AMMAN, Jordan — The idea hit the restaurateur like lightning after he spilled food on his suit while eating in his car.
What if he took 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 sold it in a paper cup to eager diners?
The restaurateur, Muhammad Taher, soon opened his first shop, Our Mansaf in a Cup, offering take-out food at the bargain price of one dinar, or about $1.40. Business boomed and three more branches followed.
“People were surprised at first,” recalls Mr. Taher, 52. But tasting was believing, and he said some customers raved: “Bless you for giving us something we’ve been craving for so long.”
However, not everyone hailed his culinary innovation in this conservative Arab monarchy where traditions like mansaf are closely tied to national identity.
Copycat restaurants sprung up, squeezing Mr Taher’s profits, even as traditionalists accused him of degrading the national dish and eroding the cultural foundations of the nation itself.
“The destruction starts with small details,” warned Abdul-Hadi al-Majali, a newspaper columnist who has derided the very idea of mansaf in a cup.
“What is happening is not just about food, but a way of mocking the heritage of the people,” al-Majali added. “And when a people’s heritage is mocked in this way, it is a prelude to trivializing what is most important and diluting or dissolving identity.”
The dust of mansaf has rocked 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 questions about how far a culinary tradition can change before to abandon its roots.
For Muhammad al-Tarawneh, a mansaf chief from 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 away the dignity of mansaf,” he said.
Mr. al-Tarawneh recently spoke in the busy kitchen where he and his 15 employees prepare huge quantities of traditional mansaf for weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Today’s order was for around a thousand wedding guests, so preparation had started the day before with the slaughter of 73 sheep to yield one and a half tons of mutton.
To make the mansaf, the meat was boiled on the bone in huge metal cauldrons. Cooks dissolved large white balls of a dehydrated sheep’s yogurt, known as jameed, into giant pots to make a salty, milky soup.
When the meat was partially cooked, the cooks drained the water in which it was boiled and replaced it with the milky mixture. The meat is boiled in milk until tender, making it the signature mansaf combination.
When everything was finished, the cooks assembled the dishes.
On a layer of flatbread on large round metal trays, they heaped mounds of cooked rice with ghee, adorned them with milky meat and topped with toasted nuts. The trays – about 200 in all – were covered in foil and loaded onto a fleet of vans which transported the delicacy to the wedding.
More than a thousand men showed up for lunch, arranged in a square of large tents full of small tables on the outskirts of town. A smaller number of female guests ate separately, at the groom’s house.
When it was time to eat, the workers handed out the trays, while an enthusiastic diner fired his pistol in the air – a tradition that the Jordanian government tried to eradicate with heavy fines.
Strict rules guide the consumption of mansaf, said Muhammad al-Tarawneh, a Karak lawyer who is not closely related to the chief.
“Mansaf here has a status, its own rites and rituals,” he said.
He removed the foil and poured extra milk over the rice, which added flavor and made it easier to eat.
Mansaf is often eaten standing up, which, according to connoisseurs, allows you to eat more. Using only their right hands, diners scooped the meat from the bones, pressed it into balls with rice and milk, and put them in their mouths.
Because many people share the same tray, each guest eats directly in front of him: reaching the serving plates is frowned upon.
Often, the sheep’s head is placed in the center of the board. His cheeks, eyes, brain and tongue are highly prized and meant for the most important guest at the table.
Few men at the wedding were interested in mansaf in a cup.
“No way,” said Mr. al-Tarawneh, the lawyer. “We respect mansaf.”
Ahmad al-Jafari, a retired school principal, said he ate a light breakfast to make more room for mansaf, a common practice. The mere thought of mansaf in a cup made him uneasy.
“It’s more blessed when people come together to eat instead of eating alone,” said 70-year-old Mr al-Jafari.
The mansaf-in-a-cup experience took off in the capital, Amman, along a crowded street of cars playing pop music and pedestrians browsing among the shoes, clothes, jewelry and other goods displayed on the sidewalks.
It was here, in early 2020, that Mr. Taher opened Our Mansaf in a Cup. Sales took off as diners lined up to try the new twist.
Others noticed his success, imitators soon appeared in Amman and other cities, and Mr. Taher eventually closed his business.
Two stores are now vying for business where his once stood.
The orange sign above one such contestant, Mansaf in a Cup, features a cartoon of a smiling Jordanian showing off his meal. Neighbor Uncle’s Mansaf in a cup has a giant yellow sign with flashing lights in the colors of the Jordanian flag.
In another affront to tradition, both stores use beef instead of mutton. This is because beef is cheaper and cooked without the bone, making it easy to eat with a spoon. And instead of being boiled together, meat and milk are cooked separately.
Two curious teenagers ordered from the first store, and its chef, Islam Adli, 23, filled two paper cups with rice, added three pieces of meat and some nuts, poked into plastic spoons and poured milk over the over a plastic pitcher.
Mr. Adli talked about the benefits: you can eat it on the go; vegetarians could order it without meat; and it was cheap – a good option for Jordanians on a budget or away from home.
In the other store, chef Muhammad al-Bitoush, 29, dismissed the enemies. But he also admitted that he was from Karak and did not tell his family what he was selling, to avoid controversy.
“The idea that the mansaf from the set ended up in a cup, it would bother them,” he said.
A steady stream of diners poured in.
Waed Faouri, 25, and her mother ordered two cups of mansaf which she described as “correct and delicious”.
“Yes, we cook mansaf at home, but sometimes when you’re hanging out outside your house, you crave mansaf,” she said.
Later in the evening, Nayef al-Jaar, the director of Uncle’s Mansaf in a Cup, said he feared the novelty of take-out mansaf was fading and demand was declining.
“At first people were queuing up,” he said. “Now I have to beg people to come and eat mansaf.”
So he came up with a new idea that he hoped would bring the crowds back: fries in a cup with ketchup, mayonnaise and nacho cheese.