A lot could be said about Lebanese cuisine and especially its famous flatbreads called mana’eesh!
And not only mana’eesh because this bread has so many spellings including manakish, manaqish, mana’keesh, but also mu’ajjanāt.
The name mana’eesh is originally an Arabic word مناقيش (manaqish) which is plural and refers to several flatbreads. The singular form is called man’oushé, the Arabic word منقوشة (manqusha) means “engraved” or “carved”.
Za’atar man’oushé is the most popular version of this bread and the one I chose to prepare today. Each flatbread is topped with a mixture of za’atar and olive oil before being cooked. Mana’eesh are most often consumed at breakfast with tea, but also after dinner accompanied by soft drinks.
Here are a few of the most popular versions:
– Cheese. Manouché jebne (جبنة) is consumed like the za’atar manoushé. Za’atar is replaced by a Lebanese cheese called akkawi and sesame seeds.
– Beef. Lahm bi ajin or sfiha is garnished with a mixture of ground beef, tomatoes and olive oil. It is most often served at lunchtime.
– Kishk. Ma’noushé bel kishk comes from the Bekaa region. Kashk, a fermented yoghurt, with crushed barley, which is mixed with tomato and onion and placed on the flatbread before baking.
The mana’eesh recipe is often compared to that of Italian pizza, which explains why it is called “Lebanese pizza”.
Mana’eesh are traditionally cooked on a saj, a sort of large, metal dome but you can opt for a pan or a traditional oven to bake them.
Now, let’s talk about za’atar!
Again several spellings including zaatar, zattar, zatar, zahtar, zahtar, zaktar (in Arabic: زعتر) .
Za’atar is a spice blend from the Middle East that is used in Levantine cuisine.
Za’atar was already well known in Ancient Egypt, although at that time its ancient name was not yet determined with certainty. Traces of a preparation such as the modern preparation of za’atar were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and according to Dioscorides, the plant was known to Egyptians under the name of saem.
In the Jewish tradition, Saadiah (942), Ibn Ezra (1164), Maimonides (1135-1204) and Obadiah ben Abraham (1465-1515) associated the ezov mentioned in the Bible with the word Arabic zaatar. Ezov (zaatar) was particularly associated with ceremonies of ritual purity. It is also mentioned in the Bible that the Hebrews used ezov stems to mark the lintels of their blood gates of the Easter sacrifice before leaving slavery in Egypt (Ex. 12:22).
King David refers to the purifying powers of the herb in the Psalm (51: 7): “Clean me with ezov and I shall be cleansed.”
Much later, ezov appeared in the second century as an ingredient in the foods of that period in Judea, while in the Talmud it is mentioned that herbs were crushed in oil (a preparation called mish’ha t’hina in Aramaic, משחא טחינא in Hebrew), but it is not clear whether it was the same mixture as today’s za’atar. In the twelfth century, Maimonides described the use of za’atar which he identified in contemporary cuisine, noting that “the ezov mentioned in the Torah is the ezov that men eat and with which they flavor their stews.”
Nowadays, in Israel, za’atar is also called hyssop, which sounds like ezov.
Today, za’atar literally means thyme in Arabic, which explains why it is sometimes called Aleppo thyme. It also refers to the family of lamiaceae plants: thyme, hyssop, savory, oregano, marjoram, mint.
In North Africa, za’atar is different. It is not a mixture of spices but a variety of oregano.
The proportions of this spice blends vary from market to market, but it always includes thyme, oregano, savory, sesame seeds, sumac, and marjoram. Some will add green anise, coriander and cumin, or even toasted flour.
This specialty Levantine spice blend, both herb and condiment, has also become popular in Algeria, Armenia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and of course in Lebanon.
There’s nothing easier than preparing your own za’atar, which is why I included a quick and easy recipe!
We enjoyed our mana’eesh very hot with a few mezzes. Enjoy!
- 8 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons active dry yeast
- 2 cups warm water (or more)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ½ cup olive oil
- Za'atar (recipe below)
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons dried marjoram
- 2 tablespoons dried savory
- 1 tablespoon sumac
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 2 pinches salt
- Dilute the yeast in a little warm water and set aside for 5 minutes.
- Mix the flour, and the diluted yeast and start kneading, gradually adding the water until obtaining a soft dough which pulls away from the edges of the bowl.
- Add the salt and knead for an additional 5 minutes.
- Cover the dough and set aside for 45 minutes.
- In a bowl, combine the olive oil and the za'atar until you obtain a smooth paste.
- Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and roll each piece. Spread each disc-shaped ball to about 7 inches diameter. Stack them on a plate, each separated with a sheet of parchment paper.
- Heat a non-stick skillet without any fat. Place a disc of dough, brush the surface with the olive oil and za'atar mixture then cover.
- Cook covered for 3 minutes over medium heat then 3 or 4 minutes over low heat, always covered.
- Set aside in a warm place and repeat for the remaining flatbreads.
- In a blender (or in a coffee grinder), blend thyme, oregano, savory, marjoram, sumac and salt.
- Lightly roast the sesame seeds in a frying pan without browning them.
- Add half of the sesame seeds to the mixture of herbs and sumac and mix again.
- Add the rest of the sesame seeds.
- Store the spice blend in a glass jar in a dry place.