From Beirut with Love

A six dollar manousheh is taking New York by storm

Writer

Tala Habbal

Photographer

Nousha Salimi

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Today, this breakfast favourite, often topped with zaatar or cheese, is a staple in Lebanese culture. With a consistency that’s often compared to pizza, it’s now served 24/7 as an ‘anytime of day’ food in the revamped manousheh-serving restaurants that have become trendy throughout Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, each with their own spin on the doughy delight.

Twenty-nine year old Lebanese-New Yorker Ziyad Hermez has been spreading the manousheh revolution throughout the streets of Manhattan since the summer of 2013, when he opened his pop-up bakery ‘Manousheh NYC’. Situated in the Old Bowery between the Lower East Side, Nolita and in the midst of Soho, it’s a hip part of town.

While living in the States (first in DC and then in New York), Hermez found himself yearning for the traditional childhood breakfast he grew up eating in Lebanon, but to his dismay, had trouble finding anything remotely close to the real McCoy.

‘I wanted a manousheh the first day I came to America in 2002, but I wasn’t able to find the real deal,’ explains Hermez. ‘When I realised I had been living in the States for 10 years and still wasn’t able to get a manousheh, I knew it was time to at least learn how to make one myself at home. Eventually, to my own surprise, baking became a passion.’

Hermez’s dream of a decent manousheh place in New York finally came to fruition after a chance encounter with Lebanese entrepreneur Jonathan Daou. Daou, eager to bring a taste of home to New York City too, offered Hermez some kitchen space in his company Openhouse, which specialises in pop-up spaces in and around the Old Bowery.

‘I met Ziad by chance,’ explains Daou. ‘I was hosting a Lebanese dinner with music at our location and Ziad and his friends heard the sounds from the street and walked in. He and I began talking about manousheh. I told him that I had been working on doing exactly what he was hoping to create. So we invited him to test our space and then to open under our sponsorship to see if the concept was viable. And the rest is history.’

And so with a little hard work and a lot of passion, Manousheh NYC was born. Eponymous menu items range from zaatar and jibneh to the classic lahmeh bi aajeen (spicy minced meat with tomatoes, onions and hot pepper spices) and are baked with love by Hermez, who impressively taught himself the art of manousheh-making.

‘I mostly learned online through recipes, YouTube videos as well as through books. But the most valuable training I had was in Beirut last year and this year, when I interned at two different bakeries.’ The experience was so influential Hermez brought an oven back with him. ‘I got the saj from Lebanon. It’s an electric saj that you can only find there, so I had it shipped over.’

Hermez has succeeded in making the daunting process of preparing manousheh seem like a piece of cake. ‘The process is fun, it’s just like baking any flatbread. You make the dough, flatten it out, choose your favourite toppings and bake.’

The pop-up bakery prices its manousheh at five or six dollars, depending on the topping. The menu may be small, but it packs a huge punch. ‘The goal of Manousheh NYC is to teach about the manousheh. We want to do this in the best way possible, which will mean keeping the menu small for now,’ says Hermez.

Even so, Manousheh NYC seems to be tantalising Manhattanites’ taste buds and finding a strong foothold in a city renowned for people who love the next new thing. Founder Hermez is excited about the prospect of expansion. ‘After the way people reacted, it would be a shame not to spread that,’ he says.

‘The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People love the vibe, they love the space and they love learning about this newly introduced street food. It’s a fun environment – in the kitchen we are always having a blast explaining the tradition of manousheh to people, sharing our culture and also just working with each other. Foreigners walk into the beautifully designed space eager to learn something new.  The Lebanese walk in simply to satisfy their nostalgia.’

Hermez says the best part of his day is ‘watching the customers. Seeing their reaction to the food, watching the way they react to the menu when they walk in and most of all watching them interact with each other.’

Daou also emphasises the role he hopes Manousheh NYC will play in representing Lebanese culture in New York. ‘We aim to make Manousheh a cultural resource for traditional Lebanese eating by focusing on one of our distinctive local specialties – manousheh, markouk and the ingredients that go along with this historic form of sandwich making. Not only does the food at Manousheh remind you of a furn [Lebanese bakery] but the atmosphere created inside the space is meant to evoke a local yet sophisticated Lebanese culinary experience.’

If its initial success is any indication, it won’t be long before we see more Manousheh’s popping up around Manhattan and beyond.

I mostly learned online through recipes and YouTube videos

This article appears in the issue44

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