A Prevailing Love Story of 15,000 Years:
Bread and The Lebanese Khebez
“Bread is the king of the table, and all else is merely the court that surrounds the king. The countries are the soup, the meat, the vegetables, the salad, but bread is king.” ~ Louis Bromfield (1896-1956)
There is something unique about Bread that brings us to pour Love in its making. I don’t think there is any other culinary preparation in any existing cuisine that creates such powerful feeling in us.
Sure, we love cooking, and enjoy it all. But when it comes to making bread, it is another story.
A story that goes far back in time, and far above in the heavens. Bread and Humanity, it’s a love story anchored in our beings, our roots, our spirituality in its diversity, and our survival. It is in holy books, in religious rituals, in family traditions, in arts and poetry, and in the wisdom of the sages.
“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” ~ Robert Browning
No food has ever prevailed throughout the history of humanity like the Bread. And no edible product has ever been more valued than Bread. One has only to look at the market statistics to see that Bread is the top selling product in the world.
The Lebanese in Lebanon alone spend US$23.5 million a month on their traditional Khebez bread, as per the report of The Daily Star (Sept 2017). And that is a small country of 3 million people only. It is an impressive consumption.
However, the report missed including in its study the small bakeries, the bakers of the villages and the small towns, and the regular communal sessions of bread baking that are still taking part in some of our villages.
That love story of Humanity and Bread, my friends, carries a beautiful name. It is called Blessing.
The Traditional Breads in Lebanon
In Lebanon, we have three main types of Traditional Breads:
The Lebanese Khebez خبز, which the world calls pita bread or flatbread, yet isn’t neither. The Khebez is much thinner and puffs up in two good layers that we separate at consumption. That if we are not filling the inside pocket with meals to bring out the wraps of Falafel, Shawarma, Chicken Taouk and the likes.
The Marqouq, المرقوق which hasn’t been adopted by the world (yet). It is formed in one (very) large layer that is thin like a paper sheet, and less soft than the Khebez. That bread of brownish tones is as large as to be folded in three to be packed.
The Man’oush, which differs in that it is baked with a spread of our fine Zaatar mixture and extra-virgin olive oil; a powerful combination of healing values. It is our most consumed breakfast in Lebanon. I have spoken about it earlier and about our related customs. So let’s talk Khebez and Marqooq today.
THE MARQOUQ BREAD
The Marqouq bread is sold in our bakeries. Yet, not in all, and not as much as the Khebez. It is also called Al-Saj Bread because it is cooked on the Saj, a large dome-shape metal over charcoals or fire wood. It is not a baked bread.
The dough is flattened very thinly on waving arms. It is then placed on a large special pillow, and overturned on the preheated Saj to cook. It turns into the Marqouq bread in seconds.
I can tell you this with certainty: The ritual of this particular bread-making is a fascinating sight and an appetizing one to the senses. The best way to enjoy it is hot, right from the Saj, ….and with Labneh and olives…. and with the Kibbeh Tartar… Well, the list could be long.
Worth Knowing: The most delicious Manoush Zaatar you may ever eat is the one done on the Saj.
That particular setting used to be seen outside of most of our old traditional houses in the villages. Women would gather around it for the weekly bread-making. The tradition still exists in areas like the Bekaa, the South, and some villages of the North.
However, with the continuous modernization of the market and easy access to its supplies, the tradition is not as commonly seen as it used to be.
The old recipe of this bread is present, with five other variations, in the famous 10th century cook book of Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq: Kitab al-Tabikh. The main recipe is still the same today.
The Lebanese Khebez, in the form that you know it, is also a Levantine Bread, notable in our neighboring countries of Palestine and Syria. It is also produced, in variations, in our eastern region of the world.
No surprise in that since our bread in its present form and recipe is about 15, 000 years old; the oldest evidence was found so far by the archaeologists in the North of Jordan.
Interestingly, the farther the radius from Lebanon, the thicker the bread until it becomes one flat thick bread, the Pita Bread and the Naan, instead of our puffed up bread of two thin layers, which is the particularity of our bread.
Another particularity of our Khebez bread that is worth mentioning is its lightness.
Whether prepared with white flour or whole-wheat flour, it is much less fattening than most breads like the French Baguettes, the American Bread in slices, the Italian Pita Bread, and the Naan of Central and South Asia. Nutritionists in Lebanon, like Abeer Abou-Rjaili, even tell you that it is non-fattening.
Our bread has no milk and no butter. The little sugar we add is to simply activate the little required yeast. It has enough calories for a needed energy; all which makes it non-fattening.
The Lebanese Khebez is always present at our meal table. It is the bread we enjoy with the hummus, the baba ghannouj, the labneh, the cheeses, and many other dishes that are not necessarily ‘creamy’. It is also the bread of our Falafel wrap, our Shawarma Wrap, and our Chicken Taouk Wrap.
And let us not forget its must, toasted or fried, in our Fattoush Salad!
And so it is that because of all that, I take a special delight in sharing these coming two days the recipes of our Khebez and our Marqouq. Should you like to try it at home, you will enjoy the experience… and the sight of the dough puffing up into our two-layer Khebez bread. 🙂