The traditional Bedouin dish of bread, rice, lamb and yogurt is a talisman of identity in Jordan — and in various communities in suburban Detroit.
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By Diana Abu-Jaber
Photographs by Renee Cox
WE WERE ARAB at home, mostly, and American in public. On weekends, Arabic music and the scents of cumin and sumac spilled through the windows in our otherwise sedate neighborhood in Syracuse, N.Y. Dad’s dinner parties were outsize, like his cooking, everything studded with garlic and bedded in great piles of rice: mujadara, maqluba, stuffed grape leaves and the most important Jordanian dish, mansaf, named for the big platter upon which it’s served. Ours covered the center of the dining room table. My youngest sister could have gone sledding with it. The bigger the mansaf, the more generous the host.
My Jordanian auntie was of the firm opinion that there was to be bread at the base, a paper-fine version, sometimes called shrak. But when I was a kid in the 1960s and ’70s, my parents lined their serving trays with slices of Wonder Bread, which was then heaped with the dish’s most memorable component: rice. (Uncle Ben’s, not basmati, but still lofty and tender, the ideal backdrop.) Next came the boiled lamb in an oniony yogurt sauce — sometimes made of dried yogurt balls called jameed, which were heated very gently and then stirred slowly for hours; as my auntie used to say, the sauce would curdle if you had even the wrong thoughts in your head. And then, to finish, toasted pine nuts or almonds. The sauce binds the meat, rice and bread, lending a tangy, creamy, nearly buttery flavor to a gleaming, seductive dish, made for daylong gatherings of eating and visiting.
I haven’t made mansaf, not once, in nine years. Not since Dad passed away. Lush and heavy and rich and fatty, the dish is perfect for leading a string of camels from Saudi Arabia to Syria in the 17th century, but not for contemporary life parked at a computer. It’s too much work, too much hosting. Who has hours to sweat over a stove, stirring oneself into hypnosis? Back then, my parents and their friends seemed to have actual free time. Now, we book in advance, throwing dinner parties that are simple and fast, or even sometimes outsourced, so we can all get back to work.
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.
T’s Winter Travel Issue
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.
There were other alterations, as well. Once prohibitively expensive, rice became more affordable when the Transjordan region opened to colonial trade a century ago. At first, mansaf might have had just a filigree of white rice over a bed of bulgur, a veil of brightness that imparted a worldly sense of refinement. But by the 1960s, the increasing demand for imported rice helped connect Jordan to a larger global economy. Instead of supplanting the bread, however, rice was added to the mix. Mansaf remains a bit of a “stone soup” — a meal of practicality and exigency, into which cooks might add different bases, extra meats or whatever other extenders are available to make it lasting and satisfying. It requires few dishes — a stockpot or two for the rice and meat — and is designed above all to be flexible and filling. This made it ideal during the creation of a Jordanian Bedouin identity, for the new nation-state that gained credence in the 20th century through its association with nomadic tribes and evolved into the independent Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in 1946.
Countries rely on cultural markers to create national identity. In addition to language and religion, songs, dances and clothes, meals, from their ingredients to their preparation, are foundational to establishing a sense of self; traditions cultivate nationalism, not the other way around. There’s a sleight of hand at play, of course, since there is no one mansaf: Its interpretations vary from Syria to Lebanon, from Zarqa to Salt, from tribe to tribe. My father increasingly opted for chicken over lamb, and sometimes swapped in tomato sauce for yogurt. Bedouin allegiances are both tribal and familial — there may be an official version of mansaf on record somewhere, but that doesn’t mean anyone is adhering to it.
LATE AFTERNOON IN a back lot parking area in Michigan, the sun slices across the rooftops, and it’s still steaming hot at 5 p.m. You can make out the murmur of cars out front. I’ve come in search of a memory, but I know this town is about Ford.
With the start of the new Model A production at his Rouge factory complex in 1927, Henry Ford effectively moved the center of auto production from Detroit to the suburb of Dearborn. Even before that time, Ford’s famous $5 daily wage attracted scores of Syrian, Lebanese and Yemeni immigrants, who enlisted more friends and relatives. With upward of 300,000 Arab Americans — ranging from new immigrants to families who’ve lived in the United States for several generations — Dearborn and the surrounding Detroit metropolitan area now constitute one of the largest enclaves in the country.
Ford is still everywhere in this town, including a section of West Dearborn that Matt Stiffler, a 42-year-old researcher at the Arab American National Museum in town, describes as “almost bougie.” Here, the shops, with their exposed red brick, can call to mind certain parts of Brooklyn. A stream of American-made cars roll down the street as women in full-length hijab stroll arm in arm or tote a parade of children.
We perch at a tall table at Qahwah House, a chic Yemeni cafe crowded with millennials. “Lots of 30-somethings are opening shop here, and their idea of food is very different from their parents’,” Stiffler explains to my family as he drinks an amber-colored drink called qishr, brewed from coffee husks, spiced with ginger and cinnamon. “This is a place in transition,” he adds. I sip Adeni chai, which purports to be tea but tastes of sweet smoke and nutmeg. Stiffler points out the Arab-owned boutiques and cafes around us offering French croissants and Hawaiian poke; holding my tea by the edges of its diminutive, classically tulip-shaped glass, I think about whether this layering of identities is about self-expression or self-denial. Dearborn’s culinary diversity might represent a kind of double consciousness, in which the colonized speaks through the language — or food — of the colonizer. Perhaps fusion is a kind of disguise. On the other hand, is tradition a form of authenticity — or imprisonment?
Mansaf is both a dish and an idea. Years ago, I read an interview with a Palestinian poet, his name now forgotten, who said that he believed that Palestinians were “held prisoner” by the idea of Palestine. Its political identity, its need to hold on to the past, to fight for its selfhood and future: These things were both motivating and restrictive. But traditions are also inspiring, a springboard to imaginative interpretation. Dad left Amman in 1959, following three of his brothers who were then students at Syracuse University. My father and my uncles started their families in the States but eventually, one by one, his brothers returned to Jordan. Only Dad remained, rolling grape leaves and roasting lamb and dreaming of his lost language. Cooking became our family’s method of speaking with one another, both a way of remembering where we started and a way of asking whom we might still be in this new country. Mansaf may not have begun with rice, and the version we eat today may bear little resemblance to its origins, but food is a living repository: Like families, like language, its memory is fluid.
As an adult, I never saw mansaf on a menu. In the Islamophobic milieu of the 1970s, to describe your cuisine as Lebanese, with its suggestion of Arab identity, was risky — synonymous to some with menacing oil sheikhs and terrorists — even as it was tempered by cosmopolitan French overtones. “Middle Eastern” was more precarious because it was more direct. “Mediterranean,” then, became the go-to adjective, for it seemed to invoke a charming mélange of Spain and Casablanca. But never did we see a restaurant proclaim itself Jordanian or Palestinian, the latter a term that was viewed by many as innately hostile in the age of Yasir Arafat. Throughout childhood, I received the message that it was dangerous to look or sound or act differently from “the Americans.” Arabness was to be confined to small, private spaces — the kitchen, the living room, the backyard. When once my father tried grilling in the front yard, some people in our mostly white neighborhood complained. From the Persian Gulf War under George H.W. Bush to the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration, it’s little wonder that Middle Eastern restaurants are still sometimes targeted and vandalized. In this context, the riskiness of sampling new ingredients and preparations seems intensified by an American anxiety around all things Arab.
This only adds to the perception of secrecy and mystery around mansaf, this very Jordanian food. Over the years, when I’d ask this or that Arab chef about it, their eyes would light up. “You know mansaf?” they’d ask. “That’s real Jordanian! Real Bedouin!” It felt like a private handshake. But then, inevitably, would come the admission, “Ah, no, there’s no mansaf here.” A big communal dish, mansaf doesn’t scale to the individual plate, so it never caught on as a restaurant offering.
Instead, there are many places claiming to make mansaf, or something similar. Sheeba, a popular restaurant with three locations in Dearborn, has a long menu, but when I ask if they offer anything like mansaf, the server nods and points to an item called lamb haneeth. “The ultimate Yemeni lamb roast,” the menu proclaims. “Lamb and rice,” she says. “Same as mansaf!”
It’s likewise served on a grand ceremonial platter — lamb atop a bed of vivid, sunset-colored rice. Eaten throughout Yemen and the Persian Gulf, lamb haneeth is typically prepared with a spice mix called hawaij and slow roasted, then served on spiced basmati rice. It’s delicious, lighter than mansaf, with flavors of cumin and pepper that are complex and distinctive. Similar, but not the same.
The refrain I hear all over Dearborn is that mansaf is a “home food” — it’s tough to find, as Stiffler says, “mansaf in the wild.” I call one restaurant after another in search of a covert, unadvertised offering, hoping for the rush of a secret discovery. When I call a restaurant called Habib’s Cuisine, I’m denied once more. But then someone calls back a minute later: “Do you mean the dish with lamb and yogurt and rice?”
“That’s it!” I say. “Do you have it?”
“We have something like it. Very close. Practically.”
The general manager of Habib’s Cuisine, Mohamed Bazzi, 26, takes a couple of minutes to chat with us when we come in later that day. The pandemic lockdown has reduced his kitchen staff from 12 workers to six. His father, Habib Bazzi, started the restaurant in 2009, and it’s now part of Dearborn’s food firmament. When I ask about mansaf, the younger Bazzi smiles. “It’s a big dish,” he says, “better for events, dinner parties. It takes a lot of prep, and it’s hard to store and keep fresh.” (I’ve started to notice, in fact, that mansaf seems to exist more in the realm of caterers, places that are set up for special orders and grand parties.)
The dish Habib’s Cuisine offers in its place is ouzi — a richly flavored rice tossed with ground beef, topped with chunks of lamb and sprinkled with almonds and cashews. Ouzi (or quzi or ghoozi or quozi or, as Habib’s spells it, oozé) appears in various permutations across the Middle East, and though some sources claim it as a national dish of Iraq, others say it is Lebanese and still others assert its name comes from the Turkish word kuzu, for lamb. If nothing else, it’s a reflection of the many influences on Middle Eastern cuisine itself, carried via nomadic people from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, across the Ottoman Empire, to the Indian Mughal dynasty. Like mansaf, ouzi is a textural medley, the salty, roasted crunch of nuts contrasting against fork-tender lamb. It’s beautifully assembled but, still, it’s not mansaf.
Sally Howell, the 58-year-old director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, joins us to share our spread at Habib’s. Howell and her anthropologist husband lived in Jordan for a few years with a Bedouin family; there, they regularly encountered the dish I’d been searching for, and in 2003 she wrote an article about its political and economic placement: “Mansaf, as far as official government pronouncements were concerned, did not become the ‘national feast dish of Jordan’ until well after the 1967 Six Day War, during which Jordan lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel.” According to her, mansaf was gradually positioned by the media and the Jordanian Tourism Board to promote the idea of a unified Jordanian identity. Travel guides, expat food blogs and government fact sheets are now filled with references to the dish’s nationalistic virtues, claiming it “unites everybody” and that it’s the preferred offering for healing feuds and rifts.
Mansaf is “home cooking,” Bazzi adds when he stops by our table, invoking, as others have, that all-important notion of home. The idea of it — a spiritual home that you can conjure in the kitchen, importing traditions to another country, another continent — seems particularly evocative for a nomadic culture. After years of travel, introducing myself to others as a “genetic Bedouin,” I’m bedeviled by the question of home. For someone in a state of perpetual motion, home takes on a more metaphysical quality, of which food is one touchstone. There’s a depth and intimacy to home cooking that has to do with ingredients and time, as well as the actual space that we call home. Then, too, there’s the permeability of the home kitchen — in which chef and diner are often the same person, and guests may come and go, and even help with the stirring and the tasting. Whether home is a tent in the Sahara under the stars or a house in the suburbs, the easy flow from kitchen to living space keeps food at the center of our shared lives.
Mansaf offers this depth, this substance, perhaps because it took Dad all morning to cook and the rest of us all afternoon to eat. From stirring the yogurt to the tipping out of the steaming pot to its consumption with one’s hands — it’s an event that creates physical intimacy between food and fellow diner. Today, it’s still bound by rituals for its consumption: The diners often stand in a ring around the table. The choicest pieces of meat are nudged through the rice before the guest; one always eats with the right hand, shaping the rice and meat into an impromptu dumpling to be popped whole into one’s mouth. Even the conclusion can be ritualized. My father closed each meal with the phrase “Alhamdulillah,” a sort of reverse grace, thanking God after the fact.
DEARBORN ISN’T MY hometown, but it still makes me feel nostalgic. With its mix of Rust Belt sprawl and Arab American industry, this town isn’t utopian, but it is progressive — the sort of place where a hyphenated American might feel lucky to grow up. This month, the city elected its first Muslim Arab American mayor, Abdullah Hammoud. It’s a long way from 1985, when the then-mayoral candidate Michael Guido put out a pamphlet titled “Let’s Talk About City Parks and ‘the Arab Problem’” and was elected.
When we first pull up to Al Chabab, I’m not certain it’s open for business: The windows look dark against the full glare of the sun. This little spot has come highly recommended by locals. “It’s real home style,” Howell tells me. It’s also the first Dearborn establishment where I’ve found mansaf on the menu. Its Syrian-born chef-owner, Chamo Barakat, opened the restaurant in 2012, but he’s been cooking for 38 years, including at multistarred hotels in Amman and Aleppo. Al Chabab is more modest, but the menu is complex and exciting. Among the standards, the shish kebabs and shawarmas, there are unexpected offerings — eggplant kebab, quail, pigeon, something called cherry kebab — as well as a commitment to cooking nose to tail, including tripe, brain and cow-feet fatteh. “I have a different idea of food,” Barakat says. “Nobody else makes sheep’s head in Dearborn.” Each night, he invites his diners to try ingredients and dishes they may have never had before. This includes mansaf, which he knows will challenge customers with its sour, salty, fatty profile.
Our table is swiftly covered with an immense salad, hummus and a bowl of shakriya (a lamb-rich yogurt stew), all to accompany the platter of meat and rice. This mansaf has real echoes of my past, with the browned nuts and mounds of rice, but it’s also its own interpretation. There’s no bread — neither shrak nor Wonder — under the rice, and there’s just the lightest film of yogurt on the lamb.
Delightful, but it’s not the dish I remember. Instead, it seems tuned toward a more Western palate, in that it tones down the heaviness, emphasizing the tender lamb and nutty rice. Without much yogurt or any bread, it’s impossible to shape it into hand dumplings; this rendition is made for the fork. As we eat, my husband asks, Which style do I prefer?
Good question. Do you prefer artisanal pastry over the cinnamon toast you grew up with? Such things occupy separate spaces in the imagination, only distantly linked by a few ingredients.
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Khaled Mattawa, a 57-year-old Libyan American poet and professor at the University of Michigan, joins our table. He says he has always wondered how rice became a staple for feasts among the Bedouins in Libya and elsewhere. “Your Bedouin ancestors, where did their rice come from?” he asks me. “The Gulf Bedouins got it from faraway India, and in eastern Libya the Bedouins got theirs from Egypt.” He theorizes that the Bedouin adoption of rice — a costly foreign grain — as a central ingredient in their cuisine may stem from their famed willingness to go to any length to demonstrate generosity.
After the meal, we laugh about needing the requisite “mansaf nap.” It’s another tradition I’d forgotten, the dish’s almost magically soporific quality, its weight requiring unconsciousness to digest. I recall long lunches at my uncle’s house, how afterward the adults would stretch out on his couches and Persian carpets.
As we leave Al Chabab, my daughter asks, “Is that it? Was that like Jiddo’s mansaf?”
“Not exactly,” I admit.
“So it wasn’t good, then.” She’s disappointed.
“Oh, no.” I want Grace to know that even when things are different, they can still be beautiful. “No — it was very good.”
The next morning, I return to Al Chabab to take a picture of chef Barakat. The lunch rush is about to start but, before I go, I ask if non-Arabs ever order dishes like lamb’s head or mansaf.
“The Americans?” he responds. “All the time! Some of my best customers.”
I realize I’m relieved we never found my father’s mansaf. Some things are meant to be irreplaceable. And coming across a new version of a favorite dish is a bit like discovering a new hometown, some forgotten aspect of childhood. Food, more than borders, helps us to know who we are and where we came from. Whether descended directly from the Silk Road or reimagined by a national tourism board, certain dishes express memory and emotion, the traditions of the self.
“If I cook from here,” Barakat says, touching his chest, “kul shi tayyeb.”
Everything is good.
Set styling: Jill Nicholls. Production: Pony Projects
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