Salty, lemony-herbed, olive-oil soaked flat bread. Add a hot mug of sweet mint tea, a fried egg, some oil-cured olives, ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, maybe a little white farmer's cheese, and you have yourself a proper Palestinian breakfast.
Mana'eesh, or in more classical Arabic, manaqeesh, is a flat, round loaf of bread - the same dough used for basic Arabic, or "pita" bread - topped with olive oil and za'atar, a thyme, sumac and sesame seasoning blend (click here to read more about za'atar). The word mana'eesh is actually the plural form of the word, so one loaf is called mana'oush, which means to carve out. Instead of puffed bread that forms pockets, this bread is flat, pressed down by the weight of the toppings.
Long before families had ovens in their homes, Palestinian women carried their trays of bread to communal ovens to bake their family's daily bread. They would top a few loaves with olive oil and za'atar (or other toppings), killing two birds with one stone by bringing home bread for the day and a special treat for breakfast.
And za'atar mana'esh is a special treat in Palestine - children clamour for it and fight for it the way children here might fight for doughnut holes. Today, it can be purchased at little bakeries or corner street vendors, and children and adults often buy a loaf as an on-the-go breakfast, or as a midmorning treat. It is also eaten at home, particularly for special occasions.
Mana'eesh is best eaten on the spot, hot and fresh. Whatever you don't eat that day, you should freeze and defrost later.
Palestinians usually just tear their loaves and eat them very simply, but you can also dip the loaves into labani, or yogurt cheese.
My favorite way is to slice tomatoes or cucumbers and fold it into a warm piece of mana'eesh and eat it taco-style. This is so good that the first time I had it, I almost cried. You can also stuff it with boiled or fried egg, olives, labani, or any combination of those things. And if eating this for breakfast doesn't appeal to you, of course, you can eat it any time of the day. It makes a great light supper.
Mana'eesh is as simple as bread, olive oil and za'atar. If you have some pita bread, you can split open the loaves, top it with a mixture of za'atar and olive oil, and bake until crispy. But for the real deal, make your own dough. You can use any pizza-type dough, rolled thinly, and then either bake it in the oven or cook it on your stove top. In keeping with traditional Palestinian methods, I use a sourdough bread without any yeast, and I prefer to bake it on the stove top, because I find that the texture is a little softer. Like the traditional Palestinian women of yesteryear, I often just make a few loaves of mana'eesh when I am making my sourdough pita bread, and eat them that day. If I make more mana'eesh, I freeze them at the end of the day and defrost them in the oven or on the stove top for a quick treat another day. Since olive oil contributes so much of the rich flavor to this bread, use the best olive oil you have in your pantry; I used a lovely cold-pressed organic extra virgin olive oil for a fruity and spicy finish. This is a fast bread - with no second rise, it can be ready in as little as an hour and a half.
Mana'eesh1 recipe Sourdough Arabic "Pita" Bread
3/4 cup za'atar*
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Prepare your bread dough, as described in the recipe above.
2. Preheat a cast iron griddle over medium heat. Roll out your dough into thin rounds, as large or as small as you like. The dough doesn't need to rest.
3. In a small bowl mix the za'atar and the olive oil. If you are just making a few loaves, mix up a quarter cup of za'atar with three tablespoons of olive oil.
4. Place your round of dough onto your griddle, and spread the za'atar and olive oil paste onto your dough, working quickly. If it is too thick to spread, add a little extra olive oil.
5. The loaves will cook in 3 or 4 minutes. The top will bubble - if it starts to actually puff, gently press down on the bread. Lift the loaf up slightly with a spatula and check that it is browned well (it will look spotty) and if it is, it is done.
6. Remove to a platter and eat quickly!
*Za'atar can be purchased at large grocery stores, Middle Eastern grocers, or online. If you want to make it, combine 1/4 cup ground thyme, 1/4 cup ground sumac, 1/4 cup sesame seeds and 1 tsp sea salt.
May this double your health.
Related posts:*Za'atar Bread, or Mana'eesh
*Spotlight on Ancient Herbs: Za'atar and Sumac
*Sourdough Arabic Bread
*Middle Eastern Breakfast Bowl: Za'atar Potato Hash with Fried Egg