Pitta should be light and pil­lowy — a world apart from su­per­mar­ket card­board copies — and stuff­ing them is an art form

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY FELIC­ITY SPEC­TOR

IN THE open kitchen of Eran Tibi’s new South­wark restau­rant Bala Baya, im­pos­si­bly soft, fluffy pitta breads are rolling fresh out of the oven and onto trays, ready to serve. “I couldn’t find what I wanted in Lon­don, so I came up with the con­cept for my whole busi­ness,” Tibi says. And that’s meant months of painstak­ing re­search to pro­duce these hum­ble pock­ets of dough, baked us­ing equip­ment spe­cially im­ported from Is­rael. A gi­ant mixer can make 100kg at a time, be­fore a “baller” cuts and shapes them into neat spheres, ready to prove for a few min­utes be­fore they are pressed twice by an­other ma­chine called a “sheeter” into pe­fect rounds. Af­ter an­other prove, a mov­ing belt trun­dles them through a blis­ter­ing hot oven for about a minute and a half — all it takes to bake the per­fect pitta. At full ca­pac­ity, it can bake 1,000 an hour. “Mak­ing pitta by hand means there’s no con­sis­tency,” he ex­plains. “The per­son­al­ity of the bread changes de­pend­ing on hu­mid­ity, tem­per­a­ture, and the sea­son. It’s taken a lot of time and ef­fort and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Ev­ery day we ad­just things to make sure we get it ex­actly right.” He trav­elled around Europe to source the right flour, try­ing dozens of va­ri­eties be­fore find­ing one that would pro­duce the tex­ture he wanted: made spe­cially for him by the English millers Mar­riage — both white and whole­meal. “I wanted the pitta to be in­te­gral to my whole busi­ness — to have a bak­ery within the restau­rant mak­ing them fresh ev­ery day. Now I’m the first ar­ti­san bak­ery-slash-restau­rant in Lon­don and I want to spread the knowl­edge, start teach­ing oth­ers, do col­lab­o­ra­tions with dif­fer­ent chefs.”

Josh Katz, owner of Ber­ber and Q and Shawarma Bar, has laid on an en­tire month ded­i­cated to the pitta, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with four of Lon­don’s most ex­cit­ing chefs. “We went to peo­ple we liked and ad­mired and they all said yes,” he says. “Their guest pit­tas were all very dif­fer­ent, by na­ture of their styles.”

Are there rules for the per­fect stuff­ing? Ac­cord­ing to Katz, “putting things in a pitta is like ar­rang­ing them on a plate. You need dif­fer­ent tex­tures, colours and flavours; some­thing spicy or sour, like a pickle. Some sweet­ness. A bit of crunch, some­thing creamy like tahina, some fresh herbs.” Lay­er­ing, it seems, is key. “You don’t want all the pro­tein at the top and all the salad at the bot­tom. Ev­ery bite should have all the flavours. And you don’t want it to be too wet — the bread should ab­sorb the juices, not fall apart.”

Eran Tibi serves up four dif­fer­ent fill­ings at lunchtime, to eat in or take away, in­clud­ing a vege­tar­ian roasted cau­li­flower shwarma with pome­gran­ate mo­lasses, roasted onion, piles of fresh herbs and tahini sauce. Build­ing the sand­wich, he says, is as intricate as plat­ing up a fine din­ing dish. “Take the beef one. We’ll put some fresh pars­ley and radish in the bot­tom, then some meat with a driz­zle of jus, then a squeeze of tahini, some fresh tomato for acid­ity. Then we’ll re­peat in dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the bread so you get the full ex­pe­ri­ence of din­ing right there in your hand. You don’t need cut­lery or a plate.”

At north Lon­don’s The Good Egg, the clas­sic sabich sand­wich, served stuffed into pitta, has been a sta­ple on the menu from the very start, com­bin­ing chopped salad and pick­les with smokey fried aubergine, boiled egg, tahini, and two spicy el­e­ments — a mango pickle called amba and the fiery green chilli-based zhoug. There are al­ways home­made pit­tas at Honey and Co too, used prin­ci­pally to scoop up their ad­dic­tively mor­eish babaghanoush, the mush­rooms on creamy hum­mus, the msabaha chick­peas cooked in masses of gar­lic sauce.

There are even sweet ver­sions. At Bala Baya’s brunch there is an in­dul­gent toasted pita filled with tem­pura ba­nana, choco­late hazel­nut spread and salted caramel. Josh Katz had a fried one filled with ice cream on his orig­i­nal Shawarma Bar menu and is dream­ing up an­other dessert one for his “pitta party bo­nanza” night to cel­e­brate his month of guest chef col­lab­o­ra­tions.

For Tibi, proudly tear­ing into the warm, charred breads fresh from the oven, shar­ing pieces with his fel­low chefs, it’s about cele­bat­ing the craft, the pos­si­bil­i­ties, the po­ten­tial.

“We’d just like to help this trend and of­fer some amaz­ing pita. Bak­ing bread is like an art. We wanted to start with a small of­fer­ing and get it right. And then grow.” And judg­ing by what’s al­ready on of­fer, this is one pitta party we’ll all want to be in­vited to.

Newly opened Bala Baya ( left) and Shawarma Bar ( right) both of­fer per­fect pit­tas

The Good Egg’s sabich ( left) and a Bala Baya salmon pitta ( above)

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