Pizza or manakish? So which came first?

It is estimated that 350 slices of pizza are eaten every second in the U.S., and it’s a firm takeaway favourite around the world. But could this much loved Italian treat actually have its origins in the Middle Eastern bread manakish? We investigate.

Pizzas and flatbreads around the world
Many ancient cultures had their own flat dough-style snack. The Egyptians are considered to have been one of the first civilisations to make bread, around 5,000 years ago. They had baked flatbread, Indians had early versions of naan and roti and the Persians baked flatbreads scattered with cheese and dates as far back as 500BC. And although flat, circular breads were baked in wood-fired ovens in ancient Rome (a preserved, charred circle of bread survives from Pompeii from the year 79AD) it is generally accepted that what we now know as the Italian pizza owes much to these other ancient breads.

What is manakish?
Manakish is a flat, baked dough eaten in countries such as Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and Syria. It’s become a staple food in Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine. The name is said to come from the Arabic word “manqushah” which means “carve out”. This is because when making the manakish, the dough is pushed and pressed with the fingers to create indents for the toppings, which include minced lamb, spinach, chilli, yoghurt and cheese. It’s also usually spread with za’atar, a thyme, sumac and sesame seed paste. Manakish is often eaten for breakfast, although if it’s baked with heavier toppings such as meat, it makes a filling lunch dish instead. Once local to the Levantine, manakish is now sold in bakeries and Lebanese restaurants all around the world. 

The origins of manakish
Very little is known about its true origins but an Arab cookbook from the 10th century mentions recipes for flatbreads, and thyme and olive oil would have been available to cooks back then. Bearing in mind that all these ingredients and techniques were around since early times in the Lebanon, writer Fouad Kassab of The Food Blog states: “It seems highly unlikely that these ingredients so destined to be together wandered the Earth lonely for long.” Even the fact that little is known about its creation suggests that it’s been around for a very long time.

Origins of the pizza
The pizza, as we know it, laden with cheese, tomato sauce and various toppings, is thought to have been created as late as the 19th century in Naples. Legend has it that in 1889, Neopolitan baker Raffaele Esposito rolled out a circle of bread dough and topped it with tomatoes, cheese and basil to mark the visit of King Umberto I of Italy and his wife, Queen Margherita (see where we’re going with this?) to the Italian city. The topping ingredients were chosen to resemble the red, white and green of the Italian flag as a mark of respect to the royal visitors. The pizza was a success. Even today we still know this topping as a ‘Margherita,’ named after the queen.

So manakish or pizza? Which came first?
It’s certain then, that the ancient Romans ate their own version of a circular, flattened dough which was baked and cut into wedge-like portions. But then so did the Egyptians and other Middle Eastern cultures. As far as we know, tomatoes weren’t available in ancient Rome, being discovered much later in the fifteenth century, and even then they were thought of as purely ornamental. Because of this, the key elements of today’s pizza weren’t combined until more than a thousand years later. It’s a good bet that manakish is a much older dish, and today still remains largely unchanged, representing the original flavours and techniques of the ancient people who first created it. But then again, it’s almost certain that manakish wasn’t the first ever flat bread and that it was in turn, inspired by another type. One thing is for sure: people have been eating a circular dough resembling pizza for thousands of years – or longer – it’s just that they were topped and baked with thyme, cheese, olive oil and dates instead of mozzarella, tomato and pepperoni.

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