1,001 Arabian bites: bread, the ultimate comfort food, is life itself
Certain things, no matter how polarising, possess resilience; think Cher, Donald Trump and carbohydrates. Bread is like the Pope: it’s been around forever, it’s been elevated and excoriated and it always makes for good dinner conversation.
Bread, with which I have had a lifelong love affair, has the kind of longevity that will never be compromised by its lack of novelty. And by novelty, I mean freshness. It is one of the hardiest foods you can buy, as long as you’re willing to give it some TLC – or in critical times, CPR.
The word bread, in addition to the food, also refers to money and, in colloquial Arabic, its connotations can be even more vital. “Aish”, Arabic for “life”, is a broad colloquial reference that millions of Arabs use for referring to bread or rice. The French dramatist Jean Anouilh said that he liked reality and that “it tastes like bread”.
Well, I like bread and I think it tastes like life.
Some bread takes more kindly to cryogenics than others. Pre-sliced sandwich bread – the sort you might strip of its spongy crust for a small child – contains moistening agents that make it more likely to grow mouldy before it goes stale and generally takes well to week-long countertop storage. By Thursday, Monday’s crêpe-like flatbreads have dried out, Arabic bread has forfeited its elasticity and bread with an honest crust, such as a baguette or ciabatta, is crying out for moisture in a more drastic form than butter or olive oil.
And so it makes sense that every bread-eating culture has devised ingenious ways of never going breadless. Here, in Santa Fe, we fry stale corn tortillas in oil and serve them as the base for chilaquiles, or as the crispy garnish for migas, both of which are breakfast dishes. Arabs fry stale Arabic bread in olive oil to make Syro-Palestinian fatteh, a beautiful mess that looks a little like nachos and tastes a lot like heaven. And yes, I’m sufficiently confident in fatteh’s greatness to make that assumption. In the UAE, we eat thareed, a pile of whole flatbreads soaked in a savoury stew.
Tuscans enjoy their bread and vegetable stew in the form of ribollita, but in the north-east corner of Italy, it’s all about the canederli: fat seasoned dumplings made from old bread in the style of Central European knödel. If you’re looking for a less soporific alternative, turn to bread salads: Italian panzanella or Levantine fattoush, brimming with shards of crisp Arabian bread, all burnished with sumac.
If you’re lazy, busy or obsessed with Caesar salads, consider the crouton. Few experiences in life can deliver more satisfaction with less effort, and you can season them and store them indefinitely in a Ziploc bag.
Most often, though, bread in my house becomes breadcrumbs – or pangrattato, which is more fun to say. As a relatively balanced person who has nevertheless stuck her face into a lot of paper bags filled with fresh bread just to breathe in the scent of it, I draw the line at putting my head in the oven. But it does take some restraint. The smell of breadcrumbs toasting is as good as it gets.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
Updated: July 30, 2014 04:00 AM