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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Picking Through the Pop-Ups: Mad. Sq. Eats

I’m a big fan of options — that’s why I love appetizer platters, buffets, and ice cream flavors with lots of mix-ins. I’d rather try a chicken finger/mozzarella stick/pig-in-blanket combo than munch through a bowl of boring popcorn, and give me Phish Food over plain jane vanilla any day of the week. Because of this, I’m always curious to check out the newest crop of pop-up food events in New York.

The term “pop-up” refers to short-term food projects that take over a public space, such as the Kubbeh Project that took place at Zucker’s Bakery earlier this year (which closed literally as I returned from Israel), or YUJI Ramen, the latest installation that is all the rage at the Whole FoodsSmorgasburg at Bowery.” Pop-up restaurants can serve to showcase the talents of a specific chef, or just simply explore the potential of a certain concept. The scene has seemingly exploded over the past few years, expanding to encompass not only established restaurants, but also food trucks and catering vendors through stalls at farmer’s markets and festivals. I got a small taste of some of the newer players on the pop-up scene last week when Jacob and I managed to sneak in  a visit to Mad Sq. Eats, on the last night before it closed up shop for the summer.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

Mad Sq. Eats is a semi-annual, month-long pop-up food market that takes place next to Madison Square Park in the spring and the fall. Both established brick-and-mortar restaurants and relatively small-scale vendors are featured at MSE, and the makeup of the festival not only changes year to year, but also between seasons. This time around, the cuisines offered ran the gamut from East Asian to pizza to barbecue, and despite MSE being located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, there were vendors representing at least Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, if not all the boroughs. Some of the booths offered multiple dishes, while others stuck to variations of just one concept, like meatballs or arancini.

When Mad Sq Eats comes around again next fall, I’d definitely recommend trying to hit the festival in the middle of the month. There were significant negative consequences for visiting on the last day. First — the crowds. MSE is located in the tiny public space between Broadway and Fifth, just west of the park, and when we arrived around 7:45pm on Friday, it was overflowing with people perusing the vendors, waiting on lines, and trying to find a spot at one of the handful of tables set up in the middle of the market. Then, once Jacob and I had made the circuit and decided what we wanted to try, we discovered that our first choice, La Sonrisa Empanadas, was already completely sold out, with more than an hour before closing time. Refusing to be deterred, we quickly pivoted, deciding to take charge of our foodie fate by dividing and conquering. I hopped on line at Ilili’s booth, and Jacob headed down the row to Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen.

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats...

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats…

Ilili is a Lebanese/Mediterrean restaurant in the Flatiron that I’ve happily made multiple trips to. In fact, when I visited Mad Sq. Eats last fall I ended up ordering and loving the lamb shoulder shawarma sandwich. After the egregious lack of empanadas, I almost gave in and just ordered the shawarma again, but I convinced myself not to miss out on an opportunity to try something new, so I went with the Phoenician Fries, on Jacob’s recommendation. The lucky duck lives only a few blocks away from Madison Square (yes, and he’s close to Beecher’s — talk about unfair), so he’d already been to MSE a couple of times this May.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

The Phoenician Fries were handcut and fried to order, covered in sumac, salt, Aleppo pepper, and garlic whip. They arrived looking pretty much like Middle Eastern cheese fries. Although I’ve previously stated my preference for ketchup over the trendier aioli, in this case I found the garlic whip absolutely addictive. The sumac and salt added a little bite to contrast against the creamy sauce, and the fries were perfectly crisp and crunchy due to being hot out of the oil. You can find these spiced spuds on Ilili’s restaurant menu year-round, and considering their generous brunch prix-fixe, I wouldn’t be surprised if we coincidentally crossed paths sometime in the near future.

While I was salivating over our fries, Jacob was off at Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen procuring one of their specialty grilled cheese sandwiches. The vendor dubs itself a “grilled cheese bar,” and until this week was a Brooklyn-based startup that existed solely at  pop-up events like MSE. As of this Monday, however, Mrs. Dorsey’s has a found a storefront, so kudos to them on entering the permanent NY food scene. We chose a cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese, served on panini-pressed sourdough. It was far from a classic grilled cheese, but the sharpness of the cheddar mingled well with the smokier gouda, and the bread had a nice toasty crunch to it. The major detractor was the fact that the sandwich was not cooked for long enough, leaving the cheese warmed, but basically unmelted. Overall, It was a perfectly serviceable grilled cheese made with quality components, but nothing beyond what I could have made in my own kitchen. I’m not giving up on Mrs. Dorsey’s, however, since their catering menu is more varied and creative in its sandwich selection (such as the Jam Goat, featuring goat cheese and strawberry preserves). We’ll have to see where their new store is located, and what they’ll be serving.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey's Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The other “main course” of our meal came from Mmm Enfes, a Turkish street food and pastry shop in Midtown West. We got two of the varieties of gozleme, a Turkish flatbread stuffed with meat and/or vegetables and cheese. We opted for the chicken and mushroom and the spinach and feta. The gozlemes reminded me of a hybrid between a stuffed naan and the flat laffa bread I had in Israel. The flatbreads were heated and then rolled like crepe, with the same slight sweetness and eggy flavor. The filling of chicken and mushroom was slightly dry and crumbly, and was heavily spiced, leaving me pretty thirsty. I found the spinach and cheese gozleme much more successful. The sweeter bread paired wonderfully with the salty cheese and the faint bitterness of the spinach, coming off like the wrap version of a quiche.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

 

There’s really no point in a disclaimer anymore. Obviously I got dessert, and everyone expects me to rave about it. Well, I’m not going to disappoint you. We chose to visit Melt Bakery’s cart for some of their signature ice cream sandwiches. Melt, located on the LES, is “New York’s First Ice Cream Sandwich Store.” They make both the cookies and the ice cream that have made their creations infamous amongst ice cream devotees such as myself (it’s a wonder I haven’t given myself a lactose allergy at this point). Melt’s menu changes daily, so while Jacob had already gotten to try their Lovelet sandwich (red velvet cookies with cream cheese ice cream, dammit), I wasn’t given that option. I wasn’t too bitter, however, because I was able to order the Cinnamax, a snickerdoodle/cinnamon ice cream sandwich. Jacob chose the Morticia, featuring malted chocolate rum ice cream between two crackly chocolate cookies. As shown by the fist-to-sandwich comparison photo below, these sandwiches were actually smaller than Levain’s cookies, but I took that as a positive. The ice cream was full and creamy, and the cookies definitely didn’t skimp on the butter, so it was good not to have too large a serving of such a rich dessert, especially after our frie, cheese, and pastry dinner.

Melt's sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich.

Melt’s sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich. Shown here, Jacob’s deeply chocolate Morticia.

 I’m one of those people who simply cannot have enough cinnamon in things, to the point where I top my fake-o cappuccinos ($3 hand-frother off of Amazon, aka food-nerd present from the best mom ever!) of drip coffee and almond milk with a liberal shaking of cinnamon. So anything cinnamon bun or oatmeal raisin themed in the ice cream department is going to be right up my alley. The Cinnamax definitely satisfied my recurrent cinnamon craving, but I ultimately found the Morticia more satisfying. Where the Cinnamax falters is the similarity of flavors between the snickerdoodle and the cinnamon ice cream. While the cookies were soft and made it easy to keep the sandwich intact (a crucial component of a strong ice cream sandwich), in the end it was a very single-note dessert.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

 Jacob’s Morticia, on the other hand, had a variety of different textures and flavors throughout it. The cookies were just as crackly as advertised, breaking off more readily than the chewier snickerdoodles, which made for a messier eating experience for sure. However, they had a rich dark cocoa flavor, which played off the sugary malt and rum tastes of the ice cream, and overall I enjoyed the textural contrast of the cookie vs. filling, as sticky as my hands got eating it. Somehow I found it more refreshing than the Cinnamax, although I’m not sure I would opt to order either flavor again if I visit Melt Bakery’s store downtown. I’m still holding out for the Lovelet, or the peanut butter/banana themed Elvis.


Even though my visit to Mad Sq Eats had its ups and downs, I fully recommend checking it out next fall. It’s wholly unique experience, like an artisanal version of the mall food court, where the prices are slightly higher and the food is infinitely better. It’s a wonderful chance to sample some up-and-coming and off-the-beaten path vendors, not to mention a delicious opportunity to support small businesses. I’m planning to make the trip to Hester Nights (Thursdays at the Eventi Space through September), and hopefully I’ll check out the Smorgasbar down at South Street Seaport. And hopefully when I head back to Mad Sq Eats in the fall, I may finally be able to try those empanadas.

Ilili

236 5th Ave (between 27th and 28th)

http://www.ililinyc.com/

Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen

138 Willoughby Street (in Brooklyn)

http://mrsdorseyskitchen.com/

Mmm Enfes

70 W. 39th St (corner of 6th Ave)

https://twitter.com/MmmEnfes

Melt Bakery

132 Orchard St

http://www.meltbakery.com/