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.