Pidesi Breads: How Turkey Eats During Ramadan

In the month of Ramzan/Ramadan, hours before sunset, serpentine queues begin forming outside neighbourhood bakeries in Turkey. The people wait patiently as that wholesome and tantalising aroma unique to freshly baked bread begins to waft out of the bakeries. Within the shop, the baker is working at breakneck speed, deftly wielding his long-handled peel to put compact rounds of dough into his traditional brick/stone oven (fırın), and also to bring out the golden brown loaves that have already finished baking. These will be stacked on the shop counter as the customers step up and carry away as many discs as they can, come sundown. 

The bread itself is a thing of beauty: round, with a crisscross or dimpled pattern on the surface. In another room of the bakery, a pide master would have shaped this pattern by hand — no moulds are used. The dough, with a little bit of yeast mixed into it, would be sprinkled with sesame and nigella (kalonji) seeds on top. Depending on the shop and baker, there might even be an egg wash, to enhance that golden brown hue of the crust. 

This is the Ramazan pidesi or pide — a type of Turkish pita or flatbread (despite the addition of yeast) — that is a staple during iftar meals in the holy month. Pide is eaten at other times of the year as well, but it is usually a savoury variant, with meat and other toppings, and is shaped like a boat. The Ramazan pide on the other hand, is plain and round, and is further distinguished from other loaves by its flour. Bakers say that a special quality of more water-absorbent flour is used to make the Ramazan pide; flour mills begin working on orders four months in advance to fulfill the demand. 

The Ramazan pide is considered so essential during the holy month that the government fixes the Lira price at which a loaf can be sold. 

The origins of the Ramazan pide are not quite clear, nor the trajectory of just how it came to be such an indelible part of the Ramadan month. Some historians surmise that non-Muslim Turks who owned bakeries would bring in masters from Europe to impress their clientele with their bread. Others trace it to the necessity of making bread go far during wartime (indeed, it is considered sacrilege to waste bread, especially Ramazan pide, in Turkey). Still others say that it is the particular shape of Ramazan pide, which makes it so suited for shared meals, that have cemented its place in iftars since historical times. 

In essence, the Ramazan pide eaten in Turkey today are still the same as those made centuries ago. The changes, if any, have been cosmetic. For instance, as per the writings of 17th century Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi, the Ramazan pide in Turkey would be brushed with saffron water (instead of today's egg wash) and in place of sesame and nigella or cumin seeds, it is poppy seeds and aniseed that would be sprinkled on top of every loaf. 

As for what the Ramazan pide is eaten with, in the present — as in the past — everyone has their own preference: Accompaniments range from butter, tulum peyniri (goat's cheese), walnuts and so on. What most people find irresistible though? Sneaking a piece or two of the still-warm-from-the-oven loaf into one's mouth while on the way home.