exploded in every direction,” she says.

When the meal is ready Nellie spreads a two-inch-deep layer of rice around a shallow silver platter. She places fist-sized chunks of mutton on top of the rice and pours just enough sauce over the rice to make it moist and sticky.

She places the heavy charger in the center of her table and surrounds it with bowls of mansaf sauce, a garden salad, olives, baked chicken, roasted almonds, and chips made from fried pita bread.

The traditional way to eat mansaf is bare-handed. Diners sit with left hand behind their backs and use their right hand to take food from a platter in the center of the table. The rice and meat are moist enough to form a ball that they pop into their mouths. “Eating with your hands is the best way because you don’t have to wash plates and utensils when you are finished, “says Abu George. “All you do is wipe your face and hands and you’re done.”

On weekends Nellie cooks mansaf for her family in Amman. Every time she visits her daughter in California she takes jameed with her to make mansaf for them. “My son in law in America says we are lucky to live in Jordan because we get mansaf,” she says. “He said he could eat mansaf three times a day every day and never get tired of it.”

Occasionally the white ball of jameed attracts the scrutiny of security agents when Nellie goes through US airports. “One time an agent took out my jameed and said, ‘what is this?’ I told him it was jameed. Another agent looked at and said, ‘It’s ok. It’s for making a famous dish from Jordan.’ I thought it was funny that he had heard of mansaf.”


Danny Wright is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler. He lives and writes in Amman.