Friday, May 17, 2013

Lamb in Yogurt Sauce, or Mansaf for Beginners

Palestinian mansaf is not humble food, served just to your family, like mujjadara and fasoulia and shorabat addas.  This is celebratory food, kill-the-fatted-lamb food, the centerpiece of a feast, and often served at weddings, graduations, or prepared for an honored guest.

And this meal is as ancient as the land.  It tells a story of the land and how people used to eat long ago, how they preserved and cared for their foods.

Mansaf is boiled lamb, served in a rich sauce made of yogurt.  Today, it is served over a bed of rice, but since rice is a relative newcomer to the Middle East, it was probably originally served with bread.  It is often eaten by hand, served from a communal dish.  What makes this dish distinctive is the sauce in which the lamb is simmered, a sauce made from a traditionally prepared hardened yogurt. 

In ancient Palestine, "the land flowing with milk and honey," milk often came from sheep and goats.  Milk was a valuable nourishment and was converted into yogurt, kefir, cheeses and clarified butter, also called gheeJameed, which means "hardened," was another way to preserve dairy.  First milk is fermented into yogurt, then strained into labani, and then fermented and preserved a second time, by salting daily and continuing to strain with a cheesecloth to remove additional whey.  Once it becomes firm enough, it is formed into balls and then set out to dry in the sun, until it is hard and dried to the center.  In this way, gallons and gallons of raw milk are converted to a small pile of hardened balls of yogurt, or "rock cheese," which can then be rehydrated for a meal of mansaf anytime. 

Today, this cheese is still made by Bedouins and villagers, and we would buy the hard lumps of yogurt from village women selling them on mats all throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem. 

True mansaf has a strong flavor, and I think it is an acquired taste - the jameed is salty and pronounced.  Someday, if I am brave enough, I will try to make jameed and post about it on here.  In the meantime, here is an easier introduction to the meal - lamb (or chicken) cooked in a yogurt sauce.  This dish is simple to prepare and and lovely introduction to traditional mansaf.  These fork-tender pieces of lamb, fragrant with cardamom, allspice and cinnamon, cooked in a creamy but slightly tart yogurt, is really delicious with the crunch of nuts and the softly cooked rice.  It reminds me a little of an exotic Indian curry. 

A note about the recipe - this yogurt sauce is made just like a bechamel, or white sauce.  You simple make a roux of butter and flour, and then add in yogurt, and bring it to a boil.  If you have ever made homemade macaroni and cheese, then you can make this.  If you blend your yogurt first, and bring it up to a boil for a two minutes, your sauce should not curdle, but if it does, don't worry too much.  It will still taste delicious.  Some Palestinian cooks swear by stirring the sauce in the same direction to prevent curdling - maybe that works?  I tried to do that this time, and it did not curdle. 

Lamb in Yogurt Sauce, or Mansaf

1 1/2 lb grass fed lamb, in large cubes, or pieces of chicken
Salt and pepper
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
4 cups whole plain yogurt
1-2 cloves garlic, pasted (optional)

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

1.  Preheat oven to 350F.  Season lamb with cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, salt and pepper.  In a heavy oven-safe pot, with the flame on high, brown lamb in olive oil or ghee until caramelized on all sides.

2. Pour a cup of lamb broth or water over the lamb, and transfer the pot to the oven. Add bay leaves.  Roast for an hour, or until tender.  Alternatively, the traditional method is to gently braise your meat on your stove top until tender

3.  Meanwhile, prepare the yogurt sauce.  Break down your yogurt by running it in a blender or a food processor for two or three minutes.   

4.  In a sauce pot, over medium-high flame, melt three tablespoons of butter, and stir in three tablespoons of flour, and cook for a couple of minutes.  Slowly add your beaten yogurt, adding in a little and stirring, and letting the mixture come to a boil, and then adding a little more yogurt.  Continue to do this until you have added all of the yogurt. Take care to stir constantly, as yogurt can scorch easily.  Bring it to a boil and, still stirring, let your sauce boil for a minute or two.  Turn the heat down to low, and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes, adding pasted garlic cloves, if you desire. 

4.  When your lamb is tender, pull from heat.  If you like, add a cup or so of the liquid from your lamb into your sauce.  

5.  To serve family style, arrange your rice (I like a turmeric vermicelli rice) on a platter, top with pieces of lamb, and pour the yogurt sauce on top.  Top with toasted almonds and/or pine nuts, and a sprinkle of parsley.  

May this double your health.

Related posts:
Soaked Vermicelli Rice
How To Make Yogurt

Shared at Fat Tuesday, Traditional Tuesday, Real Food Wednesday, Party Wave Wednesday, Fight Back Friday, Fresh Bites Friday, Tasty Traditions, Simple Lives Thursday, Thank Your Body Thursday.


  1. Hi, Would it work to substitute coconut milk for the yogurt in this recipe? Thank you! --Michele

    1. I have never tried it, and I am not confident that it would work, I'm afraid. Maybe you could try with coconut yogurt, and I would probably cook that with chicken instead of lamb. Do you need this to be dairy-free?

  2. My husband is not lactose intolerant, but he is allergic to a protein in regular yogurt and milk, so I do need it to be dairy free. I often use coconut milk as a substitute, but I could try coconut yogurt. Thank you for your time and suggestion. Your blog is one of my favorites. --Michele

    1. You can try with Almond Yogurt or Soy Yogurt the coconut milk that I love not will give you the best substitute or you can add lemon to the coconut milk maybe it will give you the taste.
      enjoy it!

  3. Come ooooonnnnnn...Mansaf is the national Jordanian dish...Karaki and as-salt furthermore. Please give us some credit in your article...we have no other dishes we call our own.

    1. no need to cry about it, also we don't know the origins of mansaf, was it first Palestinians who ate it or was it Jordanians? Mlokhet is more common in Jordan than it is in Palestine but it grows in Palestine.

  4. Mensef is traditional Jordanian Bedouin dish.

  5. It is a Jordanian dish, but this specific recipe of Mansaf is Palestinian. Jordanians don't use garlic in their Mansaf, and they don't use regular yogurt, they use Jameed. :)

    1. Well if it's that specific it isn't Mansaf then is it...

  6. hmmm...pretty sure it was all considered Arabian Peninsula at one point before it was divided by the west...bedouins didn't stay in one spot...they moved noone can claim ownership of a dish--but different countries will have different versions...what came first the chicken or the egg?

    1. Palestine,Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are what constitutes the Levant and not the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian Peninsula is what is now Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. The Mansaf is specific to the East Bank in what is known as Jordan and most Arabs (and Bedouins) find the Mansaf to be heavy and often express their surprise as to why the Jordanians love it so much. For example many dishes dubbed 'Lebanese' are actually generally Arabic and Levantine dishes with heavy turkish influence, and so each country will have their own version and claim them as their own. The Mansaf however, is 100% Jordanian.

  7. What kind of rice do you prepare with the dish?

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Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!