I confess I’ve romped about with many a plate of chicken and rice.
Growing up in Dubai, I’d come across my fair share of chicken biryani, though I’ve always looked at it with a certain sort of contempt – mutton always felt sacred to biryani, chicken felt like some watered-down version of the original. After moving to the US for college, I started eyeing styrofoam crates of chicken and rice from the Middle Eastern food truck in Philadelphia, a distant taste of home, and a pricier alternative to grease-dripping pizza in my more wholesome moments. Then I went on this mindless love-me-cause-I-look-anorexic fad diet, and while I don’t remember much of anything I ate at the time (anything I ate = very meagre amount of very tasteless things), I’m sure I indulged in high sodium chicken and rice Campbell’s soup to stave off cravings for real food. And then there’s that summer when I lusted after the chicken and rice served up by the Indo-Pak street food truck on 53rd and 6th Ave in NYC, queuing up with behind a hoard of fanatical New Yorkers to get my odorous pile of shredded kabab-style chicken, rice and creamy white sauce…and in my more dare-devilish moments, a dash of super hot chilli sauce. Oh, and let’s not forget my steamy affair with those thin smokey slabs of chicken fajita and Tex-Mex rice in Houston, rolled up with sour cream, guacamole and cheese in warm flour tortillas. All to be left behind once I started courting the Chicken Lamprais dished out by a small Sri Lankan joint also courtesy of New York, with chicken and rice and a million other fishy-curry-downright-yummy things all steamed up beautifully in a banana leaf.
Yes, I have been fickle. But judge me not.
If you haven’t yet shut the browser window in disgust, I’m guessing you’re a carnivore. Or a herbivore whose wife has mercilessly shackled you to the evil vegan-only diet barely three months after you diamond ring-ed her. Whoever you are, look back at the range of chicken and rice dishes you’ve sampled across homes and restaurants over the course of time…just close your eyes and recollect all the potential variations you’ve eaten through. Yep, who knew, but you're a chicken and rice slut too.
For all those still in the market for chicken and rice variations, my latest infatuation is with Chicken Mandi, Yemen’s luscious gift to the brothel of chicken and rice.
Mandi is one of those many, many ethnic eats that’s been around Dubai for the longest time – at Al Tawasol since 1999 at least – but that I only discovered after moving back to the city last year. It pains me to think that it was right next door, right through all those mind-blowingly ignorant adolescent years when all I craved for was a roast beef & cheddar or super supreme pizza from Fast Food Chains That Shalt Not Be Named.
Traditionally, Yemenis dig a hole in the ground, cake it with clay, and then slow cook the meat over charcoal. Or so says wikipedia. I have no idea how Al Tawasol does theirs. Sarah and Ahmed badgered the waiter on my behalf in Arabic and managed to squeeze out the fact that the chicken had been steamed. Now whether or not steamed = slow-cooked-underground I do not know…all I do know is that the very act of lifting up a leg of chicken generously massaged with ghee, feeling it glide off the rest of its body with buttery imprecision, and just soaking in chunks of perfectly cooked and tender melty white meat makes me want to hit rewind-stop-replay-rewind-stop-replay-rewind… all day long. This baby may not be one of your crazy spiced up concoctions - it may even be accused of being too bland for the spice-seeking palate - but what keeps me faithful is the texture of the chicken, supple and dripping in chickeny juices.
Something as simple and soulful as Al Tawasol’s chicken and rice deserves to be eaten in the utmost comfort…bare hands, cross-legged, sprawled in an Arabesque-upholstered majlis. I love meals like this one, where I can just strip away the silverware and eat in my own raw cavewoman element. It felt so natural to throw my gnawed-at-and-licked-clean remains right onto the plastic disposable sheet that the server had spread under our plates, I just may consider switching all meals at home to this Eat Lick Fling mode. Keeps your plate uncluttered and conveniently vacant for more food.
The main, and men-only, dining area. Women and families can use the smaller private dining area at the back of the restaurant.
Ahmed also made the very wise decision of diversifying past the Mandi and ordering up two more chicken and rice dishes…
…the Mazbi, grilled chicken with this charismatically charred skin, smoky to the core of its white smithereens of chicken flesh, laying flat on a bed of rice that'd been tumbled in tomatoes.
…and then Yemen’s take on Biryani, with chicken that had been sweetly spiced with cinnamon, grilled, and…and stretched dry? I don’t quite know how they got the chicken to take on that stretched texture, almost resembling some sort of dried cured meat. Whatever it was, I was intrigued, in a good way. It was nowhere as buttery as the Mandi, but an interesting contrast to a palate that was already indulging in chicken orgy.
Our chicken and rice spread also included the customary Yemeni condiments: spicy tomato salsa-like sauce, yogurt, and mixed nuts and raisins. I may have actually relied on these add-on’s had the Mandi been lacking in any way, but I honestly loved Al Tawasol’s chicken just the way it was, unadorned and stripped down to its bare essentials.
Al Tawasol is definitely making my list of all-time ethnic classics in Dubai. I’ve heard of a bunch of other Mandi places around town, so I’m keeping an open mind lest there be a more buttery, more tender, more soul-seducing chicken out there.
But in the meantime, if you’re just not that into your usual plate of chicken and rice, it may be time to cut your losses and hook yourself up with a buttery chunk of Al Tawasol’s Chicken Mandi.
Right before you hit the Clock Tower roundabout in Deira, driving down from Al Rigga Road
Phone: +971 (4) 295-9797