Mansaf (Palestinian Spiced Lamb With Rice and Yogurt Sauce)

Mansaf (Palestinian Spiced Lamb With Rice and Yogurt Sauce)

Manasf on green marbled top
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Mansaf is the quintessential dish of Bedouins, the nomadic Arab people that live across the Middle East and North Africa. While many have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle in favor of a more modern one, some parts of their traditions remain intact, and elements of their cuisine have entered the mainstream culture of the areas they inhabit. Mansaf and jameed, the dried yogurt that gives the dish its signature flavor, are primary examples. Today, this dish is considered one of the national dishes of both Jordan and Palestine, two places where many Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula emigrated to.

Mansaf was originally lamb cooked in a yogurt-based broth and then served over bread. Versions of it can be found in the oldest Arabic cookbooks on record from the 10th century. Originally, the kind of yogurt varied by season: If mansaf was cooked in the spring, they would use fresh yogurt, but in other seasons yogurt that had been dried to preserve it would be used. Today, though, mansaf’s distinct taste comes exclusively from jameed, the dried yogurt used to make the sauce.

Mansaf later evolved to include rice or bulgur on top of the bread, with those grains varying by region to this day. Today, the platter is first layered with flatbread that is basted with the jameed-based yogurt sauce. Rice is then scattered on top and basted with more sauce. Finally, meat (usually lamb, sometimes goat) is nestled on top and scattered with toasted nuts. It is very common to serve the remaining yogurt on the side for people to pour more over their individual plates, or even to sip it straight out of a cup like soup.

Jameed’s origin, like many milk products we enjoy today, is a result of the effort to preserve dairy from one season to the next. Jameed was usually prepared in the spring when fresh milk was plentiful. The milk would be soured into yogurt then churned to separate the butter from the buttermilk. The buttermilk would be heated until it curdled, and those solids would be strained, salted, and left out to air-dry. Afterwards, they would be shaped into conic balls and left out to dry for two to three weeks in the sun, at which point they could last for months, even years.

Today, with refrigeration and the year-round availability of fresh dairy products, it might seem counterintuitive to still rely on dried dairy in this dish. Why not just use yogurt instead, as was the case centuries ago when the seasons allowed it? The answer is, very simply, because jameed’s flavor has become synonymous with mansaf itself. Just as we still eat cheese even if its primary purpose isn’t to stretch the edible window of milk, jameed offers a unique flavor otherwise unattainable—strongly savory and tart, with the underlying aromas of goat or sheep milk. Fresh yogurt just doesn’t taste the same.

As hard as a rock, jameed has to be reconstituted into yogurt by soaking it in water before cooking with it. Today, commercial jameed is available across the Arab world and even in certain Middle Eastern grocery stores in the West. The quality, however, varies drastically from one producer to the next and it remains an item not easy to source. What is more readily available, however, is an already-reconstituted liquid form sold in Tetra Paks, similar to UHT milk. (Alternatively, if you can find liquid Iranian kashk, it is an almost identical substitute.)

For the longest time, I refused to even consider those Tetra Paks of reconstituted jameed, turning into my grandmother or one of her friends at even the thought of it. After all, I have access to good jameed because my parents mail it to me, and I can even make it myself at home if I really had to. But in the interest of science (and with some gentle prodding by my editor after I initially balked at the suggestion), I bought a pack to try out. To my shock (and biased dismay), it wasn’t bad! Is it identical to the original version? No. It’s marginally saltier than a good homemade one, but it definitely hearkens back to jameed’s flavor and will give you a more faithful, umami-rich result than attempting to make mansaf with fresh yogurt. 

Now, even reconstituted jameed can vary from brand to brand, so I can’t recommend them all outright, but Kasih and Ziyad are recognized brands and even used by many in the Arab world. When using reconstituted jameed, you usually need to dilute it with a roughly equal amount (or a little more) of broth in the recipe, though the package instructions should be consulted. Still, I recommend always starting out with less broth, and then adding more as necessary to get the right flavor, which should be pleasantly salty and tangy, almost like a strong feta cheese.

As for presenting this dish, mansaf was traditionally served in giant platters more than two feet wide, around which people gathered and ate with their hands. Today, it is still traditional to serve it in very large platters, although each person will spoon a portion on a separate plate instead of eating it straight out of the communal dish.

For the Broth: In a large pot or Dutch oven, cover the lamb shanks with enough water to barely submerge. Set over medium-high heat and cook just until water comes to a boil and foam rises to the surface. Remove from heat, drain shanks, then wash with water to remove any foam clinging to them.

Two image collage of lamb shanks being cooked and washed
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Wash pot well, then return the shanks to it along with the onion, allspice, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, and salt. Add enough water to cover all the ingredients by one inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook until shanks are very tender but not falling off the bone, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Two image collage of lamb shanks added back to the pot with spices to cook and then placed on a platter when finished
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Transfer shanks to a platter and keep warm. Strain broth, discarding solids; keep warm. Wash pot once more.

Lamb shanks on a platter next to strained broth
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Meanwhile, for the Yogurt Sauce: In a small saucepan, whisk together liquid jameed (or reconstituted jameed), yogurt, cornstarch, and 1/2 cup (118ml) water. Season with salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, then remove from heat (it is very important to whisk continuously to prevent curdling; if it does curdle, use a handheld immersion blender to bring it back together into a smooth sauce). The sauce should be relatively thick at this point, almost like a pureed vegetable soup.

Two image collage of overhead view of yogurt being cooked on the stove and then removed from heat
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

In a small skillet, heat olive oil and garlic over medium heat until garlic is fragrant and cooked through, but not at all browned, about 2 minutes. Pour the garlic and its oil into the yogurt and stir to combine. The sauce should be quite salty and sour, so add salt as needed.

Garlic and oil added to yogurt mixture
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

For the Rice: In a medium mixing bowl, rinse rice in several changes of cold water until water is almost clear, then cover rice with cold water and let soak for 15 minutes. Drain well.

Overhead view of cloudy rice water
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

In a large nonstick pot or Dutch oven, heat the butter and oil over high heat until butter is melted. Add rice, stirring to fully coat in the oil, then add 3 cups (710ml) water along with the salt and turmeric. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until most of the water has been absorbed, 2 to 5 minutes. Stir once, then carefully cover pot with a clean kitchen towel and cover tightly with the lid. Remove from heat and let stand 15 minutes.

Four image collage of rice being made
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

To Assemble and Serve: Pour 4 cups (1L) of the strained broth into the cleaned large pot or Dutch oven along with the yogurt sauce. Whisk to form a very smooth sauce (if it isn’t smooth, use an immersion blender to smooth it out). The sauce should have a consistency somewhere between whole milk and half-and-half; if it’s too thick, whisk in more broth 1/4 cup (15ml) at a time until proper consistency is reached. Season once more with salt, if necessary, bearing in mind the sauce should be very salty and tangy, almost like a very strong feta cheese.

Overhead view of pouring broth into yogurt
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Add the lamb shanks to the sauce and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until lamb is heated through and the sauce is thick enough to coat the shanks in a thickened and creamy glaze, about 15 minutes. If sauce is still too thin, continue simmering until the sauce reaches a heavy cream–like consistency. 

Lamb in yogurts sauce
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

To serve, tear up bread into large pieces and arrange on a large, round serving platter in a single, slightly overlapping layer. Pour enough yogurt sauce over the bread to soak through and soften. Fluff the rice, then spoon in a mound on top of the bread. Set shanks on top. Ladle more yogurt sauce all over until it has soaked through the rice and bread (you don’t want the mansaf so wet that it begins to flow like soup, but you can be generous with the sauce). Sprinkle all over with the toasted almonds.

Two image collage of flatbread covered in yogurt then rice and lamb added on top
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Serve, passing more yogurt sauce at the table for diners to add to their plates.

Manasf on green marbled top
Serious Eats / Mai Kakish

Special Equipment

Large nonstick pot or Dutch oven


Flatbreads like shrak or markook, which can be found in some Middle Eastern markets, can vary quite a bit in terms of size, thickness, and shape; while they’re often more than one foot in diameter, this is not always the case. If you can’t find them, substitution options include very thin (pocketless) Lebanese pita or even, as my mother in law sometimes does, good quality flour tortillas. While it’s less traditional, I sometimes skip the bread entirely and still love this dish. Because these breads can vary so much in size, the best way to know how much to use is to fully cover the surface of whatever serving platter you will be using with the torn pieces.

You can toast almonds in a dry stainless-steel skillet, tossing frequently; in a moderate oven, stirring occasionally; or in the microwave.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The strained lamb broth can be refrigerated for up to 2 days with the lamb shanks in it to keep them moist; remove any solidified fat on the surface before rewarming and separating shanks from broth.

If making this for your family and not for a large gathering, you can assemble individual plates and avoid preparing the large serving platter; this will make it easier to store and reheat leftovers.