If you ask me about the single most food item I miss from Egypt, it would have to be the bread. Egyptian pita bread, or Aish Baladi, is the cornerstone of Egyptian cuisine. It’s not only a major component of the meal itself, but bread is also widely used as a utensil; hey, I’ll use delicious bread over a fork and knife any day!
What’s so special about Aish might you ask? Well, for one thing, aish baladi is unique to Egypt. Sure, you can get pita all over the Middle East and now worldwide, but Egyptian pita is something else. For one thing, it’s made fresh several times a day all throughout the country. From the farmer’s wife baking it in a traditional clay oven, to your neighborhood bakery churning it around the clock, there’s no reason to have stale pita in Egypt. The pita itself is unique in that it is 100% whole wheat, a nutritionist’s dream. It’s thick and airy on the inside, and has speckles of cracked-wheat throughout. Oh what I would do for a feta & tomatoe sandwich in a pita heated over a gas-flame*.
You might think that I’m exaggerating abut the wonderful nature of this bread, but readers, I have had aish smuggled into suitcases and flown across the world for me. Well, I’m not sure if smuggled is the right word…it’s not illegal is it? I hope not. I’m sorry customs Canada! 🙂 Anyway, I digress, back to the bread!
Here’s a recipe so you can try it for yourself:
Makes 16 pitas
- 2 teaspoons dry yeast
- 2.5 cups lukwarm water
- 5-6 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 tabelspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon oil
In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Stir to dissolve. Stir in 3 cups of flour, one at a time and then stir about one minute to activate the gluten. Let this mixture (called sponge) rest for at least 10 minutes, and up to two hours.
Sprinkle the salt over the sponge and stir in the oil. Mix well. Add more flour, one cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to stir. Turn it out onto a slightly floured surface and knead 8-10 minutes until smooth & elastic. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover and place in a warm place to rise (approximately 1.5 hours).
Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and divide it in half. Divide each half into 8 equal pieces and flatten each piece into a circle less than an 1/4 inch thick.
While you allow the circles to rise again (covered), preheat your oven to the highest setting. On a pizza stone (preferred) or baking tray in the middle rack, place as many dough rounds as you can comfortably fit on it (leave a few inches space between each round). Bake for two to three minutes until the bread has puffed up like a balloon.
P.S. I know 16 pitas seems like a lot, but these freeze very well :).
Did you know: The earliest wheats and the first breads are generally believed to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean? And that the earliest traces of grains cooked into flatbreads are in Egypt?
Did you know #2: Bread is also an important political issue in Egypt. It is heavily subsidized by the government and was even at the forefront of the recent revolution, “Bread, Freedom & Social Justice” was a key demand/ chant for protesters.
* That’s how we traditionally heat up the pita to make it all warm and toasty. Makes a mess of the stove because the bran gets everywhere, but it’s so delicious, it’s worth it.