Second to naan: a guide to the world's different types of flatbreads

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Second to naan: a guide to the world's different types of flatbreads


Second to naan: a guide to the world's different types of flatbreads


Throw a dart at a map of the world, and chances are you’ll hit a place known for a local take on the culinary wonder that is flatbread. Well, that is unless you hit an ocean, where conditions are far too soggy for the dough to set quite right. But here on dry land, there are plenty of regional variations for you to chew on.

Flatbreads can be leavened – in which yeast is added to the dough, and left to rise – or unleavened combinations of just flour, water and salt. It takes just those three simple ingredients to form a flatbread, which is likely why flatbreads predate even the agricultural revolution by thousands of years. In fact, an archeological dig in 2018 found crumbs from a flatbread in northeastern Jordan dating back 14,400 years. The recipe contained barley, einkorn wheat, oats and an ancient relative of the potato.

From arepas to tortillas, here’s how the world makes, bakes and best enjoys its flatbread.

Arepas | Colombia, Venezuela, Canary Islands

These thick cornmeal cakes – often made from a flour called masa – look a bit like English muffins, though they have a heavier weight, and a heartier mouthfeel. The maize patties can be boiled, baked or steamed, but the version found in many stateside restaurants is grilled atop an open flame or commercial kitchen flat top range. You can enjoy arepas all on their own (common throughout Colombia), but why would you ever want to when they are available sliced and stuffed with everything from shrimp to cheese.


Bing is something of a bread catchall term in China, where pizza and crepes are known as pisa bing and keli bing, respectively. Tortillas in China effortlessly win the name game though, where they go by the name Mexican thin bing. Bing are generally thin, versatile wheat flour rounds that play host to stuffings like Peking duck and hoisin sauce, or green onion and sesame oil.

Casabe | Caribbean, Brazil, Suriname, Guyana

Much of the caribbean world’s bread is consumed each day in the form of casabe, a flatbread formed from the pulpy paste of ground cassava root. Once the poison – yes, poison – is worked out of the plant, the dough is baked in thin, metal trays until it takes on the crisp consistency of a cracker. Though the casabe is cooked until it is hard and dry, a liquid is usually sprinkled atop each piece of bread prior to chowing down.

Frybread | USA, Trinidad & Tobago

Though various recipes can call for the addition of yogurt or mayonnaise, all you really need is flour, water, salt, and oil to whip a round of frybread up. In some traditional Native American households, frybread dough is made early in the mornings and then left to leaven throughout the day before being cooked with the evening meal. You can top frybread with just about anything that you would find in a taco, and many Midwestern state fairs also offer up powdered sugar-dusted takes on the classic.

Goraasa | Sudan

Another classic combination of flour, water and salt, goraasa is cooked atop special circular wok-like pans until thin patties are formed. Goraasa can be snacked upon all on its own, but it is frequently paired with dama, a dish comparable to beef chili, flavored with tomato paste, cinnamon and cardamom.

Injera | Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Israel

This thin sourdough flatbread has a gummy, spongy texture to it, owing to the teff flour used in its preparation. One side of the bread is perfectly flat, due to the seer of the griddle it is cooked upon, while the uncooked side remains porous. This gives enormous sheets of injera an almost honeycomb-like look. Rich stews and even salads are served atop this bread, which is then torn into pieces to pluck and scoop the hearty toppings.

KaakPakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon

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Kaak sometimes goes by the name Patthar ki roti, meaning “stone bread,” due to flat slabs of stone the dough is rolled atop before baking in a tandoor oven. In some families, the various steps of the breadmaking are performed by differing generations living under the same roof, with one person handing off the dough to the next along the way. Crispy Kaak is closely associated with sajji, a chicken or lamb dish marinated in papaya paste and stuffed with rice.

Lefse | Norway

The bread of Scandinavian winter holidays, lefse throws a monkey wrench into the classic flatbread recipe in the form of the potato. Modern variations of the bread can also be made with egg yolk or buttermilk as well. Thin, folded pieces of lefse were first popularized in the United States by Norwegian immigrants who packed their lunches with them each day at work. Today, lefse is in the midst of something of a multicultural mashup resurgence, and frequently plays substitute teacher for tortillas in dishes like tacos and enchiladas.

Naan | Iran, India

Literally Persian for “bread,” naan is thick, leavened flatbread cooked into oblong discs over a tandoor oven. The arresting texture is at once pillowy and chewy, and mild flavors are sometimes imparted into the dough with the addition of milk or yogurt. Frequent naan toppings include ghee, nigella seeds and even rose. Because of its unique and pleasant texture, naan is beginning to appear frequently in restaurants (and my home kitchen) as a base for pizzas.

Pita | Greece, Turkey, Middle East

By baking a basic dough at exceptionally high temperatures above 800 degrees fahrenheit, the water present is transformed rapidly into steam, which causes a pocket to form within each loaf of pita. It takes just a minute to cook pita, which can then be stuffed kebab-style with cured meats, or cut into tortilla chip-esque crackers for dipping into rich hummus.

Pizza | Italy

Who knew that flattened, leavened wheat flour dough topped with tomato sauce and cheese could turn out to be one of life’s purest delights? Well, pretty much anyone who has ever had a slice. Pizza dates back to a 10th century manuscript in the Italian town of Gaeta. Today, it’s likely the most popular food in all the world, with regional and cultural adaptations taking form in pretty much every country on the planet. Pizza is such a force unto itself and outright category of food all its own that it can be easy to forget that yes, it’s also a flatbread.

Roti | India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Africa

Made from stoneground wholemeal flour called atta, roti is a thin, malleable flatbread prominently featured in homes and restaurants alike across the Indian subcontinent. In a country as enormous and enormously populated as India, there are bound to be regional variants. As such, roti takes forms comparable to pita, tortillas or naan. Roti is stuffed with salads and meats to form wraps, or served alongside hearty stewed vegetables.

Tortilla |  Mexico

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If pizza is the breakout food category on our list of international flatbreads, then tortillas are certainly the most popular mealtime component in endless dishes across Latin American and the rest of the world. Mexican tortillas are thin, unleavened flatbreads made from either corn (throughout most of the country) or wheat flour (in the north). First made by Mesoamericans, contact with colonial Europeans led to the spread of the flatbread across the entire world. Owing to their flexibility, tortillas are incredibly versatile, and take many forms in Mexican cuisine.


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