Old Damascus Makes Delectable Mandi

Popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Turkey, and parts of India, mandi is proving popular here.


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Batool Rawoas takes great pains with the mandi she makes at Old Damascus.

Photo by Lori Eanes

The meat gracing the Middle Eastern dish known as mandi is so moist, juicy, and rhapsodically tender that the dish’s name itself, alluding to the state of the meat itself, is Arabic for “dew.”

Popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula as well as Egypt, Turkey, and parts of India, mandi is a smoked basmati-rice dish cooked with spices, beef, and almonds and served with a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and cucumber.

“It has a delicious, complex mix of flavors and Middle Eastern spices,” explained Batool Rawoas, who with her parents helms the Old Damascus Fare kiosk on the UC Berkeley campus.

Originally from Syria, the Rawoas family moved to Oakland in 2015 and launched the Bay Area’s first Syrian catering company. Through the La Cocina incubator kitchen, the family opened its kiosk in Cal’s ASUC student union building this summer alongside other kiosks also operated by women and people of color.

A wedding and Eid-feast favorite, mandi traces its origins to Yemen’s Hadhramaut region.

“We decided to add mandi to our menu, even though it’s a Yemeni dish originally, because it’s very popular in Syria — Damascus, specifically,” Rawoas said.

Her mother learned how to cook mandi in Syria — and what a painstaking, complex process that is.

Although details and ingredients vary from region to region and chef to chef, mandi-making generally entails beef, mutton, or chicken being prepared with aromatic spices such as saffron, turmeric, black pepper, ginger, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cayenne, and clove as rice is steamed slowly with garlic, spices, fresh chilies, and chopped onion.

Live coals are then placed atop the cooked meat and rice and the whole concoction is sealed for 10 minutes or so in a way that allows no smoke to escape: This lends the dish its incomparable perfume. The Rawoas family smokes its beef mandi with charcoal and olive oil.

While throughout much of the world it is now prepared in modern ovens, mandi was originally made in cone-shaped clay ovens dug into the earth, known as tabun.

“The process of cooking and smoking the rice makes us imagine how the people in Yemen used to prepare that dish in the desert by making a hole in the ground,” Rawoas mused. “We think of how challenging it was for them to make.”

Old Damascus Fare, MLK Jr. Student Union, UC Berkeley, 510-664-7976, StudentUnion.berkeley.edu/la_cocina-2.

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