The Arab-middle east-North Africa region, even the Mediterranean, have much that can be thought of as a common food heritage with the Indian subcontinent. The use of spices such as cumin, peppercorns, nutmeg, and bayleaf provide for the linking aromas, and the prominence of lentils and beans as a major ingredient in everyday food also speaks of a shared history. I find the similarities even more striking with North Indian food.
It is a cuisine for which the Indian palate needs no gradual tuning. We can embrace it in a bear hug the very first time we meet.
Besides the similarity in the use of spices, lentils and beans, as also vegetables, I find the plentiful use of yoghurt and the variety in flatbreads another reason for its easy adaptability to the Indian meal time. Even when meat is part of the meal, it is never the meal itself, and will always be served with some bread akin to out roti/parantha, and maybe a small bowl of dahi, the kind that has become better known as Greek-style yoghurt.
I remember when I lived in the Netherlands for a short while: how I disliked that slime that came out of the cartons in the name of yoghurt. When I found ‘standing-yoghurt’ in Antwerp, I just wanted to save some for culture…to make proper dahi in Rotterdam! The carton slime was good only for lassi; you couldn’t even hang it! So no shrikhand, and no yoghurt cheese.
From my college days I have been making chakka or yoghurt cheese as a healthy spread for my sandwiches. Remember I date from pre-cheese spread days? (yes, yes…old.. older whatever ) All we had was Amul butter and Amul cheese. And all those cookbooks I had would make me drool over the deli meats and cheeses…and I learned to be resourceful. A tip from my Mom and I was set. She told me about chakka. And I saw the spread of my dreams. I would add a pinch of salt, pepper, and mustard to the chakka, and sometimes chopped bell peppers and shredded cabbage to make a sandwich that intrigued all those who got a taste. Now that there is this wider choice, I still stick with Amul butter and Amul cheese.
Had there been Internet then, I would have found out that the Lebanese too have a tradition of using chakka with their pita! I had posted a recipe earlier using yoghurt cheese with sun-dried tomatoes where it substitutes perfectly for cream cheese. This labneh, as yoghurt cheese is known in Lebanon (from laban, the Lebanese word for yoghurt), is made with 3% medium-fat milk that I use everyday for all things in need of milk – dahi, tea, coffee, or on the rocks.
Labneh is simplicity itself. I had never before tried olive oil with it. Simply superlative and hardly any work. After rediscovering it this week, I and TH have decided we should make it every week and forget about butter altogether. You can slather it on and be happy in the fact that it is not butter, and yet a delicious spread. No preservative, just a little salt, and a happy drizzle of olive oil. With home-made whole-wheat fat-free Pita. Even Nandita will approve!
(Makes a little over a cup)
3 C yoghurt made with 3% milk (you can go creamier if you like)
extra virgin olive oil
Tie the yoghurt in muslin and let it hang for 5-6 hours to remove the whey. I usually use my draining rack (over the sink) for this, with a vessel below to catch the whey. In the peak of summer, I do this process inside the fridge – it gets super hot in Delhi and the yoghurt cheese would be sour by the time it was ready.
The longer you hang the thicker the resulting cheese.
Untie the muslin and tip the cheese into your serving bowl. Mix in salt to taste, but be generous. Be liberal with the drizzle of the olive oil as well.
Done! Serve with Pita wedges or crackers. For variation you can mix in some finely chopped mint, or garlic. But the first time, try it plain.
Note: Do not throw away the whey. It makes a great base for clear vegetable soup! You could also add it to kadhi, of course.
2 C atta (whole wheat flour)
2 C maida (all purpose flour)
1 t sugar
1 t active dry yeast
½ C + 1C warm water
1 ½ t salt
Dissolve the sugar and yeast in half a cup of warm water. Let it sit covered for 10 min till it gets frothy. Sift the flours and add the salt. Pour in the yeast mixture and knead to a smooth dough using additional warm water. The dough should be soft and very pliable but not sticky. Knead for 10 minutes. Smear some oil on your fingers and pat the dough with it. Cover and leave to double in size; 3-4 hrs. Traditionally, this is not a very yeasty bread; note the small amount of yeast used. Give it time to rise.
Punch down, make a long rope and pinch off, making 12-14 balls. Let the balls rest for 20 min. Preheat oven to 500 degrees (or Gas Mark 9) with the baking sheet on the lowest shelf. Employing a roll, turn, roll action, make 5-6” diameter pitas, about 1/8 inch thick, dusting with flour as needed. This is no different from making regular rotis. Lift onto your hand and slap on the baking sheet. Let cook till puffed up, about 2-3 min. Flip them over and cook an additional 30 seconds.
Pita can also be cooked stove top, as you would roti. A heavy cast iron pan works very well. Heat a cast iron pan, and pat on the pita. Flip it over when it has bubbled. Let cook on the other side for a min or so. Now pick it up with a pair of tongs, flip it over the flame and cook till puffed and spotted with brown flecks. No different from your roti process!
Use it to make Pita pocket sandwiches, or cut into wedges to serve with Labneh, hummus, or baba ghanouj!! The easy and perfect bread for your Arabian spread.
Over to Meeta’s for her Monthly Mingle…