Mana’eesh and Za'atar Recipes
from Reem Assil's _Arabiyya_
Herby Za’atar Flatbreads
Makes eight 10-inch topped flatbreads
THE MAN’OUSHE (SINGULAR for mana’eesh) is the quintessential street food of the Levant. Wherever you go in the streets of Damascus, Beirut, or Jerusalem, you’ll see professionals, students, families, and their children all enjoying piping hot flatbreads, usually slathered with herbaceous za’atar. They’re eaten while walking down the street on the way to work or school, sitting in cafés, or around the breakfast table. Among my favorite memories in Syria and Lebanon is heading to one of the corner bakeries and ordering flatbreads by the dozen. Slid right out of the oven into pizza boxes, my cousins and I would rush back to an aunt or uncle’s home and devour them without a single word exchanged.
In today’s Arab world, bakeries offer book-length menus of every imaginable topping. But in the old days, according to my mother, every household would bring their own special toppings to the local baker, whether it was a family-secret za’atar formula or homemade cheese, to bake fresh in the inferno of an open oven.
I hope to one day bring back the tradition of the “communal oven.” At the beginning of my bakery journey, I obsessed over Barbara Massoud’s book Man’oushé. With its beautiful illustrations of flatbreads, it became my bible as I methodically worked, through trial and error, to perfect my dough. The more I read about mana’eesh, the greater my certainty that these flatbreads were the missing piece in Arab immigrants’ US food experience.
1 recipe Basic Yeasted Dough or Basic Sourdough
All-purpose flour for dusting the dough
Semolina flour for dusting the pan
¾ cup Za’atar (recipe follows)
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Divide the prepared risen dough into 8 pieces (about 170 grams each). Shape the pieces into rounds, cover with a dry dish towel (or brush the dough with a bit of oil and cover gently with plastic wrap), and let rest for another 30 minutes. If you are not baking right away, you can also shape and set aside in the refrigerator until you are ready to bake.
When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500°F. Arrange the oven racks on the upper and lower thirds of the oven; if you are using a baking stone, remove the lower rack from the oven, place the pizza stone on the floor of the oven, and preheat the oven for at least 45 minutes.
Place the dough rounds on a lightly floured work surface, sprinkle them with flour, and pat each round into a 4-inch disk. Working your way around the rim of each disk, use your thumb and index finger to pinch the edges and stretch out the dough. (If the dough is resistant, allow the round to rest, covered with plastic wrap or a dish towel, for another 5 to 10 minutes.) Once you have pinched around the whole circle, sprinkle with a light dusting of flour. Continue the process for the remaining disks.
Using a rolling pin, roll out each round, up and then down once, shift a quarter turn, and repeat the process, dusting with flour as needed, until you have a 10-inch disk. Continue the process for the remaining disks. If space is limited, stagger your disks on top of each other and dust with an ample amount of flour. Let the disks rest for another 5 minutes
To make the za’atar-oil mixture: In a small bowl, combine the za’atar and oil, gradually whisking or stirring until it is the texture of a viscous pesto.
Sprinkle a thin layer of semolina flour over an inverted sheet tray and place one disk on it. Spoon about 2 tablespoons (about 1 ounce) of the za’atar-oil topping onto the dough and use the back of the spoon to spread it nearly to the edges, leaving about a ⅛-inch rim.
Place the sheet tray on the upper rack and bake for 2 minutes, until bubbles start to form and the bread starts to develop a crust. Remove the sheet tray from the oven and, with tongs (or your hands if you dare!), transfer the par-baked flatbread directly onto the bottom rack or onto the stone and bake until the edges and the crust are brown about 3 minutes more. Repeat the process with the remaining rounds. Enjoy it sliced like a pizza or rolled up.
Variation: Za’atar and Cheese Topping “Cocktail” Style
This is a Lebanese favorite, for those who prefer two different toppings on the same flatbread. To make, spread 1 tablespoon of the za’atar-oil topping on one-half of the round and ¼ cup of grated melting cheese, such as mozzarella or Oaxaca, on the other half. Leave a ⅛-inch rim all around. Then bake according to the directions.
NOTE: If you’re feeling brave and have a dough peel, you can also cook the flatbread directly on the baking stone for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the edges and bottom of the dough are spotted and golden.
ADD SOME LOVE TO YOUR MANA’EESH
I like to prepare various combinations of the following toppings for my mana’eesh before they go into the oven. These ingredients have a warming affect and make these flatbreads substantial meals. There is nothing like the taste of hot melted cheese and cured meats baked right onto my bread.
Before the Oven
Charred or roasted seasonal vegetables
Sausage (I like sujuk, an Armenian spiced sausage, or merguez, a Moroccan spiced sausage)
Cured meat (I like basturma, sliced thin like prosciutto)
Feta or goat cheese
Aged cheese like Swiss or Gruyère
Garlic or tomato
Roast chicken or lamb
I finish off my mana’eesh with one or another of the following toppings to bring them to life with an element of healthy freshness. At Reem’s, serving mana’eesh with a perfectly ripened avocado or fresh arugula is, indeed, adding some California love. These ingredients have a cooling effect and provide a perfect counterbalance to the heavier warming ingredients that go on before the oven.
After the Oven
Fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and arugula
Freshly chopped or whole herbs
Toasted nuts or seeds
Labneh or sour cream
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Wild Thyme, Sumac, and Sesame Mix
Makes 1 cup
NUTTY, TART, HERBACEOUS za’atar is a beloved spice mix of my childhood. No Arab household from the Levant is complete without it. Activated by heat, za’atar in olive oil emits an irresistible savory scent. When I was building my bakery, I joked about creating a fan system to blow the za’atar scent into the street to lure people in, just as with Mrs. Field’s Cookies. That ploy turned out to be unnecessary, however, since curiosity quickly turns to delight after people taste za’atar for the first time. I’m often asked if the taste can be bottled up to take home. Luckily, since this is a spice mix, it can!
Za’atar is the ultimate superfood of Greater Syria, or Bilad al Sham. It has antiseptic qualities, helping to strengthen immunity and prevent foodborne illnesses, and it contains iron, supporting bone strength and blood circulation. Many Arabs I know say their mothers used to feed them za’atar before a big test to improve memory; enthusiasts insist the medical research backs them up. It doesn’t take a scientist to affirm that the power of this flavor combo lights up the frontal lobe and leaves happy bellies in its wake.
Many breakfasts start with a small plate, filled half with za’atar and half with good-quality olive oil. Eaten the Arab way, we dip our bread into the oil to create an adhesive and then dip it into the spice mix. The combo of grassy, fruity oil with the complex flavors in this spice mix make it comforting and craveable enough to eat daily over a lifetime. Mix yours with olive oil or sprinkle on meat, salad, or anything else your heart desires.
Za’atar refers both to the spice mix and the plant that is the main ingredient, which translates to Syrian oregano or hyssop and can be found in specialty stores. If you cannot find it, you can substitute dried oregano or marjoram (or a combination of the two!).
¼ cup dried hyssop or Syrian oregano
2 teaspoons sumac
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
In a spice grinder or blender, pulse the hyssop to a fine powder. Sift to remove any stems. Mix with the sumac, salt, and sesame seeds.
Za’atar can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.
Reprinted with permission from Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora by Reem Assil, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Photographs copyright © 2022 by Alanna Hale
I've also been thinking about a community oven since we put in a wood-fired oven three years ago. Maybe, maybe I will finally start announcing "hot oven!" to the neighbors.