Flat Breads- A Taste of Ancient Civilizations

Flat breads are one of the oldest known prepared foods. Swiss lakeshore settlements from the Neolithic period have yielded remains of flat breads and traces of the ovens used to bake them. For over 6000 years, wherever there has been a plentiful supply of grain, the tradition of making flatbreads has flourished - from the blue-corn tortillas of Mexico to the anise bread of Morocco to the chapattis of India. Across Asia and Africa the tandoor is the standard baking oven. A hot fire is built in the center of a barrel shaped, clay oven and when the fire has been reduced to hot coals the bread is slapped to the sides. Paperthin lavash from Armenia is made on a sajj, a large concave iron plate placed over an open fire. The techniques for making some breads, like Hopi piki and the tools they are cooked on, like the piki stone, are passed down from mother to daughter over many generations. Starting with whole grains, ground to flour and baked over an open fire, these different breads have fed countless generations.

In our modern kitchens we may have to improvise cooking utensils but we can still create fresh baked flat bread. An American improvisation for the sajj is a large wok turned upside down over a gas flame. To replicate a tandoor, you can use unglazed quarry tiles lining the lowest rack of an oven or a baking stone used for pizza. Most breads can also be made using a good cast iron skillet on the stove top.

Flat breads can be topped like pizza & focaccia, stuffed like pita bread, filled with beans & rice and rolled like chapattis or tortillas or used for dipping as are pappadums from India. They can also be used to form fruit- or savory-filled turnovers. We needn't buy packaged flat breads when we can make them easily and quickly at home with a few simple ingredients. Try one of the recipes below and start a tradition to be passed down through the generations of your family as well.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together 2 cups sifted organic whole wheat flour, and 1 tsp. sea salt. Make a well in the center and add 1 cup warm water. Mix by hand or with a wooden spoon until you can gather it together into a dough (you may need a little extra water or flour). Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces and flatten each with your fingers. Roll each piece out with a rolling pin to an 8-inch round. Roll each bread without flipping it; lightly flour the surface as needed. Cover the finished breads with plastic wrap as you roll out the rest. Don't stack them; if you need more counter space, begin cooking them while you roll out the remainder.
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Place a chapatti on the griddle & cook for about 10 seconds and flip it over. Cook on the second side until small bubbles begin to form (about 1 minute). Remove the finished chapatti from the skillet and wrap in a towel to keep warm and soft, stacking the finished ones as you go.
Serve warm with cooked lentils, chutney or Mexican style with refried beans, cheese, salsa and avocado. Makes 8 thin round breads.

Scottish Oatcakes
Place two ungreased griddles or cast-iron skillets on the stove to preheat over medium heat.
Combine 1 cup fine or medium oatmeal (quick-cooking oats) and 1/4 tsp. sea salt in a bowl. Stir 1/2 tsp. salted butter (or oil) into 1/3 cup boiling water and blend well. Gradually pour the liquid into the dry ingredients, stirring as you pour, just until all of the oatmeal is moistened. Add more boiling water as necessary.
Dust a work surface with oatmeal and turn out the dough. Form the oatmeal mixture into two balls. Flatten each with oatmeal-dusted hands and then, working quickly and lightly, roll out each one into a 6- to 8-inch round. (You want to get the rolling done before the dough cools and stiffens.) Trim and patch the edges as necessary to make them even. Cut each round into four wedges (farls) and transfer the quarters to the preheated griddles or skillets. Cook over medium heat until the edges curl and the undersides are light brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Then transfer the skillets to the preheated oven for about 1 minute to dry out the top surface. Alternatively, turn the farls over and cook for 30 seconds.
Serve immediately, or store, once completely cooled, in a well-sealed tin. Reheat before serving. Makes 8 thin wedge-shaped oatcakes.

Potato Pappadums
Boil 1 pound of potatoes, then peel and mash them. Add a pinch of baking powder, 1 tsp. sea salt and 1/2 tsp. chili powder or coarse ground black pepper. Mix together to form a dough, adding lukewarm water as necessary. Divide the dough into 10 portions.
Make a thin round of each portion, by hand or by pressing it against an oiled flat surface, then spread rounds on a sheet of waxed paper to dry either in the sun or the warmest place in the house. When the rounds are completely dry on both sides, store in an airtight container until ready to use.
To Cook: You want to hit them with high heat for a very brief time, the best method is to deep fry them. Heat 1 1/2 inches of safflower oil in a wok or deep frying pan (it's hot enough when you can drop a small piece of pappadum in and it sizzles immediately). Cook one pappadum at a time, for 5-10 seconds. Flip and repeat for another few seconds. Then remove, shaking off the excess oil, and set aside on paper towels.
Serve hot and crispy with dahl (cooked lentils), soup or a yogurt dip.

Place 4 cups masa harina and 1/2 tsp. salt in a large bowl. Add 2 1/2 cups water and mix with your hands to form a soft ball, about 3 minutes. Divide the dough into 18 equal portions and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Place a portion of dough between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and roll out with a rolling pin into a circle 6- to 7-inches in diameter. Use your fingers to smooth any raggedy edges.
Heat a heavy skillet over high heat until it begins to smoke. Reduce to medium-high. place a tortilla in the pan and cook on each side for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Cook until the tortilla puffs a bit but is still pliable, not crisp. Stack & cover the cooked tortillas in a basket lined with a cloth towel to keep soft and warm.
Serve, topped with refried beans, grated cheese, olives, chiles, avocado, salsa and/or chopped lettuce. Roll 'em up and dinner is served.

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This page built by Ray Neff andDavid ResSeguie Last update: June 12, 1996