Every culture has a celebration dish — this is Yemen's
Monasabah Restaurant is at 2340 Council Ring Rd., Unit 107 in Mississauga
Tucked away in the Sheridan Homelands neighbourhood of Mississauga is a modest Yemeni restaurant that makes the best mandi — a rice and meat dish — I've had in the Greater Toronto Area.
Mississauga's diverse micro-neighbourhoods and ever-changing shift in cultures has produced an exciting food city. Like other parts of the GTA, much of the best food you'll find are peppered throughout various plazas, and the really good stuff is often away from the arterial roads.
I was introduced to Monasabah by a friend of mine who lives in Mississauga, who preached that the owners were "specialists" with only two items on the menu — chicken and lamb mandi.
A group of us went one afternoon during a food crawl through Mississauga. We shared a plate of rice and roast lamb, and after a few spoonfuls, sat back wide-eyed in reverie.
Picture a large platter covered with a mound of spiced rice. A sea of yellow, orange and red grains is jewelled with raisins, roasted onions and almond slivers. In the centre, there are large chunks or whole cuts of roast meat. Something as simple as jewelled rice and roast meat became the best thing we ate that day.
After a few visits and a half-dozen plates of rice, I met Wajdi Ohag, one of the owners. Ohag, along with his best friend Mohamed Diam, run Monasabah. Both were born in Taiz, Yemen, and they've known each other since secondary school.
Diam is the mastermind behind Monasabah's tight but meticulously executed menu.
"Mandi is a special occasion dish. You can find it all over the Gulf but the best version is from Yemen. It's rice and meat, but when cooked properly, it's a magical dish."
Every culture has a celebration dish, this is Yemen's, and the celebration is not just the eating bit, it starts with the cooking. It's labour intensive and costly, so mandi is reserved for special celebrations.
Traditionally, the mandi host will dig a hole in the ground, cover it with clay and charcoal, and lower a large chunk of meat. The hole is then covered and the meat is slow roasted for hours. The meat stock is then used to make the rice, imparting its spices and meat flavour.
'Mohamed the mandi guy'
Diam received a government scholarship in 2004, and entered the commerce program at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Ohag followed two years later for finance and economics.
Compelled by the desire to own a business, Diam opened a convenience store in Sackville, N.S., to support the local Middle Eastern population.
But his true calling came years later. His passion for cooking Yemeni food, and his fondness for mandi culminated in an opportunity to cook for a friend's party.
Diam cooked a lamb mandi for his friends, and it was a hit. Soon after someone from a local mosque came and requested he make it for a fundraiser.
"It spread by word of mouth at that point. I was making mandi from the back of the convenience store whenever I had free time. Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis — they were all coming for it".
No website, no business name or phone number yet Diam became known as "Mohamed the mandi guy." The catering endeavour blossomed and Diam found himself transitioning away from convenience store duties and cooking 12 hours a day to meet the demands of his patrons.
"It was going very well, but my friends were encouraging me to move my business to a bigger city," Diam says.
Move to Toronto
Ohag, who had just returned from working at a hedge fund firm in Yemen, suggested they try Toronto.
"We kept hearing about the Middle Eastern community in Toronto and Mississauga and we wanted to see it for ourselves. I got tired of the corporate world and wanted something new. I told Mohamed that we would do this together," Ohag said.
Diam and Ohag booked tickets and arrived in Mississauga a few days later, and were struck by the sizeable Middle Eastern community in the city.
"We decided very quickly that we wanted to be here. We called our wives and told them to start packing, and we started to look for available spaces," Diam said.
The pair wasn't interested in the perfect location or shiny aesthetics.
"We wanted to continue catering. We had no interest in opening a restaurant."
Hence, why Monasabah is hidden in a tiny plaza in a residential area. You won't stumble upon it, you have to know it's there. There's minimal parking, and a handful of seats inside.
Diam started the same way he did back in Nova Scotia. He advertised his mandi through local groups and mosques and built a following. It was Ohag that suggested that they open the doors for walk-ins. Pretty quickly they went from two seats to 16. But the menu has stayed the same.
I asked Diam about what makes his mandi so special, and why people from across Ontario drive in to pick up large platters of it.
"It's very close to what you get back home. We can't cook it in a hole the ground, but we try to create the same baked taste," he said with a burst of laughter.
Secret spice blend
Diam is secretive about how he cooks his meat and the spice blend he uses, which he has spent years creating.
Diam receives a dozen or so whole organic lambs from a Newmarket, Ont., farm each week. Early mornings are spent breaking down each animal into large chunks. Diam pulls out a large bin of pre-portioned spice bottles.
"It has cumin. It has salt. It as pepper. I can't tell you the other dozen ingredients," he said, liberally coating each chunk with a bright orange-tinged powder then adorning it with whole new potatoes. Various cuts of the lamb are used throughout the day, but the shank is my favourite. The meat is incredibly moist and falls apart in your mouth.
The lamb is slow cooked for close to six hours. Meanwhile, copper cauldrons are filled with long grain rice and dressed with the same spice mix. When the rice is cooked, it's transferred to a large pot and stirred gently to incorporate the spice. With each turn, the rice transforms from pearly white to the colours of a sunset.
The meat, superbly tender and slipping off the bone, is served on a mound or rice and then sprinkled with almonds and raisins that are roasted in house.
"Roasting the raisins softens the sugars and it gives the almonds a nice flavour," Diam said.
To finish, the plate is adorned with shallots that have been roasted overnight. For me, it's this trio of finishing ingredients that seal the dish. The gentle lustre of almonds and raisins and the sweetness and crunch from the shallots. It livens up the fluffy rice and tender morsels of meat. There's mandi at every other restaurant and there's mandi at Monasabah.
While the bulk of their business is still catering, Ohag and Diam are currently planning on opening a restaurant nearby to meet the demands of diners. Expect it sometime this spring. Not to worry, the takeout counter will still remain, and the menu won't change.
"We want to think of ourselves as specialists. We are focused. We want to do a perfect dish," Diam said.
Monasabah is at 2340 Council Ring Rd., Unit 107 in Mississauga.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
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