[Daily Star staff by Matthew Mosley: Friday, June 12, 2009: Casting a light on Lebanon's traditional fast food,
Barbara Abdeni Massaad discusses the gestation of 'Man'oushe']
BEIRUT: "Nobody ever says 'no' to me," says writer and photographer Barbara Abdeni Massaad. "I'm not sure why." Chatting with Massaad over coffee and cake in her kitchen, which in recent years has doubled as a laboratory for the writer's culinary adventures, the reason soon becomes pretty clear. Massaad is possessed of an iron will.
Her account of the gestation of her cookbook "Man'oushe" (aka "Manqousheh") provides a case in point. "I decided I wanted [photographer] Raymond Yazbeck to take the pictures," Massaad says, "but he had his own projects going on. He said he was too busy. So I turned up the next day and asked, 'When are we going to start?'"
Massad's steely determination is about to bring her to the international stage. "Man'oushe" has already been awarded the special jury prize of the Gourmand Cookbook Awards, a kind of culinary Oscars. In Paris on July 1 the tome will go head-to-head against all the other notable cookbooks of the world in competition for top prize. Massaad and family are flying out for the ceremony in the Comedie-Francaise.
Although the main subject of "Man'oushe" is of course the titular breakfast flatbread - which in its classic form is adorned with a mixture of olive oil, zaatar and sesame seeds - the luscious photography that dominates Massaad's book broadens its ambit into a snapshot of a country and its inhabitants.
"We didn't just go to Achrafieh and take photos there," she says. "Food is our common denominator. I travelled all over the country, and I discovered a side to Lebanon that many people don't see even when they've lived here their whole lives. This is a portrait of Lebanon through man'oushe."
Despite winning over Yazbeck, who produced "The Stone," a book documenting Lebanon's stone houses, Massaad ended up taking the majority of the photographs herself. "I had such an exact idea of what I wanted," she explains. "Raymond encouraged me to have a go myself. We travelled the country together, both working on our own projects, and I learned so much from him. When does that ever happen - the chance to learn the ropes from such an incredible photographer?"
The resulting images form a compelling cross-section of Lebanese society. From hip city-slickers at Zaatar w Zeit to a Druze farmer, hoe in hand and sporting a spectacular walrus moustache, the reader encounters an array of dough-munching characters. For the second edition, which has just been released, Massaad and her associates worked extensively on the calibration of the photographs to give the images an exceptional lustre. The red of a Barbar chef's apron almost socks the reader in the eye.
Although the varied faces are the big draw of the book, foodstuffs are lovingly captured as well. A man'oushe zaatar sits on a board surrounded by its traditional accompaniments - olives, tomato, onion, mint - sombre and luminous as a Spanish still life. A hand grasps a head of spinach, the red of the chipped nail varnish reflected in stains at the base of the plant.
Massaad might have genetics to thank for her skills with the camera. Her father George, a celebrated photographer, snapped stars such as Sabbah before the family left for America in the early 1980s. Massaad attended high-school there, her passion for food inflamed at the age of 15 when her father opened a Lebanese restaurant in Florida.
An 18-year-old Massaad returned to Lebanon with her family at the end of the 1980’s, quickly finding herself married, going on to produce three children. Cooking became a form of therapy for the young mother.
"The kitchen provided me with an escape," she writes in "Man'oushe." "Over time my focus became dough making. I find that making dough is very gratifying."
Bread-making is no mere hobby for the author, however. Before starting on her book, Massaad marched into her local furn (bakery) and demanded to work alongside them, learning man'oushe-making from the masters. "[S]liding the pies from the wooden board into the gas-fired oven requires real skill," she writes. "I practiced doing it with a mocking baker over my shoulder. Not an easy task."
After this baptism of fire, Massaad felt ready to embark on her culinary tour of Lebanon. "I wanted to live through this journey and document it," she says. "The photography and the writing happened at the same time.
"People were so kind. There are great differences within the Lebanese, but this difference is what makes us so special."
Massaad speaks of receiving incredible hospitality all the way from Nabatiyeh to Ehden. "You have to get out there and discover these places," she exorts. "These experiences don't come to you by themselves."
As well as documenting Massaad's journey from motherhood to man'oushe-making, the book offers step-by-step guides to making every variety of bread-based snack, from spinach fatayer (the triangle-shaped turnovers) to a type of spicy red pepper flatbread beloved of the Armenian community.
"Of course, most people who live here just go to the local bakery," Massaad says. "But many Lebanese people living abroad use the recipes - you can make any of them in a household oven. I feel very glad to have recorded these food traditions for the generations to come."
The author is excited about the upcoming ceremony. Whereas most cookbook-competitors are allocated a sole two seats in the Comedie-Francaise, Massaad demanded places for her children as well. Like many before him, Edouard Cointreau, president of the awards, found Massaad impossible to turn down.
"These are the lessons of life we pass on to our children," says Massaad. "It's not all 'This is the time you should go to bed.' No, it's that if you are determined and persistent, you can achieve your dreams. So many people laughed at me about my plan to make a man'oushe cookbook. Now I'm travelling to Paris to represent Lebanon."
It looks like Massaad's steely determination is to be handed down to a new generation.
"Man'oushe" is self-published but widely available in discerning bookstores in Beirut
[Ramsay Short, The Daily Star, February, 2nd 2006]
It's a ramshackle little place just down the street from the more upmarket Zaatar wa Zeit - if man'oushe joints can be upmarket that is - and it hasn't closed down in the face of the latter's surging popularity. I like to think that's because of the thinness and crispiness of the bread when I order my regular jibne wa zaatar (cheese and thyme) man'oushe. Open 24 hours and baking constantly Nazareth, like many other tiny bakeries across the country, has its own charm and its own particular flavor. Write in and let us know yours. But after five years here even I, as an avid fan of the quintessential Lebanese breakfast snack, never imagined that there were more than 70 different recipes for it.
Like the Arabic language, which varies enormously in dialect from Morocco to Egypt and Iraq to Yemen, the man'oushe varies in taste and recipe from neighborhood to neighborhood across Lebanon and yet remains a common feature throughout, transcending all geographic and religious zones.
Barbara Abdeni Massaad knows this. The Lebanese writer and cook with an obsession for bread making and man'oushe has spent the better part of the last five years, in between taking care of her young children, traveling the country, discovering bakeries from Deir al-Qamar to Tyre, chatting with their proprietors and collecting their recipes - some dating back hundreds of years.
"Man'oushe: Inside The Street Corner Lebanese Bakery" (Alarm Editions) is the result. A beautiful cook book filled with original and individual recipes for different types of the national snack, "Man'oushe" is also a heartwarming (though perhaps little too much so) story of Massaad's own long journey as a 10-year old immigrant to the U.S. during the war and her eventual return to the family home in the mountains of
the Kesrouan and her later marriage in the picturesque old town of Byblos.
Not all readers may care for her tales of motherhood but many Lebanese readers will relate to her story for it is one they have shared. Still Massaad's acute observations of the people and places she met and traveled to across the length and breadth of the country are insightful - bringing out not only the flavor of the food but the flavor of its diverse and warm people.
And there is no detail spared on the most important part of the book: the recipes.
Man'oushe is derived from the Arabic word na'sh which refers to the way the wild thyme (zaatar) "engraves" the dough and there are instructions on how to make everything from the simplest mountain favorite awarma man'oushe to the Armenian classic lahm bi'ajeen, which includes mouth-watering red pepper seasoning. Each recipe includes full details of ingredients and amounts needed written in clear and comprehensive English that even the most disastrous cooks among us can follow. There is also the key information of how to perfect the baking of Arabic bread from the initial preparation to the cooking as well as what cooking tools to use.
Finally "Man'oushe: Inside The Street Corner Lebanese Bakery" would not be the book it is without its photographs. Massaad and local photographer Raymond Yazbeck decorate the book with glossy images varying from village bakers and their ovens to the different faces of Lebanese who eat man'oushe, as well as numerous pictures of the man'oushes themselves and all the ingredients that go into them. It is ultimately a comprehensive and enjoyable work that makes you want to eat nothing but man'oushe all day long. Not bad for bread.
"Man'oushe: Inside The Street Corner Lebanese Bakery" by Barbara Abdeni Massaad is available in all major bookstores.
[Time Out Beirut - April 2006, Book of the month: Man’oushé: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery]
The man’oushe is prevalent in this country that it’s rarely given a second thought. Thai is until now. Lebanese – American amateur chef Barbara Abdeni Massaad took the nation’s favorite breakfast snack to task in her recent cookery / culture book Man’oushé: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery.It reads a bit like a sentimental expatriate’s journey back to the homeland, but that’s not to say it isn’t useful. Colorfully and beautifully illustrated, it provides man’oushé lovers with an extensive 70 recipes from your basic zaatar topping to a more exotic meat preserve pie with kishk. Most of them are very easy to follow and once you’ve got the dough-making down pat, you won’t have much of a problem doing the rest. Massaad has also thoughtfully included recipes on how to make fatayer (turnovers) and how to bake the different breads that adorn the Lebanese dining table. It’s a great gift to offer friends who live abroad or you can buy it for yourself, place it on your coffee table and flip through it whenever the man’oushé urge hits. Alternately, go down to your local takeaway.
[Aishti magazine: Dec. 2005 / Jan 2006: Taste of Lebanon]
There is perhaps no other food more closely associated with Lebanon than the man’oushé. This local “thyme pie”, enjoyed either on its own or with various accompaniments such as labneh or fresh tomatoes, is now being celebrated in a new cookbook by Barbara abdeni massaad. The author, with the help of photographer Raymond Yazbeck, traveled throughout Lebanon to uncover the various man’oushé recipes available in the country. Along the way, she came across colorful stories toled by the Lebanese people – stories that one way or another relate to this most traditional of Lebanese foods. The result is an engaging, offbeat cookbook with truly splendid photos that capture a generous slice of Lebanese life. Man’oushé – Inside the street Corner Lebanese Bakery is scheduled to be launched at Librairie Antoine, inside ABC Mall in Ashrafieh on December 9.