A chef garnishes a plate of mandi before serving Image Credit: Atiq Ur Rehman / Gulf News

It should not be grilled, nor boiled. No oil should be used in cooking it. Mandi needs to be slow cooked, over four hours or so, in a hole in the ground, not fully sealed but covered nevertheless. The meat needs to be fresh, not frozen, and either jazeeri or Indian.

Talking about what makes mandi, Fayez Al Nusari, Managing Director, Mandilicious, takes prides in getting each detail just right.

The first thing you should check in a mandi restaurant, he says, is the origin of the meat. “Most restaurants in the UAE use prime Indian meat from Delhi. It’s the second most expensive meat here after jazeeri, the local meat, which is much smaller in size. These will be always be preferred. You cannot use sheep; you just can’t,” he says, for emphasis.

The mandi meat Al Nusari serves on a bed of rice is moist, falling off the bone, its dewy texture bringing to mind the origin of the word mandi, which comes from nada, the Arabic word for dew. The crust is not too crusty and very edible. The rice is rich with the flavours of the meat over which it was slow cooked.

Mandi is certainly a trend these days. Food bloggers have been raving about it. Traditional restaurants (I am told there are some 200 of them in the UAE, some very good) have made it to food tours of the UAE.

Foodies typically speak of the ambience — family rooms done up traditionally where diners share one platter — as much as they speak about the dish itself. Bloggers Ahmad and Sarah, who run Dining Dubai, speak in glowing terms of one of Dubai’s oldest restaurants — Al Tawasol — as the “mandi standard” while blogger Nadia Masood has tried the upmarket Turath Al Mandi in Jumeirah. And blogger Arva Ahmed’s food tour includes mandi as a must — Al Tawasol finds a mention on her blog as well. Foodies debate the finer points of difference between kabsa, which is a similar dish and mandi, though they confess to never having entered a kitchen with rows of taboons or underground ovens.

Al Nusari, a Yemeni national, says that in its traditional form in the Arabian Peninsula where it originated, mandi is specialised fare.

“It’s not home cooked food. My mum does not make mandi. It is something that you have to go to a specialised restaurant for. The backyard is the most important place in a mandi restaurant because you’ll find the holes in the ground there. So if someone says, “I made mandi at home yesterday,” it’s not possible, unless you have a big yard and you dig a hole in the ground,” says Al Nusari, effortlessly evoking the flavour even at Times Square’s food court.

What Mandilicious brings to the table for mandi lovers is accessibility and authenticity. While the outlet is at the food court in Times Square, the main kitchen is offsite. Al Nusari says that transporting the food under the right conditions, at the right temperature, so it tastes just the same when it is served, was tough to master. Apart from the recipe for the spice mix, which his expert Yemeni chefs mix themselves, the secret of logistics is not something that he wants to share.

“We are the first to do this anywhere ever. Getting the transportation right took the most time and effort and a lot of money. You spend so much time preparing the food, only to send it somewhere in a truck for an hour-and-a-half journey. It will be served at the outlets for three to four hours until the second batch arrives. We have been able to serve food prepared at five in the morning at three in the afternoon, without compromising taste, flavour or freshness. And that is the secret,” he says.

Times Square was a test outlet for the concept, which took two years to develop. He says, “We opened three months ago, after three months of daily trials before producing anything for the public.”

Clearly, it has worked. Mandilious has already crossed its target of opening eight outlets in two years, with nine contracts in the bag, including outlets across the UAE — Ibn Batuta Mall, Sahara Centre, Arabian Centre, Lamcy Plaza, Fujiarah Mall and Bab Al Sharq in Abu Dhabi. At the start of Ramadan, an outlet will open at Jebel Ali food court, while another at Festival City will be operational by the end of the holy month.

Al Nusari’s preoccupation with authenticity is one of the reasons for his success. He confesses to sending someone to Yemen, ordering mandi at the best place in Sana, having it packed and sent on the next flight to Dubai so the team here could test the texture of the crust.

“I wanted to check the difference between the crust on top and the tenderness inside. If it gets too crusty on top, it’s not edible. I saw some people remove the crust and I realised that this was not how it was supposed to be. I wanted to know why it was happening and we fixed it,” he says, with some pride.

The target foodies, be they Arabs, Indians or Filipinos, have tested this down to the last detail. Al Nusari says, rather gleefully, that he often spots competition sampling his food.

He adds that the rice is crucial too. While it is basmati, of course, it’s the real deal. “The type we use absorbs the flavour even if you don’t eat the meat with it. Its ends split by the time it’s done. The other varieties look prettier and stay nice and round but are not as absorbent,” says Al Nusari.