Food
Bread in the Middle East

Bread in the Middle East, whether stacked on food carts or served fresh in local bakeries, is a mesmerizing sight, observes Anissa Helou.

I recall a recent trip to Cairo, where many things have changed since my last visit, not least because of the revolution. But just as many things have remained the same — in particular, the ubiquitous sight of bread.

Cairo is the city of bread. You can't go anywhere without seeing it on the street, stacked alongside the many food carts for use in place of a fork or spoon; or in neighborhood bakeries, often shaped and baked within sight of passers-by. It’s a mesmerizing spectacle: The baker flips the disks of dough onto a conveyor belt that ferries them into and out of the oven to a table right on the pavement, where a young man waits to arrange the piping-hot, puffed-up loaves in neat rows on gorgeous wooden grills, or inside wooden cages for vendors to lift onto their head and take to neighboring shops or restaurants by foot or by bicycle.

And whether you’re eating on the street or in a cafe, you never need to worry about running out of bread (known as aysh in Arabic, meaning life, an indication of its importance). You can have as many loaves as you want, and at no extra cost. It’s a distinct difference from the West, where you sometimes have to pay for bread with your meals. Only those who do not, or cannot, eat gluten see such abundance of bread in the Middle East as restrictive. It is, at least by Arab standards, largely viewed as a blessing.

Fortunately, the gluten-free fad has yet to reach the Middle East, and Egypt is by no means the only country where bread is an essential part of the diet. Throughout the Levant, no meal is complete without it. From Lebanon to Syria to Jordan, whether it's the common pita, the less-common saj bread, or regional breads such as mishtah in southern Lebanon or shraak in Palestine, bread is ever present. Eaten on its own with a few olives to stave off hunger, wrapped around kebabs for a meal on the go, or used to scoop up food, it's fundamental to most Arabs. And there is no more poignant example of its prominence than the long bread line in war-torn Syria, where men, women, and children stand for hours waiting patiently to buy their family’s daily ration regardless of the constant threat of the regime’s fighter planes.

However, there is one part of the Arab world where bread does not play such a vital role, at least not at the main midday meal. This is the Arabian Gulf, where rice, which also goes by the name aysh, is the staple. Bread still retains pride of place at breakfast and dinner when the latter is a simple family meal. But for most Gulf Arabs, their main meal would not be complete if rice was not served.

At one of my first home-cooked meals at an Emirati friend’s house, I was surprised not to see any bread on the table. Actually, there was a type of bread, but it was a pancake called jbab, which we ate drizzled with date syrup as a semi-sweet dish. No one used it to scoop up any food. Instead, my host and his children used their fingers to pick up the rice or tear pieces of meat off the bone, and this they did very neatly! When I tried, I had to stop quickly and use my spoon, as half the rice fell back through my fingers. I did eventually master the technique, but not without some embarrassing moments.

Still, there is one time of year when bread appears daily at the table of Gulf Arabs: during Ramadan. It’s already incorporated, however, in a dish called tharid (the Prophet’s favorite), where a thick layer of a very thin crisp bread called regag is topped with a vegetable and meat stew known as salona. This and h’riss, a wheat and meat porridge, are absolute musts throughout the month of fast.

Regardless of when, where, and how it is eaten, bread is sacred to all Arabs, both in the rice-eating Gulf countries and in the bread-worshipping Levantine ones. It is never allowed to fall on the floor. And if by misfortune it does, it is immediately picked up, kissed, and blessed before being placed somewhere safe.

Anissa Helou is a food writer, art collector, journalist and broadcaster based in London. She is also the author of Modern Mezze (Quadrille Publishing) and The Fifth Quarter: An Offal Cookbook (Absolute Press). She blogs at http://www.anissas.com/

Main Photo: Cris Bouroncle/Getty

A typical flatbread made with za'atar; scenes of traditional bread making. Photos: Courtesy Anissa Helou