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Monday 29 November 2021
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Saj: An Essential and Authentic Lebanese Flatbread

Saj bread baking on a saj metal griddle (All photos courtesy of Mazen Hosaiky)

Biting into warm, freshly baked saj bread, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its authentic and delicious taste and overlook its rich history and numerous benefits.

Wheat, an essential ingredient of saj bread, is a dominant staple grain that provides up to one third of the calories consumed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In Lebanon, saj is a staple part of Lebanese meals and is often eaten as part of the mezze spread. The production of saj bread is also beneficial to the livelihoods of women in rural villages since there are many agricultural cooperatives that are led by rural women who bake and sell saj bread.

Air bubbles forming on the saj dough as it bakes

Where Does Saj Bread Come From?

The term “flat” bread encompasses a multitude of bread types that differ in ingredients, preparation methods and overall taste based on the countries that they are consumed in.

Saj bread (also known as markook, khubz ruqaq, shrak, khubz rqeeq, mashrooh) is a type of unleavened flat bread that is commonly eaten in the Levant and throughout the Middle East. It is baked on a domed or convex metal griddle, known as saj. Usually sizable, the saj is approximately 60 cm. Like other flatbreads, the dough of saj bread is flattened and kept very thin prior to baking. It is usually folded and put in bags before being sold.

The history of bread is intertwined with the history of the world. Its key ingredient, wheat is known to have grown on several continents in ancient times, although it thrived in an area known as the Fertile Crescent which spans modern-day Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq together with the southeastern region of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran. One of the earliest mentions of markook bread was in the renowned tenth century Arabic cookbook “Kitab Al Tabikh” (The Book of Dishes) by Ibn Sayyar Al Warraq.

Compared to more voluminous bread loaves, flat breads in general are considered an asset to a subsistence economy, in which every resource has to be rationalized. The bread can also be used as an alternative to eating utensils to scoop up and consume food. Possibly due to their simple and convenient transportation process, in which they are stacked on top of each other, flatbreads are popular in geographic areas where nomadic life is predominant. Although flatbreads originated in rural societies, their delicious taste and many benefits make them popular across the world.

Is Saj Bread Healthy?

Flatbread is a healthier alternative to traditional raised yeast bread. It is most beneficial when made with whole grains and has little sugar and salt and no hydrogenated oils. Compared to white bread, whole grains have a larger amount of nutrients and fibers. Fibers have significant health benefits and are essential for a healthy digestive system. They can also help prevent obesity, reduce the risk of constipation, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol. Adding seeds such as flax or chia seeds can further improve the nutritional value of the flatbread.

An essential ingredient of bread, wheat is mostly composed of carbohydrates and has a moderate amount of proteins. Carbohydrates are an essential part of our diets and provide our body with energy, almost 50 percent of daily caloric needs come from carbohydrates. Flatbread flour is fortified with vitamins like thiamin (vitamin B1), folic acid, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and minerals like iron, zinc and iodine.

Saj Bread Recipe

Ingredients:

2 large spoons of active dry yeast
3 L warm water
5 kg wheat flour
50 g coarse or table salt

Note: If you are using coarse salt, make sure to melt it in warm water before mixing it with the other ingredients in the dough or you can add table salt to the dough after it has been formed.

Preparation:

  1. Add coarse salt in a bowl, add warm water and let them melt. Put wheat flour and the yeast in another bowl. Form a well in the center, pour salt and warm water in the mixture.
  2. Begin to mix with your hands, adding warm water as needed. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it for about 10 minutes, until it’s smooth and no longer sticky.
  3. Knead the dough for a few minutes then divide it into balls about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll the balls into circles on a lightly floured surface with a rolling pin, or flatten them into circles with your hands.
  4. Place the dough on a circular cushion (referred to as “tara”, طارة in Arabic) make sure to tuck in the edges.
  5. Flip the flattened dough on the cushion. Once the dough is properly shaped, place it on the saj griddle and bake for less than a minute on one side and then flip to cook the other side. Sometimes you only cook on one side, it depends on your preference. Pile your bread sheets and cover to keep them soft and warm or serve them immediately. You may use these sheets of bread as a wrap for anything you like such as cheese, meats or veggies.
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Some photos of the saj bread preparation process:

Pouring water into the dough
Dough formed into balls
Sprinkling flour on the dough
Flattening the dough with a rolling pin
Stretching the saj dough by hand
Placing the dough on a circular cushion and shaping it
Transferring the dough from the cushion to the metal griddle
Saj bread baking on the metal griddle

References:

Al-Dmoor, Hanee M. “Flat Bread: Ingredients and Fortification.” ResearchGate, Mar. 2012, www.researchgate.net/publication/264357508_Flat_bread_Ingredients_and_fortification.

Website: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264357508_Flat_bread_Ingredients_and_fortification

Pasqualone, Antonella. “Traditional Flat Breads Spread from the Fertile Crescent: Production Process and History of Baking Systems.” Journal of Ethnic Foods, Elsevier, 17 Feb. 2018, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235261811830009X#bib2.

Website: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235261811830009X#bib2

Tohmé Tawk, Salwa, et al. “Challenges and Sustainability of Wheat Production in a Levantine Breadbasket: The Case of the West Bekaa, Lebanon.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 2019, pp. 1–17., doi:10.5304/jafscd.2019.084.011.

Website: https://www.foodsystemsjournal.org/index.php/fsj/article/view/689/675




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