Half the world is flat

Learn to make and appreciate flatbreads.

Indian naan bread (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Indian naan bread
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Until about the 14th century, people believed the world was flat, but they were wrong.
The world is only half flat! I am not referring to the sphericity of the globe but to global bread preferences.
History’s first breads were flatbreads, most likely a “mush” of pulverized grains baked on a heated rock. With the invention of grinding stones, flatbreads were subsequently made from a dough mixture of flour and water, often leavened, resembling many of today’s “modern” flatbreads.
As civilization progressed, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans also constructed ovens.
According to archeological remains, these civilizations were already baking a wide variety of bread loaves, some in pans and others free-form. It is a well-known fact that the Israelites, after their Exodus from Egypt, baked the 12 loaves of Shewbread in pans.
While world geography has changed over the ages, the global delineation of bread preferences has remained more or less constant. The North American continent, Europe, Russia and Australia have traditionally preferred the loaf, while the Middle East, much of Asia, North Africa and Mexico have remained predominantly flatbread oriented.
In general, flatbreads tend to be healthier and more “authentic” bread than loaves because their volume is not an issue. They are usually made from the most basic of ingredients: flour, water, salt, sourdough yeast, with various regional additions, such as seeds, goat’s milk yogurt, etc. Flatbreads are usually made from grains indigenous to the region, such as Ethiopian injera made from teff grains.
Loaves, on the other hand, have an issue with volume. The hallmark of an attractive loaf is its volume; the more “puffed up,” the better. To achieve this effect, flours were carefully selected to optimize this attribute, which led to the predominance of wheat cultivation due to its high concentration of gluten and its ability to achieve increased volume. This trend has been exaggerated in our modern society with the further addition of extra gluten in the dough and various other additives to achieve even greater volumes, often at the expense of health. Modern Western society has been “re-educated” and has come to accept these “artificially” inflated loaves as the norm.
Flatbreads usually predominate in regions where bread remains the staple food. The fact that they remain mostly authentic and healthy has allowed those peoples to survive and even thrive on a bread-heavy diet. In the West, however, bread has been supplanted as the dietary staple by the rich selection of other foodstuffs and has, in fact, achieved a negative reputation, nutritionally speaking, mostly because it has lost its authenticity.
In many places in the world, flatbreads are made today very similarly to thousands of years ago. The characteristic of flatbread baking is using a very high temperature heat source for a very short baking time.
This is often done with an exposed flame covered with a saj, as in Iraqi style pita (lafa), or a fire-heated stone or earthenware oven such as naan in a tandoor. The Chinese even have a flatbread that is baked directly in the ashes of the fire.
Flatbreads are rarely eaten alone. They are usually dipped, spread with or used to wrap other foodstuffs, for example Mexican tortillas.
They tend to stale very quickly and must be eaten within hours of baking (or frozen).
Israeli society is a multicolored mosaic of different cultures that extends to bread culture. As the owner of an artisan bakery, I often encounter much unfamiliarity among Eastern and Western orientations of each other’s breads. In most cases, people like to stick with the bread they were brought up with because that is what they are familiar with. I find it equally difficult introducing a Moroccan client to rye bread as I do introducing an American to naan.
We have a unique advantage living in a country where in a 1,300-square kilometer area you can experience breads from almost every country on the globe. The world may be half flat and half round, but that is exactly what makes it interesting and exciting.
There is no better way to acquaint yourself and begin to understand other cultures than by sampling each one’s bread.
INDIAN NAAN BREAD (Makes 6 naan breads, dairy) Sponge ✔ 21⁄3 cups finely ground whole grain flour ✔ 1 cup water ✔ 1 tiny pinch instant powdered yeast Mix and leave covered overnight for 12 to 16 hours.
Main dough ✔ 7 cups finely ground whole grain flour ✔ 2¼ cups water ✔ 1 cup goat’s milk yogurt (or regular plain white yogurt) ✔ 1 tsp. yeast ✔ 5 tsp. salt ✔ ¼ cup olive oil ✔ Sponge Mix and knead for 10 minutes. Leave to rise for 3 hours, punching down after each hour. Divide into 6 round portions and roll flat (1.5 cm. thick). Preheat oven to 250° C with pizza stone. Leave naan breads to rise for 1 hour on a well-floured surface. Bake directly on pizza stone for 10-12 minutes.
Eat warm with ghee (look for recipe on the Internet). 
Master baker Les Saidel is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com), which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking, and is the inventor of Rambam Bread.