Today, we are discovering the fatayer or fitiir, one of the most famous mezze of Lebanese cuisine, this little turnover stuffed with spinach, which is an integral part of Arabian cuisine and is mainly eaten in Turkey and in all the countries from the Middle East that were part of the Ottoman Empire: Syria, Egypt, Jordan and other countries in the region, such as Iraq and Israel.
What is fatayer?
In Arabic, fatayer (فطائر) means “pie”. I chose to prepare the spinach version, called sabāniq in Lebanon, but the fatayer can also be stuffed with meat or sweet cheese or cottage cheese and is called jibna or jibna beyda respectively.
For the dough of the fatayer, there are two options: the first recommends a dough between the puff pastry and the shortcrust pastry and the second includes baker’s yeast and is closer to pizza dough.
Spinach is deliciously scented with cumin, paprika, lemon and of course with the must-have sumac, a spice commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisines.
They change their name, they change their form. Sometimes they are so similar that it is not possible to trace their origins. Mezzes are the glory of the tables of all the Eastern Mediterranean region, but especially of Lebanon.
The origin of the name is controversial: from the Arabic word mzaza from the verb tamazzaza (to taste small bites, but also to drink a glass in small sips)? Persian maza (flavor)? Turkish mezze, which indicates the “table” and, by extension, the many dishes that garnish it?
The first origin is attested since the thirteenth century in Lisân al-‘Arab, a dictionary of the Arabic language completed by Ibn Manzur in 1290.
In any case, these little bites are just what the mezzes are all about, as much as Spanish tapas or Italian antipasti.
From the Balkans to the Red Sea, through Greece, Turkey and Syria, the table is a festive composition of tiny dishes, but the triumph of the meze is celebrated in Lebanon, a country where all the culinary culture finds all its expression in about fifty small plates and in which the level of refinement and variety of the mezze is unequaled.
Evidently, the common attachment to the Ottoman Empire created the “mezze civilization”, this Mediterranean branch that brings together people of different languages and origins around multiple tastes.
Certainly this civilization has found its specificity in Lebanon, undoubtedly also favored by the fact that, even if it occupies a small territory, this country enjoys a climatic variety offering an enviable assortment of raw ingredients.
Everything is there: vegetable or animal, natural, cooked or preserved. And among the Lebanese, preserving and brining are definitely an art.
Thus, among the Lebanese mezzes, you find all kinds of preserved vegetables, especially in brine and to which are added oil and aromas: turnips and aubergines, cucumbers and zucchini, green beans and vine leaves, peppers and zucchini flower.
Drying plays a role in the preservation of legumes, so important in Middle Eastern cuisine, aromatic herbs and fruits, which are often the prelude to meze, a kind of appetizer before the starters.
On the table set with mezze, raw seasonal vegetables abound, alone or combined to form fresh salads; those cooked (sautéed, fried, grilled) or puréed, like legumes: who does not know babaganoush? or hummus in its many variants? The inevitable okra, which they call beme (or bamia or abelmosco) cooked preferably until it is decomposed.
And of course the cereals: the burghul or bulgur in the first place, whether it is during the summer, in salads such as the famous tabbouleh, or during the winter in comforting soups, and always used for kibbehs, a kind of meat torpedo-shaped croquettes.
These dozens of plates filled with colorful food scattered on the table, constitute a perfect metaphor of the Lebanese cultural mosaic, a tradition that brings us back to the old splendor of the court banquets of the Ottoman era, in the nineteenth century, during which a multitude of small plates were offered to the guests, who were to seduce the eye even before the palate, thanks to the different shapes and colors.
What is the origin or spinach?
Spinach originates from Asia, particularly from the west and the center of the continent. In fact, this vegetable was already known and used by the Arabs. Spinach appeared in Europe around the year 1000 when they were introduced to Spain after the conquest of this country by Moors fighters.
Later, it was also introduced in Italy, when the Saracens managed to conquer the Sicilian region. Of course, it was not only the Arabs who consumed it, but also all the other Asian peoples who used it both as a food and as a remedy for certain diseases, because this vegetable, according to their belief, also had medical properties and could therefore cure any illness or discomfort.
Let’s say it today loud and clear, spinach, with its 2.8 mg of iron per 100 g of fresh leaves, is not at all the richest iron food. It has less than lentils or beans, for example. In addition, the human body absorbs iron of plant origin less than that of animal origin. Clams or oysters have a very high iron content, just like liver, kidneys or even red meat.
Why is spinach considered the king of iron?
The story goes back to 1870. That year, a German biochemist, E. von Wolf, evaluated the nutritional composition of foods. And rather than write in his tablets of results, the 2.8 mg of iron per 100 g of leaves, he mistakenly wrote 28 mg.
And that’s how, because of a comma error, spinach has become the king of iron. An error that was followed by a second, a few years later. A Swiss scientist from the University of Basel, Gustav von Bunge, attributed the iron content in dried spinach to fresh spinach. Obviously, the iron content in dried spinach is higher than in the fresh ones.
And what about Popeye’s iron biceps?
Finally, icing on the cake for the spinach, in the early twentieth century, the irresistible Popeye and his iron biceps when he swallows a box of spinach. The sailor with the pipe will definitively seal the deal and make spinach part of the iron pop culture!
There are several little turnovers in the cuisines around the world and 196 flavors is not short of original recipes: you may want to try the Latin American empanadas, the Algerian cocas, the Indian samosas, the Cape Verdean pastels, or Bolivian saltenas , which are all no less delicious bites than these excellent fatayer!
- 2 lb spinach , chopped, washed and drained
- 2 onions , cut into small cubes
- 5 tablespoons olive oil (or sunflower oil)
- 3 lemons , freshly pressed
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- 3 cups flour
- ½ cup sunflower oil (or olive oil)
- ⅓ cup fine semolina
- 3 tablespoons milk powder
- 3 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ cup warm water (more or less)
- The day before, mix all the filling ingredients in a frying pan over a high heat.
- Brown, stirring regularly, for 10 minutes.
- Cool and reserve in the refrigerator.
- The next day, mix this stuffing well and add into a colander.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the flour, semolina, salt, sugar, milk powder, oil, and white vinegar and, while adding the water gradually, knead until smooth. You should obtain a fairly soft dough that separates from the sides of the bowl and can be collected as a ball of dough around the dough hook.
- Place the dough in a bowl, coat with a little oil on the surface, cover it with a cloth and let it sit for one hour at room temperature.
- Roll the dough into a large disc and cut into small circles 3 inches in diameter.
- Drop 1 tablespoon of spinach stuffing in the center of each circle.
- Lift the 3 ends and fold them inwards so as to completely enclose the stuffing and form a triangle and then pinch the edges to weld them well.
- Arrange the fatayer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 350 F until the base is fully baked and the surface is lightly browned.