Sadly I no longer attend that Arabic school and am none the wiser where they sourced their pizzas from. The biggest choice of Lebanese bakeries or makhaabiz (singular: makhbaz) is in the northern suburbs but we have a few options here in the west. There's the bakery at the Circle in Altona North, a small range at Babylon as well as Al Nada in Spotswood, but none are really a match with what is on offer in the north. That is, until I found Amanie's.
This is a very traditional Lebanese bakery dealing in man'oush or Lebanese pizza. There are a few classic types and they are always insanely cheap. The owner here is really lovely, very friendly.
There will be some pizzas ready-made and lying behind the counter, often protected by a long sheet of paper. Make your selection and they will be placed deftly on the floor of the long, flat oven using a special long-handled slidey tool. They seriously only need 1 or 2 minutes before they are piping hot - the oven is kept at such a scorching temperature.
This is one of my all-time favourite drinks - I only know it by its Turkish name, ayran. It's the original drinking yoghurt - thin, salty yoghurt that is tangy and surprisingly refreshing. You can make it easily at home but it's somewhat of a tradition to always get it when I have Lebanese pizza.
Jibnee (haloumi cheese), $3
The mothership Lebanese pizza pie. Salty, rich, creamy, almost squeaky on the teeth melted haloumi cheese, sometimes with a little butter, soft and melty in a delicate bread pocket. Sometimes the dough can be way too heavy or there is too much cheese (sounds strange, I know, but haloumi is pretty intense) but Amanie's was 100% perfect.
Sbanegh ma'a jibn (spinach and cheese), $3.50
This was a perfect example of what is actually one of my least favourite pies. Often the balance is not quite right - there's too much spinach which gets bitter and overpowering, or the bread becomes wet and claggy from the wet vegetables. This really was excellent, though - tender, just-cooked spinach with just enough mild feta-style cheese. The plain spinach is also really excellent - it doesn't have any cheese but the spinach is sweated with onion and allspice and is so tasty and healthy.
Lahmi (meat), $3
Another classic done superbly. A flat disc of dough is thinly topped with a lamb mince and tomato mixture that is heavy on the onion and allspice. Indeed, allspice is probably the most used spice in Lebanese cooking - something I found quite remarkable at first as I always associated it with cakes. Traditionally this is sprinkled with lemon juice and chilli powder before folding in half. There is always some on the counter; just ask them to add it!
Za'atar ("oregano"), $1.80
The original and always the best. Za'atar is both the name for this indigenous Middle Eastern herb, a kind of local oregano/thyme often translated into English as one or the other. Here za'atar means the spice blend made with the dried herb, sesame seeds, salt and the optional addition of other spices such as lemony sumac berries or cumin. Here it is smoothed onto a simple circle of dough along with olive oil. At around $1.50 each, this is probably the cheapest lunch in Melbourne. They can be filled with tomato, cucumber and other salad items to make a sort of wrap. We like to use them as pizza bases!
I was so excited I mistakenly ordered this instead of shankleesh which is a spherical, aged feta-style cheese, rolled in herbs, that is quite delicious when smooshed onto a pizza. Kishik, it turns out, is a fermented and dried grain/yoghurt product that is then rehydrated as a kind of porridge or paste. It tasted to me a bit like mashed potatoes. It was sprinkled with raw onion, lemon and chilli. I wasn't really a fan but it was fun to try something different.
Wait til you try this. It is Lebanese aioli or toum and it is totally divine. Silky, garlicky, rich yet light. Amazing! This is eaten lots of ways including with grilled meats or just as a dip. It apparently keeps up to a month if you use a clean spoon to take some out each time. We ate it with fresh Lebanese bread from Amanie's - speaking of which, Lebanese bread really should be eaten that day or the next day in a pinch. When fresh it is so fantastic, chewy yet light, and is a million miles away from the horrible stale specimens the supermarket sell up to five days past when they were baked.
I am so stoked to find such a wonderful Lebanese baker so close to home. Now the only question is deciding which pizza to choose. You can always try the Mr Baklover special - take za'atar pizza, open, insert cheese pizza, close. Eat. Genius!
Shop 4, 280-284 Main Road East, St Albans (map)
Phone: 9364 5333
Hours: Mon - Sat 7.30am - 7pm, Sun 7.30am - 5pm
For more Lebanese delights, check out Sydney-based Fouad's modern as well as traditional takes on the food of his homeland, augmented by his gorgeous photos and cheeky style, at thefoodblog.com.au.
I'm very happy to be participating in From Cup to Crop, a new initiative by Plan International to raise both awareness and funds to fight hunger in the developing world. You can either take part in the Cup to Crop Challenge - living on $3 for food per day, one day per week for one month or choose to donate $3 on top of your bill at participating venues. That $3 will feed a child for a staggering 10 days! As my contribution, I pledge to donate $3 for every meal I have out over the campaign month, 14 March to 14 April. I will keep a tally at the bottom of each post and perhaps you too could consider supporting From Cup to Crop.