Edible Inquiries: Whence Pita?

Pita: Irresistible, but oh so mysterious...

Pita: Irresistible, but oh so mysterious…

I have a pita problem. It’s much like my knee-jerk naan consumption, in that when faced with fluffy, expertly baked circles of pita bread, well, they somehow end up in my mouth without any conscious thinking on my part. Fortunately, at Indian restaurants naan is usually a separate side order where you get charged for refills, so I can usually rely on the whimpering of my wallet to override my innate carb codependence. But most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants I’ve been to will happily furnish you with an endless supply of pita to scoop up mezze or load your shawarma into, leaving me overjoyed if somewhat ashamed of the flatbread devastation I leave in my wake.

Considering this intimate relationship, I couldn’t help but tackle the question Jacob posed to me on the eve of his trip to the Middle East — “where exactly does pita come from?” After all, you can find variations of the bread in Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Greece and many other countries across Southern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. It seems almost as ubiquitous as rice, so it must have deep roots worthy of a little Edible Inquiries Internet digging. To the Google!

 

Our look-back at pita has to start with flatbreads, generally considered the earliest type of bread product made, dating back to the Amorite-era Damascus of 2000 BCE  (Princeton). In fact, some of the earliest examples of food in the world were flatbreads discovered in tombs and archaeological sites (WiseGeek). This makes sense when you think about the nomadic and/or fuel-scarce environments of the earliest cultures, where dough could be stretched out on a hot stone to bake.

Now as for pita specifically, there’s a bit of contention on its exact origin. Some sources claim that pita is the Western term for the Arabic word “khubz” meaning “ordinary bread” (Princeton), and therefore pita’s roots lie in ancient Syria (WikiAnswers). In fact, pita was initially referred to as “Syrian bread” in the US before the name “pita bread” became more common (Backwoods Home).

Others argue that pita originated in Greece and subsequently spread throughout the Middle East  (Ask.com), eventually spreading as far as Western Europe and Asia to become the progenitors of pizza and pancakes (Abigail’s Bakery). The actual word “pita” does come from Greek, and means “pie or cake” (Princeton). It’s “probably derived from the Ancient Greek pēktos (πηκτός), meaning “solid” or “clotted” (Wikipedia), and came into use after the older word for cake — “plakous,” came to refer to a thicker product (Abigail’s Bakery). “Pita” was used to differentiate between the heftier plakous and the thin flatbreads used in so many dishes.

At least for Greek pita, there are two types — a thin “pocket bread” and a thicker “gyro bread” (Abigail’s). The thin variety is the pita pocket kind we’ve all seen vendors stuff falafel into, or even picked up in the bread aisle of the grocery store (my own personal encounters with pita began with these guys — http://www.fooducate.com/app#page=product&id=09E41E8E-E10C-11DF-A102-FEFD45A4D471). The pocket is achieved through the baking process, where the dough is baked over a flame on a convex surface, so the high heat causes the dough to inflate as it cooks, and then deflate as it cools, creating an air pocket in the middle. The thicker, single layer Greek style of pita is the kind you see used for gyros, kebabs, or souvlaki (which shows up in Turkish food as well). To add to the confusion, in Greece the word “pita” can also be used for sweet and savory pies, so you see words like spanikopita (spinach pie) or kreatopita (meat pie). But for most of the world, pita refers to the “slightly leavened wheat bread, flat, either round or oval, and variable in size” (Wikipedia).

Some prime examples of the "pie" type of Greek pita.

Some prime examples of the “pie” type of Greek pita.

Unlike the site-specifically-named Quiche Lorraine, pita’s history goes back so far that placing a pin on the map for its origins is almost impossible. What really separates Greek pita from pide, its Turkish brother, or even roti, its Indian cousin? Regardless of the coordinates of its birthplace, what makes pita remarkable is the way it has truly become a global food, rising from those humble beginnings baked in ancient hearths to the shelf of your local 7/11 in endless flavors of pita chips.

 

Cut to the Chase, Lady!: Though disputed by some, pita is largely thought to have originated in Greece, and then spread throughout the Middle East, and the world. As a type of flatbread, pita’s roots go even farther back, to the dawn of civilization. And you just thought it was a marketing gimmick to get you to eat more hummus.

Like what you read? Got a question about cooking, dining, food or history? Comment, post or tweet and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll tackle it in another round of Edible Inquiries!

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pita

http://www.ask.com/question/what-country-did-pita-bread-originate-from

http://www.abigailsbakery.com/bread-recipes/where-pitta-bread-comes-from.htm

https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Pita.html

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-pita-bread.htm

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-flatbread.htm

http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodbreads.html

http://agexted.cas.psu.edu/FCS/4hfl/BreadCultures.html

http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/salloum135.html

 

 

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Come in From the Cold: A Warming Dinner at Village Taverna

2013-12-14 18.19.31

Snow — to elementary-aged Maggie, this word meant magic, plain and simple. The kind of magic that requires extra effort: it’s not enough to simply wish for snow, you must entreat the weather gods through sacrifices like putting an eraser under your pillow or wearing your pajamas inside-out and backwards (while there is some contention about the specifics of the rituals, it is universally agreed upon by North Eastern American children that some sacrifice is mandatory). And if you did everything right, and the snow came, it meant freedom — from class, from homework, from the usual routine. You could throw on unreasonably puffy pants and moonboots and hurl yourself headfirst into the drifts in your backyard, bean unsuspecting passersby with snowballs, and drink enormous mugs of hot chocolate with heady swirls of whipped cream.

Well, as with many things in life, the wonders of childhood snow do not extend into adult life. These days heavy snow means an endless commute, clunky boots you drag around the office, and the inexplicably speedy transition of white powder to grey slush in the New York streets. Maybe it’s just the unexpected deluge we’ve recently had across the country, but frankly, this grownup is a little worn-out on snow.

My Grinchy-grumpiness is probably fueled by being stuck without functioning snowboots during the storm last weekend. Old lady Maggie took her ancient snowboots to work last week, where she cranked up her spaceheater to avoid office frostbite (damn you, server farm), only to discover the unfortunate consequence of the heat cracking the plastic tops of the boots. Dammit. So come Saturday, when another snowstorm rolled through New York, I was caught bootless and bereft. Luckily, I found refuge and a lovely dinner at Village Taverna in Union Square, warmed by excellent food and friendly service.

 

First Impressions:

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Village Taverna is located right off of Union Square on the corner of University Place and 11th St. It’s a cute, relatively small corner restaurant, with the takeout counter and kitchen facing front as you enter, and the bar and dining room fanning out in an L-shape to fill the rest of the space. Village Taverna is decked out in the classic style of a Greek restaurant — high ceilings above white walls with accents of dark blue or gold, the chairs and tables made up of plain but polished light wood. The restaurant takes advantage of its corner location through the large windows that line the exterior walls, which when we visited were slightly covered by long curtains, and the interior walls and bar had mosaic tiles and decorative plates on them.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

It was pretty quiet when Jacob and I visited, most likely due to the driving snow outside, so I can’t really speak for the overall noise and activity level of the place. During my visit, however, I found that my meal was the perfect antidote to the messy weather outside. The dining room is made up of a long banquette on the inner wall and a number of two and four-tops, and our waiter gave us the pick of the litter. We ended up at one of the banquette tables, and I was warm and comfortable for the entire meal (although Jacob complained that he might have been under a cold-air vent). Overall the atmosphere was calm and casual, the staff more than happy to make recommendations and answer our questions (and most importantly, refill our fresh pita after we scarfed down the first plate).

 

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

 

The Food:

‘Tis the season to stuff your face with dessert (though long-time readers might argue my dessert season is year-long), and I’d proudly taken part in a few holiday traditions earlier that day. I spent the afternoon trimming the tree at Laura’s (of Bantam and Jam fame) house, and of course proper tree-trimming requires not only ornaments and tinsel, but nostalgic holiday foods like hot chocolate, cashew bars, sticky buns, and linzer cookies. So it’s understandable that by dinner I was eager for some light, wholesome food. Jacob suggested a soup/salad/appetizer strategy, which sounded perfect considering both the weather and my blood sugar level.

Greek is one of those cuisines I was very against when I was younger, mostly because I thought of it as being populated with such “gross” foods as olives, feta, and eggplant. These days, though I find my palate edging more and more towards Mediterranean-adjacent cuisines, I’m still plenty unfamiliar with the basic Greek dishes (alas, Greek Lady on Penn’s campus ranks about as high as NYC street meat on the authenticity scale). As such, I’d never encountered any of the dishes I tried at Village Taverna. Fortunately, Jacob was a much more worldly child, and so steered us in the right direction. We opted for splitting the Melitzanosalata spread, the Village Salad, and a bowl of the Avgolemono. It ended up being plenty of food for two people, and was pretty reasonably priced — we got out of there for just about $30, including tax and tip.

To be clear, our selection was only the tip of the iceberg for Village Taverna’s menu — they offer a ton more spreads, salads, and appetizers, plus a grill section full of kebabs, seafood, traditional Greek dishes like Mousaka (with a vegetarian version), souvlaki, gyros, and pita wrap sandwiches. Had I been game for a heartier meal, I probably would have struggled to choose an entree between all the options.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er ... plate.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er … plate. The only acceptable use of olives — to augment olive oil.

Our dinner started with a complimentary plate of pita, olive oil, and olives. The bread was freshly grilled and warm to the touch, with deep brown lines seared into it. Bread-fiend that I am, I couldn’t get enough of the pita — it had the perfect texture,  soft with just a tiny bit of toasted crunch. I still can’t get onboard the olive train, but I really liked how the fresh olives intensified the flavor of the oil, which perked up my tastebuds after my sugary repast.

 

The Melizonasalata -- a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata — a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata (Puréed fine roasted eggplant spread made with fresh ground eggplants, garlic, vinegar, fresh herbs & extra virgin olive oil) surprised me with its texture. I had expected it something closer to baba ganoush, but this dip was more like the roasted red pepper/eggplant dip I made for Thanksgiving, chunkier and with some bulk as I scooped into it with a piece of pita. It was served with capers on top, and I found that their brininess overwhelmed the dip. On its own the Melitzanosalata had a strong eggplant flavor, with subtle notes of vinegar and parsley. Its initial thickness melted on the tongue, and though I missed the smokiness of baba ganoush, I would certainly look to this dish as a good way to cure an eggplant craving.

 

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

I was excited to try the Village Salad (Mixed greens, grilled manouri cheese, croutons, cherry tomatoes, white & dark sesame with honey balsamic vinaigrette) because I’d yet to come across manouri in my cheese adventures. According to Wikipedia, manouri is “a Greek semi-soft, fresh white whey cheese made from goat or sheep milk as a by-product following the production of feta.” It’s supposed to be creamier and less salty than feta, with less acidity. I really enjoyed it in this dish, and will definitely seek it out again as a good cheese for use as a topping . The Village Salad was very simple, seemingly designed to let the cheese shine brightest. Usually I like my salads like I like my ice cream — with plenty of mix-ins — but here I appreciated the straightforward, well-proportioned combination of just a few ingredients. The manouri arrived with thick grill marks on top, leaving it softened without melting it, and it easily broke apart into large chunks with the application of a little fork pressure. The creamy texture and nutty taste played well with the bitter greens and the acidity of the tomatoes. There were some tiny croutons dispersed throughout the dish to add crunch, and the dressing echoed the nutty-sweet cheese with its sesame and honey.

 

Avgolomeno -- Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Avgolemono — Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Now I’d actually heard of Avgolemono (Traditional Greek chicken soup made with rice and thickened with an egg lemon sauce), but for some reason I was picturing more of the American classic chicken soup, with a clear broth and thick-cut vegetables. What arrived at our table more closely resembled a chowder (or egg-drop soup, as the description implies). It was very creamy, thick and filling, with soft strands of chicken belying the strong broth flavor. Like the rest of our meal, it was a simply produced dish with basic, fresh and wholesome ingredients cooked with care. The brightness of the lemon sauce kept the soup from weighing me down too much (as can happen with a bowl of clam chowder), and I found myself happily satisfied without being overfull by the end of our meal.


Final Thoughts:

I only had a small sampling of the menu at Village Taverna, but the dishes I did try speak to the quality and overall feel of the restaurant. Maybe it was the snowstorm outside, or maybe it was the nostalgia-inducing holiday activities of the day, but I came away from my dinner feeling like a surrogate Greek mother had cooked just for me. Albeit, a Greek mother who also employs a staff of waiters and busboys. Despite the proximity to the mobs of NYU students and Union Square bustle, Village Taverna has the atmosphere of a family restaurant, polished and attentive yet warm and welcoming. I’m definitely planning to go back and further my Greek food education, and if I find myself stuck in the snow again sometime this winter, I know a bowl of chicken soup that’s just calling my name.

 

Village Taverna

81 University Place (corner of 11th St)

http://www.villagetaverna.com/