An innovator sold Jordan’s national dish in a to-go cup. Controversy ensued
AMMAN (Jordan) — The idea struck the restaurateur like a bolt of lightning after he spilled food on his suit while eating in his car.
What if he were to take Jordan’s national dish — a milky mountain of mutton and rice called mansaf, which is traditionally eaten by hand from a large communal platter — and sell it in a paper cup to diners on the go?
The restaurateur, Mr Muhammad Taher, soon opened his first shop, Our Mansaf in a Cup, offering takeout servings at the bargain price of 1 dinar, about S$1.95. Business boomed, and three more branches followed.
“People were surprised at first,” recalled Mr Taher, 52. But tasting was believing, and he said some customers gushed: “‘Bless you for feeding us something that we’ve been craving for so long.’”
Not everyone hailed his culinary innovation, however, in this conservative Arab monarchy where traditions like mansaf are tightly bound to national identity.
Copycat restaurants popped up, cutting into Mr Taher’s profits, even as traditionalists accused him of debasing the national dish and eroding the cultural foundations of the nation itself.
“Destruction begins with small details,” warned Mr Abdul-Hadi al-Majali, a newspaper columnist who derided the very idea of mansaf in a cup.
“What is happening is not just a matter of food, but a way of mocking the people’s heritage,” Mr al-Majali added. “And when you mock the heritage of a people in this way, it is a prelude to trivialising what is most important and diluting or dissolving identity.”
The mansaf dust-up has roiled the kingdom for the past two years, pitting traditionalists against innovators, those who eat with their hands against those who eat in their cars, and raising the question of how much a culinary tradition can change before it forsakes its roots.
For Mr Muhammad al-Tarawneh, a mansaf chef in the central Jordanian town of Karak, considered the dish’s homeland, the answer was clear: Mansaf in a cup is just plain wrong.
“They took the dignity away from mansaf,” he said.
Mr Al-Tarawneh spoke recently in the busy kitchen where he and his 15 employees churn out massive batches of traditional mansaf for weddings, funerals and other special occasions. That day’s order was for about 1,000 wedding guests, so preparation had begun the day before with the slaughter of 73 sheep to yield 1 1/2 tons of mutton.
To make the mansaf, the meat was boiled on the bone in huge metal cauldrons. The cooks dissolved large white balls of a dehydrated sheep’s yogurt, known as jameed, in giant pots to make a salty, milky soup.
When the meat was partially cooked, the cooks drained the water it was boiled in and replaced it with the milky mixture. The meat boiled in the milk until it was tender, making the signature mansaf combination.
When it was all done, the cooks assembled the dishes.
Over a layer of flatbread on large, round metal platters, they heaped mounds of rice cooked with ghee, adorned them with milky meat and garnished it all with roasted nuts. The platters — about 200 in all — were covered with foil and loaded into a fleet of vans that transported the delicacy to the wedding.
More than 1,000 men turned up for lunch, set out in a square of large tents full of small tables on the edge of town. A smaller number of female guests ate separately, at the groom’s house.
When it was time to eat, workers distributed the platters, while one enthusiastic diner fired his pistol into the air — a tradition the Jordanian government has tried to stamp out with heavy fines.
Strict rules guide the eating of mansaf, said Mr Muhammad al-Tarawneh, a lawyer from Karak who is not closely related to the chef.
“Mansaf here has standing, its own rites and rituals,” he said.
He removed the foil and poured extra milk over the rice, which added flavour and made it easier to eat.
Mansaf is often eaten standing up, which connoisseurs say allows you to eat more. Using only their right hands, the diners pulled meat from the bones, squeezed it into balls with rice and milk and popped them into their mouths.
Because many people share the same platter, each diner eats from directly in front of him: Reaching across the serving plates is frowned upon.
Often, the sheep’s head is placed at the center of the platter. Its cheeks, eyes, brain and tongue are highly prized and intended for the table’s most important guest.
Few men at the wedding had any interest in mansaf in a cup.
“No way,” said Mr al-Tarawneh, the lawyer. “We respect mansaf.”
Mr Ahmad al-Jafari, a retired school principal, said he had eaten a light breakfast to leave more room for mansaf, a common practice. The mere idea of mansaf in a cup made him uneasy.
“It is more blessed when people come together to eat instead of eating alone,” said Mr al-Jafari, 70.
The mansaf-in-a-cup experiment took off in the capital, Amman, along a street crowded with cars blaring pop music and pedestrians navigating the shoes, clothes, jewelry and other merchandise displayed on the sidewalks.
It was here, in early 2020, that Mr Taher opened Our Mansaf in a Cup. Sales took off, with diners lining up to try the new twist.
Others noticed his success, imitators soon appeared in Amman and other cities and Taher eventually shut his business.
Two shops now compete for business where his once stood.
The orange sign over one of those competitors, Mansaf in a Cup, boasts a cartoon of a smiling Jordanian man displaying his meal. The neighbouring Uncle’s Mansaf in a Cup has a giant yellow sign with flashing lights in the colors of the Jordanian flag.
In yet another affront to tradition, both shops use beef instead of mutton. That is because beef is cheaper and cooked with no bones, making it easy to eat with a spoon. And instead of being boiled together, the meat and milk are cooked separately.
Two curious teenagers ordered from the first shop, and its chef, Mr Islam Adli, 23, filled two paper cups with rice, added three hunks of meat and some nuts, jabbed in plastic spoons and poured milk over the top from a plastic pitcher.
Mr Adli talked up the benefits: You could eat it on the go; vegetarians could order it without meat; and it was cheap — a good option for Jordanians on a budget or far from home.
In the other shop, chef Muhammad al-Bitoush, 29, dismissed the haters. But he also acknowledged that he was from Karak and had not told his family what he sells, to avoid controversy.
“The idea that mansaf from the platter has ended up in a cup, that would bother them,” he said.
A steady stream of diners trickled in.
Ms Waed Faouri, 25, and her mother ordered two cups of mansaf that she described as “proper and delicious”.
“Yes, we cook mansaf at home, but sometimes when you are hanging out outside your home, you crave mansaf,” she said.
Later that evening, Mr Nayef al-Jaar, the manager of Uncle’s Mansaf in a Cup, said he worried that the novelty of mansaf to go was wearing off and demand was waning.
“At the start, people would line up for it,” he said. “Now, I have to beg people to come eat mansaf.”
So he was pushing a new idea that he hoped would bring the crowds back: French fries in a cup with ketchup, mayonnaise and nacho cheese.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.