Exploring Flatbreads: The Staff of Life Around the World
In the Beginning
Nutritious, filling, compact, and portable—bread in all its various forms is one of the most widely consumed foods on our planet and has been a part of man’s diet since long before the written word.
Did you know?
- Flatbread made of flour and water and then baked on a fire-heated rock has been a staple for much of humanity for the past 5,000 years.
- The Mesopotamians developed the first millstones, two circular stones stacked one upon the other to grind grain.
- In the British Museum's Egyptian galleries you can see actual loaves which were made and baked over 5,000 years ago. (Source: KitchenProject)
- Yeast was used in Egypt as early as 4000 B.C.
A Google search for "flatbreads" results in about 56 million hits and Wikipedia lists the names of 128 flatbreads throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. We certainly can't explore all of them, but I've selected 10 from around the globe for a fun sampling of how alike, and how very different, these breads are. Let's learn about their history and how they are made. We'll start with the United States.
1. Frybread (United States)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Fry bread (also known as Navajo bread) is one of those foods that is simply memorable. These puffy, chewy, crisp rounds can be sugared and eaten as a sweet treat. Or you can use them as the base for (are you ready for this?) a taco. This authentic Indian fry bread recipe from Rachel (TheStayAtHomeChef) includes the basic recipe, plus a recipe for the taco, and (as a special bonus) a video that shows you step-by-step how to put it all together.
2. Corn Tortilla (Mexico)
High in the Sierra Madre Mountains perhaps as long ago as 10,000 B.C. there grew a small plant, a wild grass, which bore a fruit that could be dried, and ground, and formed into a palatable paste. When that paste was baked on hot stones it could be preserved. This wild grass was carefully tended and cultivated by the Mesoamerican peoples. Weak seedlings were removed and stronger strains encouraged. In time the grass was producing larger seed heads, a precursor to what we know today as maize.
The significance of corn was not lost on indigenous cultures that viewed it as a foundation of humanity. It is revered as the seed of life. According to legend, human beings were made of corn by the Gods.
By the time that Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s flat maize cakes were a significant part of the Aztec diet. The Spanish named these cakes “tortillas” meaning little cakes. Maize is still grown in Mexico; in fact, they are one of the top producers of maize in the world.
Andi Gleeson (TheWearyChef) has a recipe on her food blog for homemade corn tortillas, made from maize flour. There are lots of photos with her step-by-step instructions; the result is soft corn tortillas that (unlike store-bought) won't tear or crack when you fill them.
3. Potato Lefse (Norway)
This recipe is from the files of my dear sister-in-law. Her father immigrated to the United States from Stranda, Norway in 1923. Shirley kept in touch with her Norwegian relatives and visited them several times. In my brother's home, it became a family custom to bake lefse at Christmastime, an activity that her grown daughters have continued. Cancer took Shirley from us two and one-half years ago so these potato flatbreads are not merely food—they are a tradition filled with memories and love.
- 3 pounds of russet potatoes, peeled, cooked and riced (should make 6 cups)
- 1/2 cup butter (1 cube)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- Boil potatoes in salted water until done (the tip of a knife should easily pierce the potato). Drain and put through a ricer, adding butter while potatoes are warm. Mix well and set aside to cool.
- When cool, work in flour and sugar and form into a roll about 3 inches in diameter. Cut into 10 equal portions.
- Taking one portion at a time, roll out on a floured surface, as thin as possible, into a circle about 14 inches in diameter, adding flour when needed to keep the dough from sticking. Turn frequently while rolling.
- Using a lefsa stick, pick up lefse and place on hot lefsa baker (400 degrees F.). Bake until bubbles appear or browning starts on underneath side. Turn several times. When done remove to a cloth-covered counter and cover with another towel until cooled.
4. Crepe (France)
Food lore is full of urban legends. We've been told that Mrs. Wakefield was too busy to melt chocolate, and so simply smashed a bar to bits; the Toll House cookie was born. We have been led to believe that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter and that Twinkies will never die (actually I think that last one is fact).
Here's another story to add to the list, and then just as quickly dispel. A harried Breton housewife inadvertently dribbled porridge on a hot griddle and, tada, she made a crepe. I've made many mistakes in my kitchen, but none of them have resulted in anything so fabulous.
My favorite crepe recipe comes from the 1986 Sunset Magazine special publication "Cheese: How to Choose, Serve, and Enjoy."
Ingredients for Whole Wheat Crepes
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3 eggs
- 1 tablespoon canola oil (plus additional for oiling crepe pan)
- 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Whirl until smooth. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Heat a 6- or 7-inch crepe pan (or other flat-bottomed saute pan) over medium heat. Pour in about 1/4 teaspoon canola oil and swirl to coat the surface. When the pan is sizzling (test with a few drops of water), stir batter thoroughly. Then pour about 2 tablespoons of the batter into the pan all at once; quickly tilt the pan so batter flows over the entire flat surface. Cook until the surface of the crepe feels dry and edges are lightly browned. Turn crepe over and cook until lightly browned on the other side. Remove from pan and place on a plate.
- Repeat with remaining batter, adding a little oil as needed to prevent crepes from sticking. Stack crepes as they are completed.
Makes 16 to 18 crepes.
5. Focaccia (Italy)
Focaccia was born in Northern Italy but is now almost synonymous with any Italian bread. Rich with the fruity aroma of pure olive oil and dimpled, it can be simply baked or adorned with olives, grapes, fresh rosemary and sea salt (my favorite), or let your imagination take hold.
- 1 cup warm water, divided
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1 envelope (2 teaspoons) dry yeast (not instant)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil plus additional for greasing the bowl
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 teaspoons coarse (Kosher) salt
- In a small bowl combine 1/4 cup of the warm water, sugar, and yeast. Let sit 10 minutes or until bubbly.
- In a large mixing bowl combine flour and salt. Make a well in the flour; add the bubbly yeast mixture, the remaining 3/4 cup warm water, and the olive oil. Stir to combine.
- Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
- When you have finished kneading, place the dough in a large, lightly greased mixing bowl. Turn the dough over in the bowl so that the entire ball of dough is greased. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place, away from drafts.
- Let the dough sit in this cozy safe place until doubled in size, about 1 hour. One way to test if the dough has risen enough is to lightly and quickly press two fingertips into the dough about 1/2 inch. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for the next step.
- Punch down the dough by pushing your fist into the center of the dough. Pull the edges of the dough to the center, and then place the dough on a lightly floured surface. It will be smooth and bubbles will be visible under the surface.
- Brush baking sheet with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Place the proofed (and punched down) dough onto the prepared baking sheet and pat into a 10-inch by 8-inch rectangle.
- Brush the surface of the dough with the remaining olive oil; sprinkle with the rosemary and coarse salt. Dimple (indent) the surface of the dough with your fingertips.
- Let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place until puffed and doubled, about 45 minutes to an hour.
- Bake in preheated 350° F oven for 30 minutes or until golden on top. Serve warm.
6. Pita (Greece)
Pita bread (also known as pita pockets) is an invention that's even better than sliced bread. It's a little bit of magic that you can create in your own kitchen. Pitas start as other flatbreads, a simple thin disc of dough. But place that dough in a screaming hot oven and two things happen:
- The top and bottom of the dough quickly firm up, creating a thin shell (think of it as a yet-to-be inflated balloon.
- Moisture in the middle of the dough does what all water is known to do when confronted with heat—it turns to steam. And so, the "balloon" inflates.
The kitchen of Serious Eats and author Yvonne Ruperti give us a Perfect Homemade Pita Bread Recipe.
7. Lavash (Armenia)
I cannot give you one perfect recipe for lavash. Subtle differences in technique exist from one village to the next. Even the source of the simple ingredients can affect the flavor and texture; variations in soil and climate can have an impact on the nuanced tastes of water and grain.
In Armenia, lavash is typically baked in a below-ground clay oven called a tonir. The dough is expertly stretched across a cushion and then slapped against the side of the blistering-hot bricks. The dough immediately begins to bake, the surface covered with golden crisp bubbles, the edges lightly charred.
One must also understand that the baking of lavash is more than a mere daily chore. Some bakers create a sourdough version of the flatbread, using a bit of the previous day's dough to create tang and texture. And, isn't this past-and-present connection of the dough an allegory for how tradition, folk tales, and shared foods connect those of us in the present with our ancestors? Lavash is tradition, it is culture, and it is memories.
I will assume that you do not have a subterranean clay oven (I don't), so I found something almost as good. Heghineh has a cooking show on YouTube. About three years ago she showed us how to create lavash in our home kitchen. A link to that video is given below.
8. Matzoh (Israel)
When I'm in the mood for some serious baking or cooking, making a recipe that is perhaps a tad out of the ordinary (homemade Oreos, goldfish crackers, or Snickers bars to name a few), I go to Leite's Culinaria. David Leite's blog is a foodie's Heaven, a masterpiece of recipes tested, tested, and tested some more.
This homemade matzoh is fresh and crisp and far better than anything you could ever buy at the grocery store (or your local Jewish deli) and requires only four ingredients.
9. Naan (India)
Have you noticed that each of these flatbreads is different from the others? What sets naan apart from the previous recipes we've explored is the addition of yogurt. Yogurt is the key to the slight tang and chewy texture that we've come to know and love. Bee (RasaMalaysia) provides a beautifully-photographed recipe for homemade naan.
10. Roti Prata (Singapore)
After consuming nine different types of bread (you've been baking and eating all of these, right?) my dear readers you need some exercise. Let's do the infamous roti prata flip.
Everything you could ever need to know about making the perfect roti prata dough, letting it rest (build that gluten stretch), and flipping it by hand (not unlike tossing pizza dough) is right here in this extensively detailed post by Leslie Tay on his blog iEatiShootiPost. He even gives us a video to demonstrate that roti prata flip.
By the way, Dr. Tay suggests that one use wheat flour with a protein level of 10.8 percent. If you cannot find the flour that he recommends in his recipe, Pillsbury or Gold Medal unbleached all-purpose flour are close (not perfect, but close).
Which one will you try?
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Lum