Sometimes all you crave is something comforting and familiar to eat. In England that might be a boiled runny egg with soldiers, sweet and unctuous rice pudding or sausages and mounds of creamy mashed potato. To me, these all appeal but sometimes I crave food that I was brought up with, which is about as far away from sausage and mash as you can get.
I am half Lebanese and spent a huge amount of time in the Middle East as a child and teenager and so the unique flavours of this part of the world have always been familiar to me. Middle Eastern food is still something of an enigma in Great Britain. It seems to have been left behind as we embrace all sorts of cuisines these days, from Italian to Malaysian, but I find that, apart from hommous, many people don’t really know very much about it; how to cook it, where to eat it and where to buy the necessary ingredients. It is a wide and incredibly varied cuisine, with flavours which are often unfamiliar to the West, but are satisfying, fresh, balanced and often incredibly healthy. Apart from the very established concentration of Lebanese shops and restaurants around Edgware Road in London, (I could lose days shopping in Green Valley) it is hard to find good Middle Eastern restaurants or shops outside this area. Until recently, I could not name a celebrity chef who hailed from that part of the world, never mind a way of buying all these seemingly exotic ingredients outside London. Fortunately, chef Yotam Ottolenghi has bucked the trend with this and has introduced Britain, at least, to the joys of this kind of cooking. He mixes flavours from places such as Turkey, Israel and Lebanon into the most delicious plates of food, which have universal appeal and have made the culinary world more aware of things such as baba ghanoush, pomegranate molasses and sumac.
You may or may not have heard of sumac. It is a powered spice, made from the dried and crushed berries from the sumac plant; it has the most unique flavour- citric, sour, tangy and tart. It is a vital part of Middle Eastern cooking, particularly Lebanese cuisine. It is brilliant sprinkled anywhere you might use lemon juice; on fish, chicken, in salads and dips. It is truly versatile and you can buy it in a lot of supermarkets now or online.
Sumac is a vital component of za’atar; an amazing combination of dried thyme, sesame seeds, salt and sumac, which is as common in Lebanon as porridge is in Scotland. It is earthy, rich, robust and deeply savoury. It is wonderful sprinkled on a roast chicken, on top of salads and roasted vegetables, but it is best known as a topping for manoushe.
Manoushe is very simple in concept- many people call it a Lebanese pizza, in that it is a flat dough base, baked in a hot oven with a topping of za’atar mixed with olive oil. For me, it is purely comfort food; familiar, not too challenging, but ultimately so delicious. Manoushe is a staple part of the breakfast diet in Lebanon; as common as a bacon buttie here. However, it is an acquired taste early in the morning: our western palates are more used to fairly basic tastes of sweet or salty carbohydrate. Thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and olive oil make a shocking contrast to cornflakes. I often make my own, but you can buy very good versions too; one warning I will give is that it does not keep for very long. The whole point of za’atar is the sparkling explosion of flavour you get as you eat it; this dulls very quickly in ready-made versions, so buy it in small quantities.
This recipe is fantastic as an alternative breakfast, but if this is a step too far for you, it is great with any kind of mezze, dipped in labneh mixed with mint or topped with grilled chicken or aubergine. A quick cheat’s version is to buy good quality flatbread or knobz, top with the oil and za’atar mixture and heat through; this is good, but not as satisfying as making your own.
300g strong white flour
1 tsp dried yeast
1 tsp salt
150ml tepid water
4tbs extra virgin olive oil
Mix the sugar and yeast with 50ml of the tepid water until they dissolve. Add the salt to the flour and mix together in a large bowl. Add the rest of the water and bring the ingredients together to form a rough and dry dough. Add the yeast and sugar mixture and mix again. Tip the dough onto a oiled surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic-this will take at least 5 minutes.
Place the dough in a well oiled bowl, cover with a shower cap.
Leave to rest for about 2 hours, until the dough looks like it has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 220 (you can also do this under a hot grill). Put two solid baking trays in to heat up.
Tip the dough onto an oiled surface and divide it into 4 pieces. Leave again to rest for about 20 minutes.
Flattern each piece out with the heel of your hand-you can roll it out with a rolling pin, but I prefer to stretch it by hand. Work until the dough is about 1 1/2-2cm thick-if it is a bit uneven, so much the better.
Mix the za’atar with the olive oil and spoon about 3 teaspoons onto each piece of dough. Smooth the za’atar paste over the base.
Sprinkle semolina onto the baking trays and transfer the dough discs onto them. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the dough is golden and glistening.
Eat warm as part of a mezze, or just standing up by the oven, as I tend to do.