When your home is away from home, you find comfort in all the things you previously took for granted. All of a sudden, you get excited about finding that traditional drink you only used to have once a year. Then you start buying that chocolate brand you really dislike, just because you found it in the most unlikely of places. And because there’s nothing like a taste from home.
And nothing says taste from home to me more than a mankoushé on a Sunday morning. Also knows as Lebanese pizza, this is possibly the most popular of our traditional breakfasts (because yes, we do have a lot of them!) and the simplest. It basically looks like a pizza when it comes out of the oven, except that it usually has 1 topping and is eaten wrapped like a roll with some veggies. Traditionally, that topping has been zaatar (a blend of oregano, sesame seeds and sumac) or cheese, but in the last few years things started becoming more creative.
Mankoushé, the bakery named after the product, is the new kid on the block of Lebanese bakeries in Brunswick and reminds me a lot of modern style bakeries in Lebanon. It was opened about a year ago by 2 brothers who grew up in Lebanon and arrived to Australia a few years ago. As soon as you enter the place, you’ll notice funky Brunswick style drawings on the wall, a colour scheme of black and red, and music ranging from old school country to the modern crooning of Leonard Cohen. It’s a cosy bakery, and you’ll have the choice of sitting outside in what’s hopefully a bit of sun, or you can stay inside, watch the guys work and have a bit of a chat with them if they’re not too busy.
Then there’s the difficult task of choosing what to eat. The menu reminds me of the modern style bakeries found in Lebanon. It incorporates all the traditional items and then some more with a difference. But before I start describing the food, I must strongly recommend that you share a few things with your friends, otherwise you might end up with food envy. And trust me, you want to try as many things as possible from that menu!
Now on to the food itself: The zaatar with fresh veggies is a must-have for any beginner, the one and only, the original mankoushé that makes the heart of every Lebanese living abroad melt when they encounter it. Make sure you ask for it to be wrapped rather than presented as an open pizza, this will make the experience even more authentic. As far as cheese is concerned, the haloumi cheese pie is possibly my favourite, the spicy feta might be a little too spicy for some but definitely worth a try if you can handle hot food, and the shanklish (a sort of aged and dried cheese) is one of those items that traditionally isn’t on a mankoushé but somehow works really well. If you want to try something different, ask for zaatar and cheese mixed in the same mankoushé. This isn’t on the menu, but it’s amazing.
Stepping aside from the vegetarian options, the meat option called Lahmeh, or Lahm Bi Ajin in Lebanon, is usually a lunch item. It’s served with lemon juice and chili, though if you get it as takeaway, I recommend adding a bit of natural or greek style yoghurt and rolling it to eat it. That’s how we have it in Lebanon, and it is DIVINE.
Another not so meaty option is the Makanik, which are Lebanese sausages and are matched with tomato and some cheese. If you’re really really hungry, you just HAVE to try the Djej (Chicken), it is one of the least traditional items, but one of my favourites! I could go through the whole menu and tell you something about each item, but I’ll stop at this one, and I hope I’ve made you curious enough to go and try other mankoushés and pies yourself.
If you’re adventurous enough, I dare you to try the yoghurt drink, laban ayran. It’s not for everyone, and very few non-Lebanese people I know actually like it, but if it’s not a cup of tea, this is what we love drinking with the mankoushé. It’s basically natural yoghurt that has been watered down, and a bit of salt added to it. Sounds weird? Probably. But it’s something we grew up with. Lately the guys have also been selling delicious Lebanese sweets home made by their mom and baked in the wood-fired oven. Did I mention they’re delicious? Not too sweet, crunchy, the perfect snack to end your meal.
What I also particularly love about Mankoushé is that everything there is freshly made. None of this “we’ll bake a big batch and reheat them in the oven when customers come in”. Everything is freshly made and baked when you order, and you can clearly taste the difference in the dough. And for those interested, the guys can also make any of the items using spelt flour.
Once upon a time, I used to eat mankoushés about once a month. Now it’s about once a week.