No visit to Lebanon, for me or for anyone elese for that matter, is complete without at least one manqousheh (or manousheh as they say it; most Lebanese people drop the q when they speak), the quintessential Lebanese breakfast. Most people will only eat manaqish (plural of manqousheh) made with their own za’tar and olive oil which they mix at home before taking it to their local baker for him to use with his dough (which by the way is the same as that for pita bread unless you are in the south but this is for another post) to make the manaqish, which are basically pizzas. The most common topping is za’tar but you can also have them topped with cheese or with cheese and za’tar or with kishk (a mixture of burghul and yoghurt that is first fermented then dried then ground very fine). The kishk is normally mixed with diced tomatoes, walnuts, sesame seeds and olive oil. These are the classic toppings but as with pizza you can use any topping you want.
When I wrote my Lebanese cookbook more than 20 years ago, sumac was still a relatively unknown ingredient, unlike now when almost everyone knows what it is, and more to the point can find it fairly easily. Anyhow, my mother told me all about how it is picked and dried, and then ground and I put all the information in the book together with how if you picked it from the wrong plant, you could die. Thank goodness for my mother being the fount of knowledge on all things culinary in Lebanon because I had never seen sumac either on the plant, or being dried and until recently, I only knew it in its ground form. But one day, a few years back, I was walking through souk el-Attarine in Aleppo and I found stalls selling sumac on the branch (‘ala al-’anqoud as it is described in Arabic) and whole berries after they have been rubbed off the branch; and one guy was selling it ground with the seed and ground without — I honestly could not tell the difference. And two years ago, I found it being sold on the branch driving through the south of Lebanon . However, it is only two days ago, that I finally saw the whole process.
A few years ago, my mother was quite ill and I spent a fair amount of time in Beirut, first making sure she got the right treatment then helping her recover. Quite naturally, this disturbed my London routine including who washed and ironed my thousand and one white shirts – those of you who know me, know that I only wear them. This may be a shallow consideration given the gravity of the situation but I needed to look impeccable regardless. This is where Sabah, a rare person, came into my life. She had just opened a dry cleaning place down from my mother’s home, and I took my first lot of shirts to her. Women in Lebanon are very fashion conscious (well, in a very Lebanese sort of way!) and few would consider wearing the same clothes two days in a row let alone have a uniform. My white shirts intrigued Sabah. She couldn’t understand why I had so many! I also intrigued her. She knew my mother but had never met me. But she was very well disposed towards me because of my mother, and became even more so when I told her I wrote about food.
If I could put my loft on a magic carpet, fly it to New York and land it somewhere in Chelsea within walking distance of Union Square, I would do so in a heartbeat. I love the city. It is actually my favourite! And I love Union Square Farmers market and wish we had something similar in London. It is not that we don’t have enough farmers market. We have plenty. But what they don’t offer is the tremendous variety that you find in Union Square. Take the top photo for instance: beautiful, graceful hands picking okra from a selection of red and green ones. As some of you know, I was brought up in Lebanon and Syria where okra is a common vegetable but I had never seen red okra before. Nor for that matter fat okra as pretty as those with the reddish tops in the picture below. It is not my favourite vegetable but if I lived in New York, it would certainly become one. At least at this time of the year.