14 December 2010

Sculpted with the hands: manaqish bi za'atar


The Arabic word for bread, aish, is also the word for life; and we say in English, Bread is the staff of life. It is at once the simplest and most basic sustenance, as well as one of the simplest but most evocative of pleasures—there's no mistaking the aroma of freshly-baked bread, the comforting savour as you bite into a piece still warm from the oven.

Manaqish is named according to its method: the surface of the dough is pressed with the fingers, creating a pattern of little wells for the toppings. It is a wonderfully easy bread to make and serve on charter—it needs only an hour's rise, so its journey from nothing more than a mound of flour to puffy golden disks fragrant with herbs and good olive oil and flakes of sea salt is brief.

When I first tasted it, I was a starry-eyed young traveller wandering the old city of Damascus, and it came accompanied by deliciously tangy labne (a drained yoghurt cheese) and ripe tomatoes... a breakfast I have relished in memory time and again, and have tried to recreate in floury-handed fact many times since.

I've since learnt, via the wonderful food blog of Fouad, that it is also a favourite breakfast in Lebanon—his evocatively written entry is a must-read.

I've adapted and modified this recipe to make it as charter-friendly as possible for a busy boat chef; and I've also rung certain non-traditional variations with the toppings, depending on my guests' preferences. But never do I fail to tell its story, and to serve at least one in the way I had it first and love it best: topped simply with olive oil and za'atar, that storied mix of sesame seeds and tart sumac and herbs—thyme, oregano or what was called hyssop—that links us, with each savoury bite, to the daily life of people of other landscapes in these essential forms:

Wheat. Olives. Wild herbs. Water. Salt.

web references

Manakish | Manaqish | Manakeesh
modified for the charter chef
serves an 8-pax boat for breakfast, plus the usual charter accompaniments

For the sponge:  whisk together 2 tablespoons of plain flour, 2 teaspoons sugar and one packet of dried yeast. Sprinkle on top of half a cup of water (at warm blood temperature), stir gently, and leave ten minutes until it forms a creamy and sweetly beer-scented foam.

For the dough:  combine 2 cups of whole wheat flour and 1 cup of plain flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, and add the sponge mixture. Begin to stir, adding up to another 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup of warm water as necessary. The dough should be a little wetter and stickier than a pizza dough.

Knead firmly for about ten minutes, or until the dough feels silky and elastic, with a lively 'spring'. Cover and leave in a warm spot to rise for about an hour. 

Portion the dough out into fist-sized balls (I have a small hand), and press or roll flat. Press your fingertips into the surface of each to form an overall pattern. Brush generously with a quality, flavourful extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with za'atar.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in a hot oven (200º C for me on our boat), or until the bottoms are crisp, and the tops are slightly puffed and golden. The rising aroma will let you know when they are ready! 
Serve with bowls of chopped ripe tomato, cucumbers and chopped fresh mint. Tell the story.

manaqish | kneadmanakish | dough

manaqish | press manaqish | oliveoil

manaqish | zaatarmanaqish | baked
variations I may sometimes top a few manakish with one or a combination of: chunks of fetta cheese, or slices of water-packed bocconcini, or roasted butternut squash and a handful of rocket, or cherry tomatoes or caramelised sweet golden shallots and lumps of chèvre... etc
manakish | breakfast
plain manakish + manakish with molten fresh mozzarella


  1. Replies
    1. How kind, thank you, Randi!

      Of all places, would you believe Bobby's (next to Bolos) sometimes stocks packets of za'atar... o.O


about this blog

Occasional vignettes from the life of a charter chef who loves simply messing about on boats.

"I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brains and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world."
MFK Fisher


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