Manakeesh, Lahem Ba’ajin and Kaak
Manakeesh (the ‘k’ is essentially silent) is a classic street food, and you’ll find this delicious breakfast food in furns (ovens) in every city, town and village in Lebanon. As with so many foods, manakeesh has endless variations, but the classics are thus:
Jebneh means ‘cheese,’ and if you order one, you’ll get a small pizza-like baked dough with any variety of delicious cheese—kashkawan (sheep milk cheese), halloumi, or akkawi (less salty than halloumi)—melted inside. It’s generally folded over one or twice and wrapped in paper. In the mountains, you'll find more of the traditional saj ovens, which are domed, and the bread they produce is distinctly thinner than the manakeesh you find in the cities. Bread in the mountains also tends to be made with whole wheat.
Zaatar is a blend of dry thyme, sesame seeds and sumac. Zaatar is enormously popular in Lebanon, and zaatar man’oushe (the singular form of manakeesh) incorporates this zesty herbal blend with olive oil.
One can, of course, ask for both jebneh and zaatar, and all manakeesh have the option of adding cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh mint and olives. While it’s not common among locals to put all of these things into one man’oushe, the result is a veritable explosion of flavor. Ham and turkey can also be added.
Kishk man’oushe is yet another variety. Kishk is a fine powder made from cracked wheat and yogurt that has been fermented. One can sometimes see sheets of it drying on the roofs of houses in villages. The man’oushe is finished with copped tomatoes and onions. Other man’oushe options include kafta.
Lahem Ba’ajin is made with thinner dough than manakeesh, and it’s topped with minced seasoned beef, tomatoes and onions, sometimes a dash of chili powder, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Pickles are also a popular addition. A classic accouterment for this delectable savory is laban ayran, a drinkable yogurt that cuts across the richness of lahem ba’ajin.
Kaak are a little bit like bagels, but they’re much bigger and always made with a coating of sesame seeds. They’re baked into a teardrop shape with a whole in the middle from which they’re hung on the wooden dowels of the carts from which they’re sold by street vendors. Larger sizes of kaak are often served with zaatar or cheese, while smaller sizes are often offered with a filling of knefeh (a dense desert cheese baked with sugar and rosewater served for breakfast). If you’re staying in neighborhoods outside the downtown areas of cities, you’ll probably hear the cries of a kaak vendor in the morning hours. If you send a basket on a string down to him from your balcony, he’ll gladly do business with you.