The manousheh (plural manaeesh) is one of the defining staples of Lebanese food. In a country known for its divisions, the universally loved manousheh might be the breakfast food that unites all Lebanese.
A manousheh is a round flatbread cooked in a big oven or on top of a saj (a domed oven prevalent in the Levant), traditionally topped with zaater (a mix of thyme, olive oil, sesame seeds and sumac) or salty white akawi cheese. Manaeesh can be sliced or folded and, much like pizza, they can be thin or thick. In modern times, toppings have come to include a whole range of different ingredients, and there are even now dessert manaeesh that are topped with Nutella. Manaeesh are so popular that there is not one neighborhood, town or even remote village where they are not made.
Manaeesh are mostly eaten for breakfast or early lunch and often on the go. The best place for manaeesh is the local “snack” or fern (colloquially meaning a place that sells cheap food and pastries, and derived from the word for oven), which are ubiquitous in Lebanon. All snacks and ferns typically share similar traits: They are small places that have a large oven where the manaeesh are made, menus in Arabic and a small glass counter that shows off different baked goods, which can include fatayer (similar to the Greek spanokopita or tyropita) filled with spinach or cheese. Most ferns also open early in the morning and close after lunch, as eating manaeesh for dinner is something that’s unheard of. For many, the neighborhood fern is often a nostalgic place, where people from all classes exchange local gossip and enjoy a cheap, hot breakfast (manaeesh seldom cost more than $3 to $4).
Beirut hosts several historic ferns owned by families that have been making manaeesh for decades. A favorite among both locals and expats is Fern Ghattas, located in Beirut’s historic Gemmayze neighborhood. Although in the last 10 years Gemmayze has seen a surge in bars and restaurants, Gemmayze is full of beautiful old colonial houses and still retains its charm.
The Ghattas family opened their first bakery in 1920 on Rue Pasteur, a street parallel to Gemmayze Street, and the shop remained at that location until it was hit by a mortar shell during the early years of the Civil War. Thankfully, the family managed to procure a new spot on the ground floor of a beautiful stone building a street over. As we waited in line during a recent visit, we overheard an elderly customer chatting with owner Robert Ghattas and his son Elie about how all the other ferns on the street paled in comparison to theirs.
The manaeesh at Fern Ghattas are of exceptional quality. They are large, round and instantly melt in your mouth. The standout is the manousheh with bulgari cheese, diced tomato, onion and spices, all of which make for a great savory combination. When we asked what made his manaeesh so special, Robert merely chuckled, “The ingredients in any good manousheh are water, flour and yeast. The trick is getting the proportion of each right, and that we can’t give away.” Although his fern serves traditional manaeesh, he also experiments with new combos like chicken tandoori manaeesh, which have proven to be extremely popular with the younger crowd. “I’ve been in this business for a long time, and so has my father and his father and his father,” he told us. “For a while I was running a bakery in Dallas in 2002, but after three years I came back. I wanted to stay here and keep running the shop.”
Also a firm favorite is Snack Faysal, located in an old two-story house at the end of Beirut’s popular Bliss Street, famous for its eateries frequented by students at the nearby American University of Beirut. The venue is popular with the late-night after-party crowd, thanks to being one of the few ferns that are open 24 hours. Faysal not only serves top-notch manaeesh, our favorite being the kishik (dried yogurt with bulgur wheat) and cheese, it also serves a wide range of baked goods not found at your typical Beirut fern. These include Tripoli-style meat pies, small pies filled with spicy cheese and buns full of melted white salty cheese. Although newer to the game, having only opened in 1983, Snack Faysal has become a Ras Beirut landmark. Zaher Yehya, the owner’s cousin, recounted its humble origins: “Faysal [the owner] worked in a restaurant growing up and, wanting to have his own place as well as to do something with his dad’s shoe repair shop, he opened Snack Faysal. By the 1990s we were so popular we decided to stay open 24 hours.” Faysal also makes and sells boxes full of tiny little manaeesh topped with zaater or kishik, which are baked until crispy and eaten as snacks.
Another personal and local favorite is Snack Hamadeh, where you can even spot well-heeled bankers dressed to the nines (the Lebanese Central Bank is nearby) enjoying a manousheh and an orange juice outside the tiny little shop. Several workers dot back and forth to keep the long queues going. Hamadeh’s manaeesh might be on the small side, but they pack a flavorful punch, topped with a rich and tangy zaater mix and kishik, which has a smooth and buttery taste. Each morning, owner Hassan Hamadeh can be seen manning the cash register himself. He talks proudly about the fern and its origins: “Our family is originally from Nabatieh in south Lebanon. Further down the road, we opened our first fern in Beirut in the 1960s, called Fern Ras Beirut. In the 1990s, unfortunately, someone bought the building and made us leave, so we took up here.” Much like Ghattas, he has no intention of divulging the secret to what makes his manaeesh so good: “Making our delicious manaeesh is of course a family secret. We’d be ruined if we gave the secret away!”