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.


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zarpandit said...

hi :) i'm from Turkey :) we are used saj and we love saj..gözleme are usually on and very delicious :)

Hello Katey said...

Can I tell you how much I love your food blog? I feel like lots of blogs are the same. Yours was different! You've got lots of recipes I'm dying to try and I even posted one of them on my blog when i was hungry in the middle of the night. Thanks and keep inspiring :)

joumana said...

I had the same idea too. I wanted to set up a saj stand at the Texas State Fair. Well, maybe some day!

Traineeship said...

It’s a one great opportunity to dine at stores such as this one. It’s like dinning, having a snack in a historical, old traditional way of cooking.

call centre jobs said...

Wow! I’ M glad to know that there are some restaurants reserving the traditional style of cooking.

Anonymous said...

A friend made for me a saj from a 55 gallon barrel drum with, as you suggest, a very large wok turned upside down over the top. Two thirds from the bottom of the drum he drilled four 1/2" holes, two on each side, to accomodate two lengths of rebar. The rebar supports a suitable round disc of metal that serves as a fire bed. He also cut three larger holes inches above the firebed to act as ventilation for the fire. Level to the fire bed he cut an opening so that a fire can be built, maintained and managed.
I bake on it all the time.
I'd really like to have a store bought gasburning saj. If anyone knows how to import one, please let me know. tzdynu@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you're still in DC, or if you would even see a comment from this long ago, but there is a Saj in DC! Check out Muncheez Mania in Georgetown :)