Manakeesh, a breakfast staple in the Levant region, is one of Lebanon’s most famous, and tasty, favorite foods
You can gauge the popularity of a manakeesh bakery by the crowd outside. The small shops dot every neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon coalescing around hospitals, schools, administrative buildings and business districts, but the good ones are never empty. In the thick of summer, heat emanates from their brick ovens crisping slabs of circular dough. A manakeesh is close to a pizza, though its flavors are very different than your traditional plain slice. It can be topped by cheese, or ground meat, or just spices.
When I ask Zaher Yahya, 42, why Faysal’s, his brother’s bakery, is so famous, he has the usual pitch. Everything is fresh. It’s well-known. But when he points to the tiled orange-and-white entry way I know I’ve hit gold. He says proudly, “There’s no door. It’s open 24/7.”
Located in West Beirut near American University in Beirut, Faysal’s draws a mixed crowd. There’s doctors and residents from the nearby teaching hospital, undergraduates, as well as military men decked out in camo, guarding the Saudi Arabian embassy that is down the street. When I stop in on a warm fall day in October, there are the other usual suspects: Delivery boys rushing in and out, a young couple enjoying a quick lunch together, a man and his son pulling up to the saved parking spot out front to pick up a large order of manakeesh.
I had ordered my favorite manakeesh—a mixture of za’atar spice and jibneh, or akawaki, a soft white cheese that has to be soaked in water for a few hours to achieve the perfect stringiness. Think the consistency of mozzarella with the salty kick of a feta. Their za’atar—a mix of wild thyme, sesame seeds and sumac that is a key ingredient in Lebanese cooking and varies widely from region to region and cook to cook—was tangier than most.
After a week of diligently eating manakeesh, I decided to ask for mine al khoudra, or with mint, tomatoes and olives. It was a good decision. The olives were green, rather than the canned black variety. The mint was fresh and not added too soon, which can lead to instant wilting in the heat of the cheese. And as for the manakeesh itself, I’ll borrow a Lebanese expression and say: ooof!
Despite the thick crust, which in lesser-made versions can be too chewy, Faysal’s manakeesh crust is the perfect mix of sponginess and crispiness. Other notable dishes of theirs include Chicken Faysal, chicken with cheese, lettuce and corn, as well as their trablouseh pastry, featuring a thick minced meat pastry drizzled with pomegranate sauce.
During our tour, Zaher takes me to the back of the bakery, where wooden slabs are lined with wet dough configuration: the circles of manakeesh, the triangles of spinach fatayer, the small rolls of rakat jbneh or cheese sticks. He tells me that the bakery goes through twelve fifty-kilo bags of flour a week. When I press him on which flour is used for which pastry, he lets me know that I’m treading into family secret territory.
“It’s hard to work with family but easier than working with other people,” says Zaher, after explaining that most of the extended clan were involved in some way. As for his brother, the founder of the empire, he says that he still comes in to work everyday. If he weren’t there, than who would be running things?
While most manakeesh are wrapped in a soft white paper and then packed into plastic bags, Faysal’s goes the distance with blue and orange papers branded with their name and start date: 1984. The Lebanese Civil war was from 1975 to1990, putting their opening smack dab in the middle of conflict. But when I ask Zaher about it, he says it wasn’t difficult to start a business.
“It was easier to open during the war,” he says with a smile. “There was no rent.”