Lebanese street corner bakeries

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“If you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half of man’s hunger”
-Gibran Khalil Gibran

The manóushé is the quintessential Lebanese breakfast. Named for the Arabic word na’sh which refers to the way the fingertips of the baker “engrave” the dough, the manóushé is indeed engraved upon our collective memories as Lebanese. The smell of manóushé bi-zatar in the morning catapults a Lebanese person back in time to a lively childhood birthday party, breakfast on the go with classmates before an exam, or a cozy morning spent tête-à-tête with a loved one.

Satisfying and tasty, it is truly a classless commodity. Tiny bakeries across the country sell this dsc of dough pressed flat and baked with a topping of wild thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, salt and oil. One can find a manóushé literally anywhere, from the poorest neighborhoods to the most affluent of Beirut’s suburbs. Inexpensive and delicious, it is one of Lebanon’s common denominators.

Forn Saydaleh in Baabda opened its doors 150 years ago. Mr. Kanaan Saydaleh, the owner, operates this bakery with his wife, as he has done for over half a century. Mrs. Saydaleh kindly peeled a fresh orange for me as we sat down to discuss the history of the forn, the Lebanese street corner bakery.

In past generations, no one purchased bread. Bread dough was made at home daily and taken to the village forn (meaning oven) to be baked for a small fee. The expression niswan al-forn refers to the ladies who sat and talked while they waited for their bread to bake. Today the term is used to describe women who love to gossip. The baker has an important task in the community, as shown in the proverb: “A ‘ti khubzak li-l-khubbaz wa law akal nusso,” meaning: “Give your bread to a baker, even if he eats half of it.”

With the automation of bread-making, these small bakeries ceased to bake bread for customers, offering manaísh (plural for manóushé) instead. From wild thyme bread, mana’ish became a word used to describe a wide array of pies baked at the forn, topped with cheese, meat or vegetables – even sweet pies.

It seems every customer has a favorite way to eat the man’oushé. I have so often witnessed men who bluster into the bakery and order: “Sabaho! Buddi man’oushé ala zaw’ak” which literally means “Good morning! I want a man’oushé made to your liking!” This places the baker in a position of trust. Women tend to be more particular about how their man’oushé is prepared, often to the extent of bringing in their own toppings and asking the baker to work under their supervision.

The bakery has always been a meeting place. People sit down together to discuss politics and current events. Newspapers are rea from cover to cover and passed on to the next table. Ladies enter in groups to enjoy a subhiyeh (a morning meeting). Once I witnessed a blossoming romance between the baker and a young woman ordering a cheese pie. Her intentions were so obvious that the baker winked at me as he prepared her order with extra care.

There is a certain satisfaction to be found in preparing your own man’oushé.

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Wild thyme or za’tar, is found on hilltops and mountains all over Lebanon. Za’tar is also the name of an herb mixture that is most popularly enjoyed on man’oushé or with bread dipped in olive oil. According to mothers in Lebanon, eating za’tar makes you wiser. Before a quiz, children are often given za’tar because it is said to stimulate the memory. Regardless of its credibility, the adage is part of Lebanese culture. You can find za’tar in Middle Eastern grocery stores, but to make one’s own mixture is very satisfying. It can involve everyone in the family.
In different parts of the Middle East, the name za’tar can refer to a range of wild herbs used to make a za’tar mixture- including some varieties of thyme, oregano, hyssop and even mint, depending on what grows regionally.

MIXTURE FOR MANÓUSHÉ

  • 7 ½ cups (2lb/ 1kg) of ground, dried wild thyme (za’tar)
  • 1 ½ cups ( ½ lb / 225g) of sesame seeds (uncooked)
  • 3 cups (1 ½ lb/ 400g) of ground sumac
  • ½ cup (2oz / 50g) of salt

MIXTURE FOR DIPPING

  • 7 ½ cups (2lb / 1kg) of ground za’tar
  • 1 ½ cups ( ½ lb/ 225g) of sesame seeds (toasted)
  • 3 cups (1 ½ lb/ 400g) of ground sumac
  • ½ cup (2oz / 50g of salt)

Source: Man’oushé Inside the Lebanese Street Corner Bakery by Barbara Abdeni Massaad

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