Lebanon has no shortage of choices when it comes to breakfast foods – whether you like to wake up to something sweet or savory, this country’s got you covered. But one thing that Lebanese breakfasts have in common is simplicity. We don’t like to overcomplicate our mornings – just a few ingredients can go a very long way. And nothing is more uncomplicated than our beloved kaak. Kaak – the simple doughy snack that captures your heart and stomach with its crust and sesame seeds is the breakfast of kings and commoners alike. Unsophisticated in the best sense of the word, kaak has long been a part of our culinary heritage, bringing people together over a cup of tea, and dividing them over what to fill it with. But let’s be honest, at the end of the day, whether yours is filled with zaatar, sumac, cream cheese or just plain, who doesn’t love kaak straight out of the oven? So with a rumble in our tummies, we set out one morning to satisfy our kaak cravings at one of the city’s oldest bakeries: Kaak Ras El Nabea.
Nestled behind the Bechara Al Khoury statue, Kaak Ras El Nabea has been in business for 70 years. Kaak is definitely the bakery’s star item, but Kassem Hteit, the owner, produces an array of baked deliciousness.
When we arrived, we got exactly what we expected. If there’s one thing we’ve truly learned on our adventures it’s that old is gold and this bakery did not disappoint. From afar, you might not notice this little hidden gem, but as you get closer, there’s no mistaking the wooden slats laid with raw dough awaiting their turn in the fiery red furnace of the oven – queue our stomachs growling. The minute you step in you are immediately taken by the smell of freshly baked kaak, and all you can think of is whether you want zaatar or cheese with yours. We snapped back to our senses when we were told Mr. Kassem was waiting for us in the other room. The “other room”, otherwise known as his office, is located directly next door to the bakery. There was nothing but one desk filled with old newspapers and a T.V. from 1965 (we’re guessing) playing in the background. Even though it was dark, Mr. Kassem’s smile lit up the room. As soon as we got settled in he began to explain that making kaak has been part of his life for as long as he can remember. Before he became owner of the bakery, Kassem would help the original owner out after school in any way that he could. He eventually grew to love the job so much that when the owner retired, he took on the bakery as his own, making it into the kaak destination it is today. In fact when he took over, the bakery focused mostly on bread, but Kassem wanted to set his sights on kaak – and in 1962 his journey began.
Kassem’s kaak are truly exceptional – but if you don’t want to take our word for it, just ask his other customers. People come from as far as Jounieh and Sawfar on a weekly basis to get their kaak – but not only for themselves! Kassem explained that many customers make orders for a week’s worth for their neighbors too! So the million-dollar question is, what is so special about his kaak? Easy; with the help of few extra ingredients such as mahlab and yensoun (aniseed), the taste is immediately distinguishable when compared to others. It just gives you that extra zest from the first bite. He explained, “I like experimenting with ingredients rather than sticking to the book; I like to make sure that people immediately know that this is my kaak from the first bite.” We’d say mission accomplished.
With such success from just one shop we wondered if he was willing or already had opened other locations in Beirut. Sorry to say to all the kaak lovers, for Kassem’s delicious kaak there is but one destination. Although he wouldn’t mind having another branch, he worries that the overwhelming stresses of having a second location will make him concentrate on the bottom line and for Kassem, he wants to be able to make and sell his kaak with love and not just to make money.
On that note, with our hearts and stomachs full and with a bag full of kaak for later in hand, we thanked Kassem for a satisfying morning and bid him farewell.
If you’d like to try Kassem’s kaak, visit the bakery on Omar Bin Al Khattab Street, directly behind the Bechara Al Khoury statue.