Breads of the World: Sabaayad

Depending upon who you are, when you think of bread, you probably don’t immediately think of Africa. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, wheat is not a common crop in West Africa, which means bread and bread-like products in West African countries are made from other grain bases, like millet or sorghum, and sometimes don’t read as “bread” to someone more accustomed to a sliced loaf of white or wheat bread. But wheat does grow very well in Northern and some Eastern African nations, so wheat-based breads are more prevalent there.

Another reason might be that the European and North American standard of yeast-risen loaves baked in an oven is not the standard in most African cuisines, which more commonly cook their bread products on a griddle or pan or other heated flat surface. Many, many African breads are flatbreads. For me, and for this project, that meant I had to consider one of my early questions about how I wanted to categorize bread, because some flatbreads are leavened and some are not. Did the product need to be leavened to count as bread? Yeast is available almost world-wide, and in fact leavening with wild yeast was used for bread-baking at least 4000 years ago in Egypt. But there are other ways for bread to rise, and so many traditional African breads (and others) depend more on the application of heat than they do on chemical leavening agents, so maybe it’s more about the product being a dough (as opposed to batter – that’s cake) than about it being leavened. They serve the same (or similar) purpose in the eating, after all. Thus chapatis, tortillas, and today’s offering – sabaayad – are bread. And there are dozens of others.

I think my folds were too…shallow?… My sense after cooking is that the “sides” should meet in the center so the whole portion of dough is two layers thick.

There are, however, other African breads more similar to European loaves in terms of ingredients and appearance. In many cases this is the result of colonization – there’s a reason when you search for South African breads, you turn up a series of products with suspiciously Dutch-sounding names. That doesn’t make them bad, but they certainly aren’t, let’s say, indigenous to the region.

But things get complicated when you start to talk about indigeneity. Like people, food travels. Whether that travel is intentional, through migration, or unintentional, through forced labor or refugees fleeing persecution, people bring their food with them. Sabaayad, the rolled, folded, flattened, and pan-fried flatbread I’m offering today, is very similar to parathas: buttery, flaky flatbreads common to the Indian subcontinent. They are also sometimes called East African chapatis. According to the Immaculate Bites blog, there’s a fair bit of Indian influence in Somalian cuisine because the British brought over Indian laborers, which explains the similarities in their flatbread names and procedures.

It turns out that Somalis love bread. Sabaayad is just one example, but it’s an interesting one. Like parathas, Chinese scallion pancakes, and others, sabaayad is formed through several repetitions of rolling. First, you roll out your dough portion into a thin circle and apply an even layer of oil or ghee. Then you have a few options, all of which involve folding and then re-rolling the dough. This process, usually lubricated with another application or two of oil or ghee in between, is what helps create the flaky layers of the finished product. I tried several options in my batch, as you can see above, and found the final result not hugely different, so I’ll describe both methods in the procedure section and you can choose which you prefer.

By some accounts sabaayad is not an everyday bread, but a treat enjoyed at breakfast, sometimes with meat like dried camel or beef jerky, and sometimes with fried eggs. By others, it is a lunchtime dish eaten with stew. Some prefer a sweet accompaniment like honey or jam. The idea of hot, flaky, well-oiled bread with a drizzle of honey entranced me, so that’s how we opted to have ours. Other variations add a leavener like baking powder or sourdough starter, and some go an extra step and incorporate eggs or milk for a richer, more tender product. I decided to go simple, thinking it might best show us what this bread is about, and stuck with the four ingredient recipe I’d found: all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, salt, and oil.

We liked these – the honey route was the way to go, from my perspective, though I think I undercooked them a bit because I used a cast iron skillet and too high a flame. It sounds perverse to end up with undercooked product because your heat is too hot, but this is a question of insides and outsides. The outer edges were beautifully puffed, and the parts with flake were outstanding: crisp and shattering. The inside, though, was still on the doughy side, meaning it just wasn’t on the fire long enough (though I will say the one I popped into the toaster later in the afternoon was improved by its second round of “cooking”!). I’ll need to work on my balance of heat and cooking time as I explore other griddled flatbreads, and given what I’ve found thus far, I’ll have plenty of opportunity!

Once you start looking for examples of bread traditional or common to African nations, a tremendous number of options crop up – it’s not just injera, the fermented, scoopable, wrappable standard from Ethiopia. There are semolina loaves from Morocco, a rolled loaf from Tunisia with Italian roots, puff puff from Nigeria, and a whole host of others. I could easily spend a year just on African breads!

So I think the real reason many Americans – especially those of European ancestry – might not know much about the bread of various African cuisines is that they (and I must include myself here) just don’t know much about various African cuisines. As Marcus Samuelsson notes in the introduction to his cookbook The Rise, “We know more about ricotta than we know about ayib” (xix). There are many reasons for this, some of them ugly. But we can – and should – learn about these cuisines. Samuelsson goes on to say, “embracing a people’s food in your home is one aspect of recognizing the value of that culture… Black chefs’ names need to be sung” (xix-xx). And so does their food. There are dozens of distinct cuisines in the various regions and nations of Africa to celebrate. This flatbread is barely scratching the surface.

 

Sabaayad
I used two recipes for this: one from Priya’s Versatile Recipes, and The Somali Kitchen, which was Priya’s source. The procedure directions for both were fairly sparse, so I’ve estimated based on my own understanding of bread and my own results.
Makes 8 sabaayad
1-1½ hours, depending on resting time
2 cups all-purpose flour + a few TB for rolling the dough
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 TB vegetable oil or ghee + about ½ cup for brushing and frying
1 scant teaspoon salt
~ 1 cup water (you might not use all of it)

 

  • In a medium bowl, combine the flours and the salt. Add the 2 tablespoons oil (or ghee) and incorporate thoroughly. Begin to add the water, about ¼ cup at a time, kneading right in the bowl in between additions to bring the dough together. You are looking for a firm, not-too-sticky dough; it shouldn’t be too wet.
  • When the dough has come together, turn it out onto a lightly floured board (I went right for my countertop) and knead until it forms a smooth, slightly elastic dough. By hand, this will probably take 7-8 minutes (I did 5 and I think that wasn’t enough).
  • Let the kneaded dough rest in a bowl, covered for 30-45 minutes. Since it isn’t leavened, it won’t rise, but it needs that resting time for the gluten strands to relax so it will roll out.
  • After the dough has rested, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 8 equal portions. Working one at a time, roll the portion into a thin circle 7-8 inches in diameter.
  • Now you have two options for shaping. For a square bread, lightly brush the surface of your circle with oil or ghee. Starting with the top, fold down each “edge” toward the center. I think you want these folded portions to overlap a bit to cover the whole exposed portion of dough – in the photos above I have not folded in the “edges” enough.
  • For a round bread, lightly brush the surface of your thin circle with oil or ghee, then roll it up into a log as you would for cinnamon rolls (some recipes instead call for a series of pleats or folds). Then coil up this “log” you’ve created like a snail shell, tucking in and securing the exposed end.
  • For both, let rest about 15 minutes after folding, then roll gently but firmly to flatten.
  • To cook, heat about 2 teaspoons of oil or ghee in a skillet or griddle over medium heat. Again working one at a time, add each flattened circle or square of dough to the heated oil and cook about 2 minutes. Brush the uncooked side lightly with more oil or ghee and flip. Immediately press down on the browned side of the bread with a spatula – this helps all of the bottom surface area brown, but it also seems to help the flatbread puff up evenly. Cook another 2 minutes, until both sides are well browned and the flatbread is fully cooked inside – this took longer than I expected, which is why I’m calling for only medium heat.
  • Like most fried items, these are best eaten immediately. If you need to keep them warm while you fry off the rest of the batch, however, you can stow them in a 300F oven on a baking tray lined with a wire rack.

Breads of the World: Simit (project cook, no recipe)

One of these days, I’m going to have a bread post for you that has a clear recipe, accurate cultural and historical background, and beautiful pictures. What I have for you this week is a DELICIOUS bread, in spite of a narrowly skirted disaster I wasn’t sure would work.

Simit is a much lauded bread from Turkey: a deeply burnished, twisted ring coated in crunchy, well-toasted sesame seeds (though sometimes other seeds like poppy or flax are used), which cling on thanks to a pre-baking dunk in a thin syrup of water and molasses. They are sold by street vendors who sometimes push trolleys, but sometimes carry dozens and dozens of these rings, carefully and intricately stacked and balanced, on their heads, calling out the relative heat and freshness of their wares. More than one site I explored while looking for a recipe and information about this bread reminisces eating simit with Turkish tea while on an Istanbul ferry ride. It even holds a place in the art world: there is poetry about simit, though I wasn’t able to find an example in translation. Several artists have painted simit vendors selling their wares. This bread is a cultural icon.

It’s a bit worrying, then, that during the process of making this batch I wondered if there was a bread version of Cake Wrecks I could submit my attempt to. This is the fault of neither the bread itself nor the recipe I used – the baker whose version I made created a clear, fairly easy-to-follow set of instructions and ingredients (which I’ve linked to below). It was just… a series of challenges I wasn’t sure I’d be able (or willing) to overcome: my sourdough starter was sluggish. The resulting dough Just. Wouldn’t. Rise. When it finally did and I made the twisted rings, they were almost unmanageably sticky and welded themselves to both my silicone baking mats (thanks, Mom!) and the plastic-wrap I carefully draped over them. Basically, my dough was just too soft to work easily with.

My last ditch attempt to save the bread was to shove the still raw, mostly-risen rings into the refrigerator, hoping that would firm them up somewhat, since I knew I still had to dunk them first into the water and molasses dip, and then into a heaping pile of sesame seeds to coat both sides.

Delightfully, this worked. I was able to pry the sticky rings of dough up from their mats, dunk them in hot liquid and then sesame seeds, transfer them back to the baking sheets, and they didn’t fall apart! They didn’t get misshapen (at least not any more than they already were… Turks around the world, I’m sorry for my maltreatment of your beautiful bread)! And most gratifying of all, they rose in the oven into gorgeous, deeply bronzed rings well-coated with sesame seeds, and though we had them as part of a meze platter for dinner rather than the traditional tea pairing, we could see why they are so beloved: that nirvana of crunchy crust and chewy interior, the discernible bitter sweetness of molasses, like a caramel gone almost too far, and the toasty sesame seeds. I tore off a piece to try while I was cleaning up the kitchen, and I kept finding myself wanting another bite.

Because my own method was a bit… shall we say agitated… I’m not going to post a recipe here today. Please use Cenk’s sourdough simit recipe over at his site Cafe Fernando. It’s simple, the photos are beautiful, and I’d bet my next paycheck it’s a better representation of this classic twisted ring than my ministrations would offer. And yes, you really do need that enormous quantity of sesame seeds!

I will say, if you decide to make simit, I’d suggest one adjustment to Cenk’s method. As you’ll see, he calls for creating the twisted rings by rolling out a piece of dough into a 35 inch rope, then cutting that in half and twisting the halves together. In my small kitchen with limited counter space, I found it slightly easier to make two 18-inch ropes instead (try to keep them even in thickness or even a little thinner at each end, so, basically the opposite of my photograph…) and just twist them together, then connect the edges to make your ring.

Reflections: Jubilee Red Beans and Rice (no recipe), and Bread in a Pandemic

Jubilee Red Beans and Rice:

I don’t have any bread to share with you today, based in part upon some complications I’ve realized my “Breads of the World” project poses. More on that below if you’re interested, but first, instead of a typical recipe post I thought I’d share a few images and considerations about the meal we ate on Saturday. In an effort to diversify my cookbook shelves, one of my recent acquisitions is the beautiful volume you see above: Jubilee: Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin. As numerous Black cooks and food historians have in recent years, Tipton-Martin wants to acknowledge the tremendous role of Black cooks in “soul food” and “Southern food.” But she also wants to push beyond that – to restrict African American food to stereotypes is to perpetuate caricatures and poor representation. Tipton-Martin’s recipes come with history lessons – not all are extensive, but she recognizes and shares the background and development of the dishes she offers, sometimes with original recipes from centuries-old collections, and then her updated or adapted version.

Although the book certainly pushes beyond the borders of “The South,” on a cold, rainy day in Los Angeles I wanted something deep and warm and spicy I could spend the afternoon checking on, so I went with red beans and rice. Tipton-Martin’s recipe headnote is about Louis Armstrong and his devotion to the dish despite changing circumstances, a consideration of how traditions are sustained even as they undergo adaptation. Unless I’m baking, these days I tend to see recipes as guidelines rather than rules, but this one I followed to the letter, and it was basically perfect. A mound of hot, buttered rice underneath and a final sprinkle of cayenne pepper on top, and we were the happiest of quarantine campers.

Bread in a Pandemic:

Speaking of quarantine, while I continue to be enthusiastic about my “Breads of the World” project, I’m starting to realize it carries a few distinct challenges, emphasized thanks to pandemic conditions. First and perhaps most obvious: N. and I are going to eat a lot of bread this year. That doesn’t sound like a big or particularly intelligent revelation, I know, but it is a blessing-curse I hadn’t quite realized the magnitude of when I started collecting ideas. As my friend D. commented the other day, when you are a happy household of two working from home, baked goods weigh more heavily (all puns intended) in your day-to-day. Were this a typical year, I would just bring my bread of the moment to work and leave it in the department mail-room. It would be gone by mid-afternoon, and I’d be headed home ready to think through the next one. Now, although I certainly could (and probably should) engage in some bread-drops for local friends (what would you call a drive-by bread drop? A roll-out? A loafing?), the reality of making a loaf or a batch of buns is that most of the time N. and I will wind up eating them all. “We’re going to be having a lot of bread and salad this year,” I told him yesterday. He was delighted, but I can imagine weekly dosings might become less appealing than the panem et circensus alternative.

Second, there are a lot of breads to choose from! Again, not exactly an epiphany, but I could easily bake one or even two a week and still have pages of recipes to sift through in December. I don’t agree with all of their choices, but the list of breads on Wikipedia is both an entertaining read-through and a fair example of what I mean. I’m not obsessed with authenticity (and I don’t want every selection to turn into the intensive research I did for the naan-e-komaj I made earlier this month), but because I do want this project to be representative in both its scope and its recipes, I do want to look into the breads I’ve chosen at least a little bit, and if possible, to find a recipe or an overview from someone of or familiar with the culture or region that produced the bread. That takes time. Especially when the semester begins, my imaginary second career as a culinary historian will resume its usual status as unpaid-side-hustle, which means less time for exploring and writing about the breads I decide to recreate.

Third, and related to the point about being representative, breads from areas that are typically less well represented also often use less typical, and thus less accessible, flours. Cassava, teff, and millet flour are certainly not impossible to locate, especially with the whole internet at my literal fingertips, but they aren’t on the shelves at my usual grocery store. And since I’m not shopping as often as I would be under non-COVID conditions, I can’t just decide on a whim to make, say, pao de queijo one afternoon unless I already have tapioca flour on hand. That’s not a complaint, per se, but it is a realization that I’m going to have to plan around. You know, like everything else these days!

Until next time, then…

Breads of the World: Naan-e-komaj

Last week I took you on my own rabbit-hole investigation of a Persian bread called komaj or naan-e-komaj that I had chosen as the inaugural bread for my 2021 project. This week, I present the end result: a set of soft, pillowy, sunshine-yellow date-stuffed buns, and the recipe I used to make them. Since you’ve already got the potential history behind them – I’ll admit, the trail I followed last week could just be a set of coincidences; sometimes different dishes are called the same thing – I’ll try to keep my introductions here short and just give you some thoughts on process and flavor, and plenty of photos to enjoy.

Stretching the dough for the “windowpane test”

Almost there…

These are definitely a “project cook” item, as I suspect most of the breads I offer this year will be. Yeast-risen bread needs time, and these require not the usual two, but three rises before they are ready to bake. I tried to streamline a bit: unable to compromise the length of the rises much, even in my unseasonably warm Southern California kitchen, I settled instead for simplified shaping. The Maloufs, and the baking group who led me to their recipe, shape their buns with a cookie cutter, rolling out a rectangle of dough, brushing with water, milk, or egg to ensure adherence, placing the filling, folding the dough over itself to encase the filling, and stamping out a round or heart shape. I decided instead to go with my usual bun shaping method, which consists of folding, pinching, and rolling a rectangle of dough into a ball using the slight tacky tension between dough and board to seal the seam. You can see this process in my photos below or, if you need a more detailed step-by-step, check out yesterday’s instagram post for a short (awkward, one-handed) video demo of the folding and rolling: over there I’m just blackberryeating.

The only disadvantage to my method is that it can, if you’re not careful, result in the filling starting to protrude through the now-overly-thin top layer of dough. The solution is, I think, to flatten the corners rather than the middle of your dough rectangle before filling and folding, and to execute the roll-to-seal process fairly quickly. The good news is, since you’re making 16 buns you do have ample opportunity to perfect your method.

Shaping the buns: place about 1 teaspoon date filling in the center of a dough rectangle. Keep the center thicker than the corners, if you can.

Fold the corners of the dough rectangle up over the filling, then pinch together into a little purse.

Roll the ball, pinched side down, in little circles on a barely floured board with your fingers in a cage shape.

Rolling in a little circle between your fingers and palm helps close up the bottom seam.

This was my bottom seam – now it’s starting to seal together. A few more rolls and it will be ready!

Ultimately, these were 100% worth the time and the research. They are delicious. The date and cardamom filling, to which I couldn’t resist adding some orange zest, is rich and sweet, but each bun holds only a teaspoon or so, which means it’s also not overwhelming. The bun itself is soft with a slight chew, not too sweet, and on the edge of doughy inside, which makes me think of an almost-underbaked challah, or the perfectly moist interior of a Hawaiian roll. Yours will be slightly less bright yellow than mine – my hand slipped as I was measuring out turmeric and I ended up with a fair bit more in the mix than my recipe calls for. It may seem a bit odd to have cumin – a decidedly savory flavor – along with a sweet date filling, but don’t skip it. The play between the toasty, almost smoky cumin and the sugary dates is lovely, and makes these buns less a dessert item, perhaps, but a definite contender for breakfast, and perfect as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack with tea or coffee.

(Naan-e-)komaj
Makes 16 buns
About 3½ hours
This recipe is my version of two interpretations: it starts with the recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s recreation of the bread they loved in southern Iran, and pulls in some suggestions from SaffronAmbrosia, the site of a participant in the baking group who auditioned and adapted the Maloufs’ recipe. The addition of the orange zest is my own; given the love of rose- and orange-blossom water in Persian cooking, I couldn’t resist a bit of citrus flavor to brighten the date filling.
For dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
pinch + ¼ cup sugar, divided
⅔ cup warm milk (or water)
1½ tablespoons olive oil
1 egg
3¾ cups bread flour
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed, divided
¾ teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
For filling:
12-15 medjool dates, pitted and cut into chunks (if they are firm rather than soft and sticky, soak them in hot water for about 10 minutes before chopping)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1-2 teaspoon(s) ground cardamom (start with 1; cardamom is strong!)
zest of ½ an orange, optional
pinch of salt, optional
To finish:
Milk, cream, or egg yolk to brush on top before baking
Optional: powdered sugar to dust after baking

 

  • Combine the yeast and 2 tablespoons warm water in a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer) and let sit for 10-15 minutes, until the yeast is bubbly and smells like bread. Using a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment, stir in the remaining sugar, warm milk (or water), olive oil, and egg.
  • Now add 3 cups of the bread flour, the turmeric, 2 teaspoons of the cumin seeds, and the salt. Stir with a spoon or the paddle attachment until the dough is starting to come together – it will have a rough, shaggy consistency. Switch to the dough hook or, if you aren’t using a stand mixer, tip the mixture out onto a well-floured board and knead until the dough becomes smooth and pliable and is no longer sticky. If it seems too wet, add the remaining flour ¼ cup at a time as needed – you might not use the whole amount. I ended up using only 3¼ cups total. When your dough is smooth and elastic, set it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with a clean cloth or plastic wrap, and set it aside until it has doubled – about an hour, depending on how warm your kitchen is.
  • At the end of the first rise, when the dough has doubled in size, “punch it down” by deflating it gently with your fist, then re-cover and set it aside to rise again for another hour. During this second rise, make the filling: combine the dates, butter, cardamom, orange zest, and optional pinch of salt. You can just mix them in a bowl if you want a chunky filling, or if you want something smoother, like a paste, use a food processor and pulse until the filling reaches your desired consistency.
  • When the dough has finished its second rise, turn it out onto a lightly floured board and divide it into 16 even pieces. I find this is easiest by first dividing into 4 large pieces, then cutting each in half and then in half again. Working with one piece at a time, roll or gently pull to flatten into a rough rectangle. There are two approaches you can use to shaping these. My method is to roll round buns, which I think is slightly easier but your filling may end up off-enter. The Maloufs and the baking group stamp out theirs with a round or heart-shaped cookie cutter, which is pretty and results in a centered filling, but requires rerolling the scraps. If you’d like to use that method, go here for instructions.
  • If you’re using my method, working with one piece of dough at a time, add a teaspoon of filling into the center of the dough rectangle. Fold each corner up and over the filling, trying not to stretch the dough too much. Pinch together the folded corners into a seam, but don’t press too hard, or the filling may start to poke through the top. Turn the dough ball over and form your hand around it like a cage, then roll gently with very little pressure in light circles on the board to form a smooth, taut round (see Joe Pastry’s excellent tutorial if you need help with this, or check my  instagram post from yesterday for a video demo). Let the shaped, sealed buns rise, covered, on the cookie sheet for about 15-20 minutes.
  • While the buns have their final rise, preheat the oven to 400F. After this final rise, paint the tops of the buns lightly with milk, cream, or an egg wash (egg yolk combined with 1-2 teaspoons water). Sprinkle the remaining 1 teaspoon cumin seeds over the top of each one, then bake in your preheated 400F oven for 8-10 minutes.
  • Let the finished buns cool on a rack for at least 10-15 minutes, then dust with powdered sugar if you wish. Serving with tea, like a spicy-sweet chai, or a cup of Turkish coffee would be ideal. Like many sweet buns these are best the day they are made, but leftovers are easily and deliciously reheated.

A small hungry helper who protests that she did not get any komaj to sample…

Breads of the World, part 1: naan-e komaj research (no recipe)

*** This is not a recipe post. Instead, it details background and findings from research I did on the first bread I’ll make for my “Breads of the World” 2021 baking project. If you’re not into that, check back next week when I expect to have the recipe and photos up. ***

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend (now husband) around the East Coast, visiting graduate schools we optimistically thought we might have a chance of getting into. (Also sightseeing, but very virtuously telling ourselves that wasn’t our main objective.) One evening, I remember getting into bed at our hotel and watching The Daily Show, then hosted by Jon Stewart, and his plea to his audience and to the country: he wanted us to make his job – and the jobs of all comedians – hard, by electing John Kerry rather than incumbent George W. Bush, insinuating Kerry would be more difficult to satirize. Well, we didn’t. But I think of that now and then, as what happens in this country continues to make my “job” here hard. Too many times I have tried to weave together current events and food in a respectful and hopeful way. Too many times I have sat at my keyboard wondering how and whether to acknowledge what is happening, and what to say, and how to transition from that into whatever I have to share with you, because to not acknowledge it is to live in a dream world that too easily slides into complicity.

Today I can’t do it. There’s no transition. It doesn’t work. As Deb said on her instagram feed, “There’s not and never will be a ‘I like to unwind from watching an armed insurrection on live TV by roasting chicken.’ There’s no ‘Wow, really, they didn’t see this coming? Welp, let’s go slice some cabbage!’… But I am here, in the same place as the rest of us, angry and worried. And also, I still need to make something for dinner. Hope you get to refuel with something delicious tonight; we all need it.”

We need it. I need it. And in my attempts to avoid watching the news all day or doom-scrolling or refreshing that feed one more time, I fell down a rabbit hole researching the first bread I wanted to make for my “Breads of the World” project. And I got so interested by that and so excited about the bread itself that I want to share that research with you. No recipe today, thanks to the half-a-pie, the pitas, the pizza, and the sourdough loaf I already have kicking around my house (I’ve been retreating to the kitchen a lot lately), but hopefully next week after we’ve demolished a few of my current bakes and are ready for another.

My first entrée into this project is a Persian bread called, by turns, komaj or naan-e-komaj. According to Wikipedia this is similar to an Armenian sweet bread called nan e gisu (and sounds similar to another one called noon-e sheereen or Gata), which I’d also never heard of (but you can bet it’s on my list now). Like the bread’s history and origins, the recipe I’m planning to use was difficult to track down. I first ran across this bread, golden from turmeric and sprinkled with an intriguing combination of both cumin seeds and powdered sugar, through a search for Persian breads on pinterest, and gradually wound my way backward to a recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia by authors Greg and Lucy Malouf.

The Maloufs acknowledge the recipe in their book is their own interpretation of a bread they ate, and so I wanted to see if I could trace back to a source recipe, maybe something more authentic or traditional. As these things often go on the internet, not only did I not find an “authentic” or “original” recipe, likely because there isn’t just one; I found a pile of conflicting information to sort through. Komaj, or naan-e-komaj, seems to come in broadly two iterations: stuffed and unstuffed. The food site Persian Good calls komaj a “Persian oatcake” and provides a recipe for a fairly simple yeasted dough that, after it has risen, is treated like a cookie rather than a bread: stamped out with a cutter and sprinkled with sesame seeds before being baked. Conversely, in a list of Middle Eastern recipes from the Lorna Sundberg International Center, a division of the University of Virginia’s International Studies Office, I found a version of komaj that is unyeasted, but stuffed with date paste. The Malouf recipe seems to combine these alternatives, meeting in the more complicated middle with a fluffy, yeasted bun enclosing a filling of dates and cardamom, stamped out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter.

This sounded too good to pass up, but I wasn’t done with my research yet. Given the differing versions of the bread, I wanted to know more about it. The result was, of course, yet more tangled threads that don’t quite connect. Forgive the hashed metaphor, as O. Henry would say. The Maloufs’ recipe is for a wheat-flour based bun that they tasted “in the oasis town of Mahan in the south-east of Iran.” However, my searching turned up an article from the Journal of Ethnic Foods that cites komaj or “naan-e-komaj” as one of the “most important rice flour–based breads in the north of Iran” (Gharibzahedi). Rice flour based? North of Iran? Further, the article cites komaj as a bread from the Mazandaran province just south of the Caspian Sea, and here it is not baked, but fried in oil. Yet the description – “A Persian date bread with cumin and turmeric” – sounded like the same product I’d been chasing, and the ingredient list, which included not only rice flour, but wheat flour, milk or yogurt, egg, baking powder, and vanilla (cumin and turmeric are optional here, and sometimes raisins, cinnamon, and walnuts are incorporated as well), was fairly similar aside from being chemically leavened rather than with yeast (Gharibzahedi).

All this leads to some food truths I already know, and imagine I will continue to uncover as this project continues: food moves. Food changes. Food is adapted. As Naz Deravian says in the headnote to her recipe for Dahate Naan or “peasant bread” in Bottom of the Pot, “Stuffed ‘peasant’ or ‘rustic’ breads are common in all parts of Iran with slight variations to the recipe, usually in the filling, which distinguishes its provenance” (186). Her recipe, which has cardamom in the filling like the Maloufs’ but exchanges dates for walnuts, is also from the Caspian region, but a different province and ethnic group than the fried, rice flour-based Mazandaran bread I’d been chasing. A traceable step in the bread’s evolution? Or a happy coincidence of similar flavors? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The combination of savory-sweet here, with cumin, turmeric, dates, cardamom, and the orange zest I’m thinking of adding, making yet another version, is intriguing enough without knowing how and whether it moved from northern to southern Iran, acquiring yeast, stuffing, and the need for an oven on the way.

Until next week, then, when I hope to have a recipe and results to share. In the meantime, please be well, and if you know anything about this bread in particular or others like it, do leave a comment letting us know more about it!

 

2021: Project “Breads of the World”

The tree is down, the gifts are stowed (and a few more, of the monetary variety, used for items presently on order), and all of the ornaments are packed, except for a small nutcracker who hid beside one of my houseplants. I’m working on being hopeful about this year, and that’s about the closest I’m going to get to “resolutions.”

But I do want to post here more regularly, as always, and the years have shown me that this is more likely when I have an annual project to work on. This year, behind the trend as usual, I’m going with bread. I know, we spent a good portion of the year getting into (and probably out of again) sourdough and its discard potentials, and pizza crust, and perfecting decorative scoring. I hopped on the bus a bit later than many people did, as I noted a few months ago, but I’m firmly on board now even as many are disembarking in favor of whatever the next big thing proves to be.

My primary inspiration for this year’s project is a lovely man named Brendan Lynch. In case you’re behind, I’ll say only that he was a contestant in the third UK season of The Great British Bake-Off, and during his tenure there he explained he was engaged in a project to bake a number of “breads of the world.” That sounded so rewarding to me that I’ve latched decidedly onto the idea. 2021: Project “Breads of the World.” It’s an opportunity to cook and eat, but also to research and learn as I choose and develop recipes.

Before I blanket my kitchen in flour, though, two considerations. First, I want to be sure I really am looking worldwide. There are so many European breads, and as I noted to R. the other day, it would be easy to sit comfortably in France and Italy for the whole year (and not just in terms of baking, if I’m honest). But that’s not the world. It never has been. So even though I know some loaves of European origin will make their way in, I want to be sure I’m looking south and east as well. Injera from Ethiopia and sabaayad from Somalia. Persian komaj. Turkish simit. Filipino ensaymada. Buñuelos and pão de queijo and arepas and conchas and… you get the idea. And those are, I know, only a few of my options.

Second, I need to think a bit about what counts as bread. I’ve already decided quickbreads like banana or zucchini bread are exempt from this project. Despite their names, they are basically cake, and that isn’t what I’m after here. But I’m not sure I want to restrict myself solely to yeast-risen options. Biscuits aren’t bread, but naan or pita made with baking powder instead of yeast is. Parathas are bread, which means tortillas are too, though I don’t always think of them that way. And I don’t want to stay only in the savory realm either. Pannetone and sufganiyot and babka are breads, even though they are decidedly sweet.

So, while I restock my kitchen post-holiday-baking, let’s discuss. What do you think should count as “bread” for the purposes of this project? More importantly, what breads would you like to learn about and see here as I bake my way through 2021?