Arabic Bread

In the Middle East bread is not only the staffof life, but often fork, spoon and plate as well. The typical bread of Arab countries and Turkey is a flat, round loaf which is only slightly leavened. Its flavor is best when fresh from the oven, because it contains no milk or shortening and dries out quickly. Peasants and villagers prefer this bread for its chewy texture and they also like the convenience of the flat loaves. They can stuff it with meat, cheese or vegetables for a hearty sandwich. They can break off bits to dip into hummus bi taheeni, or they can use pieces of it to clean the last of the stew from their plates. Towspeople have been conditioned to different ideas about bread by the light loaves introduced by foreigners and available in the larger towns.

The true bread of Lebanon and its Arab neighbo?s is made without shortening or milk. It is flat loaf about 10 inches in diameter which puffs roundly in the oven but falls as it cools. It is easily pulled open and the pocket thus formed can be filled with whatever the appetite demands.

In towns a good housewife makes bread at home. Often she may send the raised loaves to the commercial oven for baking. To prepare the dough the housewife or her maid put her dough ball (the leavened "starter" saved from the preceding batch of bread) to dissolve in a pan of salted water. Into this liquid she mixes enough wheat flour to make a soft dough. She then covers the pan of dough and leaves it until the next morning when she turns the dough into a tub. Kneading in more flour and salt water she works the dough into a smooth, elastic mass. She usually puts the tub on the floor and kneels before it, pounding the dough alternately with her fists. Finally she shapes it into a long roll on a low table. From the roll she cuts neat slices which she shapes into balls and arranges on a clean, white cloth. One loaf is put away as a "starter".

Next, the home baker rolls her dough out with a wooden rolling pin into flat, round loaves which she places in rows upon a cloth, spread over a piece of carpet or blanket. Now the bread is ready to be carried to the bakery on a big wooden or straw tray. An errand boy from the bakery makes the rounds of the neighborhood kitchens each morning, to carry the loaves to the bakery. Now housewives can buy ready made bread in bakeries and that saves them the trouble of making it at home.

From tnis bread an especially tasty open-faced sandwich called manakish is made in Lebanon. Oil and spices (particularly thyme are spread on the dough before it is baked. Children also love the dry rolls sprinkled with sesame seeds called ka'k kurshalli. These rolls are small and either round or oblong in shape. In the towns of Lebanon a long crusty loaf somewhat like French bread and called khubz franji is popular. Also, a loaf called butter bread is baked in the bigger towns, like Beirut and Tripoli, purchased principally by foreigners. The mountain people of Lebanon bake a delicious paper-thin dark bread called khubz markouk, meaning "stretched " or "patted". The women who make this bread are artists at their craft. The technique of manipulating the loaf of dough so that it becomes a paper thin circle several feet in diameter can be mastered only after years of practice. Mothers teach their daughters. The mountain bread maker starts her baking in the same way as the town woman. When the dough has risen for the second time she moves to a sheltered spot outdoors where she has a fire burning in a ground hearth. The bread is baked on a concave sheet of black iron called a sajj. The woman sits crosslegged before a low wooden table, shaping the dough balls into rounded loaves with a quick motion of her hands. She takes them one by one between her palms, patting and pressing the dough as she shifts it deftly from one hand to the other. Her arms move faster and faster as she pushes the dough out into a widening circular shape. When the dough is paper- thin and almost as big as the sajj she flips it onto a round pillow and streches it to an even circular shape. Then she flips the sheet of dough quickly onto the sajj. It bakes in several minutes. When it is slightly browned she peels it from the baking pan, and lays it upon the stack in a cloth lined basket.

Fresh flat round "town" loaves are to be found in an the other Arab countries. The flour is usually rather coarse although the degree of its refinement veries. Turkish peasant bread is moist and firmer than the Arab bread. It has a thick crust, may be either round or oblong, and is called frangola.

(From Food from the Arab World Marie Karam Khayat and Margaret Clark Keatinge, Khayat's, Beirut 1959)