Now this is what I call fun cooking. As expected, Saudi Arabia do not derails much from Middle Eastern cuisine. As in any Arab country, their food tradition goes back thousands of years and hasn’t changed much since then. Many of their dishes have a very rustic and pastoral feel to them, such as this Mandi.
It is believed Mandi originated in Yemen, one of the seven countries of the Arabian Peninsula, just South to Saudi Arabia. As with any good preparation of the Middle Eastern table, it is now a favourite of all countries that take pride in belonging to one of the oldest cultures in the world, the Middle Eastern Culture. But, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Chicken Mandi is a dish loved by many and hugely popular as dish prepared on special occasions.
Making Mandi is an absolutely enjoyable rice dish. Although it can take some time, this version is much easier (and faster) than the original. Making it used to be a lengthier process in order to achieve a delicious, soft and moist result. In rural areas and old times it is/was made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it’s walls with clay. The rice and meat are all cooked inside it on top of burning red charcoal. The hole is covered with more clay to create a steamy, low-temperature environment in which the ingredients are cooked for a very long time. This way the meat ends up being extremely tender and soft, and the rice becomes deliciously moist.
As with many Middle Eastern foods, Mandi is heavily seasoned. When I say ‘heavily’, I really do mean it. They don’t hold back on their use of spices and while that may be shocking for some, the final taste is spectacular and never overwhelming. For thousands of years the Arabs controlled the spice routes between Asia and Europe, giving them great accessibility to a wide variety and amount of spices. That’s why the use of spices is so profuse throughout their cooking.
The spice section of any Arab Market is a sight to behold. Mound after mound of piled up colorful powders fill long tables. The smell, some say, is astonishing. Among the single herb powder mounds, there are also specific spice blends. One of the many blends one can find is Mandi Spice mix. But since I don’t live anywhere near such a spectacular market, I have to make my own mix, a very uncomplicated process.
Mandi used to be made mainly of Lamb but now it’s most popular variation in Saudi Arabia is Chicken Mandi. With globalization and technology also came new ways of making this tasty dish. I for one am not capable of digging a hole in the ground. I live in an apartment, I might try a big flowerpot but I’m afraid of the safety of that procedure. Besides, I’m not very sure that would necessarily give out the best results.
Thankfully I’m not the only one with that problem. Arabs recreate the traditional flavor of Mandi in a very interesting way. The term Mandi comes from the arab word nada which means “dew”. No word can describe best the very particular taste of this dish. It refers not only to its moist texture, but its aroma and taste as well. Something I had never experienced in food before, that although weird for being new, was actually very pleasant.
To accomplish this one must place a burning coal on a small dish directly on top of the rice. It’s important to use a dish or an improvised aluminum foil recipient to place the hot coal so that the rice doesn’t burn. Then one must place ghee or butter right on the charcoal and immediately put a lid on it. This simulates the earthy dewy feel of a rustic Mandi. Using ghee gives it a more authentic taste, if you can’t find any it is rather easy to make. I can’t wait to try the pastoral version of this delicious dish, but meanwhile my pyromaniac self will enjoy this new found technique many many times.
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp ground sumac
- 1 tbsp ground paprika
- 1 tbsp ground coriander
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 1/2 lb chicken thighs and legs
- 1 tbsp salt
- juice of 2 lemons
- 2 tbsp Mandi Spices
- 4 tbsp olive oil (for frying)
- 3 tbsp ghee or butter
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 8 cardamom pods
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 2 tbsp Mandi Spice Mix
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 6 cups water
- 2 tbsp salt
- 4 cups basmati rice, washed and drained
- 1 small metal fireproof dish or an improvised aluminum foil container
- 1 piece of charcoal
- 1/2 tbsp ghee or butter
- Mix all the Mandi spices in a single bowl until mixture looks homogenous.
- Put the chicken in a big bowl along with the rest of the marinade ingredients except for the oil. With clean hands make sure the chicken is evenly coated with all the ingredients. Place it on the fridge and let it marinate for 2 hours.
- Heat the oil at medium high heat on a large skillet. Brown the chicken on all sides and reserve.
- On a big pan heat the 3 tbsp of ghee or butter over medium heat. Stir in the onions, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and bay leaves. Cook until onions turn soft and golden. Add the garlic and mandi spices, cook while stirring for about to minutes until it becomes very aromatic but the garlic doesn't burn. Add the tomato dices, stir and cook for 3 more minutes. Add the reserved chicken and water. All ingredients should be completely covered with water. Stir a little, bring up to a boil, cover and turn down to a simmer. Cook the broth for 40 minutes.
- Wash the rice in a strainer until the water runs clear. Drain well.
- Meanwhile, go outside and in a safe, fire proof container, set a few coals on fire, using paper or any other flammables to help keep the flame alive.Your are going to need one piece of coal that has turned completely red and then turned white outside for the Mandi. Using more than coal for the small fire helps to accelerate the process of getting a red coal.
- When the broth is done, remove the chicken pieces and reserve on a plate. Add the rice to the broth, turn the heat up to a very gentle boil. When the water is absorbed to the point when the surface of the rice is completely visible, turn the heat down to low, cover and let it cook for 10 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed.
- Turn off the heat and place the chicken around the pot on top of the rice. In the center of the dish place the small fireproof dish right on top of the rice. Carefully place 1 big piece of charcoal on the metal dish immediately followed by the ghee. Without a pause, place a lid on the pot to keep the smoke inside. Once the smoke settles you can uncover the dish and serve it immediately. If you use a glass lid you should be able to tell when the smoke settles, it takes about 8 minutes.
- This dish should be consumed immediately after being made. It has a very pleasing dew and smoke flavor that develops into an unpleasant fetid flavor when stored in the fridge for a day. But the freshly made dish is really delicious.