You never know where you'll find a Bedouin these days. In Jordan, some of these desert people still follow the traditional nomadic ways. But many have made the transition to village living, and others have long been fully integrated into life in modern Amman.
The Bedouin heart, however, doesn't stray so far from its origins. To find it, simply look wherever a dish called mansaf is served, whether it's in a long woolen tent with a camel tethered outside or in a restaurant in the capital city.
If you believe that food tells stories, that over time a people's cuisine takes on a sort of signature vibration of that people, then the vivid power of mansaf won't be lost on you.
This is not subtle food. Put simply, mansaf consists of a mountain of lamb or mutton on a mountain of buttery rice, all doused in a pungent white yogurt sauce daubed yellow with samneh (ghee or clarified butter).
Such a stingy description, of course, leaves out much more than it includes. For one thing, real mansaf mutton is never far from having given up the ghost; in the headiness of its flavor is a hint that under the right circumstances the animal might suddenly piece itself back together and sprint away. Call it gamey if you like, but this venerable concoction isn't about to wither and blow away under the threat of a single adjective.
The sauce, traditionally based on reconstituted jamid (a dried cake of salted goat's milk yogurt), tartly bridges the fierce lamb taste and the starchiness of the rice.
Not surprisingly, table manners at a mansaf dinner are as robust as the dish itself. George Dababneh, a Christian of Bedouin stock, gave some pointers on how at least one family eats it. Among his people, not only is mansaf eaten with the right hand--the common method in Arab countries--but the left hand is actually put behind one's back.
The host gets things started with the sheep's tongue, either eating it or offering it to a guest. Thereafter, the guests take rice and bread as they please, with the host doling out the meat.
Most important, Dababneh says, the food must be almost too hot to touch. Three fingers and the thumb scoop up a handful of rice and juggle it into a rough ball, which then gets a sprightly flick into the mouth with the thumb. Rice cool enough to be held is considered rather insipid.
The evening buffet on the terrace of Amman's Jordan Inter-Continental Hotel resembles that of any good hotel anywhere--guests mill about tables of silver platters and chafing dishes, waiters dash back and forth with trays of drinks. However, one bit of activity here doesn't quite fit the scene. Nestled against a stone railing is a middle-aged woman in a traditional black, embroidered Jordanian dress. She sits low to the ground, her legs planted wide apart in a posture of solidity and rootedness.
To her right is a metal tray dusted with flour; it holds a small ball of dough. In front of her, what looks like an inverted wok is perched on a foot-high metal can. This convex grill is a saj, the traditional utensil for making the coin-thin whole-wheat Bedouin bread called shirak. In earlier times, a saj was perched on three stones over a fire; this one is heated by gas flames.
She begins by working the ball of dough into a flat lump with a spreading motion of the fingers of her right hand. When the kneading has flattened the dough and it begins to form a sheet, she drapes it over one wrist and hand and briskly flips it from one hand to the other, stretching and thinning it further.
Once it is about a foot and a half wide, the sheet is flung with one deft motion onto the saj. A couple of thin spots stretch and break; the holes are quickly patched with a pinch from a reserve of wet dough. Each side cooks very rapidly, and the baker's cast-iron fingers never flinch when they flip the hot bread. The shirak is finally folded onto a saucer and a waiter spirits it away.
The shirak served at this buffet is meant to accompany several different foods, but in a more traditional setting it would be laid down as a lining for a large metal platter and become the bed for a mile-high mound of mansaf. Shirak and mansaf, then, go hand in hand.
Following is a somewhat genteel version of mansaf from Tess Mallos' "The Complete Middle East Cookbook" (Weldon Publishing: 1990). Serve it--hot--over rice that has been stirred in clarified butter over medium heat for two minutes before boiling. Shirak dough is nothing more than flour, water and salt, so in lieu of the real thing, try using flour tortillas or Indian chapatis, either store-bought or made in your own kitchen.
3 pounds lamb shoulder on bone, cut into 6 even-sized pieces, or thickly cut lamb shoulder chops
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup ghee (clarified butter)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice