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

 

 

Brief Bites: Bantam Bagels

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I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a bagel snob. I don’t think I ate a Thomas’ Bagel until I was in college, and was stunned at the measly, barely-risen dough that sat comfortably in the palm of my hand. Where were the yeasty, chewy hulks of carbohydrates of my youth? The lump of cinnamon raisin dough with a solid schmear of cream cheese my father had so lovingly quartered and wrapped up for my lunches? Those staples of the kiddush luncheons after Sunday school, mini bagels piled high and awaiting the tiny, grape juice-stained hands of ravenous pre-bar-mitzvot?

What I’m saying is, I’ve got high standards when it comes to bagels. However, as explored before, I have a serious weakness for food innovation, especially those involving miniaturization and fusion. So when I read that the folks at Bantam Bagels were taking the jelly-filled munchkin approach to bagel dough, I knew I’d have to check them out in person.

The Set Up:

Bantam Bagels is a relative newcomer to the single-dish segment of the New York food scene (this is the city, after all, that has stores solely dedicated to Rice Krispy treats, meatballs, mac & cheese, and rice pudding). The shop is located on Bleecker Street, just down the block from Murray’s Cheese Bar, and the similarly unilaterally-focused Risotteria. It’s an area that has always brimmed with restaurant and bar options, but as of late seems to be undergoing a bit of a real estate revival, with Bantam, London Candy Company, and Sugar and Plumm all opening within a few weeks of each other. It’s understandable, given all the foot traffic that moves through there, from tourists checking out the Greenwich/West Village neighborhoods to students and NY natives popping into venues like the Peculier Pub or Le Poisson Rouge for shows and specials.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

However, access to such prime levels of foot traffic may come at a cost. Unlike the relatively luxurious cafe space of Wafels & Dinges, Bantam Bagels is a purely take-away operation, the retail area of the shop barely holding the small line of people in front of us as we entered. Peering back beyond the counter, it’s clear that the bulk of the space is taken up by the kitchen, with room up front for only a small cooler for drinks, shelves for display bantams, and a counter by the window if you want to eat standing inside. The small shop is decked out in the red and black motif of the Bantam Bagels logo, the only real decoration coming from the branded merchandise placed high above the server on the right hand side of the store. Bantam’s only a few weeks old, having opened in early September, so they may still be developing their aesthetic beyond their menu items.

The Bites:

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety -- myriad mini bagel balls on display.

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety — myriad mini bagel balls on display.

The idea behind Bantam Bagels is to miniaturize and invert the traditional bagel-spread structure. As donut holes are to the donut, bantams are to the classical bagel. The balls are made of different types of dough and stuffed with a variety of corresponding fillings, from the familiar Plain Bantam (“plain bagel filled with plain cream cheese, butter, or peanut butter”) to the more experimental Summerberry Shortcake (“freshly picked blueberry bagel filled with sweet strawberry cream cheese”). A single bantam  will run you $1.35, but it’s a better deal to sample a variety of flavors by getting one of the exponentially larger orders of 3, 6, or 12 (they go up to an order of 40 bantams before you get into catering territory, but small as they are, even a diehard bagel-eater might struggle to house 40 of these guys).

Even more flavors -- bit of a bagel bonanza!

Even more flavors — just imagine taking 40 of these bad boys down.

Laura was gracious enough to be my intrepid companion for the day, so we decided to split an order of 12, attempting to run the gamut of savory and sweet. We ended up ordering the “Bantam of the Month,” which for September was The Bleecker Street, as well as the Everything Bantam, the Grandma Jojo, the Hot Pretzel, the French Toast, and the Boxed Lunch.

Our order neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

Our order, neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

As an evolution of the medium, Bantam Bagels does succeed in evoking the texture of a classic NY bagel. The small size (roughly the same as Dunkin Donuts munchkin) allows for even baking, creating a crisp crust that gives way to the chewy dough center. Although both Laura and I had expected the bantams to be slightly larger, closer to the Doughseed at Doughnut Plant, we agreed that the proportion of dough to filling was perfect, preventing the unfortunate cream-cheese with a side of bagel over-schmearing you occasionally receive from unmotivated deli staff. I would say the bantams are optimally two-bite treats, in order to properly savor the interplay of filling and dough.

As we paid for our box, the cashier cautioned that we should bite into the bantam at the spot where the small dollop of filling pokes through, so as to prevent the ball from collapsing and spilling filling all over you. Laura and I managed to get through our order without any major spread situations, however, the Bantam employee neglected to mention the danger of the powdered sugar on the French Toast bantam, which ended up coating every piece of our clothing that it touched.

Breakdown by bantam -- duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Breakdown by bantam — duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Speaking of which, let’s dive into our Bantam selection. The French Toast (“cinnamon-nutmeg egg bagel filled with buttery maple syrup cream cheese”) was overpowered by the sweetness of the spread and the large amount of powdered sugar. The spices of the bagel dough were lost amongst the stronger flavors of the filling, and both Laura and I agreed it lacked the eggy-moistness that typifies real french toast.

The Everything Bantam (“everything bagel filled with plain cream cheese”) was solid, if predictable. If you’re unsure of Bantam’s take on the bagel physiognomy, try this out to get a good sense of the spread-to-bagel proportions. Bantam has a good, springy dough, a well-measured portion of spices to evoke the “everything bagel” taste, and your familiar type of Philadelphia cream cheese.

As a hardcore fan of both peanut butter and jam-filled things, Laura had been very excited to get the Boxed Lunch (“plain bagel topped with crushed, roasted peanuts and filled with peanut butter and sweet strawberry jam”). I was also very intrigued by this particular bantam, since it veered the closest to dessert of our order. Unfortunately, the reality of the Boxed Lunch could not meet our lofty expectations. The peanut topping didn’t provide much of a textural contrast, and like the French Toast bantam, the plain bagel exterior was no match for the sugary insides. Laura and I felt like we’d just be better off getting a plain PB&J on sliced bread, since the bagel aspect added no real discernible advantage.

Ultimately, both Laura and I agreed that the more savory bantams were more successful. We appreciated the simplicity of the Hot Pretzel (“pretzel bagel topped with sea salt crystals, filled with dijon and sharp cheddar cream cheese”), which nailed the snappy outer layer of a soft pretzel and had a filling that reminded me of the beer cheese dip that accompanied our monster pretzel at Reichenbach. The Bleecker Street (“pizza dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese”) was a little more divisive, although the issue was more with my personal dislike of pepperoni than the bantam’s flavor profile.

I can’t say I tasted much of a difference in the bagel dough between the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo (“Italian spiced bagel topped with a thinly sliced, marinated tomato and filled with fresh basil pesto cream cheese”), but the pesto-tomato combination made this bantam the winner of the bunch. Both the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo summoned up some solid nostalgic longings for pizza bagels, and stood apart from their bagel roots in the best way. Their fillings had the base richness of cream cheese that was subtly highlighted by herbs and spices, and worked harmoniously alongside the dough and toppings.

The Last Licks:

While Laura and I were a bit disappointed with the sweeter half of our Bantam Bagels order, overall I think the concept has some merit. It really depends on your expectations going in — if you’re looking to experiment and try some wacky takes on bagel flavor combinations, be bold and go for the oddball bantams like the olive-and-feta infused Athena or the Cookies and Milk. It was fun to take a leap, and I thought the bantams stretching furthest from the flavor norm were the most memorable. I’m hoping that they’ll continue to explore some of the more exotic culinary strains — I’ll come back to Bantam if they go into Indian or East Asian territories, or maybe some south of the border flair. For the moment, however, I think I’ll stick to buying full-size bagels at my usual bakery. Bantam Bagels should be commended for finding a way to make a NY mainstay into something new, but for this native they need to push the envelope more to move from a novelty to a necessity.

Bantam Bagels

283 Bleecker Street (between Jones St and 7th Ave South)

http://www.bantambagels.com