30 Apr 2012

an ode to the heart of the middle east

When I was eight my family moved to a neighbourhood in sydney that had a dense population of lebanese migrants. when people ask me why I choose to major in arabic and arab studies at university I sometimes point to fact that I grew up with a keen awareness and love for at least one corner of the arab world. I miss living on that busy road with over a dozen lebanese "mixed" grocery stores, countless bakeries, falafel and chicken shops. I miss the store that became "my regular" shop for fresh fruit and vegetables, beans and lentils, soft flat bread. I miss the swapping of news and fragments of life stories, struggles, dreams, illness, celebration. I miss the genuine sharing of beliefs and respect for each other, the recipes, the common question "what will you do with this... (vegetable/fruit), followed closely by "ahhhh but in Lebanon we cook it like this..." I miss those familiar smells of coming out of the back rooms - roasted nuts, cumin and tobacco smoke. I miss the fact that it was always open; even on christmas day I was known to dash down for some fresh mint or a bunch of parsley. I believe
I was their best ever customer of ruby grapefruits and asked the most persistently for quinces... yes, I miss that shop, that adventure. one day, I hope I will stand on Lebanese earth and soak up the sun and smell of the country that made my old friends' eyes glimmer with pride and nostalgia for Lebanon - قلب الشرق الأوسط "heart of the middle east" they would say...

In the meantime I will reminisce cheerfully in the making of Lebanese style pizza "manoush" with delicious things on top; ground beef & tomatoes, spinach and cheese and of course that wonderfully healthy herby blend; za'atar.

to make your own fresh manoush you will need:

1 quantity of pizza or pita bread dough
(this is a great recipe - I substitute rye or buckwheat for 1/2 the flour)
1 cup of za'atar (recipe below)
200g ground beef
1 tomato
1 small onion
ground cinnamon
1 bunch of spinach
juice of 1 lemon
ground cumin
olive oil
fresh lemon wedges to serve

to make 1 cup of za'atar:
using a fry-pan gently heat and agitate 1/3 cup sesame seeds until golden. in a jar combine sesame seeds, 1/3 cup dried thyme & oregano and 1/3 cup sumac. shake vigorously. you can add a teaspoon or two of sea salt if you like but I don't think it needs it... also some people like to mortar and pestle the mix into a finer texture. in a lidded jar, za'atar keeps for about

to make beef/tomato topping:
finely dice tomatoes and grate onion. in small saucepan heat tomato and onions for a few minutes. add beef and 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of salt. simmer on low heat until cooked through.

to make spinach/cheese topping:
wash and finely chop spinach. in a frypan gently cooked spinach with lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon of sumac and 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin. cool and mix 2 tablespoons of ricotta cheese and a dash of olive oil into the spinach.

using a rolling pin roll out small balls of dough into disks, then, using your hands (lebanese style) or using a spoon spread out topping of choice - leaving a 1/2 inch crust. for the zataar you will need to spoon olive oil on top first - I sprinkled some fresh thyme on top too. bake in a very hot oven (220-250'c) until golden (mine took about 20 minutes). enjoy warm! tabouli, hummous, baba ganoush, yoghurt all make wonderful accompaniments.



  1. I know I will miss my street too, although so different to yours, given its high density of ageing white anglo saxons.

    P.S. I came and had a look at this only 33mins after you posted it! We must have some telepathy happening!

  2. Your remembrances are precious to you. That is as it should be.

    I didn't grow up with a Lebanese store down the street but when I started working in our nation's capital, I was first introduced to falafel, gyros and other such things. I love middle-eastern food and we now have quite a bit of it in my city. I've just never tried to make any but I will some time. Thank you for sharing your memories and your recipes.

  3. Such great memories!
    Have you ever tried Persian food? It is also very yummy and must be tasted :)

  4. Alice, I miss your street even now! You don't realise how wide and lush country streets are till you come to europe.

    Joyful, I hope you do try making some middle-eastern food its very healthy and delicious.

    Ailin, my dear - yes I love Persian food... so does Alex. We must try to make it more often!

  5. YUM - I could definitely make a vegan version of this...

    Have a lovely day!

  6. Emily, you're so beautiful. I love your wide open embracing heart. I wish everyone felt like this about other cultures x

  7. I know exactly how you feel, I spent six months in Israel a few years back and I have similar sense memories...The zatar, pita, meaty concoctions with hints of cinammon! DEilcious! I cannot wait to try this recipe, I can smell it already!

  8. This looks SO delicious. I'm printing off your recipe and I plan to make an adventure of it very soon!


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