Water and bread only are two essential things that a human can survive on for a long time. Whereas fresh drinkable water remains the same everywhere (with slight differences, naturally), it is stunning how many variations bread can take on around the world. Moving conceptually across countries and continents, ingredients are added or subtracted and the most blatant one is perhaps yeast or other leavening agents.
Bread in the East – be it the Near and Middle East or South Asia – bases the alimentation (along with rice) prevalently on unleavened and flat bread, yet even the leavened ones are always flat.
My country has an extensive bread culture, especially in its liquid form. In fact, bread and beer in a pub will cost you more or less the same, and beer is considered more bread than most of its unleavened versions: “lokša” (which is a savoury potato pancake) or “langoš” (a fried batter served usually with garlic) would never be called bread. Bread to earn its name in the West is usually obliged to have a leavening component, although it is flat. And indeed, if you put an eye on European flatbread (pizza, flammkuchen, foccacia), in most cases you will be able to find yeast.
But, why is it that yeast appears more frequently in the Western culture, and failed to dominate the East?
The culture of bread began with the cultivation of grain in the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia some 10,000 years ago. People discovered that grain porridge can be fermented and made into fermented drinks (ancient beer), which preceded the discovery of leavening. A common method of leavening bread in Egypt was leaving dough for several days to sour. When and how the people discovered leavened bread is not known, but archeologists estimated the usage of yeast in ancient Egypt as early as 4000 BC. Both leavened and unleavened bread are also mentioned in the Old Testament and Torah. A leavened form of bread found its way from Egypt to Europe via ancient Greeks (trade relations) and Romans (when Egypt was under rule of the Roman Empire) who imported wheat and promoted its cultivation throughout the whole Roman Empire.
One thing needs to be said about wheat: it contains rich proteins which when combined with water form a complex protein called gluten – one of the factors that causes dough to rise. And voila, this is the reason it has become the preferred grain for bread making in so many cultures.
In Europe, people elaborated on the inherent nature of wheat, and applied the knowledge to other cereals common mostly in northern Europe – rye and barley. They discovered that rye and barley dough didn’t rise as intensely as wheat, so they had to come up with an additional mechanism called a sourdough starter to help the bread leaven. And once you discover leavened bread, and find it is airier and finer, you wouldn’t find it sensible to go back to heavy and hard digestible bread, would you?
Over the span of centuries, Europe developed thousands of variations of bread: different types of rye bread in Germany, Scandinavia, Baltic countries, Russia and Central Europe, grovbrød, or coarse bread in Norway, bannock, baps, plain bread and barra brith with raisins in Britain, zopf in Switzerland, baguette, ficelle and brioche in France, ciabatta and focaccia in Italy, barra and pan de Payes in Spain and many many others. But the bread superpower is Germany which boasts around 600 main types of bread: rye, rye-wheat, wheat-rye, whole-grain, multi-grain, white, toast bread, and they all have different names. Traditional unleavened flatbread is in such a disproportion to the leavened one that there is only a short list needed: pancakes or French crepes, Italian piadina, Polish podpłomyk, Swedish cracker, Norwegian lefse and flatbrød and sacramental bread in Roman Catholic belief.
In the Middle East much of the land is desert, and the staples are chickpeas and grains such as barley and wheat (burghul) which gave rise to pita bread, khubz or simply Arabic bread, which despite the use of a leavening agent is flat.
Although there is evidence of early wheat trade between Middle East and Asia via the Silk Road, it never really became a major staple food. The main staple of the peninsular south, southeast, east and northeast Asia and the Kashmir valley is rice. And this is perhaps the reason why there was not as much attention paid to the elaboration of bread as in Europe.
Although aside from unleavened bread such as chapati, dosa, paratha and puri in India, you are able to find the leavened naan, which was was brought by Muslims during their conquests across South Asia.
The only leavened bread in China is the mantou, traditionally eaten in Northern China where wheat is grown and influences of the nearby European-derived cultures are felt. The technology of other leavened types of bread which are found in Asia (for instance, Indonesian bread) was also brought in by European colonisers.
It is not the question of superiority vs. inferiority, it is all question of the staple innate to the region where factors like climate, geography, climate and history of trade development played its role.
After all, no matter if you call it rice or rascový chlieb (caraway seed bread), ciabatta, ржаной хлеб (rye bread), baguette, potato bread, паляница, Pumpernickel, farmer’s bread, bagel, lepinja, khobz, pita, lavash, roti, naan, chapati or tortilla, you always hope for the same: a full stomach. And yes, East is East, yeast is West, but at home it is the best.
Or is it?
Bread Baking: An Artisan’s Perspective By Daniel T. DiMuzio. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2010
The Cambridge World History of Food. Edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Omelas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000