You and I Eat the Same
Everybody Wraps Meat in Flatbread
by Aralyn Beaumont
The cement is hot and the street is bustling. I do my best to stay out of the way as I reach out to pay the vendor, a man of few words and lightning--quick hands, who presents me with a wrapped bundle. Peeling open the paper reveals lightly charred meat tumbling out of a disk of warm, soft flatbread. I take a bite and keep walking.
You might be picturing this scene in Kolkata, with the vendor slinging kati rolls. Or maybe your mind went immediately to the dry, hot streets of Jerusalem and lamb shawarma. It’s possible you imagined rou jia mo, the shredded-pork buns of Shaanxi Province in China. I could have been in my hometown of San Francisco, eating a carne asada taco. Any of these locations fit.
Wrapping meat in flatbread is a foundational practice of earth’s cuisine. There are kebabs and tacos, which have broken free of their geographic contexts and become ubiquitous, but also beef-stuffed blinis, Peking duck wrapped in thin flour pancakes, and rye flatkaka with smoked lamb at Christmastime in Iceland. Anywhere you travel on earth, you’ll find meat (or another staple protein) enveloped in starch, and people lining up for it.
It won’t always come as a prewrapped package. We humans also like large pieces of flatbread served alongside curries, stews, soups, and platters of barbecued meats. Few things are more satisfying than tearing off a hunk of bread and using it to scoop meat and sop up the juices. The phenomenon extends to vegetarian traditions, too, where meat may be swapped for legumes or protein-rich vegetables, but the breads remain.
Flatbreads can be baked, steamed, fried, or griddled. They vary in thickness from svelte crepe to puffy fry bread. They come in all shapes, shades, flavors, and sizes, and yet they all share the same essential role. Wherever there is grain, there is flatbread. It is usually a staple of the local citizenry, and someone has probably thought to wrap it around meat.
Certain flatbreads are omnipresent. Tacos can be found in nearly every city in America, whether at a taqueria, fast-food place, gas station, or fine-dining restaurant. Same with egg rolls. Kebabs feed drunk people everywhere. And where in the world has the convenient pita pocket not been exploited and filled?
The simple historical explanation for the ubiquity of meat wrapped in flatbread is that apart from stuffing meat directly into our mouths, wrapping it in a piece of bread is the most straightforward and cleanest way of eating with our hands.Most people have always eaten most meals without cutlery, which remains true today, explains food historian Bee Wilson. If you can create a dish that dispenses with the need for anything but fingers, you are winning.
Humans have used flatbread to transfer meat into their mouths for at least a thousand years. The earliest recorded instance dates back to the first century BCE, when Rabbi Hillel the Elder wrapped lamb and bitter vegetables (horseradish with romaine leaves or endive) in matzo during Passover. Hillel’s sandwich—still a tradition at Passover seders—grew from the prescription laid out in the book of Exodus instructing Jews to roast a sacrificed lamb and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs in remembrance of the Israelites who fled Egypt (They shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Exodus 12:8.) The herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, while the flatbread reflects the haste with which the Israelites had to flee Egypt, before the bread had time to rise. The sandwich derives its name, korech, from the Hebrew word karech, meaning to encircle or surround.
Hillel created the korech ritual based on the Passover rules enumerated in Exodus, but it’s probably safe to assume that he packaged all the components together because it was something he was already used to seeing. In other words, the meat-and-herb wrap is at least as old as Hillel, but, as Wilson points out in Sandwich: A Global History, in all likelihood, it was already being eaten in the Middle East before that.
While some of the lineage of flatbread-wrapped meat can be linked historically, what’s enlightening is that much of it happened concurrently and separately. It seems hardwired into our nature: if we see a piece of bread and a piece of meat, we want to swaddle the latter in the former and put the whole thing in our mouths.
People have been consuming meat for three million years, ever since our early human ancestors started tenderizing it by pounding it with a mallet-like tool and eating it raw—long before the mastery of fire or cooking. When exactly we gained control of fire is a hotly contested issue—estimates range from two million to five hundred thousand years ago—but both fire and flatbread are inventions that sprung up independently in isolated areas at different periods throughout early human history.
The same is true of flatbreads, which may be the oldest baked good, predating oceanic travel, imperial conquest, colonialism, and other developments that led to the exchange of goods like pasta, tomatoes, spices, chilies, and chocolate. In fact, flatbreads came before ovens. The first ones were baked on the surface of hot stones or along the concave interior of fire pits.
As a species, we humans find a way to make flatbread from whatever staple grain is around us: rye in Scandinavian crispbread; corn tortillas in Mexico and arepas in Venezuela; sorghum in Sudanese kisra; rice and lentils in Indian dosa. In Northern and Central Asia and parts of Africa, we bake wheat-based naan and sangak in tandoor ovens and use them to wrap up lamb. Farther north, where barley can withstand high altitudes and cold temperatures, we make fatir on upside-down woks. In Mali, millet-based ngome is topped with meat and vegetables; in Tunisia, semolina-based breads called khobz tabouna come out of tandoors.
Sometime between six thousand and three thousand years ago, teff became the staple crop of Ethiopia and was put to use in the spongy flatbread known as injera. Fermenting the teff batter generates air bubbles that burst and create hundreds of little craters in the finished bread. Once cooked, the injera is laid out like a tablecloth and topped with small servings of different mutton and vegetable stews and roasted cuts of beef called tibs. Anyone who’s been to an Ethiopian restaurant will likely be familiar with injera, often made from a batter with buckwheat or sorghum incorporated into the mix.
In South Asia, rice flour is fermented with lentils for Indian dosas, which serve as a vehicle for lentil or potato masalas as well as lamb and chicken. In Vietnam, bánh xèo is made from a batter of rice flour and coconut milk and folded like an omelet around pork, shrimp, herbs, and bean sprouts. Vietnam’s other flatbread, rice paper sheets known as bánh tráng, are steamed and used to wrap grilled pork, fish, meatballs, or skewered sausages like nem nuong.
Meanwhile, in Mesoamerica, the oldest grain is corn. People were using it to produce masa for tamale-like dishes thousands of years ago, but making a tortilla wasn’t possible until around 700 BCE, when the process of nixtamalization entered the picture. Historians remain unsure how Aztec cooks first devised the ingenious process of soaking corn in an alkali (mineral lime) solution to break down the kernels and thus allow them to cook faster, stay edible longer, and be more nutritious. But by 300 BCE, the tortilla was a prominent feature of Mesoamerican cuisine. In Oaxaca, farmers would wrap wild game in tortillas; elsewhere, the predominant filling was beans or squash. Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century would be the first to call them tortillas, which translates to little cake a rather reductive name, in retrospect, for one of the most important culinary inventions in history.
The Spanish planted large fields of wheat and introduced livestock to the New World, which would eventually lead to the emergence of carne asada, goat birria, and pork carnitas tacos. Al pastor has its roots in the shawarma of Lebanon, which immigrants from the Middle East brought to the Yucatán in the late nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire began to fall apart. Vertically spit-roasted meat gradually made its way to central Mexico, where the lamb was swapped for chili-marinated pork. The flour tortilla emerged in the sixteenth century, and was eaten almost exclusively by European colonists until the nineteenth century, when some Mexican communities in the north began adopting it.
Native Americans farther north had a less symbiotic culinary experience with colonizers. Before Europeans arrived, the cuisine was defined by hyperlocal crops. The Cocopa and Yuma of the American Southwest ground mesquite beans into meal for flatbreads. Residents in the Northwest made flour from bunchgrass, while people in the south grew corn for a tortilla-like flatbread.
But in the nineteenth century, as tribes like the Navajo were stripped of their land and forced to move to reserves in New Mexico, it became impossible to introduce or sustain crops in the landscape. The American government distributed rations of flour, sugar, lard, and canned food. From these limited provisions, Native Americans created fry bread: a doughy flatbread made from refined white flour and fried in lard. (Today, restaurants in New Mexico and Arizona serve fry breads topped with ground beef and cheese as ͞Navajo tacos.)
In multiple senses, flatbread is a food of necessity. It arose from limited resources. It persists because something in our nature compels us to eat it.
"Wrapping meat in flatbread is a foundational practice of earth’s cuisine."
An Excerpt from You and I Eat the Same
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