Breads Around the World
According to the Bible, bread is the staff of life — and we humans have been eating it in one form or another since Neolithic times.
The Egyptians are known to have placed loaves alongside the dead so they’d have enough to eat in the afterlife. The process of baking bread has for centuries been linked to procreation. (Still today, pregnant women may refer to having a “bun in the oven.”) And many everyday phrases include mention of bread, from the English axiom “bread and circuses” to the American expression “It’s the best thing since sliced bread,” which is linked to an early Wonder Bread slogan.
Easy to make and customize, reliant on readily available ingredients, and consistently satisfying, it’s little surprise bread is wildly popular the world over. Consider this guide to breads across the globe your ultimate crash-course on a food favorite as satisfying as it is culturally significant.
Ciabatta - Italy
The iconic bread loaf ciabatta is often believed to be an ancient staple of the Italian table — but in fact, the version most people are familiar with only came into being in July 1982.
Earlier that year, a group of flour experts met to talk about a baguette invasion — the result of increasingly large imports from France — threatening the Italian sandwich market. One of the men, a miller named Arnaldo Cavallari, experimented for weeks to make a new Italian sandwich bread, trying variations on traditional recipes before coming up with a soft, wet dough made with mineral-rich high-gluten flour.
Francesco Favaron, who helped produce the flour made to Cavallari’s specifications, said the bread’s shape reminded him of the slippers, or “ciabatta,” worn by his wife. Registered under the trademark “Ciabatta Polesano,” the bread is now found in numerous regional and international versions around the world.
Baguette - France
Myths and legends abound about the baguette.
Some believe the bread's elongated shape can be traced back to Napolean, who requested a long and thin bread that could easily fit into the trousers of soldiers and brought into battle. Others believe the bread's shape is due to an early 1900s rule that bakers couldn't work before 4 am, forcing them to make a leaner bread that was quicker to make.
In any case, this French classic has become enormously popular and influential around the world. The bread has even inspired other beloved staples, like Vietnamese banh mi, which is essentially a baguette that uses rice flour instead of wheat flour.
Naan - India
Found on almost every Indian restaurant menu, naan isn’t usually found in Indian homes.
The version we know today — called naan-e-tanuri, because it’s cooked in a tandoor oven — started off as a popular breakfast food for the Mughal royals (it was also the Mughals who introduced the clay tandoor oven to the Indian subcontinent). Although the basic ingredients of yeast, flour, water, sugar, ghee and sometimes yogurt are easy to find, few if any homes boast a tandoor oven to actually cook the bread in.
Today, naan can be eaten plain or topped with garlic, filled with paneer (cheese), or even stuffed with fruit and meat as in Kashmiri and Peshwari versions.
Tortilla - Mexico
Tortillas were made as early as 10,000 BC and were the principal food of the Aztecs.
Wheat wasn’t grown in the Americas prior to Spanish contact, so traditionally the Aztecs used maize, or corn. Women spent hours grinding corn on a metate, a sloping oblong stone that’s one of the oldest domestic tools in the Americas — then rolling a cylindrical handheld stone across the stone to crush the kernels. The ground corn, which could be made from white, yellow or blue (black) maize, was then cooked in a lime and water solution.
Before the Spanish came to the Americas, bringing wheat and religion, the Otomí in Guanajuato painted ceremonial tortilla with images associated with their gods. For “paint,” they used liquid from boiled honeysuckle flowers to make their favorite color, purple, as well as the nopal plant for shades of red. After the occupation, the Otomí included Catholic patron saints in their tortilla motifs.
Injera - Ethiopia
Injera, the national flatbread dish of Ethiopia (and Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea) is perfect for home cooks who hate the cleaning up that goes with cooking. Injera is both a bread and implement for serving and eating food.
Stews, vegetables and salads are placed on the flatbread, and small pieces are torn off it to scoop up the food. A meal is only finished once the injera, infused with meat and vegetable broth from the main dishes, is eaten, leaving no washing up to do.
This slightly sour, spongy flatbread looks a bit like cooked tripe, and is a great bread alternative for people with gluten intolerance. It’s traditionally made from flour produced using teff, tiny round khaki-colored grains that grow in the highlands of Ethiopia and contain almost no gluten.
Arepa - Venezuela and Colombia
Long a breakfast staple in Venezuela and Colombia, arepa dough is made by soaking dried corn and then mashing it in a special mortar and pestle. The bread can be baked, fried or grilled, though the most traditional method is to cook it on a large, flat griddle.
In Colombia, every region has its own variation, based on the size, type of maize and ingredients used. However the arepa is made, Colombians eat it first thing in the morning with cheese or cuajada, a kind of fermented milk, or enjoy it later in the day.
Opened-up arepa is also great for sandwiches, filled with black beans, stewed meat or cheese.
Waterford Blaa - Ireland
People think soda bread is specific to Ireland, but in fact it can be found anywhere money is lacking. What is unique to Ireland is blaa, made from small leftover balls of dough baked into soft or crunchy buns.
Blaa is officially only available in Waterford, Ireland, having gained Protected Geographical Indication status in 2013. That means that like champagne, only blaa produced in the Waterford vicinity can use the name.
Pan de Muertos - Mexico
No list would be complete without at least one sweet bread, and Pan de Muerto, prepared and eaten for Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2 in Mexico, is a singular addition.
The bread's past is murky, but one particularly graphic legend tells of how the still-beating heart of a princess was placed in a pot with amaranth seeds, then eaten by a ritual leader to show respect for ancestral deities. In 1519, the Spanish Army entered Mexico and banned blood sacrifices, so the princess heart instead became represented by this sweetened wheat bread.
In a Day of the Dead version of the bread, the round shape depicts a body, while dough pieces laid across the top and sides of the base signify bones and tears. The surface is dusted with red sugar in place of blood, and the taste of orange blossom is added for remembrance of the deceased.
Damper - Australia
Australian soda bread gets its distinctive flavor from the way it's cooked: in the ashes of a campfire. The bread has historically been prepared by stockmen and other travelers, who have long been able to make it with nothing but water, flour, sometimes milk and baking soda, and an open flame.
Damper is typically eaten warm and covered in a golden syrup called "cocky's joy." The name of the bread is connected to the dampening of the fire at the end of the day, and to the dampening, or lessening, of the appetite.
Chapati - India
Chapati gets its name from the Hindi word “chapat” — meaning slap — because of the unusual and fun way it’s prepared. Oil and water are added to unleavened whole-wheat flour, which is then slapped and turned with wetted hands until it’s shaped into thin discs that get cooked on a concave iron griddle.
The popular, and tasty, flatbread has a fascinating history. All the way back in the 16th century, chapati was loved by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who preferred his with ghee and sugar.
During the Independence War of 1857, Maulavi Ahmadullah, a famous revolutionary, came up with the plan of having runners secretly deliver stacks of chapati to people’s homes. If the gift was accepted, Ahmadullah had a new recruit for his cause. The person would then quietly make and deliver more chapati to gather up additional people to fight for independence.
Sangak Bread - Iran
In Iran, like most Middle Eastern countries, bread is to eating what air is to life; no meal is complete without it. Each region has its own speciality, and in Tehran the most popular is sangak.
Made from whole wheat flour, this bread was traditionally cooked on small river stones placed in an oven; hence the name, which comes from the Persian word “sangak,” meaning little stone. It’s the pebbles that give the bread a distinctive pitted surface.
These days, sangak is readily available in Iranian bakeries and bought daily. Locals choose from the generic version or more exotic and expensive varieties topped with poppy or sesame seeds.
Focaccia - Italy
Historians speculate focaccia was first made in inland regions of the Mediterranean, where abundant mountain ranges meant the air was less dense, aiding in the natural leavening process. Later, Romans mixed a small quantity of yeast with the basic recipe of coarse flour, olive oil, water and salt before baking the dough in a focacius, which translates to "center" or "fireplace" in Latin.
Focaccia was regularly used to feed slaves in the Roman Empire, and since medieval times, the Catholic Church has often used it during the Eucharist. The unleavened focaccia recipe replicates Christ’s use of unleavened bread during The Last Supper, and is said to represent the purity of Christ’s flesh.
Obi Non - Uzbhekistan
The Uzbhek bread obi non first appeared in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” one of the world’s oldest written works about the legendary ruler of the Sumerians, who lived more than 5,000 years ago.
Known as lepyoshka in Russian, obi non consist of a basic dough mix rolled into a ball and then flattened into a round disk thicker at the edges than the center. A special tool is used to add distinctive designs on top of the dough, ranging from letters to religious symbols.
Obi non are cooked in a tandir (the Turkic word for tandoor) oven and pressed against the oven’s inner wall using a round cotton pillow. Steam from water splashed against the walls cooks the dough, while heat radiating through the clay body of the oven from the coals produces the crusty exterior. The rolls are very dense and slightly sour, and go well with hearty meat dishes.
Trabzon - Turkey
On Turkey’s Black Sea Coast, all road trips include a stop at roadside stalls selling Trabzon (sometimes called Vakfikebir) bread. Made from flour and water, then leavened with sour dough and cooked in a stone oven, the bread is round, with a twist across the center of the crust, and can weigh anywhere from 1 to 16 pounds. It is fleshy and flavorful, lasts a long time, and is good to eat even when it goes stale.
Enormous loaves of bread were originally baked in Trabzon in 1897, when the first stone ovens opened in the Vakfikebir district. Today, a “Bread and Culture Festival” is held there in August each year for the purpose of promoting the bread domestically and abroad. On Valentine’s Day, local bakers are often asked to bake special-order Trabzon bread decorated with hearts and the words “Seni seviyorum,” Turkish for "I love you."
Tunnbröd - Sweden
Swedish farms used to have their own purpose-built bakery huts for making tunnbröd; today, it’s cooked in many homes. The delicious flatbread, made from any combination of wheat, barley or rye, is placed in a large shallow rectangular wooden dish with dried yeast, which penetrates the dough and gives it a stippled texture and distinctive flavor.
Each home baker adds their own special ingredients to the mix, like butter, golden syrup or fennel seeds. After being flattened out with a thick heavy rolling pin and finished with a smaller deep-notched pin to prevent the bread from rising, the rounds are put on a flat paddle and placed in a wood-fired oven. Traditionalists share the first piece of tunnbröd hot from the oven, with a dollop of melted butter on top.