BEIRUT: Nearly all of us who live in Lebanon have our favorite man'oushe joint and a tale to tell about it. Mine happens to be the Nazareth bakery on the corner where Monnot Street meets Sodeco Square in Achrafieh - and that's not a shameless plug. It's a ramshackle little place just down the street from the more upmarket Zaatar wa Zeit - if man'oushe joints can be upmarket that is - and it hasn't closed down in the face of the latter's surging popularity.
I like to think that's because of the thinness and crispiness of the bread when I order my regular jibne wa zaatar (cheese and thyme) man'oushe. Open 24 hours and baking constantly Nazareth, like many other tiny bakeries across the country, has its own charm and its own particular flavor. Write in and let us know yours.
But after five years here even I, as an avid fan of the quintessential Lebanese breakfast snack, never imagined that there were more than 70 different recipes for it.
Like the Arabic language, which varies enormously in dialect from Morocco to Egypt and Iraq to Yemen, the man'oushe varies in taste and recipe from neighborhood to neighborhood across Lebanon and yet remains a common feature throughout, transcending all geographic and religious zones.
Barbara Abdeni Massaad knows this. The Lebanese writer and cook with an obsession for bread making and man'oushe has spent the better part of the last five years, in between taking care of her young children, traveling the country, discovering bakeries from Deir al-Qamar to Tyre, chatting with their proprietors and collecting their recipes - some dating back hundreds of years.
"Man'oushe: Inside The Street Corner Lebanese Bakery" (Alarm Editions) is the result. A beautiful cook book filled with original and individual recipes for different types of the national snack, "Man'oushe" is also a heartwarming (though perhaps little too much so) story of Massaad's own long journey as a 10-year old immigrant to the U.S. during the war and her eventual return to the family home in the mountains of
the Kesrouan and her later marriage in the picturesque old town of Byblos.
Not all readers may care for her tales of motherhood but many Lebanese readers will relate to her story for it is one they have shared. Still Massaad's acute observations of the people and places she met and traveled to across the length and breadth of the country are insightful - bringing out not only the flavor of the food but the flavor of its diverse and warm people.
And there is no detail spared on the most important part of the book: the recipes.
Man'oushe is derived from the Arabic word na'sh which refers to the way the wild thyme (zaatar) "engraves" the dough and there are instructions on how to make everything from the simplest mountain favorite awarma man'oushe to the Armenian classic lahm bi'ajeen, which includes mouth-watering red pepper seasoning. Each recipe includes full details of ingredients and amounts needed written in clear and comprehensive English that even the most disastrous cooks among us can follow. There is also the key information of how to perfect the baking of Arabic bread from the initial preparation to the cooking as well as what cooking tools to use.
Finally "Man'oushe: Inside The Street Corner Lebanese Bakery" would not be the book it is without its photographs. Massaad and local photographer Raymond Yazbeck decorate the book with glossy images varying from village bakers and their ovens to the different faces of Lebanese who eat man'oushe, as well as numerous pictures of the man'oushes themselves and all the ingredients that go into them. It is ultimately a comprehensive and enjoyable work that makes you want to eat nothing but man'oushe all day long. Not bad for bread.
"Man'oushe: Inside The Street Corner Lebanese Bakery" by Barbara Abdeni Massaad is available in all major bookstores. For more information call Alarm Editions on +961 1 983 874.