From the root verb ‘naqasha” meaning to sculpt or carve out, it comes from the way that after the dough has been rolled flat, it is stamped and pressed with the fingertips to create little dips for the topping to lie in. The dough is thus flattened using one’s fingers, leaving tiny, round dimples on the top of the Man’ouché to hold even more of whatever wet topping you may be using.
As for the toppings, it can be served with any number of tempting morsels (one baker in Beirut serves upwards of 70 different toppings), but the four classics are:
• Zaatar (zaatar is a generic word that means thyme, but also oregano and hyssop. The spice mixture better known as zaatar is always composed of at least dried thyme and sesame seeds. The exact recipe for zaatar varies from nation to nation, and even household to household, but it is usually made of dried thyme, oregano, marjoram or some combination thereof, mixed with toasted sesame seeds, salt, and other spices such as sumac. It is this combination that gives zaatar its amazing, unique flavor one that is aromatic, and tangy at the same time. The zaatar is then mixed with olive oil and spread onto the dough before it is baked in the oven. The real challenge, though, is to find the perfect zaatar.
• Jibneh - Cheese, where two different cheeses can be used: Akkawi and Kachkaval, or a mixture thereof.
• Lāḥm bi-‘ajīn - Minced Lamb that is mixed with tiny pieces of diced tomato, vegetable oil and ground pepper.
• Kishk - a mixture of fermented dried yogurt and finely ground wheat.
Often, the baker will mix two of these classics together to enhance the flavor, creating something called a ‘cocktail’. A Man’ouché with zaatar would also often be served with dollops of labneh, or rolled up with vegetables (tomato, cucumber, olive, mint) while a Man’ouché with jibneh is often served with a mixture of spinach and diced tomato, or even with sojok or kafta. Man’ouché: To be consumed without moderation.
As a general rule, the Lebanese like to establish Top 10 lists and all sorts of rankings, we’re always organizing and grading things. In order to properly develop this critique, we visited more than twenty "specialists" in the market over a period of two months. Passing through Achrafieh, Hamra, Gemmayze, Mazraa, Bliss, Badaro, Hrajel, Faraya and Batroun – we visited the best known spots, but also the small corners where the locals meet to discuss the latest gossip ... We will not name all these places, let alone establish a Top 10, especially as there are surely still too many we have not visited ... But let’s just say, there are two that deserve a special mention: Emm Bachir and Abu Chadi.
The criteria we were considering included cleanliness and hygiene, the friendliness of the staff, but most importantly, the quality of the oil used and the ratio of everything included in the man’ouché, as well as the crunchiness of the dough, the size, the price and of course the quality of the ingredients. Ironically, most shops we visited had no sign whatsoever: but people still knew where they were. Not only that, most had no door; they were right there, just on open to the street, an open kitchen with the fumes and dust sharing the same space as your food. It’s fast food, cheap food and it’s mostly unhygienic. Not only this, but most shops just reheat the products they have already pre-prepared – and the ones on display are just unappealing. You have to ask for a new one to be made if you’re looking for the best experience, and some bakers won’t indulge you. Even then, they don’t take the time to bake it thoroughly, so most of them sit heavy on your stomach.
Let’s be realistic. You just can’t pay 1,000 LBP for a man’ouché and expect it to be a delicacy. You want a good man’ouché, you have to pay a fair price. You have to go where they use grade A ingredients. The dough is the easy part. It’s just water and yeast and salt mixed with the flour. You just have to know the ratios. The expensive part is the topping and the oil and how much of the ingredients you put in. After all, a premium extra virgin olive oil costs upwards of $250 for a 16Kg can; a good zaatar goes for as much as $30 per Kg; and we haven’t even got to the premium Akkawi cheese, or the minced lamb and pine nuts that go into a good lāḥm bi-‘ajīn.
Most bakers barely use olive oil, so the zaatar falls off as soon as you pick up your man2ouché. Others use too much olive oil, if that’s what it is, and it’s so oily that it burns your stomach. As for their cheese man’ouché, some use a very powdery cheese, others don’t even heat it enough to melt it, while others are very salty, and yet more simply use processed cheese! The dough is either not crunchy enough or just too chewy, and most of the time the bare minimum amounts of ingredients are used to keep the price low, and yet some go as high as 6,000 LBP per man2ouché! Most often, it just feels heavy and doughy, and it sits on your stomach.
This is why Abu Chadi, a.k.a. 3ammo man’ouché, is different. Abu Chadi is a very friendly neighborhood baker based in Caracas (Ras Beirut), and everybody in the area seems to know him and pauses to say hello or share a story. He started work in 1988, and now his sons (Chadi or Ali) handles the oven, while he oversees the business. His wife created his most special mix: man’ouché with akkawi cheese topped with a rich mixture of bakleh, spinach, tomato and onion. The same toppings also work perfectly on his man’ouché with zaatar. In fact, Abu Chadi is known for his creative mixes and his “machrou7a” size breads, and they are all delicious, even if some are a bit on the heavy side, like the kafta with jibneh or the soujok with jibneh, especially if you head there early in the morning. But you can’t go wrong munching on a plain man’ouché either: zaatar, cheese or minced meat (sprinkled with some lemon zest and hot pepper upon request) – you are guaranteed to enjoy top quality ingredients, and a great dough, crispy on the outside, and just thick enough to contain all the ingredients he pours in. Expect to pay about 4,000 or 5,000 LBP per man’ouché at Abu Chadi, but their size and filling are worth the price, especially considering the quality of the ingredients used.
Now Emm Bachir does for saj what Abu Chadi does for the man’ouché. She started in 1989, a year later than 3ammo man’ouché. Her dough is so thin and crunchy with a very nice chew to it, and all the ingredients are fresh from the mountains. These days, most of the time either her husband or daughter handles the saj oven. They now have a seating area by the terrace that overlooks the valley, so next time you are on your way to Faraya, pass by Emm Bachir in Hrajel and enjoy a tantalizing saj man’ouché. But make sure you pass by early in the morning on your way up, because it will most certainly be closed by the time you head back down to Beirut. In fact most days they are closed by 3pm. Now, although the best option would be to go for a kichek saj or kawarma with labneh baladiyye on saj, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. The cheese with chili saj is a delight if you like your food spicy, and the zaatar saj is very tasty as well. But given that you’ve burnt a lot of calories on the ski slopes, a good kawarma is worth your while. The only downside is that she can be grumpy, and so can her daughter! A smile might lighten the mood. But with or without a smile, their saj is worth the trip.
Cordon COURTINE is the pen name of our undercover food critic
on Instagram : cordon.courtine
on Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/CordonCourtine/
Email : email@example.com