Oman Dining: Savour Mandi’s salty-sweet magic
April 5, 2017 | 11:54 AM
by Salim Al Afifi
Flavours of Mandi

Here in Oman, people are crazy for Mandi, that indulgent dish of smoky rice topped with tender meat or chicken and served on a massive metal tray. It is so popular, in fact, that many visitors to the Sultanate mistakenly think it originated here. But Mandi is a traditional Yemeni traditional dish that originated on the coastal in the province of Hadhramaut. Though Mandi is now a takeaway staple in the GCC, the complex dish began as a delicacy of kings and remains a required staple of festivals and weddings in Yemen.

I’ve always loved eating the dish, but until recently, I never thought about exactly how it was prepared. So I set off to see Akram Ali Mahyoub, a Yemeni chef at Rukn Al Mandi Restaurant in Al Ma’abela, to learn more. He explained that historically, most cuisines in the Middle East have been influenced by the spice trade with India, East Africa, and some parts of East Asia, and this is all the more true for Yemen, which was a hub of the ancient trade routes. These influences are reflected in the country’s signature dish, which is bejewelled with Zanzibari cloves, Southeast Asian nutmeg, East Asian ginger, and Indian cashews.

Many restaurants do not employ the traditional method of cooking mandi, opting for more convenient methods such as cooking it on a stove or in an oven, as the traditional way can be expensive and time consuming, but you can always taste the difference between the traditional, long cooked versions, and the short-cuts. Besides technique, using the best ingredients makes a big difference, and many Yemeni chefs prefer to use a young lamb, as it is the tastiest, and, spices imported from Yemen.

Before continuing his tutorial, Akram was quick to explain that mandi recipes differ from one chef to another (and the seasoning blends are guarded secrets passed down through generations), but the basic technique remains the same. It all begins with marinating the chicken or lamb in a special mandi spice blend, which should include cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, onions, garlic, and some times saffron. After leaving the meat to absorb all the flavours of the spices, the tanoor oven should be fired up, heated over wood and charcoal with a massive, two-level plate securely tucked inside. Basmati rice is placed on the lower level and covered in water with a few seasonings thrown in, and the meats are placed on the upper level, 30 to 40 centimetres above the rice. The hole in which the clay oven is set should then be completely covered to trap the smoke and steam inside — this is the key to the dish’s signature smoky flavour. Over the next three hours, the fat from the meat begins dripping onto the rice, enhancing its flavour with greasy, meaty goodness, and when the cover is lifted, the rice will be perfectly cooked and the meat nearly falling from the bone. Yellow raisins and nuts are sometimes tossed with the rice for a bit of crispness, and after it is mounded on a round silver platter, the basmati is crowned with the meat and served.

Mandi is presented along with the same two side dishes at almost every restaurant — yoghurt mixed with diced cucumbers and carrots and Sahawiq, a tomato-based salsa made with lemon, onions, peppers, garlic, and a bit of goat cheese. The latter comes in either a thick mashed form or as a thin, citrusy broth in which larger cubes of the ingredients float. These sides are perfect accompaniments, as they offer tart acidity and a hit of creamy richness to the hearty dish.

Understanding the complexity of the technique behind the flavours of my favourite comfort food made me see the dish in a new light. The next time I sit on the floor in front of a glorious platter of this smoky, exotic feast, I will savour it as the royal dish it truly is.

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Try This Delicacy

Rukn Al Mandi Restaurant

Al Ma’abela South, Seeb, Muscat

+968 9761 8335

+968 9665 1545

Photography: Salim Al Afifi

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