Imagine yourself alive six, eight, ten thousand years ago, living in the Fertile Crescent along the Tigris or the Euphrates rivers, growing a patch of barley or wheat, and having to live on what you grow. Imagine that you have just harvested a bountiful crop of grain, and it has been dried, threshed, and winnowed. Now what do you do?
If you have ever run your fingers through a big bin of barley or wheat berries or kernels of rye, you know the pleasure of feeling all that grain trickle through your fingers, and of the fresh grain smell which tickles the inside of your nose. You also know how hard the grain is: You can bite into it, but just barely. To soften it to edibility you could boil it, but that will take a long time and require a lot of fuel. The obvious solution is to pound it, break it down, and transform the hard grain into flour.
Now comes the fun part, now you're cooking. To flour you can add water and make porridge, or stir a batter or make a dough and bake flatbreads. What are flat-breads? Well, to us in North America the best-known flatbread is pizza; pita—or pocket bread or Arab bread—is sold in most supermarkets, and Indian and Mexican restaurants have introduced us to nan and tortillas. But there are many more: chapatti in India, k'sra in Morocco, lahmajun in Turkey and West Asia, flatbrød in Scandinavia, bannock in Scotland and Canada.... The world is full of flatbreads. You can find them in Afghan or Iranian or Ethiopian restaurants from Seattle to Riyadh to Melbourne—and you can see, smell and taste them in thousands of towns and villages in a region stretching from North Africa through central and southern Asia.
Most flatbreads begin with a harvest of grain, whether it be wheat, barley, rye, corn, sorghum, millet, buckwheat, oats, or teff. They can also be made from tubers such as potatoes and manioc, or legumes such as chickpeas and lentils. Flatbreads can be unleavened, leavened with yeast or soda, or raised with a natural (sourdough) leavening. The earliest breads must have been unleavened, but the discovery of natural leavenings and sourdoughs probably didn't take long. Without leavening, flat-breads cook better if they're made very thin, but with the help of a leavening they can be made anywhere from one to five centimeters (2") thick.
Many flatbreads are made and eaten today just as they were several thousand years ago; they are among the world's oldest prepared foods. Traditional breads such as Persian sangak, Armenian lavash and Bedouin fatir have survived because they represent workable, healthful, and tasty solutions to the problem of how to turn hard grain into edible food. The variety of wheat or barley may have changed, but the method of preparation is still very much the same.
The earliest method of cooking flatbreads probably involved spreading a dough or a batter over a very hot rock, then peeling the bread off the rock when it had finished cooking—a method still used by the Bedouin in parts of Jordan, as well as by the Hopi in the southwestern United States.
One step past cooking batter on a hot stone is cooking a flattened piece of dough on a heated griddle, a quick and fuel-efficient method still widely used. There are many variants on the griddle-on-a-fire theme: In northern India and in Pakistan, chapatti and roti are quickly rolled out and cooked on a lava, a flat metal plate, placed over a fire. Kurds, Bedouin, Qashqai, and many other groups, both nomadic and settled, bake flatbreads on a sajj, a round metal griddle shaped like a shallow dome and very portable. Its convex shape allows larger-diameter flatbreads to cook over a relatively small fire.
Another low-tech nomadic flatbread technique, probably of ancient origin, is used by Bedouin of the Sinai and in southern Tunisia and Algeria; they bake unleavened flatbreads by burying them in the hot sand and embers beneath a fire. They need no utensils, not even a sajj, to make this ideal desert-travel food.
Oven-baked flatbreads most likely came into existence fairly early. Instead of cooking the bread on a rock or griddle which had been heated in or over a fire, the bread could be baked in a "room" made of rock or clay which had been preheated with fire. Simple wood-fired ovens made of locally available materials are still the most practical flat-bread-baking tool for many people. In some, the bread is laid on the preheated oven floor, while in tandoor-style ovens, bread is baked up on the oven's inner walls, above the fire.
A tandoor may be a clay-lined hole in the ground, such as the taboona of Tunisia and the tanoor of the Kurds, or a large freestanding dome of bricks and clay, or even a small portable ceramic cylinder like the Moroccan kanoon. Whatever the design, the tandoor baking technique is the same: A fire is built in the bottom to preheat the oven, then dough is moistened, and pressed or slapped onto the hot oven walls to bake.
For the past eight years we have been traveling in search of flat-breads, working on a cookbook. We've been listening to stories, learning recipes, adapting old recipes in our kitchen in Toronto, talking with anthropologists and ethnoarcheologists, scouring old cookbooks, and eating and baking stack after stack of flatbreads. We even planted a wheat crop in our front yard. (It failed.) Our search has taken us to many corners of the Islamic world, from Yemen and Morocco to western China, from Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan to Pakistan and Malaysia.
Our flatbread project began with a bicycle trip. In the summer of 1986 we set out to ride our mountain bikes from the old oasis town of Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Province, up through the Pamir and Karakoram Mountains to the Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan (See Aramco World, January-February 1983, July-August 1988). The rough dirt road that we were following, misleadingly named the Karakoram Highway, had just been completed after 17 years of work and considerable loss of life. It was built along part of one of the old Silk Roads, up through the rugged region where four of the world's highest mountain ranges converge: the Pamir, Karakoram, Kun Lun, and Hindu Kush.
In one month on our bicycles we would encounter a heavy snowfall in July, a frightening sand storm, yaks and camels grazing the same pastures, a 4900-meter (16,000') mountain pass, rock slides, a 300-meter (1000') sand dune adjacent to an enormous glacier, yurts, nomads, eight different local languages, incredible evening skies—and a world of delicious flatbreads!
Kashgar, to begin with, was a flatbread paradise. For sale on every street corner and in every tiny eatery there was a choice of three different types. For the Uighur people who live in Kashgar and the other oases that rim the Taklamakan Desert, flat-breads are a part of every meal. The breads are leavened rounds 15 to 20 centimeters across (6-8"), with a puffed rim and a center that's been stamped flat before baking and often sprinkled lightly with cumin seed or salt. They are baked in large vertical tandoor ovens. Each round is laid on a baker's pillow—a padded, convex cloth-surfaced wooden disk—then slapped onto the preheated inside wall of the oven. It bakes for only a few minutes, then is lifted out, chewy, golden, and sustaining. In the dry desert air, the breads dry out quickly, but as is the custom all across Central Asia, they are immediately brought back to life when dunked or broken into big bowls of steaming-hot black tea.
Leaving Kashgar, riding across the desert and heading up into the sparsely populated mountain region near the border, the only food that we knew we could count on finding was what we could carry on our bicycles. We'd brought with us a month's supply of freeze-dried, precooked brown rice. We also had dried chilis, hot mustard powder and garlic flakes to vary the rice, but ours was at best a simple diet.
Five or six days into our ride, having left the desert behind, we began meeting the Tajik and Kyrgyz people who call the Pamir Mountains home (See Aramco World, July-August 1995). To survive in this mountainous, arid landscape, most people keep small herds of goats and sheep, together with yaks and camels, and live nomadically or semi-nomadically. The animals supply milk that is turned into yogurt and cheese; their meat and wool are traded for wheat—wheat to make flatbreads.
"How many breads do you eat in one day?" we asked a Tajik man, as we sat with his family, drinking tea.
"One person, one day, one kilo," was the reply.
As we got higher up into the mountains, and human habitation became ever sparser, we came upon several groups of tandoor ovens standing all alone in the landscape. Surrounded by a ring of rocks used to anchor a family's yurt, these "hearths" are used seasonally when the herds are brought up to graze in the high mountain grasslands. A yurt is put up around the tandoor, a fire is made to heat the oven, bread is put in to bake, and the family is once again "home."
Whenever a nomad group saw us passing, they would invite us in for tea, yogurt and flatbreads. We'd sit with the extended family around the hearth, talking in gestures and rudimentary Mandarin. When it was time to go, our hosts would hand us a stack of breads for the road. At night we would sit outside our own tent, dunking bread into hot tea and wondering if Marco Polo had eaten similar flatbreads when he passed this way, seven centuries ago.
The gift of food, of bread, is something special; like the smell of baking, flatbread came to mean hearth and home to us, and generous hospitality. In Northern Pakistan we feasted on roti with a Wahki family in the village of Khaibar, and on kimochdun in a small lodge in Passu. In Karimabad we ate, and learned how to make, Hunza'sremarkable pitti bread, made with sprouted wheat berries and eaten with apricot preserves. "Flatbread immersion" is how we think of our travels now in retrospect. European-style loaf breads have never had the same appeal since.
Flatbreads have no respect for political boundaries. Now embarked on the flatbread trail, Naomi traveled to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, three Central Asian republics that were at the time still parts of the Soviet Union. The chai khanas, or tea shops, in old Samarkand, just like those in Kashgar, were pleasantly busy throughout the day as unhurried pairs"and trios of men sat on wooden cots, sipping from great bowls of tea and chewing thoughtfully on pieces of flatbread torn from the stack beside them.
Like the Uighur breads we knew from Kashgar, the nan she found for sale in the markets of Samarkand and Tashkent were tandoor-baked. Some were 20 centimeters (8") across with a soft rim, the center stamped flat with a nail-studded stamp called a nan par or chekich; these were home-baked, tender with yogurt or lamb-fat, and brought to the market in wooden wheelbarrows by the women who'd made them. The women stood in rows in the market, heads kerchiefed, handing stacks of bread to eager customers. Other nan, bakery breads, were more elaborately decorated. Some were sprinkled with savory nigella seed; others had a dusting of sesame or poppy seeds. Everyone, it seemed, had their favorite style and felt free to invent new and subtle variations on the nan theme.
In Turkmenistan, where nan is more commonly called chorek, the breads are more than 30 centimeters (12") across, made from soured dough, and often topped with a sprinkling of chopped lamb-fat to help keep them fresh. These big tandoor-baked breads occasionally have milk in the dough, giving the bread a tender crumb, and are stamped at the center with the end of a dowel or with a bread stamp, similar to the Uzbek one, known as a durtlik in Turkoman.
The tradition of very thin, large flat-breads, like the lavash of Armenia and Iran, is alive and well in Turkmenistan, where lavash-style breads are folded over a mixture of herbs and greens and called cheburek. In neighboring Tajikistan, thin homemade flatbreads called chaputti are still made in some villages, though they have become hard to find in the city.
In our travels in Central Asia we became accustomed to the ease with which home and professional bakers baked their breads in tandoor ovens. Yet in Ashkabad, near the edge of the oasis, Naomi caught a glimpse of just how difficult tandoor baking could be. A young Turkoman woman was heating her oven outside the family home; she got a big blaze going, shooting flames out the opening at the top of the oven, then let it die down. Her mother-in-law brought out the breads—large rolled-out chorek—and stamped the center of each with a durtlik. The young woman slapped the rounds against the heated oven wall, looking anxious. And she was right: She hadn't preheated the oven sufficiently, and in a few minutes the breads began to sag on the oven wall. The mother-in-law stalked back into the house in disapproval; the young woman bowed her head, hiding tears.
For most people who eat flatbreads every day, they are a staff of life. For a villager in northern Pakistan, a town-dweller in Uzbekistan, a Tajik herder in the Pamirs, a day without flatbreads is unthinkable. Flatbreads are a part of every meal, day after day, year after year. While this might sound monotonous to anyone who has grown up shopping in giant supermarkets and choosing daily from a vast array of different foods, to the many people who have grown up depending on them, flatbreads have a meaning and an importance in their lives that has nothing to do with monotony.
The more time we spent around people for whom flatbreads are the staff of life, the more we began to understand the unique relationship these people have to the food they eat. We began to appreciate finer distinctions between different kinds of breads and flours and methods of preparation. Behind every bread we tasted, we came to realize, there were at least half a dozen others we would never taste, and probably never even be told about. And we realized that, unlike the culture in which we grew up, in flatbread cultures most people have a very clear idea of where the food they eat each day comes from, of how it is grown or raised, how it is prepared and cooked. Many times, when we asked people how to make a certain local bread, they couldn't believe that we didn't already know. How could anyone not know how to make nan, or roti, or pitti!
So onward we went, from Central Asia to West Asia; to Yemen, Egypt, and Syria; to the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey, to Azerbaijan, and to Tunisia and Morocco. Sometimes we were looking for a specific bread or breads that we had read about or been told about, but most often we'd simply arrive, find the cheapest accommodation possible, and start sniffing around.
Luckily there is no snob factor to flat-breads, no element of haute cuisine or expensive restaurants—just the opposite. On my first morning in Cairo a taxi driver stopped me on the street, asking where I was going. When I told him that I was heading to the Khan el-Khalili suq, looking for flatbreads, he suggested that that might be a waste of time. For the next five days, morning till night, we ended up tracking down breads together: to the Nile delta for cornbreads made in beehive-shaped mud ovens; to El Fayyum to see an old-style oven and grain mill; to a Cairo suburb to photograph a beautiful old bakery turning out aysh baladi by the thousands. We searched and searched for a flatbread said to be baked by the heat of the sun, but never found it: "Farther south," we were always told. And yet another bread eluded us in Egypt, one baked beneath the desert sand—a bread which Naomi would learn to make in Tunisia a few years later.
Flying into Yemen, I sat next to a man who gave me a list of six different breads to look for while in his country—and he wasbeing modest. From the sorghum breads in the highlands, to the paper-thin breads served in fish restaurants, to the injera-like lahooh made in the Tihama region along the Red Sea coast, the flatbreads of Yemen, like the country's incredible architecture, were a mirror of each local environment. Just as in Central Asia, fresh, delicious breads would arrive in the market by the wheel-barrowful, coming from villages where sorghum grew two meters tall on ancient stone terraces. Also for sale were small ready-made clay tandoor ovens.
One autumn day in a small shop in Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, I sat with three Kurdish men as they told me in great detail about every flatbread they had ever eaten, which was a great many. Almost all could be divided into two categories: nane tandore were breads baked in a tandoor oven, and nane selle were breads cooked on top of a sajj—called a selle in Kurdish—over an open fire. The tandoor ovens, unlike those in Central Asia, were made of red clay and built into the ground rather than on top of it.
The three men described breads stuffed with cheese and cooked on the selle, breads baked paper thin and left to dry out, breads made from barley, breads covered heavily in sesame seeds, breads and more breads. At one point they launched into a description of a flatbread they called nane casoki: "There is a bread we make from bulgur [cracked wheat]; we mix it with finely chopped onion. It is so good. It's the best!" They all agreed, but they needn't have told me so: The look in their eyes had said it all.
In a mountain oasis village in southern Morocco, Madame Mamane, a Berber widow with grown children, taught us how to bake flatbread on hot pebbles. A dome-shaped oven made of bricks and clay stood in the courtyard of her house. Through the opening at the front we could see a thick layer of pebbles on a raised part of the oven floor. Beside the stones a wood fire burned fiercely. Madame Mamane used a wet peel to lay flattened circles of very moist dough on the bed of hot pebbles. When each round was done to a golden sheen, she gave it a sharp slap to dislodge any stones, then added it to the stack of finished breads.
The breads were made from a blend of wheat and barley flour milled from grain grown in the oasis. They were full of flavor, soft, dense, and wonderfully bumpy and irregular. We ate them with yogurt and sweet, hot mint tea. With us were our two children, Dominic and Tashi, then aged four and one. They ate a little bread, but they were far more interested in the village children with whom they'd been playing while we'd been helping with the bread. So they kept on playing, and we kept on eating and baking. All the while the late afternoon light cast a warm glow across the courtyard—another wonderful day on the flatbread trail.
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid are the authors of Flatbreads and Flavors, published this year by William Morrow. They operate the Asia Access photo agency.