I felt like I had almost died riding that camel. I was hot and tired and feeling like an outsider in my black t-shirt and blue jeans, feeling like it was a miracle just to be alive under the setting desert sun.
Sufficiently cheesy Hebrew disco blared shakily from an invisible stereo while the weathered Bedouin man dug his bare forearm into a plastic bucket of water and flour, stretching and pulling the simple mixture into a uniform blob which quickly bound itself around his wrist. Over a crackling fire, he stretched the mass of dough to fit his dome-shaped pan, sipping herbal tea from a small mug grasped in his large, sticky fist until the bread bubbled and crisped and flipped off the pan with just a little sleight of hand. Expertly, he rolled the bread and sprinkled the rounds with za’atar and sesame seeds. In the heat of the desert, I, newly bat mitzvahed and madly in love with the strange familiarity of the Holy Land, sipped mint tea and ate the crisp, spiced flatbread, thinking about how my feet were planted in this new world.
Traditionally made on a saj — a kind of cast-iron pan shaped like an inside-out wok — the Middle Eastern staple goes by many names and belongs to many cultures. Alternately called marook shrek, khubz ruqaq, shrak, khubz rqeeq, mashrooh, and, simply, saj bread, it can be seen as a sort of precursor to modern-day pizza. Legend has it that ancient Persian warriors once stretched dough onto the backs of their battle shields and let them crisp into round, bubbly flatbread in the hot sun long before their tomato-y (and potentially Jewish!) cousins popped up in the Latn world. A mix of only flour, oil, and water, it’s a bafflingly simple recipe, the kind where, some might say, it’s really the love that counts. Personally, I think it has more to do with the number of camels who’ve tried to kill you — one point to me!
Mesmerized, primarily, by the “coolness factor” of the dish, my parents and I searched for a saj of our own — in the limestone archways of Old Jerusalem and the seafront of Jaffa. We eventually found one tucked away in a back alley of northwestern Akko’s colorful Arab market. We haggled as the sun set and the mustachioed storekeeper boarded up his shop for the evening, leaving in the dark with Turkish coffee pots and Morrocan tea cups clunking at our waists, the rusted, sand-caked saj our biggest prize. We dragged the heavy pan, draped in a garbage bag, through Tel Aviv and airport security before it found its way home, to a dusty corner of our garage in Los Angeles. Though our ambitions were high, it wasn’t until quarantine began that we decided to go for it. We bought the heaving sacks of flour, which are rarely used in our baker-less household, and scrubbed the rusty saj clean (or as clean as it could be after round after round of futile scrubbing).
On our chosen April afternoon, with a jumble of flatbread recipes stolen from the internet as a guide, we dusted flour over the marble counter, the tile floor, and our own clothes, adding a little more water here, a little more flour there, until we found ourselves with something sticky, stretchy, and sweet-smelling. For fear of setting our already sun-scorched backyard on fire, we opted to work in our kitchen, warming the saj in the oven before orchestrating the fine-tuned dance of removing it from the heat and spreading the oil-moisted dough onto the dome, placing it back in, watching nearly-three minutes pass, adding oil to crisp the bread, and watching it bubble over and hiss with steam. When the first trial run proved to be not a total disaster, we rolled out more flatbreads and even went crazy with toppings.
We topped them with sesame seeds, tahini, balsamic vinegar, and chocolate chips. We shoveled in bite after bite of bread as we scrambled to make each round lighter, crispier, and prettier than the last. By the time our hands were tired, our bellies full, and our brows thick with flour and sweat, the sun had come down and, lost in ancient culinary tradition from halfway across the globe, we’d nearly forgotten we were at home, in lockdown, facing uncertainty and loss as the world shut down. Instead, we pictured ourselves relaxing at the camel farm near the Red Sea.
Saj Bread Recipe:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp olive oil
⅓ cup water, or more as needed
- In a large bowl, mix flour with 1 Tbsp olive oil and water. Knead until sticky. Add more water if needed
- Form dough into a ball and leave to rise for 30 minutes
- Coat rolling pin with flour and roll dough out until large, round, and translucent
- Brush both sides of bread with a thin layer of olive oil
- Bake for 2 ½ minutes, or until bubbly and golden-brown
- Enjoy with hummus, techina, zhough, or other Middle Eastern sauces or fillings