PROPER PITTA THE BREADMAKER ON A MISSION
Pitta should be light and pillowy — a world apart from supermarket cardboard copies — and stuffing them is an art form
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)