Although my family is Muslim, I went to a Catholic school with nuns when I was a child — so I grew up knowing Christian prayers better than the Koran. But whether it’s Christianity or Islam, bread plays a central role in each — as a symbol, a giver of life. And of course in the Arab world — in Lebanon — it remains the essential food. The dishes that are most closely associated with Lebanon — hummus, labneh, falafel, shawarma — would be nothing without bread. The flat bread that we produce in varying widths and sizes and shapes….
And when I think of bread, I am drawn to the mountains and my grandmother. She was famous for the bread she produced. And don’t think that it was a quick, simple process. Up in the Bekaa, my grandmother and the other women in the village would be baking for a whole month. It would be two days between the first preparation of each batch and the end product, which would then be packed away and stored in a cool place to protect it from the blazing heat of the summer. To get the fire going under the round stove known as a saaj, my uncles would go with us kids to gather twigs and dried cow’s droppings. I can still hear the sound of the women beating the dough up and down and round and round until their arms must have ached just to achieve the perfect consistency. It required skill to put it onto the hot plate without losing the shape or letting part of it break off. Then we’d watch the bubbles rising on one side, indicating that it was time to turn it over, which we tried to do without burning ourselves. And then of course once that was done, we’d be nagging and nagging my grandmother to get first taste of the bread while it was still at its freshest, hottest and most delicious.
If we could bear to wait another two or three hours, my youngest aunt would have peeled the potatoes and cooked mince meat the special way they have in the Bekaa, mixed it all up with spices and given it to my grandmother. Then we’d guzzle it all down swaddled and wrapped in the bread
There couldn’t be a bigger contrast with the queues and frustration waiting for bread back in Beirut — especially in the war. Sometimes it felt as if you could get killed as you lined up for hours for a bag of bread.
One of the best treats of course was to take a bowl of zaatar — thyme — mixed with olive oil to the bakery and have them make mana’ish. I was too shy to do this, but my younger sister wasn’t. She’d stride off without any hesitation — and return a little later with a dozen or so hot, scrumptious mana’ish, garnering a volley of praise from my family for her courage, which filled me with envy, although I was just as keen as everyone else to get my hands on the soft fragrant hunks of bread.
2 glasses of flour
1/2 glass of water for the dough
2 teaspoons of dry yeast
1/2 glass of warm water for the yeast
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
- In a small bowl, put the yeast, sugar and warm water and stir well, then leave aside for 10 minutes
- In a large bowl sift the flour and salt, add the yeast mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon
- Dust a clean surface with some flour and knead the dough until smooth and elastic
- This will take 5 to 10 minutes
- Add water if the dough is still dry or flour if it is too soft and watery
- Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place for 2 hours or until it doubles in size.
- Once ready, punch the dough down and knead for couple of minutes then cut into small portions, around 8 dough balls
- Dust with flour, cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
- Once ready use a rolling pin to flatten the dough into a perfect round circle — you can use a small side plate to shape the bread, by placing it on top of the bread and then cutting round the plate with a knife
- You can have the flat dough thick or thin, it depends on your preference. I like it thick, around 2mm
- Cover with a towel and leave for 20 minutes to rest
- Pre heat the oven, 220 degrees
- Dust a large baking tray with flour and place the bread on the middle shelf
- Bake for 3 minutes or until the dough puffs up
- Turn over and cook for another 2 minutes or until slightly golden
- The baking time is around 4-6 minutes
- Serve hot or cold with everything Lebanese!