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Kaak: Beirut embraces modern takes on a traditional staple

BEIRUT: Kaak, the distinctively shaped, chewy bread hawked by street sellers, has undergone a rebirth in Beirut.

The staple, which is leavened with fermented chickpeas, is associated by many Lebanese with a taste of home. Carts weighed down with the snack swinging from their crusty handles have plied the streets of the country’s cities for hundreds of years.

It’s traditionally been a humble bread, baked in simple ovens, adorned only with sesame seeds and stuffed with zaatar, processed cream cheese or knefe cheese before being eaten.

But in a city of foreign influences, Beirut has over the past decade put its own fusion twist on the basic Arab bread. Kaak sandwiches, kaak sweets and even kaak pizzas are now offered at a handful of eateries around the capital.

“Everything in a kaak,” is how Assad Alia the manager of Kaakat in Ashrafieh describes it.

Kaakat seems to follow through on that promise. They offer sweet kaak stuffed with chocolate, cinnamon and honey; savory kaak filled with cheese, meats and vegetables; and even Lebanese sandwiches like taouk chicken made in kaak.

The kaak in Kaakat is made slightly softer and fuller than the traditional version, but it still retains the bread’s distinct grainy flavor. It comes in four shapes: a long sub roll, a mini-kaak size, an elongated oval and the usual circle.

Alia says the savory, wide kaaks are the most popular, and the eatery gets its largest run of customers around midday. The chain has also opened up shops in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Many traditional bakeries in the city are little more than glorified ovens in the wall, some with questionable sanitary conditions.

Ali Hassoun, who works in a well-known bakery in the Ras al-Nabaa neighborhood of Beirut, says he has seen a rise in kaak bakeries throughout the capital in recent years.

“The kaak made here is clean, the customer enjoys eating them, and that’s why he returns to the shop,” Hassoun says.

Hassoun remembers the boom time before the Civil War when kaak sales were through the roof. The 78-year-old started working at bakeries before he was 10 years old and has seen a recent rise in kaak’s popularity.

However, he has concerns about keeping the original recipes and process intact. He says his adherence to kaak traditions is what draws customers.

“Experts [in this profession] are very different from intruders [in how they make kaak],” he says.

But classing up the kaak is also making the bread more accessible for some people who have been turned off by the local bakeries.

Friends can gather around a tableful of kaak instead of just grabbing one during a walk on the Corniche.

“It’s special in Beirut. There are not many restaurants that buy kaak [for their menus],” says Hanan Harb who works at Kaakaya, a restaurant in Hamra.

On a Sunday afternoon, a host of regulars came into Kaakaya looking for the store’s specialized bread offerings.

Kaakaya offers all the luxuries of a Beirut restaurant including nargileh, juices and hot platters. But they also make kaak the staple that holds together most of their offerings, from pizza made on kaak to salads topped with kaak breadcrumbs.

The kaak at Kaakaya is more traditional than that at Kaakat. It makes no sacrifices on texture for convenience; the kaak is chewy and grainy just like the ones sold on the street.

Harb says the bread’s authenticity is what draws people in. Whether it’s on the street or in the restaurant, customers come to get that same classic taste they are used to.

“The same way it’s good there, it’s good here,” she says.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 15, 2012, on page 2.

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