Flour, water and salt. The three ingredients come together to form flatbread, and flatbread is perhaps alone in its global ubiquity. There are examples of flatbread from all over the world. Different preparation methods, cooking techniques and sources of flour separate one from the other, but there are clear parallels between them.
While flatbread has spread to every continent, some of the most recognisable are examples from the Middle East (pita and lavash) and India (naan, roti and chapati). But, there are dozens, if not hundreds, more variations.
Hospitality speaks to Adam Wolfers from Gerard’s Bistro and Gerard’s Bar and former Heritij chef Parag Ashok Kapile about the central role of flatbread in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines.
In the words of Executive Chef Adam Wolfers, flatbread is “basically life” at Brisbane venue Gerard’s Bistro. Every meal begins with baked-to-order bread.
“The first thing you get after you sit down and order a drink is a flatbread to start your meal,” says Wolfers. “It’s a really important part of our whole philosophy.”
The decision to create a bread course wasn’t just about honouring the venue’s Middle Eastern lineage. “Bread was a really big part of my life growing up, starting from flatbread to braided challah, which is a brioche-style bread,” says Wolfers, who spent his childhood watching his Hungarian-Jewish grandmother cook.
“Bread was a way to start a meal, and I put as much love into making our doughs [at Gerard’s] as I do filleting a fish. For a lot of people, bread is just bread. For me, it brings people together.”
In the Middle East and India, flatbreads have a history of doing just that. Brisbane based chef Parag Ashok Kapile is equally passionate about the ancient foodstuff, which is an integral part of daily diets in India and an important component of festival celebrations. “We will eat bread with every meal,” says Kapile.
“But the full range of breads is not explored in Australia. Roti, naan and paratha are the only things you’ll see.”
While there are some Indian restaurants that go beyond plain, garlic or cheese naan — Kapile cites Sydney institutions Aki’s and Abhi’s — there are a few possible reasons for the dearth of options.
“Many people have been in Australia for a long time and aren’t in touch with the heritage or have never learned the techniques,” says Kapile. “Second, the chefs aren’t willing to take the risk. At 90 per cent of Indian restaurants in Australia, you will find the same breads and the same curries … they think the market is not ready. We really need people from all regions coming forward.”
The risk is this: flatbreads might look simple, but they’re labour-intense. With so few ingredients, there’s not much to hide behind. Techniques need to be spot on, and there are no shortcuts.
“We cook our breads to order [but preparation] takes two days, sometimes three, depending on what the bread is,” says Wolfers. “When making bread, time equals flavour.”
Exploring the full range of Middle Eastern cuisines is the driving force behind Gerard’s kitchen, and breads are foundational. “There are lots of different breads and they’re all different textures,” says Wolfers. “They’re all based around a very similar ratio of flour and water [but] they’re all very different.”
The Gerard’s Bistro team has whipped up everything from lahoh to malawach. Both flatbreads are the purview of Yemenite Jews, but represent two ends of the flatbread spectrum.
Lahoh, which originated from Somalia, is a spongy pancake-esque bread that draws comparisons to Ethiopian injera. Malawach, on the other hand, is made with a laminated dough that results in a croissant-like flaky texture.
Beyond lahoh and malawach, the team has experimented with other flatbreads, including pita and bazlama. “I would say malawach and lahoh are kind of their own thing,” says Wolfers. “The others are all very similar in that they have the same level of hydration [water to flour ratio].”
While Wolfers sticks to tradition by forgoing instant yeasts and using a wood-fired
oven for many of the breads, he’s not a purist. At Gerard’s, the lahoh is tweaked to make it gluten-free. “We ferment potatoes and put the starter in with chickpea flour,” he says. To make Turkish flatbread bazlama, the team whips melted butter into the dough instead of olive oil. “It gives it a stretchier style,” says Wolfers.
From north to south, India is home to a wide range of flatbreads, too. When it comes to regional variations, accessible ingredients are the first difference and cooking techniques the second. In the north, which shares a border with Pakistan, tandoor breads such as roti are common. “Naan and roti came from Persia,” explains Kapile. “If you come to the central parts, like Maharashtra where I’m from, you will find most of the breads are made from wheat.”
Both sorghum and finger millet flour-based flatbreads are common in the central states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa as well as southern states. “Bhakri is one example, which you won’t find in restaurants here,” says Kapile. “Another is thalipeeth, which is a multigrain bread. The flour my mother-in-law and I make has 36 grains and you can add cabbage, spinach, turmeric and salt. You make a dough, which is flattened with your fingers.”
Along with many flatbreads, both bhakri and thalipeeth are cooked over fire on a tava. Kapile would like to see more attention put towards the sweet puran poli and til poli. “They are consumed during festive times,” says the chef. “They’re made during festivals [such as Holi and Ganesh Chaturthi]. They’re made from a medium-soft wheat dough and we put sweetened chana dal inside.”
The sweetened chana dal is made using chickpeas and jaggery which are ground into an incredibly fine paste, similar in texture to fondant, before it’s stuffed between a flatbread dough made with flour, salt, water and ghee.
“My mother would grind it three or four times until it’s absolutely fine so the bread isn’t punctured when rolled out,” says Kapile. “It was so painful, she would get cranky if you came next to her. The mixture is put in the middle of the dough and sealed like a dumpling, made into a ball and then rolled flat. Then we griddle it in ghee on the hot plate.”
Til poli, eaten mostly during the winter festival of Makar Sankranti, is similar, but made with a sesame seed and jaggery mixture rather than chana dal. “Jaggery gives a different taste [compared to refined sugar],” says Kapile. “It’s divine.”
Some of the variations made at Gerard’s may present as avant-garde — take fermented carrot pita, for example — but in Wolfersʼ eyes, the venue honours the ethos of many cuisines, which make the most of available ingredients.
“For us, changing the menu everyday and trying to minimise waste is a big part of the cooking here,” he says. “And that’s a big part of the cooking in a lot of cuisines, especially traditional ones.”
Many restaurants use vegetable offcuts and scraps to make vinegars or pureés; Wolfers thought it was worth using them to make bread. “So, now that’s kind of our thing — we create a bread around a vegetable or a grain that was going to go in the bin,” he says.
The process has traditional roots. “Centuries ago, they didn’t have [manufactured] yeast,” says Wolfers. “They used natural yeast to leaven the bread. I guess we use the traditional method in that we use a sourdough base.”
The process for a carrot pita will go something like this: Wolfers will pureé leftover carrot offcuts, which are then fermented with salt for a week. He’ll then take a small amount of sourdough starter and add it to the fermented carrot base.
Flour and water are then put in, and a new starter is made. “I call it a secondary starter,” says Wolfers. “It’s breaking down the carrot into a starter itself.”
Most starchy vegetables will work according to Wolfers, who’s also made a celeriac starter. “The one that was a bit inconsistent was cabbage,” he says. “The water content in cabbage makes it a bit temperamental. Use a starchy vegetable with a bit of body to it. Don’t make an asparagus starter — that won’t be your friend. But pulses, grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins work well.”
Natural fermentation with wild yeasts remains popular throughout India. “In Pradesh, they make a lot of bread using natural fermentation,” says Kapile. “It will have the characteristics of its environment.”
Tradition sometimes needs bending to suit different environments, too. San Francisco has birthed a lot of sourdough experts for example, but the temperature there is 15 degrees cooler than a humid summer day in South East Queensland, so the recipes won’t translate exactly.
“Bread is a labour of love [and] you learn as you go,” says Wolfers. “You can read a recipe and copy it the exact tee, but the beauty of bread is that it’s sort of up to the individual. If you feed your sourdough starter and I feed my one, it’s going to be very different.”
Bringing his own recipes to the table is what Kapile hopes to do in 2021, and the chef is on a mission to add more diversity to Indian cuisine in Australia. In the meantime, there’s plenty of doughs to explore.