20 August 2009
Middle Eastern Cooking: The Saj
The saj (صاج ) is a round domed grill found across the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Lebanon, that is used for cooking a preparing a variety of breads, sandwiches, and meats. The saj is literally a metal dome with a heat source underneath, usually a ring of gas flames. Saj's are often seen at roadside stands and cafes where they are used to prepare sandwiches.
For the sandwiches a piece of flatbread dough is quickly cooked on the saj, then one side of the flatbread is spread with toppings (za'atar with oil, cheese, diced chicken, or thick labne yogurt are popular choices). The toppings are allowed to warm and melt and then the sandwich is folded up and eaten. Crispy in some parts and chewy in others, it's the Middle Eastern marriage of a crepe and a panini. The large round surface of the dome allows multiple sandwiches to be made at once.
Numerous types of flatbreads can be made on a saj, so the term "saj bread," occaisionally seen on Middle Eastern style menus in the West, could refer to any number of breads. Probably the most famous type of bread made on the saj is marquk (markook, marquq) bread. This bread, native to the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon, a yeasted flat bread that is a very large, with the rounds paper thin in some points and thicker and chewier in others. It is also probably one of my all time favorite breads.
Meat can also be cooked on a saj, though this is less common because of the convex surface of the grill. The meat is usually very thinly sliced, marinated, and then the strips are grilled on the saj.
The easiest way to replicate the saj at home is to find an old wok you don't care about, then clean the bottom well, invert it over a gas burner, and heat it up. It worked quite nicely for me to make breads and sandwiches on a makeshift saj. Last time I was in Paris I think I saw more saj stands than in Lebanon, such was their popularity for tasty cheap street food. A friend and I always thought we could make a profitable business in bringing the saj to New York, but until we do, the U.S. may continue to be a sadly saj-less place.