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It is rather easy to find an Arabic restaurant in Kharkiv. The place has a huge demand for Arabic, and better if Halal, food. As more and more people migrate to Kharkiv for various reasons, the culinary diversity grows as much. This restaurant, Zahleh, has been around a long time before I stepped foot in Ukraine. They might have hit the jackpot by getting one of the most crowded foreign spots, with the right cuisine.
Typically, among my favorite Arabic dishes were Mandi, Madhbi, various fried fish, Harees, Warq Anab, Taboola and so on. Enough to count on one hand. Except, a few years back I stepped into Zahleh with a few friends for a bite. They didn't have much of what I was aware of, but my friend recommended me to try the Mansaf. I did, and the rest is history.
For the first time in life, I realized what people meant when they said "food so good, it puts you to sleep". Rather the phrase "Eat and sleep" had become a reality. After I was done with my meal I was fast asleep and very satisfied. This would be the first time, the second time was much recent. An amazing beef wellington, but that is for a later post.
I was very surprised. I never thought there was a plate of food so good that it would put me to sleep. I returned to Zahleh to once again relive the memories.
Zahleh has since become a ghost town. The pandemic has a lot to do with it. Nevertheless, it used to be very packed back in the day. It also might have to do with the fact that they have since opened a much more accommodating branch in a better location.
Right as you enter, in the far right picture, you would be welcomed with a display of the dishes available that day. A menu would be there and you would order and pay for whatever you want. Then you either sit on the right side or the left, depending on whether you want a smoke or not.
I am very used to sitting on the left side of the restaurant since the shisha bar is there and it makes life easier for my friends, as well as the TV which introduced and made me fall in love with Ferdous - an evergreen Arabic singer.
We would sit here for hours on end, basking in the beauty of Fedous's angelic voice and the aroma of a fruity shisha. The hall would be crowded with people looking for a spot and the occasional open-for-all singing bouts the entire restaurant would go into when a popular song would play. It was a Sunday bar minus the alcohol, eve-teasing and pool table.
Right then, the food arrives. A bowl of thick white liquid - called Jameed, and a plate of rice. The bowl also has chunks of meat submerged in the Jameed. The most authentic, however, would have yellow ghee rice with greens and nuts plated over flat bread. But hey, resources are limited, I guess.
There is a specific technique to enjoying this dish. You first need to see how many pieces of meat does your bowl have. In any case, you take ONLY one piece of meat out of the bowl and onto the rice. Then you pour some of the Jameed onto the rice and piece of meat. The rest of the meat stays in the bowl and you keep dowsing it with the remaining Jameed.
The Jameed is basically dry yogurt that gets filtered in cloth and then so much more is done to it. The meat is specifically prepared and I have also heard it is left to cook buried in a sand grave. It is the secret technique of underground cooking that leaves the meat absolutely tender and juicy while not overcooking it.
You need to then start by taking small bites with a personalized portion of Jameed to rice to meat. It takes time, but you will eventually find your right bolus size with the right ratios. The sour Jameed, meat and rice are a team made in heaven. It is so delicious and you shouldn't be surprised if it puts you to sleep.
Once you are done with the first piece of meat, you slowly introduce the others onto the rice and repeat the process. At the end, you should still have some Jameed in your bowl, which is best put to use by pouring it all onto the remaining rice. Of course, if it floats your boat.
There are plenty of Arabic foods that are unparalleled. But the Mansaf has always been my go to ever since I got introduced to it, and has been my recommendation.
The Mansaf has traditionally been cooked by the Bedouins. But it has been adopted by a lot like the Jordanians, Palestinians and more. It has since been modified here and there. But the primary character has stayed the same. Well cooked meat, Jameed and a nice plate of rice.