“Bread is the staff of life” so the biblically inspired quote says, to which the sages add that “without bread there can be no Torah”. Much like other societies, Israel depends on its daily slice for sustenance. Breads of all shapes and descriptions abound in Israel, a testament to the many immigrant cultures who brought with them their leavened preferences and traditions. It is not a simple task choosing only a dozen delicacies from the great variety that abounds. I will admit that my reference point is hopelessly Jerusalem based, a product of a decade and half spent in the city. I would love to increase this list for future postings, so feel free to suggest other spots where one might catch other crusty treats.
For those of you who wish to learn more about the breads presented, or to try your hand at baking, I have included (when possible) quality English language recipe links.
For those of you who have embraced (or have been embraced by) the low-carb, no-carb or gluten-free lifestyle, consider this to be a bit of food porn--and stop drooling all over your screen :)
WARNING: THIS POST IS SERIOUSLY NOT KOSHER FOR PASSOVER
1. Pita and Lafa
THE ubiquitous bread among all inhabitants of Israel (and most Arab communities that surround her), this soft, crustless bread boasts an internal pocket that just begs to be stuffed with lamb, veggies, hummus or its fried incarnation, Falafel. Weird square and mini mutations exist, but the classic 15cm (6 inch) diameter is created by baking simple yeast dough on a traditional Saj rounded metal plate that resembles an upside-down wok. The ballooning effect created in the bake is a delicious magic trick.
Here is a recipe that claims to make the perfect pita
A larger, flatter version created by slapping the same dough on the sides of a clay or metal Tabun oven is known as an Eysh Tanoor (‘oven fired’), Iraqi Pita or Laffa. Remarkably strong, capable of holding meats, sauces and chopped veg, the tender bread is neither too thin nor thick, perfect for ripping and dipping.
Try making it in your own kitchen with help from this site
A trio of breads from three differing diaspora cultures with one common thread--they fall somewhere between a loaf and flat bread. Round, squat, plump, they are known for their crusty exterior and moist, filling interior. The prettiest is the Bukharan/Uzbeki "Lepyoshka", decorated in the center crater with a stamped pattern (much like Christian holy breads that are similarly adorned).
Turkish Pide is a related yeast dough, slightly sweet, drizzled with olive oil and finger stamped. In appearance it is similar to the Italian Focaccia, though the latter starts out as a much fussier, wet dough. Pide is believed to be over a thousand years old, originating with the Nomadic predecessors to the famous empire building Ottomans.
Though Moroccan cuisine is most associated with couscous, the daily bread of choice is Frena (or ‘Farna’). The name comes from the traditional oven in which it was baked, called ‘Hafarna’ in Arabic--I’ve heard stories of mud/straw, clay and metal versions. Apparently the key to its crispness lies in the use of pebbles on which it is baked.
Sometimes referred to as an “Arab Bagel” these oversized, elliptical shaped goodies are common throughout the country, but most especially at the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem (and oddly at the gates of the cultural temple of the Jerusalem Theater--because everyone needs a late-night nosh apres the opera). Slightly sweet with a nutty punch (thanks to a generous husk of sesame seeds), these bagels are fluffier, drier and more crusty than their western counterparts. While they can be sliced and ‘shmeared’ with fillings, they are best ripped and dipped in a powder of Zatar spice--a local version of the oregano plant, mixed with sumac, salt, toasted sesame, marjoram and thyme. Much like the biblical ‘manna’ these bagels are heaven on the day of and a rather sad disappointment afterwards. Rumor has it that they have begun to appear in posh eateries in Manhattan, though these metropolitan versions are reportedly half the size and twice the price--plus they lack the cachet of having come off a brightly decorated pushcart, sold with a paper sachet of spice.
No access to an Old City street cart or the Jerusalem Theater? try making a home-version of these ubiquitous Jerusalemites with help here
4. Romanian Bagel
There is some controversy surrounding the origins of this stout, salty and slightly misshapen delight--Arab and Eastern European cuisines both claim it as their own. The love-child of a Dutch pretzel and a Montreal style Bagel, it has a hardish outside and a tender, slightly dry, subtlety sweet inside. Sold all over Israel in kiosks and the Markolet corner shops, it is an unassuming snack that doubles a hasty lunch when paired with a pot of thick Israeli-style cottage cheese and a cucumber. Look for them piled seductively on wooden dowels, half dipped in salt and sesame seeds. A personal favorite/addiction of mine.
I haven’t tried this recipe but it looks pretty close to my beloved treat:
Two delicious, spongy sourdough flatbreads from the neighboring diasporas of Ethiopia and Yemen. Lachoch (or Lacuhch) begins as a watery-yeasty pancake-like dough. Its secret ingredient is “Hilbeh” (fenugreek), a spice that has a sweet, salty, slightly bitter taste (think maple meets celery root), with apparent health benefits. Dry pan- fried, the air-bubbly texture is great for soaking up its accompaniments of grated tomato, “Schug” (a sinus clearing, uber-spicy paste) and perhaps more “Hilbeh” in the form of a frothy dip. A delicacy, Lachoch is about a gazillion times less fat-saturated than its Yemenite flatbread relative “Malawach” a fried confection made from of layers of puff pastry sandwiched around yummy, greasy stuff (butter or margarine).
A great step-by-step demonstration can be found here
Injera is THE staple food in many Ethiopian households. Larger (huge ones are placed on the table for an entire family to share) and far more complex to create than Lacoch, it has a sour edge to it. Made of Teff, the world’s smallest (and therefore most difficult to harvest and winnow) grain, it is a gluten-free, protein-iron-calcium packed dreamboat. Using only the grain’s natural yeast, the dough is left to ferment for three days before being griddled on a clay or metal “Mitad” pan. It is served with (or often under) a variety of stews, cooked beans or lentils and a wonderful, strong Peri-Peri chili paste.
Here you can find a very detailed set of cooking instructions
This unique Yemenite pull-apart yeast loaf defies almost all bread making conventions as it is slowly steamed over a low heat overnight on Fridays for consumption on Shabbat morning. It is cooked either in a specialty pan or in a local invention called a “Wonder Pot”, a high sided, tight lidded bundt-like jobbie made for baking in oven-less kitchens. Often cooked with a whole (in the shell) egg on top, it is served with the traditional accompaniments of grated tomato, “Schug” spice-blast and Tahina or simply sprinkled with sugar.
Another brainchild of the Yemenite kitchen, these little, amber sausage-shaped roulades of pure delight have achieved cult status. What it lacks in the looks department (use your imagination), it more than makes up for in taste. Made of the same sinful dough as “Malawach”, Jachnoon is thinly rolled out and then rolled up around oil or clarified butter and like “Kubaneh”, slowly cooked overnight. Its purpose is to work with (or around) the Shabbat cooking prohibition while offering up a warm, satisfying morning meal. I’ve had tender, flaky versions from roadside stands that melt effortlessly in the mouth and clumpy, rubbery sinkers served in fancy chafing dishes at hotel buffets that languish endlessly in the gut . The addition of hard-boiled egg, Tahina, grated tomato salsa with more than a hint of spice from the Schug, make for pretty satisfying fare. I once saw an entire sit-com episode built around the all night cooking and disappearance of a Jachnoon--it has that kind of magic to it.
Get started on your own roadside stand version with this how-to site here
Falling somewhere between an open-faced pie and a dressed up pita, this meat-topped treat, sometimes called Armenian or Turkish pizza is formally titled “Lachmajoon” or “Lachmacum”. Common throughout the middle-east, there are versions found in Palestinian and Syrian kitchens under the name “Sfiha”. Immigrants from the region brought it to South America, where it became known as “Essfira”. With such popularity comes variety and interpretation; some versions are topped with minced beef, lamb or mutton, some mix in pine nuts, sumac and a whole host of cooked or raw vegetables. The relative thinness of Lahmajoon allows it to be wrapped around other ingredients (veggies mostly). Lahmajoon became famous in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (even before it became hip) with the influx of Ottoman Urfan Jews who arrived via Syria after the Aleppo pogroms of 1947.
Breads moved to Israel with most successive waves of immigrants and have always come in a variety of shades and densities associated with their diasporic origins. The most successful attempt at creating a local ‘Israeli’ loaf emerged from economic considerations rather than those of culture or palette. Starting in the 1940’s and most especially in the “szena” (rationing) years of early statehood, the need for inexpensive, nutritious bread became a national priority. Thus was born the Lechem Achid or “Uniform Bread”, a soft, thickly crusted, loaf sold at a fixed (often subsidized) price. Weighing in at a standard 750 grams (about 26.5 ounces), this white-flour bread is hearty and surprisingly good. Lechem Achid’s unassuming taste and strong constitution make it a perfect vehicle for all sorts of fillings--meats, cheeses, hummus and the ubiquitous chocolate spread. Friday sees a braided challah version which is similarly satisfying in its unpresumptuous robustness.
Almost everyone has a random memory or story connected with Lechem Achid, mine involves feeding quantities of stale crusts soaked in chicken stock to a pack of neighborhood dogs during a house-sitting gig in the late 1970’s.
This national dish of Gurzini/Georgian people came with their Jews to Israel and has made a local name for itself, thanks in part, to its unique shape and taste. A cross between a bread and a brunch, it consists of an eye or boat-shaped dairy and yeast crust with a creamy, cheesy lake center in which swims a sunny-runny egg. So important is this dish to the Georgian people, that an entire cost of living index has been created based on its ingredients. Here in Israel, it is a rising star on trendy Shabbat brunch tables and in the booming foodie mecca of the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem where a popular Georgian restaurant bears its name. Relatively simple to make at home, it is an impressive showstopper.
Here is a link for a traditional Chachapuri and here is an uber-trendy version with kale:
Indian immigrants to Israel hail from the coastal “Bene Israel”, the “Baghdadi” community of Mumbai, Southern “Cochini” Jews and more recently the northern “Bnei Menashe” tribe. Each brought their local cuisines, which remained largely undiscovered by outsiders until an entire generation of native-born Israelis returned from extended post-army journeys to India starting in the 1990's. Over the ensuing decades, a growing taste for Indian food has developed locally, much as it has in other western nations. No Indian meal is complete without a bread, which adds taste and is a vehicle for lapping up intricate sauces.
Naan is a small, disc-like yeast flatbread resembling a pita in appearance, though with a slightly softer, doughy consistency and no pocket. Its origins are actually Persian but in the hands of Indian cooks it is made of fine ground Atta flour and can have the addition of either Dahi (yoghurt) or Ghee (clarified butter). The secret to a great Naan lies in the baking which is best done in a Tandoor clay oven. Naans are thrown onto the sides of the Tandoor and handled with special paddles and picks. Roti is a close relative of similar shape and size, made of unleavened dough, as is a Chapati, which gets its Hindi name from the act of flattening by slapping dough between one's palms (a great stress reliever!). Chapati are cooked in a shallow Tava pan and in some regions are finished over an open flame, allowing them to balloon.
Illustrated Naan baking instructions can be found here:
Poppadoms are thin, crisp cracker-like flatbreads that for a guy like me, are hard to put down after the first bite. Often made of Garam (chickpea) or Urad (bean) flour, Poppadoms are a welcome gluten-free treat. They have a distinct, delicate texture and a robust taste.
Here are no less than three ways to make a great Poppadoms.
12. Soft Matza
A few years ago my husband and I were guests at a Seder at the historic Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue in Mumbai. In addition to hearing the ceremony in three languages, Hebrew, English and Arabic (customary among Baghdadi Jews), we were treated to the softest, most doughy Matzot that we had ever tasted. This was certainly not your Bubbie’s boxed boards!
Upon returning to Israel, we discovered that these delicacies exist among not only Iraqi Jews, but also the neighboring diasporas of Yemen and Ethiopia (where they are called Kit’ta). The secret to the pliability and softness of these mazot lies in the relatively high ratio of water to flour. The resulting ‘bread’ is far closer in size and texture to a pita than it is to the classic Ashkenazi ‘bread of affliction’. Though by no means a fluffy slice of heaven, it is certainly easier on the system than the classic gut busters.
Of course, with pleasure comes controversy. Some rabbis claim that soft matzot are not Passover kosher. This may be because they are mostly home baked and lack strict time and ingredient supervision. Advocates counter that kosher, soft matzot can be made within the Jewish legal proscription of 18 minutes from the time that the wheat is first handled through to the removal of the finished product from the oven. Furthermore, they claim that these matzot most closely resemble the desert originals and that the board-like hardness is a recent invention of European industrialization.
If you can find them in your local ‘shuk’, you might want to given them a try, your tummy will thank you. Otherwise, you can look at this link for home-cooking tips.
A lovely article on Indian Passover traditions can be found here. Among its treasures is this image of Indian Matza baking from 1874
A Baker’s Dozen Bonus…
A cross between a thin flatbread and a yeasty pancake, the Moroccan Mufleta is famous for being the first taste of leavened goodness that many Israelis savor at the end of Passover. It is the star-starter of the traditional Moroccan-Jewish festival of Mimoona, a post-Passover party that in Israel has become a pride festival for a community that was for years treated as second class. Today, Mimoona has become so central to the cultural life of the State that you can spot most Israeli politicians attending local parties, nibbling on Mufleta along with an array of colorful handmade sweets that are as beautiful to the eye as they are to the palette. The origin of the Mufleta, like Mimoona, comes from the relative strictness with which Moroccan Jews held Passover. Uncharacteristically, most ate exclusively in their own homes in order to ensure compliance with tradition. At the end of Passover, they would bring gifts and open their homes to neighbors and friends (Jewish and Muslim) as a way to restore balance with their intense sense of hospitality. Mufleta is traditionally made of a sourdough starter that comes as part of post-Passover gift packages, making it relatively easy and quick to prepare. It is perfect for sweetening as a dessert, or for holding meat, as has become the custom in Israel. Rolled out to an impossibly thin consistency and cooked on a skillet or even an inverted Tagine (traditional Moroccan cooking/serving pot), Mufleta is a delicious way to return to the bready promised land after wandering in the matzah desert for seven long days. This article from the Jewish Women's Archive, tells the history of Mufleta and a recipe to try at home.