This leavened bread is as ancient as the Sumerian civilization itself, and the way it is prepared and baked now has undergone little change. As they say in the United States, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Up until recently, bread was leavened with a piece of dough, called shunga, which worked as a starter. It was usually kept in a covered container to be used for the following day’s baking by incorporating it into the new batch.
The components of the bread are quite basic: wheat flour, salt, starter (yeast), and plain water (mei), which throws light on its name, khubuz mei (water bread).
Al-Warraq’s tenth-century cookbook provides a detailed recipe for making it. He gives it two names: khubz al-ma’ and khubz Nabati, i.e. bread of the indigenous Iraqis, which is a testament to its local roots (more information about the Nabateans).
Compared with commercially bought khubuz mei, the home-made variety is denser in texture and a little darker in hue because it is made mostly with wholewheat/wholemeal flour. Unfortunately, up until recently, this was not considered a virtue in bread. Home-made khubuz can also be bought from privately run ‘bakeries,’ usually the home of a needy woman, often a widow, who sells bread to support her family. She is called khabbaza.
The dough for this bread should be soft and somewhat wet, so that when it is flattened and slapped onto the inner wall of the hot tannour, it will generate humidity, which, in turn, will cause the face of the khubuz to develop attractive bubbles, characteristic of this variety of bread.
I had never used the clay oven tannour, nor had I ever tried to make khubz il-tannour myself, that is, until I came with my family to the United States. It was nowhere to be found, and we missed it a lot. So, driven by necessity, I started experimenting in my small kitchen, with helpful hints from a friend. The major problem was how to prevent it from sticking to the pan, because no oil is used in making or handling the dough, just pure water. Another problem was how to flatten the dough. My first attempts to emulate the way of the masters by flipping the dough from hand to hand to enlarge the disc were a disaster. Most of the flattened discs ended up falling on the floor, or acquired pathetically funny shapes. Sprinkling the surface of the pan with flour before flattening the dough on it did not work either. The flour burnt, and triggered the smoke detector. Semolina flour helped a little but was too messy. At last, and in an epiphanic moment, the idea came to me – use parchment paper! Ever since, baking khubz il-tannour in the convenience of my kitchen has become just a breeze.
One last note, I have experimented with paper other than parchment, such as wax paper, aluminum foil, and brown paper, but results were not satisfactory. Besides, parchment paper is reusable until it becomes brittle.