The relationship between humans and wheat, bread’s key ingredient, goes back thousands of years to hunter-gatherer times. Wheat is known to have grown on several continents in ancient times, though it thrived mostly in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, a region that includes parts of modern day Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.
Bread has had a massive impact on humanity. Wars have been fought over it, uprisings have been sparked by its price, and people have survived for long periods of time on nothing but bread and water. We have such a fundamental relationship with our bread. It is a central part of our culture and a core element in traditional Lebanese food eaten with every meal and enjoyed with Meza. There is a common saying “fi baynitna khibiz wo milih” (there is bread and salt between us), meaning since we have shared a meal, we are now friends and trust between us is not an issue anymore.
The baker has an important task in the community, as shown in the proverb: “A‘ti Khubzak lal Khabbez wa law akal nosso”, meaning give your bread to a baker, even if he eats half of it. This is an indicator of the importance we give to eating good bread.
There are two kinds of bread, Markouk, my favorite Lebanese bread, which is more of mountain bread, and the Arabic bread, which is more readily available in supermarkets and mini markets. Arabic Bread is cooked in an oven until it rises and is made for mass consumption. Made with flour, water and salt, it is thoroughly rolled into flattened dough then slightly leavened, and put in the oven in the same way as doing a man’oushé.
Markouk, is thin flat bread almost translucent. This thinness allows the sheets of bread to cook quickly and since it has very little moisture, it lasts very well compared to other bread. It is then laid on a cushion before it is baked in a wood fire on a domed or convex metal griddle, known as saj. Dry yeast is the rising agent that is used when making this bread. Warm water is used to activate the yeast and the rising process is given a little boost with olive oil, which also gives it a distinctive flavor. Watching women kneading the dough, soft and pliable beneath their hands, is a pure delight. Dough making with flour and water, salt and oil, requires kneading with bare hands. The soft cushion of dough between the palm and the bowl pliable with every push and shove stretches with every move.
The women sit facing the saj for long hours making the markouk, their body and hands move to the rhythm of what seems like a mechanical procedure owing to the level of proficiency they have acquired over the years. If a woman has a big derriere in Lebanon, it’s usually compared to the women who make markouk, as it believed that sitting all day will make one’s end wider, so we say “tizah mitil tiz el khabeze” (her ass is like the ass of the women who make bread), insinuating that it is big and wide. Well, to each their own!
There is something about the scent of reminiscent fresh bread. This bread that has been flavored by the histories of human hands has watched us and sustained us. Bread Like life is a good that comes naturally.