Eating Habits with Jad Choucair

There’s a place up on Lygon Street in Brunswick East that you need to know about if you don’t already. It’s a paradise of sorts, the kind where the smell of honey permeates the air, intermingled with the smoke of vegetables chargrilling and peaches caramelizing. The paradise is Mankoushe, a restaurant by Jad and Hady Choucair, two brothers from Beirut who prepare home-style Middle Eastern food – sometimes with the help of their mum. When I first met Jad earlier this year, we started by discussing orange blossom water, halva, honey brittle… and Mankoushe’s mascot Epipremnum, one Jad had grown from a cutting now some 2 plus metres long. This is a bloke who doesn’t mess around, neither with plants nor when he’s in the kitchen.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Hello, my name is Jad. I’m originally from the south of Lebanon, the land of oregano and Phoenician ruins. I came to Australia 8 years ago with my brother Hady and decided to run a Middle Eastern bakery in Brunswick which we called Mankoushe, translating as ‘to gather from the soil’. What I do is what the Phoenicians did best: cook, build, write and read.

What’s your earliest food memory?
I think the first word that came out of my mouth when I was little was ‘hommus’. Ha ha, joking. In Lebanon food is the main language, from food stalls of chickpea stews and rice puddings to vegetable sellers of broad beans and fresh pistachios.

My earliest food memory is gathering fresh chickpea pods for my mother and she would always say, ‘Pick the small ones, the big ones are hard and flavourless.’

What was on your dinner plate growing up?
Nothing on the Middle Eastern table goes without some pickled turnips, pickled green olives and a goat’s milk labne, which is a thickened up and strained Levantine yoghurt.

Why is food important to you?
I think food is a language in its own right. I think it should be respected, loved, learned and shared.

Have you ever used food to impress someone? Tell us about that!
I used to pick quite a lot of vegetables, fruits and nuts on the way back from school with friends to impress them about my knowledge of colours, names and benefits… and occasionally the grower would run with a stick to get me.

I still do it here in Brunswick, walking around the backstreets discovering different types of vines, figs and so on. I have even started a small booklet about all the abandoned fruit trees in Brunswick for people to share.

Name three plant-based ingredients you love.
I could never live without tabouli, could never live without parsley. Coriander comes second, we use it with fried potatoes and I love this dish. Vine leaves are always sealed in jar for rolling, one of the most shared foods amongst Lebanese people.

What dish do you most connect with your dad?
Connecting doesn’t have to be on good terms at all times. My father would force us to eat a spinach and warm yoghurt soup called ‘dikhwa’. None of my siblings liked it, but we used to connect somehow to overcome my father’s forcible will.

Do you have any food or eating-related rituals? Please tell us about them.
The only ritual I have got is when hummus is made fresh and steaming warm; I will take it to my room and eat it by myself, I never wanna share a warm hummus. Ha ha.

Picture this: It’s 7pm, and you’re starving. The phone rings. It’s the Dalai Lama, inviting you to meet him for tea in half an hour. You NEED to eat beforehand, otherwise you’ll start chewing your sleeve and swearing in front of the venerable one. What do you cook?
The easiest thing that I will cook would be babaganouj, which is a smoked eggplant dish. I will put some eggplants on an open flame and in the mean time I will crush two garlic cloves to a smooth paste. I will add around 50g of tahini paste and the juice of 3 lemons. Once the eggplants have softened I will peel them under cold running water then put them in a bowl, mix all the above ingredients and add some salt to taste. If I’m making 3 eggplants this shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes.

I will leave some for the Dalai Lama because I think he will like it; I will even give him the recipe.

If you were asked to cook and host a vegetarian Sunday night dinner for 5 people, what would you cook and who would be invited?
When I came to Australia I was shocked about the amount of meat people eat on a daily basis. So for me the guest list is pretty easy: hardcore meat eaters for the purpose of education and good health.

Rolled vine leaves will be on the table, shared with hummus, babaganouj, some labne, some pickles, green olives, zataar bread, a lentils and fried onion dish called mujaddara, a cabbage, mint and sultana salad and of course honey and chilli-baked carrots.

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All photos by Phoebe Powell.

Jad Choucair with his pup... and the ingredients for a modestly-sized Middle Eastern feast. Photo by Phoebe Powell.
Jad and Hady Choucair. Nice sweaters! Photo by Phoebe Powell.
The interior of Mankoushe restaurant on Lygon Street, Brunswick East. Photo by Phoebe Powell.