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.
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.
Just back from visiting my mother in Lebanon and because I hadn’t been for nearly two years, it was a rather nostalgic visit. I did things that I used to do when I lived there like going to the bakery to make manaqish for breakfast. It wasn’t any of the bakeries of my youth in west Beirut because my mother now lives in Balluneh in the mountains but I love Emile, her new baker, just as much as I loved our bakers in Hamra even if Emile doesn’t use firewood. His dough is wonderful though and people bring their own topping or filling (a very common practice in Lebanon) for him and his worker to shape and bake manaqish, fatayer and lahm bil-ajine.
There are between 7 and 10 million Lebanese and Syrians in Brazil. And about 4 million of them are in Sao Paolo alone. As a result, Lebanese food is very familiar to Brazilians and specialities like sfiha (a term that covers both manaqish and fatayer) and kibbe have become part of the national culinary repertoire. And of course there are Lebanese restaurants galore. Some are good and some not so. I have now tried three and each is good in its own way even if they serve a different cuisine from the one I was brought up with. I guess it is because they have been in Brazil for several generations; and despite having preserved their culinary repertoire, serving unusual dishes like shish barak which is not normally found on restaurant menus, they have adapted and changed them slightly. A few days ago, I was taken by adorable Luiz Henrique Ligabue to Casa Garabed which loved, particularly the fact that it is in the garage and one bedroom of the owner’s home giving the restaurant a rather unusual feel: part bistrot and part home dining.