On the plane from Amman to Paris. About to take off. Images, thoughts, impressions, and emotions about our month in Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan are a swirling kaleidoscope in my head. This has been one of those change-the-way-you-see-the-world trips. It will take me some time to process it.
But mostly, in this moment, I am sorry to be leaving the bread.
The really, really, really great bread. The Middle East has a corner on marvelous, chewy flatbreads that put the dry, crumbly pita bread found in the U.S. to shame.
There is not a single kind of flatbread in the countries we visited, and I am not crystal clear on the differences, but whether they are paper thin, thick, or thicker, cooked in coals, in an oven, or on a saj (something like an upside down wok), they are excellent.
We had freshly baked, chewy, pocket style Syrian bread (that’s what we used to call it at home before “pita” became an American thing), large, pizza like flatbreads, cooked in the coals, charred and blistered, or shrak bread — the stuff that gets toasted and layered into fatteh dishes or served in a Bedouin tent — paper-thin and al dente. The Lebanese also have a bread that they call man’oushe that is thin and cooked over a dome, so perhaps that is shrak-like too.
Or maybe it’s different. The common denominator to all those wonderful breads is that they are chewy. They don’t just dissolve in your mouth like a communion wafer or tire out your jaws like a hearty wheat loaf.
These flatbreads are light and they provide some resistance to your teeth. The real deal has some gluten to it and stretches when you tear off a piece.
Because finding the real thing was such a rarity once they moved to Arizona from LA, my grandparents would make it, dedicating a Saturday to kneading, punching, rolling and baking.
Arabic flatbreads are at their best when dipped in fragrant, slightly bitter olive oil and then in za’atar, or slathered with a mixture of both. Za’atar is two things — a thyme-like herb and a mix, usually of the same herb, sesame seeds, sumac (a tart, red spice), and sometimes salt.
I grew up with za’atar, when we could get it. It used to require a trip to an imported food store in Brooklyn when I was a kid. Now it’s more common, although often dusty tasting from sitting on the shelf too long. My dad used to buy sumac to add to the za’atar, to give it more zip. But it was still, always, slightly disappointing
It’s hard to explain what za’atar tastes like if you’ve never had it. It’s a green and herby presence, half flavor, half aroma. A little sour, a little pungent, there is nothing sweet or gentle about za’atar. It puckers your taste buds and fills your mouth with texture and bite — the pop of the sesame seeds, the twigginess of the thyme. The olive oil gives it body and a grassy depth. It’s wonderful.
Our guide Amir begins his tour of Jerusalem by taking you outside the town, high up on a hill with the whole city laid out before you so he can explain the twelve tribes of Israel and why the religious sites there are so hotly contested.
He stops the taxi on the way to pick up some bread (he calls it a bagel but it’s huge and doesn’t look anything like ours) and salty za’atar — tastes he says he always associates with Jerusalem. Having done that tour twice with him now, so do I.
At the market in Jerusalem there is a spice shop with za’atar pyramids. Almost two feet high, they are mountains of za’atar, with little ledges carved into the sides to hold extra red sumac and white sesame seeds. Its fabulous za’atar, “strong za’atar” the spice guy calls it.
When I ask for some he shoved a scoop into the mountain and the sumac and sesame collapse into it. The container I bought has been sealed — I hope the US Ag people let me bring it into the country. Otherwise I might stand in the airport and eat it.
See, it’s so commonplace Royal Jordanian even served us a tiny bread and za’atar on the plane!
But bread is only part of the joy of Middle Eastern food, although the part I have the most trouble replicating at home. Because then there are the spreads, flavorful exotic blends of lusciousness meant to be scooped up with the bread. No matter how good they are, if the bread isn’t right, neither are they.
Of course, there is hummus. Of course. Anyone near a grocery store knows this chickpea spread that comes flavored with olives, or chiles or pesto, or red peppers. But if that’s all you know as hummus, I am sorry to tell you that you don’t know hummus at all.
I am a hummus purist. Chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon, salt. Maybe fried lamb (though not for me.).
Even among hummus purists there are battles about what makes the best. Me, my preference is for good garlicky chickpea flavor, light on the tahini, heavy on the lemon. And don’t under salt. I like my hummus light and bright and tart.
Tahini itself, thinned with some lemon, maybe with parsley or cilantro added, is a good dip for bread.
At the markets in Jerusalem you can find fresh tahini, sesame seeds ground up in a giant machine until the paste is warm, creamy and buttery rich. A sample spoonful makes you swoon.
Its creaminess fills me up too much to make me a regular fan, although I like to drizzle it on things I wrap in bread. Like falafel. But that’s another post.
Of all the spreads, my heart belongs to the ones made with eggplant. And, oh joy, there are several. Baba ganouj, moutabel, tangy salad with grilled chunks of eggplant and crispy peppers. There isn’t any way I don’t like eggplant although, again, if tahini is involved I prefer it light.
And I like it with beautiful golden green olive oil drizzled on it and ruby red pomegranate seeds. Gorgeous and delicious.
Maybe my second favorite spread is labne. Labne has the texture of a thick, rich creme fraiche but it’s yogurt. Tart and tangy, it is spooned into cheese cloth and drained until it is so thick it can hold a spoon upright. You can roll labne into balls and keep them in olive oil or you can put it in a shallow bowl and scoop it up with good bread.
With a pool of olive oil in the center, perhaps sprinkled with za’atar or, as we had it once, mixed with hot chiles, it is fresh, healthy, and sublime.
We eat it with stuffed grape leaves too. Don’t know why, but my family has always done it.
Tabouli, while a salad, is much better for being eaten with bread. My husband makes the best tabouli I have had. Lemony, with a high parsley to bulgar ratio, and ripe, wonderful tomatoes and a slicing of scallions.
A couple of the tabouli’s we had on this trip were damn good, not the anemic bulgar salad with flecks of green that shows up so often at home. One, he whispered, “is almost as good as mine,” but mostly they needed lemon or a dash of cayenne. Tabouli should sing.
There are more. You can have a meze full of spreads and if you admit the Greek taramasalata and melitzanosalata and skordalia and a bunch of others, you don’t ever need anything else.
As long as you have the bread. The bread is the thing.
Landed in Paris now. Thrilled to be here. And I’ve heard they have some pretty good bread here too.