The 2 Secrets to the Best Lamb Haneeth

Want help making the best Yemeni lamb haneeth possible? To make sure it’s succulent, fall-off-the-bone tender and exquisitely tasty? There are two things that will make the difference between a good one, and a great one.

If you’re anything like me, when you pick a recipe you want to be sure it’s as good as it can be. You’re putting effort and sometimes expensive ingredients into the dish. And you want your family or friends (and yourself!) to have a meal they’ll love. So you need to choose the right recipe. But with so many to choose from, how can you know which is the best for you?

To understand what makes a great lamb haneeth, I compared eight recipes, and five for the spice mix.

And being a relatively simple dish, there are just 2 factors that make all the difference. 

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What is lamb haneeth?

Lamb haneeth is a Yemeni dish of spiced lamb, roasted until it’s fall-off-the-bone tender. And in that brief description, you’ve already seen the two secrets to a great haneeth.

Spices, and roasting.

A collection of different spices on spoons and the white surface around them.

Hawaij – the haneeth spice mix

Before it’s cooked, the lamb is flavoured with a spice mix known as hawaij. You might also see it spelt hawayej or hawayij, or called haneeth spice.

Hawaij is a Yemeni spice mix used for everything from soups to stews to spiced coffee.

And what’s in the hawaij can make a big difference. The difference between a fairly generic spice mix that tastes like so many others, and one that’s unique and deeply flavoured.

What spices are in hawaij?

Like most spice mixes, there are many variations in the ingredients, and the ratios they’re used in. But based on the recipes I compared, plus three off-the-shelf hawaij mixes, there are six very consistent ingredients:

  • Turmeric
  • Cumin
  • Black pepper
  • Cardamom
  • Coriander
  • Cloves

The ratios of these of course varies from author to author and product to product. But almost all have turmeric, cumin and/or black pepper as the dominant spices.

If you buy a pre-made hawaij spice mix, you’ll almost certainly get these six spices, and more. But it’s not always an easy product to buy. And freshly ground spices are more flavoursome than pre-ground.

The good news is some haneeth recipes include directions for making your own. And there are also a number of hawaij recipes available online.

Making your own hawaij spice mix

The hawaij recipes I found were very consistent with the ingredients listed above. But the haneeth recipes were less consistent.

And some recipes offer shortcuts if you don’t have everything available. One even proposed a simple mix of cumin and black pepper. This might be tasty, but it won’t taste anything like an authentic lamb haneeth. More importantly, it’s missing an opportunity for a truly flavourful dish.

Tips for the best possible hawaij

Using a spice mix with the six spices listed above will go a long way to maximising the flavour of your lamb haneeth.

But you’re looking to make the most of your spices, there’s more you can do:

  1. Fresh is best. Make your own hawaij.
  2. Start with whole spices wherever possible. They don’t lose their taste as rapidly as pre-ground spices.
  3. Toast the whole spices briefly in a dry pan for a few minutes before you grind them.

Roasting your lamb

Lamb haneeth is typically made with bone-in cuts from tougher parts of the animal. Leg, shoulder and neck are the most commonly used.

These cuts contain large amounts of connective tissue, which is tough and chewy. But if they’re cooked the right way, the tough collagen breaks down into silky smooth gelatin, creating a rich, fall-apart tender meat.

And the way to make this happen for your haneeth is by cooking your lamb low and slow.

Slow-roasted lamb haneeth

The recipes that cook their haneeth in the oven typically use a two stage approach:

  1. Cook the lamb in a very hot oven (450-500°F/230-260°C) for 45 minutes to an hour.
  2. Lower the temperature to 350-375°F (180-200°C) for another one to two hours.

The first phase helps give the meat a good browning. This could also be done in a frying pan on the stove.

The second phase allows time for the collagen to breakdown without overcooking the meat.

And as you can see, the total cooking time is generally two hours or more.

I’ve written a lot more about braising tough cuts of meat in my lamb shank review.

Cooking tough cuts of meat takes time

One or two recipes attempt to cook their lamb in the oven in and hour-and-a-half or less by using a higher temperature. Others use a pressure cooker to accelerate the process.

And while these approaches may speed up the conversion of collagen to gelatin, it comes at a cost.

The higher temperature causes the muscle fibres to contract more. Which means they squeeze out more of their moisture. And as a result, under the silky layer of gelatin, the meat is likely to be tough and dry.

Closeup of a golden brown Yemeni haneeth lamb shanks on a bed of basmati rice.

Making the best lamb haneeth

There are two keys to making a great lamb haneeth:

  1. Don’t cut corners on your spices. Use a hawaij spice mix of turmeric, cumin, black pepper, cardamom, coriander and cloves. For best results, make it yourself from roasted whole spices.
  2. Take your time. Give your lamb plenty of time to cook to maximise the amazing silky juiciness of gelatin in the meat. And keep the oven temperature down, at least for the bulk of the cooking time. This will help keep it even more juicy.

Bonus flavour tip: Throw a couple of dried lemons or limes in the roasting pan with the lamb. They’ll bring a citrus brightness that will elevate the hawaij spices and the rich lamb. They might be hard to find, but worth the effort for an even better haneeth.

Lamb haneeth recipes

You can find the recipes I reviewed on my lamb haneeth Pinterest board and my hawaij Pinterest board.

My favourite is Farah’s recipe on Every Little Crumb. She uses a good mix of spices, adds dried lemons and gives her lamb plenty of time in the oven. Plus she uses lamb shanks which I simply adore!

Pre-made hawaij spice mix

You can buy a variety of brands of hawaij on Amazon.

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