There was an extended period of time back in 2010 and 2011, when the bakery across the street would receive a call from me every week. “Za’atar and cheese manousheh, extra thin bread, brown please.”
A bubbling hot, appropriately greasy manousheh is not just my Achilles heel, it is the default setting in my brain. And I would argue, it is no different for many other long-time residents in the city even though we don’t debate it to death as we do with shawarma and biryani. We rarely bicker over which bakery flips out the best mana’eesh (plural for manousheh), but these floppy, dimpled Levantine pizzas silently serve as one of the city’s most popular comfort foods. The dimples also give them their name “naksha”, meaning mark or depression, which the baker impresses into the tender dough to ensure it doesn’t inflate with air bubbles when slid into the oven.
Mana’eesh is one of those foods we rarely make an event out of; it is usually the quick breakfast, pick-me-up snack or midnight delivery order that arrives at our doorsteps, smeared with a mix of salty cheese, fruity olive oil and fragrant za’atar. We typically patronise the bakeries in our neighbourhood, which is why the children of Karama and Jumeirah have such unshakeable loyalties to the juicy shirt-staining slices from Al Reef.
Al Reef continues to spin out one of the city’s cheapest and most satisfying thin-crust mana’eesh, because they sidestep the fuss of service and simply slide it over to customers seconds after it emerges piping-hot from the oven. And while the crowd-pleaser toppings include gooey cheese, a paste of fragrant za’atar (often thyme, sesame seeds, ground sumac berries and salt) or minced meat, I recently discovered a spicy tomato and sweet pepper manousheh. It was sour, hot and briny, and was best washed down with a swig of Chitoora minty laban.
While Al Reef may have been one of the first to fire up its mana’eesh ovens in the eighties, the city is now ablaze with both small, independent roadside shops and massive city-wide chains including Zaatar W Zeit and Manousheh Street. The latter feels healthier than most other mana’eesh; I appreciate that they don’t overwhelm their za’atar with thick wads of cheese, much as I love cheese.
It may not be the manousheh for the Al Reef brand of patron who appreciates the naughty pools of oil and heavy-handedness with sloppy cheese, eaten outside by the cars at two in the morning. But it’s exactly the sort of light yet fulfilling lunch that I have ordered in to squash hunger pangs during hectic workdays, with the guarantee that I won’t fall asleep at my desk right after.
Mama’esh is a more recent homegrown Palestinian brand in Business Bay and in Al Manara, and the only one I would be willing to drive out for. Their mana’eesh is proof that a good pie is not just about freshness, it’s about feeling – and something about their mana’eesh feels like home. The toppings are vibrant, flavourful and balanced, with my top choices being either the squeaky nabulsi cheese manousheh or the classic za’atar and cheese.
Palestinian dentist turned baker Hussam Al Batta who founded it is one of those exceedingly reticent people whose sincerity and humility is baked into the food and the attitude of the people working with him. There are subtle touches that make you feel loved as a diner, be it the use of organic flour at a price point that is on par with or even below many other bakeries in the city, bottles of fair trade Palestinian olive oil, or the curvaceous jars of chilli paste and goat’s milk nabulsi cheese decorating the counters. Or most importantly, the free filtered local water – because Hussam believes that water is your human right.
While most of us in the UAE simply stroll into a bakery and order the topping of our choice, it is not uncommon in countries like Lebanon and Palestine for people to visit the bakery with their own homemade blends like za’atar, cheese or minced meat. Anissa Helou, one of the region’s respected food writers on Lebanese cuisine, writes that in Lebanon, ‘Home cooks simply prepare their own thyme mixture, which they send out to the nearest public bakery to be cooked on the baker’s dough in a long, tunnel-shaped, earth oven fuelled by a strong wood fire at the bottom. Although home-made Thyme bread is delicious, it never tastes quite as good as when it is baked in a tunnel oven. The wood flavour and heat distribution can never be reproduced in a domestic oven.’ (Lebanese Cuisine, Anissa Helou, 2003)
That said, nothing can match having your home smell like the neighbourhood bakery. The wife of an Emirati acquaintance once demonstrated a no-brainer dough recipe that has been quite forgiving of my imprecise measurements: for every two cups of flour (I often use a 1:1 ratio of whole wheat and white), a tablespoon of milk powder and a teaspoon of yeast. That’s the end of the measured recipe. I then eyeball the salt, skip the sugar, and if I am feeling optimistic, I might stir a beaten egg into the mix. None of the spoons used are measuring spoons. Yet, somehow the ingredients magically work together to form a smooth pliable dough that I will often slather with a paste of EVOO and za’atar, and boiled softened chunks of cheese – Akkawi or Nabulsi, or sometimes I’ll ambitiously use both.
The baking process is equally fuss-free – I bake the pie in a cast-iron skillet in an oven whose dial has been cranked up to the hottest setting. Within a few minutes of glaring through the oven door, my manousheh is ready. But even more satisfying than that sight is an aroma that my neighborhood bakery can never deliver home. Of warm bread, sour berries, a damp forest floor and bitter herbs, all at once.