What you need to know about the most important pan dulce.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2015.
Aish baladi, like the Nile, is a source of life. The handmade bread is an Egyptian staple, which at one point existed in 82 varieties. In Cairo, its ubiquity is made possible by the network of agalati—bread carriers—who deliver the bread to the restaurants, ful (fava bean) carts, and street stands of the metropolis. The coarseness of the bran and wheat turns the bread into a magnet for dust and the city’s airborne toxic elements, but that doesn’t stop anyone from eating it. The art of the agalati is in carrying large trays of bread on their heads as they maneuver through the manic streets of Cairo on a bicycle, like lunatics sailing into the tempest on arowboat.
At Regala, a Downtown Cairo bakery illuminated only by a few fluorescent bulbs and the flame of the oven, the floor is covered in bran, which is almost indistinguishable from sawdust. Some of the eight men who work there choose to work barefoot, teasing each other and only turning to me once they have mustered the boldness brought on by their camaraderie. Others, like Mahmoud, try to follow the conversation over the shaabi music blasting from their headphones.
Inside the bakery, the dough is tended to with delicacy, but with the swiftness of a fast food joint. Regala bakery produces 24,000 loaves a day, equivalent to 1.5 tons of flour. Ali, a 24-year-old man who holds a technical degree, dreams of quitting the job. His long eyelashes are fringed with flour, as if he himself had recently come out of the oven. “I don’t like standing all the time and taking no breaks,” he complains, as one of the guys prostrates next to him for a rushed, two-minute prayer.
“The subsidized bread is not enough for everyone,” says Ahmed, the owner of Regala. Egypt is the world’s biggest consumer of bread and importer of wheat, with Cairo spending $3 billion a year on imports. The government’s costly subsidy system has been in place since the 1960s to keep bread prices low. Today, a loaf of subsidized aish baladi is 5 piastres (less than one US cent) and reaches roughly 50 million Egyptians. Recently, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi implemented a smart card system to hold bakeries accountable and eliminate graft at the ground level.
Cheap bread is considered a human right for more than 80 million Egyptians. “Bread, freedom, and justice” has been both a rallying cry and the yeast fermenting social unrest in Egypt for the last half a century—from President Anwar Sadat’s attempt to lift the bread subsidies in 1977, to the inflation of food prices in 2007 to 2008 and the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. If people can’t have their bread, they take to the streets.
In Egypt, aish is the word for bread, but it is also the word for life. When Egyptians are under stress, people say akl el aish murr—”eating bread is bitter”—a proverb that more accurately tries to say: Unemployment is high, economic opportunities are scarce, corruption is ripe, marriage and food are expensive, traffic is unbearable, etc. But Egyptians are not ones to complain.
For Ahmed, who sells bread at market price, bread tastes bitter. “I make about 10 percent profit,” he says about his bakery. “The price of gas and flour are too expensive.” A subsidized, 50-kilogram sack of flour costs eight Egyptian pounds, but 162 pounds for Ahmed. A tank of gas—taller than Ahmed’s youngest worker, 13-year-old Mustafa—is between 80 and 90 pounds.
At 7 PM, the men are swarmed with work. The time is just after the Maghreb prayer, and the demand for bread is running high with many Cairenes hunting for dinner. Customers materialize in front of the bakery, extending one pound and leaving shortly after with four loaves of bread. A taxi driver parks in front, pays 25 piasters and sets off with his loaf; the engine never stopped running.
“You are riding in a sea of death,” said 22-year-old Mahmoud, one of the agalati responsible for satisfying Cairo’s vital bread demand. The bread delivery boys transport the loaves through the city’s infamous traffic, mass of pedestrians, and narrow back-streets of downtown Cairo on trays up to 2.5 meters long and weighing between 30 to 35 kilos. They do so by balancing the trays on their heads, with one arm stabilizing the tray and the other maneuvering the bicycle.
The job of the agalati is extensive and crucial. Without them, bread would not be available on every corner and forsaken fast-food stand. The men must fight to keep their balance and hold their ground among the sea of vehicles. “There is no respect from the cars,” says Ahmed, who at 39 still does bread deliveries. The risk of the agalati never reaching his destination is always present, but death is the least of his worries. Ahmed is confident that drivers try to be careful “because they know the bread is all we have,” he said with a tinge of complacency.
“We learn how to bike by watching others,” explained Ahmed, an approach that applies to every worker at the bakery regardless of his task. “It’s up to your eyes and your mind,” he said.
Ultimately, bread deliveries are a daring game of dexterity. When asked how long it takes to gain the skills of the agalati, Ahmed shot the question back at me with disdain: “Well, how long do you think it takes?” The agalati’s journey to the double-decker, 30-kilo tray is gradual. It may take a lanky Egyptian teen up to a year to reach such mastery—and countless falls, after which he brushes the dust off the bread and places it back on his tray.
The agalati have specific routes and average between 50 to 80 bread deliveries a day. The journeys can take anywhere between ten to 30 minutes, back to back. “Carrying the bread is painful,” said Ahmed, pointing to the back of a worker named Ramadan to illustrate the pain that travels down to the middle of his spine. But someone has to do it.
For Ahmed and the agalati, little has changed since the Revolution. “People who steal still steal. People who take bribes still take bribes. Everything is still the same,” said Ahmed.
“Bread is still the basis of Egyptian life,” he continued. “Even when you don’t have money, you eat bread.”
Toasted bread + herby sauce + vegetables of all sorts + cheese + egg topper.
“With a little bit of practice, you can have a delicious gut bomb made from scratch in about an hour.”
So says Florian Pinel, who gave us this recipe for the Georgian (the country, not the state) cheese bread known as khachapuri.
You think you know a thing or two about a fresh-baked crust filled with gooey mozzarella, right? Surely we must be talking about (what seems like) the most beloved food on Earth: pizza.
But imagine something a little fluffier, a little more buttery, with soft hunks of warm feta mixed into its cheesy interior and perhaps even a baked egg as a crown. Suppose that it came not from Italy, but from Georgia, the nation nestled on the border of Europe and Asia.
Intrigued yet? This is your new favorite snack: . And sure, it bears a passing resemblance to other cheesy breads you’ve favorited on Pinterest, but it’s also an edible phenomenon all its own.
Its crust is leavened to doughy perfection, and its shape is often more football-ish than round. And while we have nothing but mad love for pizza, a staggering 88 percent of Georgians would rather chow down on their beloved khachapuri. For good reason, we might add—it’s delicious.
On top of making your house smell like the cheese ward of carb heaven, this recipe is straightforward and simple with great rewards. Make a simple dough of flour, egg, yogurt, salt, and butter, let it rise, then stuff it with the double-whammy mozzarella-feta mixture. Bake it with an egg on top if you wish, for a little extra richness.
So skip the pizza tonight and make this instead. Your midnight dollar slice will still be there for you tomorrow.
When properly stacked with carefully selected ingredients, there is no food on earth greater than a sandwich. It’s versatile, it’s substantial, and—if you’ve done your job right—it’s perfectly balanced. Thanks for inventing the perfect food, Earl of Sandwich.
But a sandwich is only as good as the bread it’s served on, so don’t ruin the cured meats and roasted peppers you just picked up from the specialty shop down the street by putting them on a mediocre country loaf from the grocery store. Even if you’re just using standard cold cuts from the Foodtown deli counter, great bread can mask uninspired ingredients.
And bread doesn’t get much better than this focaccia.
It’s chewy, crunchy, and—considering you’re basically frying it in olive oil—damn near impossible to fuck up.
The sandwich may have been invented by the Earl of Sandwich (OK, fine. Nobody believes that ridiculous story, but we can pretend) in England, but it was perfected by the Italians when they made focaccia.
NPR’s The Salt
“Breads baked at the Elmore Mountain Bread use freshly stone milled flour. Blair Marvin/Courtesy of Elmore Mountain Bread Nestled among rolling hills and grazing cows, Elmore Mountain Bread in central Vermont is quintessentially pastoral. The setting is apropos, given the owners’ recent decision to start grinding their own flour by stone — a veritable step back in time. Blair Marvin, who co-owns the bakery and mill with her husband, Andrew Heyn, says the motivation to build the mill came from a fellow baker in North Carolina, who sent them a surprise shipment of his own freshly milled flour about four years ago. Typically, flour has an almost dusty odor, but this flour smelled earthy, Marvin recalls. “We were like, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa!'” The couple had been…”
Bread Grains: The Last Frontier In The Locavore Movement
“We are thrilled to invite you to join the 92nd Street Y Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, now in its third year! Organic produce for the 92nd Street Y CSA is grown locally at Stoneledge Farm in the foothills of the Northern Catskills.
All of the vegetables and herbs produced on the farm are Certified Organic by NOFA-NY Certified Organic, LLC. The CSA will begin June 13, 2011 and run through Nov 14, 2011. Pick up will take place from 4:30-6:30pm. If a holiday falls on a Monday, pick up will be on Tuesday.
Only full shares are available; if you would like to do a half share please coordinate that on your own, or email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our best to pair you with another member. When registering please note that you can sign up for organic vegetables for $515 or organic vegetables and fruit for $740. Fruit shares are not available without a vegetable share and are available 20 of the 24 week season.
Additional options are available for coffee, maple syrup, honey, beans, grains, fresh ground flour, eggs, and bread.”
“The Bay Ridge CSA is a partnership between community members of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and our farms: Hearty Roots (vegetables), Pistil Farm (flowers) and Muddy Farm (eggs) in Red Hook, NY, Montogomery Place Orchards (fruit) in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, and Lewis Waite Farm (meat, poultry, bread, dairy, jam/honey, etc) in Greenwich, NY. We are proud to announce its third year of bringing farm-fresh, pesticide free, locally grown, affordable food directly to the Bay Ridge community.”
“Hot Bread Kitchen is more than a bakery. It’s a non-profit 501c3 social enterprise that enhances the future for immigrant women and preserves baking traditions. For your munching pleasure, we offer fresh breads baked with traditional recipes from around the world. We make it a priority to use local and organic ingredients.
Hot Bread Kitchen also honors the culinary traditions of peoples from all over the world. Preservation of diverse techniques and ingredients is crucial in the face of corporate globalization that tends to homogenize diversity. (Did you know, for example, that Maseca, a processed corn flour is now used widely in both tortillas in Central American and West African starches like kenkey? Its too bad, but no one is grinding corn anymore.)”
“The Carnegie Hill CSA project started in 1997 as a direct partnership between a community that wanted local, organic produce and a family farm looking to use sustainable land management to build a sustainable business. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a direct relationship between consumers and producers based on a mutual sharing of risks and benefits.
When our group started in 1997, it was far from clear if this model would ultimately succeed. As the years have passed, the group has grown considerably because of greater public awareness of food safety and quality issues. Understanding the source of food, its true cost and the sustainability of the production and delivery models have become increasingly important. And demand has grown enough to support additional sites in the neighborhood.
Today Stoneledge Farm delivers produce to several hundred member families in Manhattan, the Bronx, Westchester and Greene counties. The Carnegie Hill/Yorkville CSA groups have also developed relationships with local producers of meat, poultry, cheese, bread, flowers and more.”