James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Dish So Good It Makes You Mad at All the Other Food You’ve Eaten

Photo by: Mervat Salman

A Dish So Good It Makes You Mad at All the Other Food You’ve Eaten

Mana’eesh in Beirut

It’s my first morning in Beirut, a city that I have longed to visit, and I am standing outside Barbar. It is time to eat mana’eesh.

Mana’eesh is a flatbread topped with za’atar—a thyme spice mix—or cheese, or za’atar and cheese, or meat. It sounds simple, but it’s one of those things that you eat once and wonder how you spent your entire life without it, angry at all the food you ate instead, when you could have just been eating mana’eesh.

At Barbar, a local chain, I order a za’atar and cheese mana’eesh. Around me, people are already ripping away the wrappings, diving into the wrapped bread. Should I be doing the same? I decide to only open mine when I’m home, to savor it. A few bites later, I wish I could take this mana’esh back to the baker at my local makhbaz in Amman, who presides over doughy concoctions that sit in one’s stomach like a horrendous, carb-laden mistake, and tell him this is how it’s done. This mana’eesh—savory, crisp, fresh—is addictive.

So I return to Barbar. I have lunch there. One day I eat three meals at Barbar—breakfast, lunch, dinner. I try out za’atar topped with tomatoes and olives—an utter revelation. I try another mana’eesh place, but it doesn’t seem as good. Barbar is a chain, so perhaps what I want is the assembly-line, standardized taste.

Over the next few days, I eat mana’eesh every day. I also eat all sorts of other amazing food—homemade kibbeh, a full tasting menu of Herati cuisine. But I keep going back to Barbar. This is what happens when I discover a new food; I go back again and again, ordering the same thing on repeat. It’s like an earworm of a song that requires round-the-clock listening until it gets out of your system.

I try to convince myself I’m saving money by eating “street food.”

I convince no one.

A few days later, I am done with mana’eesh. Barbar keeps calling out to me invitingly as I pass the late-night crowds waiting for their orders. But I’d rather eat anything else. I browse through a list of Beirut must-eats that includes a croissant place, which is a convenient 10-minute walk from where I’m staying. And now all I can think of is croissants, like I’ve never eaten a croissant before, like I’ve been starving for days.

When I get to the bakery, the boy behind the counter smirks when I ask for a plain croissant: there’s only chocolate, za’atar, and cheese.

This does not stop me: I leave with a bagful of warm, flaky croissants. I’m not even mad to discover that he included a za’atar one. I eat one for breakfast, another before lunch. I go back for more. I eat a croissant before my flight to Amman. When I leave Beirut, there’s a bag of fresh croissants in my carry-on bag. I am a woman obsessed.

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