Travellers to Saudi Arabia report that the street food par excellence is Murtabak: a rectangular parcel made with paper thin dough and packed with a variety of flavourings, savoury or sweet (the name مطبق is the Arabic word for “folded”).
Murtabak (or Muttabak or Muttabaq – there are many transliterations) probably originated in Yemen and has found its way to vast tracts of the Middle East, then to India and further. I first came across it in Singapore back in the 1980s, where it was brought by the Tamil community and is a standard item in hawker stalls: the sight of a Murtabak man flinging his circles of dough into the air to stretch them to translucency was always joyous.
Savoury fillings are more common, with minced lamb probably the most popular. Eggs are usually involved, either folded into the filling, as I’ve done here, or spread over the pancake before adding the filling (as done by the Tamils). I’ve gone for diced chicken; the recipe here is something of an amalgam of various Saudi and Yemeni sites: the spicing is authentic-ish, but truly, you have a lot of latitude for putting in your personal favourites.
Any dough that you’re trying to roll to translucent thickness takes a lot of skill and practice to do really well: strudel dough, the warqa dough used in Bastillas or home-made phyllo are all examples of this. Murtabak dough is no exception, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s fairly forgiving in the sense that if you get it wrong by tearing it or making it a bit misshapen, the world really doesn’t end – you’ll still get a thoroughly tasty result.
This recipe makes 3 murtabak. A whole one makes a very generous meal for one or, cut into pieces, a lovely component of a meze spread.
- 240g strong white bread flour
- 4g salt
- 90ml water
- 40ml sunflower oil, plus more for covering
- 1 egg (optional, but you’ll need to adjust flour quantities if you don’t use it)
- Mix the ingredients together until they have come together into a smooth dough.
- Some recipes suggest that you should knead the dough for a few minutes. Confession time: I forgot to do the kneading, and it didn’t seem to matter.
- Oil your hands. Divide the dough into three balls of equal weight, coat them with oil and leave to rest. Recipes suggest anything from 30 minutes to three hours: about 75 minutes worked fine for me.
- Oil for frying: I used olive, but you can use whatever you like
- 150g onion
- 10g root ginger
- 20g garlic
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp Aleppo chili flakes (or whatever form of chili or paprika you fancy, but these worked particularly well for me)
- 400g chicken breast
- 70g spring onions
- 1 tomato (mine was 100g)
- 5g fresh coriander (or flat leaf parsley, or your other favourite herbs, optional)
- 2 eggs
- Chop your various ingredients. The garlic and ginger need to be very fine. The onion, tomato and spring onion should be reasonably fine. The chicken should be small dice, perhaps 5mm or so. The coriander, if you’re using it, can be anything you like.
- Heat oil in a pan over medium heat and add the onions and some salt, fry for a couple of minutes
- Add the garlic and ginger and fry until the onions are translucent
- Add the spices and stir until nicely combined
- Add the chicken and stir fry until you can’t see any raw meat
- Add the spring onions, tomato and coriander; keep stir-frying until the chicken is cooked through
- Beat the eggs, add them to the pan and stir until everything is blended
- Set the pan aside
Putting it together
The best video I found showing you how to do this comes from a site called Sheba Yemeni Food.
- Thoroughly clean a large space of work surface and spread it with a little oil.
- Take one of your balls of dough and press it flat.
- This is where you need to have faith. Pick up your circle of dough in both hands and throw the loose end away from you (a bit like when you’re shaking sand off a towel). Once the dough has landed on your surface, use your fingers to flatten out any thick bits around the edge and get it to as close to a rectangle as you can manage.
- Repeat this as often as you dare until the dough is thin enough to be translucent. Obviously, you can’t go too far or the dough will tear.
- Spoon a third of your filling into a rectangle in the middle of your dough. Fold the dough over the filling from each of the four sides.
- Carefully transfer the completed parcel onto a board so that you can repeat for the next two.
- Warm up a griddle or skillet to medium heat. Brush it with a little oil, then fry your murtabak for about 3-4 minutes on each side, until they have a medium brown pattern but aren’t burning.
Serve as soon as you can. The Tamils serve these with a briyani sauce, but for me, a simple green salad or other Middle Eastern salad works fine.