Survival Food

Todd Coleman

This sandwich brings a community together

The Middle East has some well-known sandwiches—the chickpea-based falafel, the shaved-meat shawarma, the kebab. But my favorite is man'oushe: a round flatbread that's baked while you wait, topped with one or more of a dizzying array of ingredients, then rolled or folded, and stuffed into your mouth. In the years I lived in Beirut—roughly 2003 to 2009, during which I witnessed wars, assassinations, uprisings, and street battles— I learned to expect two things: political instability, and the satisfaction of the man'oushe from my neighborhood furn, the communal bread oven where people would always gather.

The resident baker was Abu Shadi, a burly man with shoulder-length highlighted hair who opened his furn just off Bliss Street back in 1988, when militiamen still ruled the streets. It took a lot to faze him. No matter what was happening, you could find him stretching the elastic rounds of bread and shoveling them on long wooden paddles into the roaring-hot furn.

You can take your manaeesh home, but the best way to eat them is hot from the oven, and preferably talking, with your mouth full, about politics. The iconic Lebanese man'oushe is spread with olive oil and za'atar, a mixture of dried herbs, tart sumac, and sesame seeds, but you can also get it made with fiery Armenian sausage, olive oil, and ground Aleppo pepper; ham and eggs; beef or lamb kofta; or any of an infinite variety of other toppings (the version shown is made with haloumi cheese, pickled vegetables, and fresh mint). You can invent your own. Or you can put your fate in the hands of your baker and tell him, "Ala zow'ak," meaning it's up to him.

During Lebanon's 15-year civil war, cooking gas would periodically run out, and the neighborhood furn became essential to survival. People would bake their own bread there, an age-old practice immortalized in the saying, "Bring your dough to the baker, even if he eats half of it." The habit of going out for manaeesh and gossip became a touchstone of Lebanese life; today, the furn is to Lebanon what the pub is to the British Isles, points out my friend Barbara Abdeni Massaad, who wrote the great book Man'oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery (Alarm, 2005).

The civil war is over. But Lebanese politics remain so unpredictable that people rely on fortune-tellers to tell them what's going to happen. There is, however, one foolproof sign that trouble is on its way: the line at the neighborhood furn. When things are about to get bad again, all of Beirut finds itself craving crisp, chewy, oily bread blistered in the oven and topped with something warm and spicy. My husband and I have gone to Abu Shadi during wars, riots, all-day traffic jams, and, once, when Lebanon had gone without a president for three months, to find out whether the country's parliament had appointed a new one (it hadn't). "President or no president, what's the difference?" shrugged Abu Shadi, sliding a paddle full of manaeesh into the oven. He was right: The government might collapse, but the furn keeps going. —Annia Ciezadlo author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War_ (Free Press, 2011)_