Diverse and Delicious: Flatbreads enjoy a worldwide following

St. Louis is an ethnic culinary haven where an adventurous diner can satisfy a global hunger at restaurants as diverse as Indian, Nepalese, Mexican, Peruvian, Bosnian, Greek and pan-Latin. But this was not always true of the Gateway City.

Back in the 1960s, my dad took me to St. Raymond’s Marionite Cathedral Downtown for one of my first encounters with ethnic food. Church members were raising funds for the upkeep of the church by serving a cafeteria-style lunch once a week. It was at that lunch that I first tasted cabbage rolls, meat and spinach pies, hummus, kibbeh aras (a deep-fried mixture of ground beef, cracked wheat, onions and spices) and of course, Lebanese flatbread.

The flatbread rested at the end of the line, just waiting to be dipped, pushed and folded into and around these foreign specialties. And yes, the lunch line at St. Raymond’s still forms every Wednesday around 11 a.m. And I’ve since learned that flatbreads are a staple in many ethnic cuisines: injera, naan, chapati, tortillas, pita, lahvosh. Each is unique.

Forget about baguettes, brioche and Bunny Bread, flatbread is the original. Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors harvested a patch of wheat, ground it, added a little water, stirred to make a dough and, using heat from the sun to warm the stones, created flatbread.

Flatbread connects many culinary cultures and remains the most widely consumed type of bread in the world. It’s also among the world’s oldest prepared foods. But that is where similarities end. Variations know no bounds, and, yes, some flatbreads even include yeast in their recipe.

Flatbreads, which are made from both leavened and unleavened doughs, are flat because the dough is rolled and stretched to a thickness of 2 inches or less. Shapes are rustically uneven and textures range from cracker-crisp (Norwegian flatbrød) to soft and chewy (Ethiopian injera). They are cooked in a variety of ways, including over open flames, in cast-iron skillets, on griddles, in ovens and even deep-fried; are adaptable to any environment; and are made from all manner of grain, including wheat, oats, rice, millet, rye, corn and buckwheat. Typically, they’re easier to make than European-style breads because they do not need the strength and structure of loaves.

Most of us here at home eat our flatbread in ethnic restaurants, but it’s a staple of many cuisines and therefore readily available in other countries – people in the Middle East get their fix from street vendors who serve flatbreads for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For villagers, city-dwellers, shepherds and nomadic tribes worldwide, flatbread is the staff of life. According to a recent article that appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, flatbreads are so important to some cultures that in Moroccan families, young women aren’t considered ready for marriage until they have mastered breads like r’ghayef, which is flattened; spread with onions, parsley and spiced butter; and then pan-fried.

OK, so we Americans certainly know our way around flatbreads – think focaccia, pizza crust and tortillas – but what about the long list of flatbreads eaten by the rest of the world? Sure, you can use flatbreads to scoop, fold, fill, dip, push and roll. But just how and with what and when?

To get the facts, I went to an expert. Chin Prapaisilp is the owner of Global Foods Market in Kirkwood and his family runs Jay International Food Co. on South Grand Boulevard. Prapaisilp, a native of Thailand, started Jay International back in 1975 with one light bulb, one shelf, no refrigerator and $2,800 in his pocket. Today, his stores feature more than 42,000 different items from 106 countries. And among all those items are numerous varieties of flatbreads.

“We have customers from many parts of the world. The Iranians use lahvosh for wrapping their food. Flat pita is used by the Lebanese and Syrians at dinner for dipping and scooping up meat. In Israel, they also use flat pita, but mostly for dipping, like hummus,” Prapaisilp said. “Pocket pita is used by the Greeks for gyros, where it is cut in half and filled up. In India, naan is dipped into curries and also served with beans and rice. And, of course, we carry many types of tortillas – corn, flour, whole-wheat – for the Mexicans who use them in many ways.”

Hot on the flatbread trail, I headed to Maplewood, where Maya Café co-owner and chef Bill Sorby makes use of tortillas in dishes from tacos to tortilla soup. He utilizes both flour and corn tortillas as vessels for flautas, chimichangas and roasted chicken with black beans and corn.

A trip to Everest Café on Washington Avenue took me to Nepalese native Devi States, who serves up authentic flatbreads called masala and pappadam. “Our masala is similar to Indian flatbread, but we use it differently,” said States. “Here we serve it as an appetizer, and it is also wrapped around chicken and dipped into lentil soup. The pappadam is a thin lentil crisp much like the Indian pappadam.”

Ermina Grbic of Grbic restaurant in South City turned me on to Bosnian flatbread, lepinja. Grbic explained that lepinja is similar to pita bread, but it is served with Bosnia’s native sausage dish, çevapi. Lepinja also accompanies any sautéed dish and can be spread with jam for a sweet treat.

Still riding that flatbread trail, I caught up with Tesfaye Boru, owner of Red Sea in University City, where injera, the Ethiopian flatbread, is made every day. Boru uses a grain called teff mixed with cold water in his recipe. The dough is left covered overnight, stirred the next day, kneaded, covered and cooled for another six hours. Then it is rolled flat and steamed on a special container. “Injera is used in place of utensils in our cuisine,” said Boru. “We tear it, pinch it from a large round and use it to pick up our food, the meats, the vegetables, the lentils.”

I’d heard tales of the phenomenal pita at Aya Sofia, a Turkish restaurant in south St. Louis. According to co-owner Alicia Aboussie, the flatbread hails from Chicago and arrives only partially cooked at the restaurant. “Our chef, Mehmet Yildiz, puts it on the grill to finish it off. It is served fresh and hot to each table with our own house-made tapenade,” she said. The pita also comes with Aya Sofia’s menu of meze, which are appetizers, like hummus, tabbouli, and garlic dips and sauces.

So, you say, you would like to learn how to make flatbreads? Well, Glen Bahr, culinary director at Viking Cooking School and Store in Brentwood, has a class for you. The cooking school covers flatbread making in its classes on Mediterranean and Moroccan cuisines, which are typically offered several times a year. “We use an Indian whole-wheat chapati recipe with ghee,” he said. “Our students are typically divided into teams during the class. Everyone works with the basic dough, but then has the opportunity to add options to their chapati, such as cracked black pepper and spice mixes. Our students come away with a good feel for how tasty and versatile flatbreads can be.”