Chef's Blog

July 29, 2019

Street Foods: The Flatbread Connection

from Chef Logan McCoy

Virtually every culture in the world has a street food tradition, and almost every cuisine has its version of flatbread. Put these two ideas together and you get a platform for adding global flavors and on-trend handheld menu items, with street-worthy snacks and sandwiches.

Think about it: There’s the Latin quesadilla, a grilled flour tortilla with a simple topping of melty cheese and a few other ingredients that can be picked up and eaten out of hand. The piadina, a thin Italian flatbread that at its simplest is filled with melty cheese, tomato, and basil, folded up to eat. The Middle Eastern pita and lavash, Indian naan and paratha, Ethiopian injera, Chinese bing, Indonesian roti, Venezuelan arepa, Filipino piaya, North American johnnycake…the list of flatbread carriers goes on.

Add a protein or another substantial topping (such as grilled vegetables), cheese, a sauce or spread—it’s almost a mix-and-match proposition. And it’s certainly an excellent way to cross-utilize ingredients and basic preps, including not only the bread itself, but also braised or roasted meats, vegetables, salsa, condiments, and more.

Flatbreads are neutral, versatile carriers that work with a wide variety of flavor profiles and culinary references. A meat like pork can be turned into any number of high-value toppings or fillings, such as carnitas, porchetta, vindaloo, or adobo. Cheese can bring another global touch, whether it’s tangy feta, creamy mozzarella, or salty-sharp cotija. Pesto, tzatziki, hoisin, and guacamole are all sauces that are traditionally used in street food recipes. The beauty part is that every one of these ingredients can also be used elsewhere on the menu, along with garnishes like lettuce or shredded cabbage, quick pickled onions, and fresh herbs.

In addition to the quesadilla and piada mentioned above, below are some flatbread-based global street foods that can be easily “brought indoors” to add excitement to mainstream menus. Or, mix it up a little with cross-cultural elements to make a signature street food-inspired mashup.

  • Shawarma – Based on the döner kebab of Ottoman Turkey, this Middle Eastern meat dish was originally made of marinated, spiced lamb or mutton, but may also be chicken, turkey, beef, or veal, cut in thin slices and stacked in a cone-like shape on a vertical rotisserie. Thin slices are shaved off the cooked surface as it continuously rotates, and commonly served on a flatbread such as pita or laffa
  • Gyro – The Greek version of döner kebab is made with pork, chicken, or a mixture of beef and lamb and is usually served wrapped or stuffed in a flatbread such as pita, with tomato, onion, tzatziki sauce, and sometimes French fries
  • Falafel – This vegetarian Middle Eastern street sandwich is made of crisply fried balls of mashed seasoned chickpeas or fava beans, stuffed into pita along with tahini sauce and fresh or pickled vegetables
  • Pork Belly Bao – Popularized by David Chang of Momofuku fame, this popular Chinese/Taiwanese snack consists of a pillowy steamed bun, cut open and filled with roasted pork belly, pickled mustard greens, ground peanuts, and cilantro
  • Roti John – An omelet sandwich from Malaysia, consisting of beaten eggs and minced meat and onions, cooked with a flatbread submerged into it like a savory version of French toast. It is often served with mayonnaise, ketchup, and chili sauce to balance out the richness of the eggs
  • Sabich – Beloved in Isreal, this vegetarian street food specialty traditionally features a soft pita stuffed with crisp slices of fried eggplant, crunchy pickles, hummus, tahini, cucumber and tomato salad, hard-boiled egg, and the pickled mango sauce known as amba
  • Xi’an Spicy Lamb – A fusion of Chinese and Middle Eastern flavors that traces its origins back to the Silk Road and the introduction of Spice Islands flavors into China, the rou jia mo (“meat folder”) is made with lamb robustly seasoned with cumin, chili, peppers, and green onion, served on a traditional Chinese flatbread
  • Cevapcici – This Balkan flatbread sandwich is stuffed with charcoal-grilled skinless sausage made of spiced minced meat (usually beef, veal, or lamb), along with onions, kajmak (a cheese spread made with sour cream, cream cheese, and feta), and ajvar (red pepper sauce)
  • Bake and Shark – In Trinidad this popular beach snack consists of a puffy, hollow flatbread stuffed with filleted shark meat (usually blacktip) seasoned with salt, pepper, and green seasoning, breaded, and pan-fried. Condiments can include—but are not limited to—garlic sauce, hot pepper sauce, and coleslaw

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