Iconic Lebanese Breakfast Receives UNESCO Recognition

Al-man’ouché, the Lebanese breakfast pastry seasoned with olive oil and traditional spices, has been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Al-Man'ouché (Photo: Rana Jdeidani)
By Amélie David
Dec. 29, 2023 22:30 UTC
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Al-Man'ouché (Photo: Rana Jdeidani)

The smell of al-man’ouché per­me­ates every street cor­ner in Lebanon. The ubiq­ui­tous break­fast food has been rec­og­nized on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

In the heart of Beirut, Mohamed Whehbi has been sell­ing man­aish (the plural of al-man’ouché) in the Hamra neigh­bor­hood for the past two years.

Inside is a tra­di­tional oven under which fire­wood is burn­ing. Ali, the chef, flat­tens a small piece of dough. He cuts the edge and puts a mix of za’atar and olive oil on top. He then places the flat­tened dough on a large cush­ion before stick­ing it inside the wood­fire oven.

See Also:Traditional Turkish Olive Cultivation Practices Recognized by UNESCO

This oven and the bread (tan­nour bread) are 1,000 years old,” Wehbi said. This is how our ances­tors used to bake. Here in Lebanon, but also in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, we do the same. And peo­ple like it because it’s healthy food.”

The name al-man’ouché comes from the Arabic word man­qūshah, which describes the process of cre­at­ing the dish. After the dough is rolled flat, it is pressed by the fin­ger­tips to cre­ate inden­ta­tions for the top­pings. Manqūshah comes from the root verb naqasha, mean­ing to carve out.

Closer to Beirut’s port, the Souk-el-Tayeb mar­ket takes place every Saturday morn­ing. This is where Rima Shaaban is sell­ing saj, another kind of al-man’ouché.

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According to UNESCO, al-man’ouché differs from one bakery to the next with traditional family recipes passed down for generations. (Photo: Bernard Jabre)

Shaaban comes each week with her daugh­ter, son and hus­band and bakes the small dough she has been prepar­ing at home.

Then, I flat­ten it to make it very thin, and I put it on top of the stove, which is like a dome,” explained the chef, who is also the owner of a restau­rant near Chouf moun­tain out­side of Beirut.

Shaaban adds var­i­ous ingre­di­ents: olive oil, za’atar, cheeses, turkey, toma­toes or any­thing else her clients ask for.

I’ve been doing man­aish since I was seven years old,” she said. I used to sit behind my grand­mother and watch her.”

Now, I’m doing this to help my fam­ily, too, because this is my busi­ness,” added Shaaban, with a large smile, her daugh­ter stand­ing next to her.

This fam­ily tra­di­tion is also very impor­tant for Bera Chibaro, a Canadian-Lebanese woman who just returned from North America.

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Al-man’ouché is prepared in a traditional dome-shaped woodfire oven in bakeries across Lebanon. (Photo: Ohaila Mortada)

Since she made it back to Beirut, she has come every Saturday to enjoy Shaaban’s al-man’ouché. It reminds her of her child­hood in Beirut.

You know, we grew up with the smell of the al-man’ouché every sin­gle morn­ing,” Chibaro said. You can find one in every com­mu­nity here in Lebanon.”

Every house has a store sell­ing man­aish just next to it,” she recounted before grab­bing a huge plate full of man­aish.

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s sec­ond biggest city located north of Beirut, smells of olive oil and za’atar slowly bak­ing on bread are all around the city.

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Mohamed El Abed puts five man­aish in a large oven sur­rounded by flames. Making his liv­ing out of this bak­ery, he is also very proud to see the dish on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

It’s very good news,” he said. It’s nice, of course, because it’s an impor­tant meal for Lebanese, it means a lot for us, and it’s unique also.”

Barbara Massaad, author of many culi­nary books, is also really happy about this inscrip­tion. She vis­ited more than 250 bak­eries across Lebanon to recount the sto­ries behind man­aish.

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The nationwide consumption and production of al-man’ouché contributes to local economic development.

This announce­ment is a shin­ing star in a dark sky for many Lebanese, hit hard by the most severe eco­nomic cri­sis in the past four years and now on the edge of an esca­la­tion of the ongo­ing con­flict between Hezbollah and Israel.

You know, every piece of hap­pi­ness, we need to take it, and it makes all the dif­fer­ence,” Massaad said. Because, when we wake up in the morn­ing, we don’t know what to expect. We have been liv­ing a night­mare for the past four years.”

Our life has been com­pletely turned upside down,” she added. So, you know, this lit­tle vic­tory, this recog­ni­tion of this belong­ing, that the al-man’ouché is ours and that nobody can steal it: this is great. It’s our al-man’ouché.”

Some peo­ple can­not afford to buy al-man’ouché any­more, hit hard by the eco­nomic cri­sis and infla­tion, which reached more than 200 per­cent in September.

But in the end, whether at home with fam­ily and friends or in their favorite bak­ery, al-man’ouché will always be part of Lebanon. It is engraved on Lebanese bel­lies, hearts and minds.



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