I am slowly moving towards another momentous step in my life with the possible purchase of a spectacular plot of land in Sicily where I will build my dream home. Well, perhaps not quite a dream house but certainly one with a separate laundry room and cinema room, and with gorgeous views whichever way I turn, although perhaps not as varied as those on Mary Taylor Simeti’s farm where I am spending more and more time getting used to life in Sicily. And one way of getting used to life in a new country is to cook the local food which I did recently, grilling stigghiole (baby lamb’s intestines) with Mary and Tonino, her lovely husband. I should really be frank here and admit to having done nothing apart from watching them do the grilling.
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.
Until I started researching Mediterranean Street Food, I only knew fatayer (Lebanese triangular savoury pastries) as dainty little triangles, made at home by my mother and grandmother who were uncanny in how perfectly they shaped them and how well they sealed them so that none of the juice from the filling trickled out to spoil the look of the golden triangles. I also ate fatayer in restaurants of course. They were a little less dainty and a little less sour and with more crust than filling. But somehow I had never had them from a bakery. Perhaps because my mother sent out toppings for manaqish to the bakery for the baker to make our manaqish but she always made the fatayer at home. Things change naturally and my mother is no longer so young and now has her fatayer made by Emile, our local baker whose dough is just amazing. Of course, his fatayer are not dainty — unless it is a special order bakers make large fatayer for people to have as a snack or as a quick lunch on the go — but they are just as good as my mother’s and when I saw the fresh baqleh (purslane) at the greengrocer, I bought some and asked my mother to make the filling to take to Emile for him to make the fatayer.
If there is one food that is essential to most Arabs, it is bread and nowhere is it more essential than in Cairo which I like to call the city of bread. Wherever you go, you will see bread being baked, or sold, or consumed or simply carried home a little like the ubiquitous French baguette, except that in Egypt it is aysh baladi or shami that is the national loaf. Aysh means life indicating the importance of bread — elsewhere in the Arab world bread is called khobz — while baladi means local; it describes bread made with wholewheat flour while shami which means Levantine describes bread made with regular white flour.