Arabic Bread and Family Reunions

by Sarah on May 31, 2009


In Osnat’s eyes I am a righteous person because I inadvertently came to visit her when she was sitting shiva for her father (for Jews, these are the seven days after the death of a loved one and a time when visitors come to give condolences). By a misunderstanding she believed that my grandmother, who has difficulty traveling, sent me in her place and now Osnat thinks that my grandmother is an angel. Here’s the dilemma, my grandmother is an angel, she truly is and I don’t want to blemish Osnat’s high opinion of her by telling her the truth, it’s just too bad that she thinks I am so great, I feel a bit sheepish about it.

My grandparents and Osnat’s parents came from the same town of Ajur but when my mother was still a young girl they moved to Jaffa along with many others in the village. Osnat’s childhood friend, Ziva also left the village with her family, and even though this country is so small circumstance has separated them until now.  Osnat is a funny, no nonsense and energetic women and we quickly became friends. Although I knew nothing about her when we first met, she remembered my grandparents, mother and aunts when they lived together in the village and Osnat was intent on getting back in touch with them.   She called my grandmother and after inquiring about her health she asked if she knew what happened to Ziva. Indeed, my grandmother had Ziva’s number and plans were arranged, postponed and rescheduled until we finally met in Yaffo, at my grandmother’s house several months later. By then my mother happened to be in Israel visiting from New York and decided to visit Agur a few days before the reunion in Yaffo. They had not met for forty-five years.

Although my grandmother is old and arthritic she made lunch for the entire group, including fresh Kurdish bread called Zatiya. I stood by her while she was making it and like everything that requires decades of experience it looked extremely easy to make so I decided that to try my hands at it the very next day.

In the ancient times bread was made in a clay oven called tannour or taboon, a technique which is still being used today. In ancient Mesopotamia  it was known as tanuru  which is the origin of the word tannour,  the modern word for oven in both Hebrew and Arabic.  In India it is also known as a tandoor oven. The clay walls of the tannour absorb the heat from the fire built at its base.  When the walls are evenly heated, the bread dough is shaped into a flat round disc and stuck or slapped to the inner wall until it is fully baked. The idea in tannour cooking is to take advantage of the humidity that the dough releases while baking by covering the top opening and trapping the moisture within the oven, thereby creating perfect baking conditions.  The clay tannour developed from the more primitive oven pit dug into the ground which evolved into the above ground ovens. Slow Food Beirut gives an interesting overview of the subject.

 The bread my grandmother was making must have at one time been made in a tannour but now she uses a convenient contraption to emulate the intense heat of this ancient oven. It consists of simple aluminum pot with an electric heating coil on the lid allowing both the top and bottom of the pot to be heated.  It is also used by the Yemenite to make their flat bread called saloof and can be bought very cheaply at the shuk, such as the Lod/Ramla shuk.

Another improvisation, which I learned from my last trip to Jordan, is to build a tannour using a huge concrete sewage pipe. The question is where am I going to get only one segment of an industrial sized sewage pipe and if I do what will my neighbors think about it decorating my backyard? Ever since I have been told of the great baking potential of sewage pipes I have been spotting them all over the place and I now I am trying to persuade my husband to accomplice me on a sewage pipe swipe. I don’t think anyone will notice if one disappears. …but still I can just see the headlines “Women trying to steal sewage pipe from construction site, insists that she only wanted some fresh bread.”

In Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden, she gives a fascinating overview of the various types of breads made in the Middle East from the times of the Mesopotamians until today. She writes that according to archaeological findings the Mesopotamians made more than 300 types of bread, from both wheat and barley flours and either leavened or unleavened. She differentiates the various Arab flat breads into the indigenous Iraqi bread and the better known pita bread.

Khubz al-tannour (As you might have guessed khubz means bread in Arabic) originated in Babylonia, in what is now Iraq and is popular throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. This type of bread, usually made with only flour, yeast, salt and water, is flat and bubbly but does not acquire the single pouch found in pita. When the final shape of the dough is obtained it is poked in several places, either by hand or a special tool which presses into the dough. This keeps the dough from rising in one pocket. Here is a baker in Karak, Jordan who uses a more modern oven but the bread is style the same.

Khubz lubnani (also called Suri or Arabi) is better known as pita bread and is made much like tannour bread but the final dough is not poked. Here is a modern pita machine in Petra, Jordan.

Khubuz saj is a very flat bread made on a saj (looks like an upside down wok) which is heated from below.

Kurdish Flat Bread


My grandmother never throws away bread and often incorporates it into her dough. This gives the bread an interesting texture and more flavor. For richer bread, milk can replace all or part of the water. This bread resembles the tannour bread but includes oil in the dough so it is more tender.

1/4 cup vegetable oil (I used olive oil)

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons dry yeast

4 cups flour

2 slices of bread (crumbled, soaked in water or milk and squeezed dry)

1 1/4 cups water  

1 egg, to use as egg wash, dilute with a bit of water

Sesame seeds

Mix all the dry ingredients together and gradually add the water kneading to form a soft and pliable dough.  Very hydrated bread can be used but it is harder to work with.

Place the dough in a bowl, cover and put in a warm location until it doubles in volume. Take golf sized pieces of dough and using your hands stretch the dough to form a flat disc. Using your fingertips poke the top of the bread all over, brush with egg wash and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. Let rise for about 10 minutes.

Place the pot over low heat and plug in the lid, closing the pot with it. Wait a few minutes until the pot heats up. Place the shaped dough carefully on the bottom of the pot and close the lid.  It should be ready in about 1-3 minute when it becomes nicely browned. When the dough is ready it can be rubbed with samneh (clarified butter).

Warning, do not walk off while the bread is being baked because this pot generates an enormous amount of heat and it can and did burst into flames. The house filled with billowing clouds of acrid smoke and left me with a black disc which looked a lot like an Olympian discus, and probably as hard.

I was pretty happy with the result of the bread (aside from the burnt first one, of course). The pot is a bit larger than what my grandmother has and heats to a higher temperature

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Susana June 1, 2009 at 6:14 am

‘it can and did burst into flames’ I love how descriptive your truth is! Thanks for sharing your recipe!!


Grace @ Sandier Pastures June 3, 2009 at 1:07 am

Khubuz bread is one of the fine reasons I am happy to be living in the Middle East!!


MyLastBite June 13, 2009 at 10:57 am

“Women trying to steal sewage pipe from construction site, insists that she only wanted some fresh bread.”

Now that is true food obsession (and I LOVE IT!)


Carol Kinslow October 14, 2011 at 8:48 pm

I was wondering where I could purchase a pot like the one you have shown here. Do you use the heat from the stove top or just the burner cover? Does this aluminum pot with an electric heating coil have a name?
Thanks for any information.


Sarah October 18, 2011 at 11:51 am

I have seen the pots in outdoor markets in Ramle and Akko, but probably anywhere there is a sizable Arab population.


Naor June 13, 2013 at 2:38 am

You can get them on eBay – Authentic middle eastern electric oven baker “TASA” Pita bread.

And on youtube.


Jonell Galloway November 19, 2011 at 8:24 am

I always learn fascinating things on your site. Thanks so much for sharing!


Noor April 30, 2012 at 6:36 am

I have never saw or heard of those pots nor ever saw one at our souqs what do you think could be used to replace it?


Sarah April 30, 2012 at 6:41 am

Hi Noor, I think the pots replicate the high heat of a tabun oven. A regular oven can be used as well.


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