Fatayer: A Speculative History

One of the constants of baking is that wherever you find bread — or really any kind of dough — you find hand pies. From pierogi to samosas, pasties to calzones, knishes, Asian dumplings, empanadas, turnovers, bridies, Pop Tarts and Hot Pockets, the urge to roll out a piece of dough, drop a blob of filling in the middle and fold it over seems written into human DNA. Trying to sort out exactly where and when this great technological leap — cue Also Sprach Zarathustra — first occurred is a fool’s errand.

Still a few things can probably be said about Ottoman Syria’s fatayer. First and probably most obviously, these were originally special occasion foods, mostly eaten by city folk. Wheat, especially the sort of soft wheat people used for breads, had been grown around the Mediterranean since antiquity, with regions like Egypt and Sicily being especially famous for it. However wheat definitely wasn’t a staple for most people, especially country people who subsisted on easier-to-cultivate grains. In the Levant, that would have meant cereals like rice and bulgur. Wheat, which needs more room to grow, would have been more of a luxury good, something country farmers would have sold to townspeople who had both money and the milling technology to turn raw grain into fine white flour, and ultimately into fine white bread. Accounts of Jerusalem’s delicious white breads date back as far as the 1200’s. So just like most other places in the Mediterranean, it would have been the urban centers, places like Damascus, Beirut, Amman and Aleppo, where you’d have found the most — and most toothsome — fatayer before about the 20th century when fine flours became widely available.

Other than that…well…your guess is as good as mine, cousin!

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