Across centuries and cultures, the tradition of devouring meat wrapped in bread is a food experience shared. This extract from the MAD Dispatches series, edited by Chris Ying and Ren Redzepi, explores the origins of this humble street-food snack and how it connects us all.
The cement is hot and the street is bustling. I do my best to stay out of the way as I reach out to pay the vendor, a man of few words and lightning-quick hands, who presents me with a wrapped bundle. Peeling open the paper reveals lightly charred meat tumbling out of a disc of warm, soft flatbread. I take a bite and keep walking.
You might be picturing this scene in Kolkata, with the vendor slinging kati rolls. Or maybe your mind went immediately to the dry, hot streets of Jerusalem and lamb shawarma. It’s possible you imagined rou jia mo, the shredded-pork buns of Shaanxi province in China. I could have been in my hometown of San Francisco, eating a carne asada taco. Any of these locations fit.
Wrapping meat in flatbread is a foundational practice of earth’s cuisine. There are kebabs and tacos, which have broken free of their geographic contexts and become ubiquitous, but also beef-stuffed blinis, Peking duck wrapped in thin flour pancakes, and rye flatkaka with smoked lamb at Christmastime in Iceland. Anywhere you travel on earth, you’ll find meat (or another staple protein) enveloped in starch, and people lining up for it.
It won’t always come as a prewrapped package. We humans also like large pieces of flatbread served alongside curries, stews, soups and platters of barbecued meats. Few things are more satisfying than tearing off a hunk of bread and using it to scoop meat and sop up the juices. The phenomenon extends to vegetarian traditions, too, where meat may be swapped for legumes or protein-rich vegetables, but the breads remain.
Flatbreads can be baked, steamed, fried or griddled. They vary in thickness from svelte crêpe to puffy fry bread. They come in all shapes, shades, flavours and sizes, and yet they all share the same essential role. Wherever there is grain, there is flatbread. It is usually a staple of the local citizenry, and someone has probably thought to wrap it around meat.
Certain flatbreads are omnipresent. Spring rolls and naan can be found in every city in Australia. Kebabs feed drunk people everywhere. And where in the world has the convenient pita pocket not been exploited and filled?
The simple historical explanation for the ubiquity of meat wrapped in flatbread is that apart from stuffing meat directly into our mouths, wrapping it in a piece of bread is the most straightforward and cleanest way of eating with our hands. “Most people have always eaten most meals without cutlery, which remains true today,” explains food historian Bee Wilson. “If you can create a dish that dispenses with the need for anything but fingers, you are winning.”
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