I can’t imagine a world without manaqish. That is how incredibly important I find their existence.
Manaqish (plural of manoush) are a round pizza-like dish invented by the Levantine. It usually consists of dough topped with za’atar, cheese, veggies, labneh or ground meat. Or any variety of the five.
Chef Ramzi, a Lebanese celebrity chef, actually wrote about manaqish in his 2002 book, From the Heritage of Lebanon. He said, “The manoosheh has only recently appeared in Lebanon, evolving to this day to become Lebanon’s most demanded breakfast. The main reasons for that are its ease and speed of preparation, its low price tag, it being tasty and its readiness to marry with a multitude of ingredients to produce a world of flavour.”
“Each house wife would, upon returning from the fields, prepare a za’atar mix and distribute it on the saj loaves.”
“All these variations fall under the category of manaqish. This is considered a good example of the evolution of the Lebanese traditional village cuisine, in that it aligns itself to the needs and requirements of the modern consumer and adapts to them.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself, and if I could, I’d eat it every morning. Because I feel so much more Lebanese every time I take a bite.
But apart from my identity issues when it comes to food, there is a certain art to the manoush. It isn’t just a simple case of pizza without the sauce, it is a complicated balance of flavours that can only be achieved by the masters. Or your cousin at the bakery down the road. Either will suffice.
To help you find this mythical manoush, I have painstakingly assembled a list of the major factors that come together in a perfect manoush (this process involved eating at as many manoush places as possible, and it was a sacrifice I was willing to make for you, our loyal Sajjeling readers).
- The Base: The base, in this instance, is the very dough that forms the basis of any self-respecting Manoush. The base could be considered the make or break for this dish as if it isn’t at the perfect thickness and spread. The wide variety usually stems from some variations in the recipe that is handed down through the families. Similar to the way recipes are handed down for Lebanese Sweets, Manoush recipes are handed down from baker to baker. My father tells me of specific family names, which are famous in Lebanon because of their manoush recipes and their family bakeries. Some of these families have come to Australia, and this has resulted in a wide variety of different types of manoush available here. Personally, I can’t look past a thin base. Not too thin, though, as you don’t want it to fall apart in your hands, but not too thick that the taste of the dough overrides the taste of the toppings. Especially when it comes to za’atar manoush, the base can at times be so thick you can barely taste the toppings, and it just utterly ruins both the experience, and usually, your day.
You can find thin based manoush at the Yagoona Lebanese Bakery (124 Highland Ave, Yagoona) or at the Shaza Bakery (451 Hume Highway, also in Yagoona).
- Cheesy Goodness: Next, it’s important to note the differences in toppings. Now usually, there are only slight differences between the za’atar and labneh recipes, but the cheese from different places can vary wildly. Traditionally, the cheese is a variation of the Akkawi cheese, a white brine cheese that originates from the Palestinian city of Acre. However, it can be made using cow, goat or sheep milk, which results in some variations in texture and flavour. This usually means that different bakeries serve different styles of cheese manoush. Some melt very smoothly and become very stringy upon serving, some hold a more solid texture and don’t necessarily stretch, some offer a more crumbled texture that goes very well with a folded cheese manoush. Personally, the stringy variation is what leaves me in a state of dazed deliciousness. Served with some veggies as topping, it’s a heavy, albeit scrumptious, way to begin any day.
The best cheesy manoush I’ve found are at Mina Bakery (142 South Parade Auburn) and Akkar Lebanese Bakery (54 Helen Street, Sefton).
- Combinations: This is where things can get messy. As Chef Ramzi noted, there have been some evolutions of traditional Lebanese food. The danger is though, if they go too far and create something that is basically sacrilegious to the rules of Lebanese food. Some, though, have created interesting twists. I had never heard of a combined meat and cheese manoush in my life, but I actually tried it over the weekend, and I am absolutely enchanted. To my knowledge, it’s a recent aberration of two classic options, and, luckily, for the brave person that came up with it, it works. The same goes for cheese and za’atar combinations, it works. I can’t tell if that is based on the genius of Lebanese ingredients, or just general bravery with changing traditions, but it works. Hopefully these bastardisations don’t go too far though. I have tried a kebab-manoush from a new, Lebanese-fusion restaurant and it was difficult to finish. Not because the breaking of traditions hurt my patriotic heart, but because it just tasted terrible. Keep it simple to keep it delicious. My personal preference is for cheese and veggies, usually just being olives, tomatoes and capsicum. Anything else, and you would have entered dangerous, uncharted waters.
The best combinations I’ve found are at Al-Hana restaurant (4/9 Elizabeth Street, Berala) and at Fajr Bakery (158 Wangee Road, Lakemba).
The manoush is as important in life as the discovery of fire, and any other great shift in human civilisation. And the search for the perfect manoush, much like the fabled fountain of youth, continues to this day. Some have found their own fountain of youth, in the same way some have found their own perfect manoush, but it isn’t the universal perfect manoush.
Let us know; what would you consider your perfect manoush?