Friday, September 09, 2005

Space-Saving (Flat) Bread!

Flatbread selection at Jordan Market in Laguna Hills

Flatbreads of every description always seem to me to be space-saving bread. Or should that be "bread in space"? It makes me wonder if the astronauts ever take this kind of bread along when every tiny bit of space savings is crucial in the tiny cabin of their space vehicle. Maybe an extra square or two, for snacking, folded up in a tiny pocket of that space suit?

Certainly flatbreads are a good idea for backpackers or campers. After all, you wouldn't have to worry about any little slips or stumbles on the trail -- at least crush-wise -- if your bread is flat to begin with! Though, I suppose it wouldn't cushion one's fall quite as well as a puffy variety ....

And another question always come to mind about flatbreads. If they take up less space outside my stomach, do they take up less space INSIDE my stomach as well? I suppose chewing sort of equals things out, space-wise?

If bread is the "staff of life," flatbreads must be the handle! They have been around, nourishing people around the world -- especially nomadic people -- forever!

Some estimates suggest that as long as 15,000 years ago -- that would be 13,000 B.C.! -- wheat grain meal and water were mixed together and baked on heated rocks, thus creating the first flatbreads. Then, more "recently," say 2600 to 4000 B.C. (estimates vary over that 1400-year range, but of course, recordkeeping probably was not all THAT precise during that period!), the Egyptians added yeast-like substances to make bread rise, either a lot or a little, and created the first ovens for baking bread. Most of these breads would still be considered flatbreads, even though they contained small amounts of leavening agent.

The Greeks learned from the Egyptians and then passed on the knowledge to the Romans. And of course, those on-the-move Romans not only took it from there and grew better grains, improved the milling processes with finer sieves and built better ovens, but then transported the know-how all over Europe (undoubtedly carrying space-saving flatbreads with them!) as they conquered not only bread-making but everything else they could get their hands on! By 100 A.D., most of Europe had adopted Roman bread-baking techniques.

The beauty of the whole history of bread, to the Ingredient Sleuth, is the overwhelming variety of bread styles that we have come to enjoy: various grains, various baking styles, various densities, various form factors. A trip around the world, or around a well-stocked supermarket, provides bread choices of many descriptions.

For this week, let's consider only flatbreads -- at least, a FEW of them! As in all bread categories, the variety is inspiring.

TORTILLAS, round and unleavened, are Latin American flatbreads. They may be made from ground corn, masa (corn kernels cooked with unslaked lime and water) or wheat flours. Corn tortillas typically contain only masa and water. Flour tortillas usually include baking powder, salt, shortening and milk. In both cases, tortillas are cooked on an ungreased griddle. The Ingredient Sleuth will never forget the delectable flour tortillas, hot and fresh from the griddle, of Guadalajara , Mexico -- there's just SOMETHING about the flavor of real lard (rather than the vegetable shortenings predominant north of the border) in those little beauties! Supermarket tortillas, have also begun to feature added ingredients, such as avocado and sundried tomato flavors.

PITA BREAD, one of the oldest recipes known to mankind, is round, Arabic flatbread whose basic ingredients are flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast or starter. Sometimes, butter, shortening or dry milk are added. Because pita bread is baked at a very high temperature (500 degrees Fahrenheit), it forms a pocket shape. The dry exterior skin of the dough sets and carbon dioxide from the yeast and steam from the moist ingredients expand until the upper and lower layers separate. Pita bread spread to Italy from its Arabic locations of origin. And voila! Northern Italians topped it (rather than filled it) creating what they pronounced as "pizza!" (Isn't it a small world, after all?)

NAAN BREAD, the famous flatbread from India, is slightly leavened and formed into a roughly-oval shape. Made from white flour, it is sprinkled with pungent nigella seeds and baked at high heat in either a tandoor or regular oven. The picturesque -- dare I say romantic --part of the tandoor (clay) oven, I think, is the idea of slapping those flattened, oval dough disks onto the hot, interior walls. Of course, singed finger tips probably aren't so picturesque or romantic, for the bakers! Today, naan bread is a common restaurant item (sometimes in its garlic-flavored form) and is rarely baked at home, even in India.

LAVASH is Armenian flatbread. It is formed in various shapes and sizes and in textures from soft to crisp. It is unleavend and extremely flat -- sometimes paper-thin. This bread, a staple food not only in Armenia but in parts of neighboring Iran, Lebanon and Georgia, has been prepared the same way for thousands of years: long sheets of dough are stretched thin and baked in a clay oven similar to an Indian tandoor oven. Sheets of lavash, even as packaged in plastic in supermarkets, are large -- about 12 inches by 18 inches. The Ingredient Sleuth always winces when the checkout clerk nonchalantly folds the package in half in order to fit it into the shopping bag -- but the lavash has never broken and always arrives home safely.

These flatbreads (and others!) appear in ethnic markets, international markets, specialty food shops and, increasingly, in supermarkets as well. They are usually reasonably-priced, provide an interesting alternative to other workaday breads and won't take up much room in the shopping cart or in the pantry!

Whatever their shape, flatbreads of all descriptions are just the ticket for wrapping up tasty fillings, scooping up sauces and stews, dunking into dips, or (a personal favorite) slathering with honeys and jams and that wonderful chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella. When it comes to flatbreads, everything old (and space-saving) is new again. You don't even have to be nomadic to enjoy them!

Bon appetit!


jennifer said...

We are seeing flat breads in our grocery store now too, probably because people have become familiar with "wraps" sandwiches. We love 'em!

pat r said...

I go to Indian restaurants just to get naan! I order it to go and take it hojme and enjoy it. I guess I'm addicted!

marianne said...

The grandkids just love to get what we call 'rollups' in their lunches for school, using flatbreads as the base and then toppings before rolling up into a cylinder. Peanut butter and jelly works great. Another of their favorites is cream cheese and salami.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm - as to the question of how much space flatbreads consume in the stomach - As a result of the lack of yeast, or the limited amount of yeast, one would assume that they would take up less space in the stomach because the lack of yeastiness might limit the total space consumption even after chewing. Interesting question!