Tour of Ethnic Flatbreads Takes Cooks Beyond Pita and Pizza

ALONGSIDE a road in Turkmenistan on a drizzly November day, a young woman concentrates on heating her tandoor oven. She slaps the bread dough, made by her mother-in-law, against the oven's inner walls. Instead of creating a perfect pastry, though, the oven is not hot enough; the bread is ruined. ''The mother-in-law pursed her lips. The daughter-in-law bowed her head, hiding tears.''

This snapshot of life in Central Asia is one of many touching anecdotes - some of which have even less to do with baking - sprinkled throughout Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's ''Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker's Atlas'' (William Morrow and Company, 441 pp., $30).

More than a cookbook, this combination travelogue, photo journal, and cultural study uses flatbread as its compass in journeys from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Tafraoute, Morocco.

Flatbreads are the world's oldest breads. They vary widely, and they flourish in societies with an abundance of grains, but can be made from potatoes, chickpeas, and lentils as well. Some flatbreads are paper thin, others can be 2-inches thick. They can be fried, grilled, oven-baked, or ''even as in southern Algeria and Tunisia, baked beneath the hot desert sand,'' write the authors, who are also husband and wife.

Some of the most familiar flatbreads are pizza, pita, tortilla, focaccia, matzoh, and lavash. But the authors don't stop with those varieties. They also introduce readers to the pleasures of such exotic breads as piki (indigenous to Hopi Mesa, Ariz., and made with blue cornmeal, water, and ash), Ohrarieska (Finnish barley bread), and ka'kat (sweet-bread rings from the eastern Mediterranean region).

The culmination of almost 10 years of travel, notetaking, and writing, their book is a delight. It offers detailed advice on choosing the best flour, bread bowl, and even water for making flatbreads, as well as maps of the places in which the breads originated and short explainers of each region introduced.

The personal stories, remembrances, and cataloging of ethnic traditions come as a pleasant surprise, tucked between recipes for flatbreads and for those dishes and sauces they suggest as accompaniments.

''The photos and stories are terribly important,'' Duguid says. ''It affects ... the taste in the food. For us, these foods have wonderful flavors because of association. Our readers have to be given handles for this.''

Many flatbreads are quite simple. The authors suggest starting with pita, the most famous variety.

For their ease of preparation and quick cooking time, flatbreads are especially attractive to home cooks today, says Stan Frankenthaler, owner of Salamander restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. ''The satisfaction comes sooner,'' he says.

BAKED goods of all kinds have enjoyed a resurgence, Mr. Frankenthaler says. Bakeries are cropping up in cities and villages and staying busier than ever, he says, explaining, ''As there's more availability, it creates more interest, and there's more variety.''

Alford and Duguid provide recipes from every corner of the globe and for every meal. Serve Three-Color Focaccia from Puglia, Italy, as an appetizer, or Sri Lankan Coconut Bread for breakfast. Sweet bread offerings include Apricot and Almond Bread from Hunza Valley, Pakistan, while recipes for spicy breads, such as Hot Chile Bread from Syria, also abound.

The book is dominated by images and tastes from the developing world, from Tibetan Barley Skillet Bread to Beijing Pancakes to Blue Corn Tortillas.

''Breads are the most important where people have the least choice,'' Duguid explains. In Central Asia, she once asked a man in a village how much bread he ate each day. ''He said, 'One person, one day? One kilo.' That's over two pounds of bread a day,'' she says.

''People are really back to the essentials,'' Duguid says of those in developing countries. ''They have an appreciation for their daily food. They know where it comes from. Most of us don't have that intimate connection to food...''

Duguid says she and her husband, who met ''in the dark on the roof of a small hotel in Lhasa, Tibet,'' and have been traveling, writing, and cooking together ever since, plan to stick with the basics. Their next project: a similar book on rice.

''Things can just be plain and good,'' Duguid says of elemental food. ''They don't have to be complex to be good.''

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