Injera, pan dulce, naan, dreikornbrot, bread. Since the Stone Age, heat has transformed grain and water into our most elemental edible. The East Bay’s cultural cornucopia abounds with opportunities to taste some of the world’s best breads.
Here’s a sampler:
Berkeley’s OctoberFeast German Bakery offers a collection of spirals, chunks and wedges within its warm orange walls and woodsy, Old World interior. Baker Dieter Heise pays homage to his Bavarian roots with hearty dark rye and wheat loaves, studded with flax, sesame and sunflower seeds. “In Germany,” Heise says, “bread is a meal, not just a cover for a sandwich. Multi-grain breads fill you up, so you are satisfied till noon.” 1954 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 207-2320
Most mornings at Oakland’s Oasis Market, baker Thamar Manser slaps and stretches mounds of dough, slides the flattened circles onto a stiff pillow brought from his native Iraq and then flings them onto the scorching sides of a tandoor. Moments later, he removes the blistered, aromatic disks of tandoori bread. The 700-plus breads at Oasis sell out daily to appreciative members of Oakland’s Middle East community. Manser also creates thick pita in a neighboring oven and individual folded dough pies filled with spinach, cheese, spices or beef. 3045 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 655-5111
Traditionally, Mexicans begin or end the day with coffee and their beloved pan dulce, sweet breads fashioned in a dizzying array of shapes from soft sugar-encrusted conchas (shells) to flaky orejas (ears). Bakery El Sol, in the bustling Fruitvale Public Market, sports cheerful yellow walls and a mural of a baker at his wood-burning stove. Says owner Jose Flores, “When I was a boy, I helped that baker — my grandfather — in Mexico City and always kept the dream to open my own bakery.” After 25 years working in local bakeries, Flores, his wife and three sons now turn out classic Mexican baked delicacies plus cookies, cakes and doughnuts. 3340 East 12th St., Oakland, (510) 534-5397
Not only is injera the mainstay of most Ethiopian meals, these sizable, spongy pancakes with a tangy taste from the teff grain also serve as tablecloth, plate and utensil. Overlapping disks of injera draped over large trays are topped with cooked meat, lentils or vegetables. You rip off a piece of injera, scoop up some stew and pop it in your mouth. Despite the plethora of local Ethiopian eateries, one of the few places to purchase freshly made injera is an unexpected spot, U+I Liquor and Groceries, an unassuming Temescal shop that features Ethiopian foodstuffs. Cashier City Habtwold explains, “Making injera is a lot of work and takes three days. Ethiopians and Americans buy it here because it’s so convenient for them.” 4875 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-1772
The last stop on our bread tour is Berkeley’s Middle East Market, featuring Persian specialties within its celestial blue walls. Co-owner Jeannette Jafarzadeh bakes giant rectangles of Afghani bread with sesame seeds, round Persian flat breads sprinkled with scallions, basil and feta as well as cardamom-scented sweet bread to go with tea. “Baking is a pleasure,” she says, “when you put a warm piece of bread in someone’s hand, their face lights up.” 2054 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 704-8800