To conclude our three-part series on bread, we’re actually going back to the beginning:
Flatbreads are the first breads. So, while yeast and quick breads have their own delectable attributes, they’ll never be able to claim what flatbreads definitively can, being “the original” bread.
What’s a bit less clear about the history of flatbread is whether the leavened or unleavened type came first. It doesn’t really matter – both have their own, delicious stories – but it’s worth noting that the two distinct types exist. So if some actually do contain yeast, what, then defines a flatbread? According to Naomi Duguid, author of Flatbreads and Flavors, “it’s loose.”
The closest we come to a definition is that flatbread is flatbread because of the way that it’s cooked. Long before there were ovens – or stationary cooking equipment at all – nomadic tribes needed to make food quickly and while on-the-go. Waiting for the consistent cooking temperature that’s required to bake a loaf of bread was pretty much out of the question. Instead? They used hot stones. In this way, flatbread’s inception is baked into various cultures around the world, based on items from their natural environments.
“Flatbreads are fabulously ingenious solutions for turning all kinds of seeds and grains in to something you can eat,” says Naomi, who has a long and intimate relationship with an international variety of breads. As a food anthropologist, teacher, and author, Naomi believes food is a lens through which to view new people and places. No matter how far-flung a bread’s origin, though, “bread, for me, has always been the taste of home,” says Naomi, “something I’ve always felt connected to. It’s always been ‘normal’, not exotic, not even special. It’s a home thing.”
So, it is with this down-to-earth view that we’ll go around the globe to explore the original bread–flatbread–that still permeates a vast array of people and cultures.
Regardless of your religious affiliation, you’ve likely heard of matzo. And, perhaps, you’ve heard the story of matzo’s creation, which is now a staple food at Passover feasts (to honor the Jewish exodus from Egypt, during which there wasn’t time to let bread rise, there is a pause on consuming leavened bread during this holiday and people eat the thin, cracker-like bread as everything from soup topper to standalone snack). Fast forward to a modern-day anecdote: On a trip to Israel, Naomi met an elder Iraqi woman who shared a secret about how to keep the local men from questioning whether the matzo has been made with leavened dough. Because there are sometimes there holes poked in the matzo dough, it can bubble up during the cooking process, looking very similar to a puffy, leavened bread. So, to avoid any culinary disputes, women will quickly “smack down” the matzo when it’s cooking to ensure its super-flatness (and argument-proof-ness).
Moving a bit east from Israel, let’s go to India for our next unleavened flatbread. Chapati (sometimes called roti, though “roti” is actually just a term for any type of flatbread in South Asia) is cooked in a hot, dry skillet. Like matzo, chapati can play an eye trick, appearing to be leavened as its center starts to bubble up and create a dome. But, warns Naomi, it is an illusion! And if you think about it, the illusion makes sense. In addition to whole wheat flour, the traditional chapatti flour, water is the other primary ingredient (sometimes salt or a little oil, too). And what happens when water faces high temperatures? Steam! So that balloon in the center of the pan is simply a little flatbread sauna, which actually helps cook the bread from the inside very quickly. When it’s patted down, you’re left with this simple, mild flatbread that pairs very well with many Indian, Pakistani, or Nepali dishes (regions where the bread is most commonly found).
Whether you prefer sweet or savory (or both) you can find a delicious crepe in many countries these days. Thought to have originated in Brittany, France, crepes are a slightly more complex flatbread, at least when it comes to ingredient count. While absent a leavening agent, they do contain more than just grain and water. Eggs, milk, butter, salt, sugar and oil contribute to their decadence (and that’s before you stuff them with an indulgent combo like ham and cheese or nutella and bananas). To make crepe batter, you can use a blender or food processor, but be sure not to overmix, as that can add too much air to the batter, and leave you with a puffy crepe that won’t quite uphold its expectation of delicacy. The transformation of this batter into the crepe itself can be a whimsical thing to witness, as a rozel (a small wooden and toothless “rake”) is used to rhythmically twirl the batter around a hot, greased pan. Just the kind of visual warm-up your stomach needs.
To round out the unleavened flatbreads, let’s look at what’s been cited as the most popular flatbread in North America: the tortilla. We all know there are flour and corn varieties (we may have even disputed the merits of each the last time we went out for Mexican food) but since we’re focused on the ancient in this post, let’s talk about the corn variety, which came first. While simple in its total number of ingredients, the process of getting these ingredients isn’t necessarily so easy. In order to be digestible, corn has to be treated–ground kernels by themselves aren’t going to make a very edible bread. As Naomi helps explain, there is a lime-based alkaline that helps unlock the nutrients of the corn, after which it can be ground. This initial, wet ground grain has a paste-like consistency, is called masa, and can be found in specialty Mexican stores in the refrigerated section. It can also be transformed once more. When masa is dried and turned into powered, it becomes masa harina, a fine corn flour much more easily found in general grocery stores. This type simply requires water to be reconstituted and turned into tortilla dough (or arepas!). No matter which corn version you chose to start with, you’re bound to end up with perfect canvas for carne asada, guacamole, and beans, or whatever you like to stuff your tacos full of.
Moving on to leavened flatbreads, we’ll head east again, as leavening knows no geographic boundaries. Ingera, the national bread of Ethiopia and Eritrea, is a sour, spongy flatbread that acts as a utensil as much as a food. The traditional grain used for ingera is teff, which is small, iron-rich, and gluten-free. The teff is mixed together with water to form ingera batter, which is left to sit for days and ferment. That fermentation process is what makes ingera a leavened bread. Naomi explains that ingera is traditionally cooked with a clay plate placed over a fire, onto which the fermented, liquid-y batter is poured in a spiral motion – starting at the edges and going in to the center. The dough is never flipped, and once a cover goes on, you “just let the steam do its thing.” While this whole process may seem simple – two ingredients, no flipping or fussing – Naomi reminds us: “When you have a complex dish, it’s easier to hide things. It’s much harder to perfect something so basic.” So the next time you head out for Ethiopian food (highly recommended), be sure to pause and appreciate the perfectly prepared ingera delivered to your table.
Like “roti,” nan (or naan) is just another word for bread in many countries. Nan is frequently found throughout West, Central and South Asia, and takes on a number of variations depending on where in the world you are. But the one common thread – and what distinguishes it from roti – is how it’s cooked. Nan is traditionally made in a tandoor, which is a circular oven with fire at the bottom. Watching nan cook may be almost as enjoyable as eating it. The practiced technique involves slapping the dough up against the sides of the oven and letting it just stick there, so the bottom gets cooked by direct heat and the top by the surrounding convection heat. Like ingera, nan is also never flipped, which allows its top side to become a tender and chewy contrast to a slightly crispy bottom. Another contributor to this delicious softness? Yogurt. Many nan recipes will include this little bit of dairy, which makes the dough smoother and easier to stretch out. Try it with palak paneer or chicken tikka masala.
While still considered a flatbread, this leavened bread takes the cake in the height competition when matched against the others we’ve discussed. From in Italy, focaccia is for all intents and purposes a version of pizza. Rolled out and flattened by hand, focaccia dough often receives a little hole-poking before going into a hot stone-bottom or hearth oven. Naomi recalls a fond focaccia memory: while traveling in the mountains of Portugal, she happened upon village with a big, solid stone structure that contained an enormous wood oven. Local women sat around baking loaves of wheat-rye bread. But while these voluminous loaves were pushed to the back of the oven – where the temperature was high and even – they didn’t waste any of the dough or the real estate in the front of the oven. As they broke off much smaller, uneven pieces of the dough and drizzled them with honey, the almost-immediate aroma drew quite a crowd. Local children had come running over, asking for a taste of what was perfectly cooked and just an arm’s reach into the mouth of the giant oven. A slightly risky grab, perhaps, but can you blame them?
So there you have it. Quick bread, yeast bread, and now flatbread–all three part of the diverse and historic story that is bread, a food that much of the world depends on and delights in. Breads feeds both our stomachs and souls, and, if we let it, bread can also be something that challenges us to ask “why,” just like Naomi. So let us all follow her lead, if only briefly, and take a note from her culinary playbook. Here’s to being inquisitive about our food, where it comes from and who’s behind it. Especially when it comes to bread.