Fresh-baked bread. Three simple words that conjure up a host of wonderful sensations. The aroma of the bread. How it rises and turns first a golden, then a tawny color as it bakes. The crackle of the crust and the feel of the warm bread on your hands as you tear off a piece. The soft texture in your mouth . . . and the flavor! It’s earthy, a bit sour and sweet at the same time, a little savory. . . Nothing beats it (well, almost nothing, anyway).
Now imagine you are in far-western China and you are experiencing all of these sensations, but you are in a small café on a dusty sideroad to the Karakorum Highway. Welcome to my world. But, it gets better. On the table there is a small bowl of black tea brewed to perfection with fragrant rosepetals floating on the surface. Plates are piled high with a pilaf of rice and lamb joints with julienned carrots or perhaps some lagman noodles with vegetables. You sit on an ornate wool carpet of crimson and white design around a low, square table and chat with your dining companions or just silently enjoy the wonderful meal in front of you.
Milling with the sounds and sites of this dusty town (Opal, China) is the unmistakable aroma of freshly made bread. Next to the café, a husband and wife team are busy making the next order of naan to sell at their stall and to sell to nearby restaurants.
The woman pounds and rolls out the balls of dough into plate-size flatbreads. The dough is usually a plain naan like the recipe below, but it could also have lamb fat worked into the dough or minced onions or even ground seeds like fennel for mildly spiced bread. Most of the time a durham wheat flour is used, but the Uzbekis sometimes use a chickpea flour as well. After she has formed the naan, she stamps spiral designs on them with her chekish or stamper. The stamper, although utilitarian, is a work of art unto itself. It is handmade by the local craftsman of hardwood decorated with marquetry inlay. The metal teeth are hand-sharpened and easily double as a defensive weapon in close combat. When she is done, she hands the bread to her husband, or piles them nearby.
He puts sesame seeds and a bit of salt on the bread and tamps it down lightly. The toppings for bread can be diverse, sesame and poppy are probably the most commonly seen, although on the most recent trip to China, I encountered naan with pounded peanuts on top at a vendor near the Turpan train station. In Uzbekistan they like onions with fennel or anise seed, in Afghanistan the toppings are probably going to be caraway or black cumin or sesame – so the flavor can vary quite a bit. The husband sizes and shapes the bread by placing it on the outside of a mold or clean pan and then slaps the bread onto the wall of the tandoor-style oven. The natural moisture of the bread adheres it to the wall.
In a few minutes – given the high temperature of the oven – they are done, he stacks them to cool or sells them hot to eagerly waiting customers.
This is how much of the world eats. Flatbread and tea with or without some sort of dairy in it (from a cow, sheep, horse or yak), or flatbread with bits of roasted fat-tailed mutton or other meat or sweetbread wrapped inside. Simple, delicious and nutritious.
The recipe below will help you get into the flatbread groove. Others are available in The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1 and more will be included in the second volume of the book. (Words, photos and recipe by Laura Kelley).
Similar to many Uzbek recipes, this flatbread is baked in a stone tandoor, the stove of the region, which is sometimes buried in the ground. As with naan and bread recipes from Volume 1 of The Silk Road Gourmet, it is possible to use an all-metal wok turned upside down in the oven as a surface to “slap” dough on. Likewise, one can use the recommended method of baking on ungreased baking sheets for a delicious taste of Kashgar.
1 ½ cups warm water
1 package dry, active yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame and poppy seeds (or other topping)
1. Mix warm water, yeast, and sugar together and set aside to activate for about 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of flour to the yeast mixture, mix well, and set aside for another 5 minutes.
2. Add remaining flour to a large mixing bowl, indent the center to form a well, and add the yeast mixture to the flour and mix well. When mixed enough to handle with your hands, knead the dough for about 5 minutes and then place it back in the bowl, cover, and let rest for 1–1 ½ hours. For softer bread, less prone to crackle, let rest an additional 20-25 minutes.
3. Punch down the dough, divide into 8 equal parts, and roll each part into a ball. Shape each ball into a circle about the size of a large dinner plate: about 8 inches in diameter and ½-inch thick. Take a fork and lightly trace lines or crisscrosses (or use a chekish (stamper) if you have one). Sprinkle with sesame and/or poppy seeds and press lightly onto surface. Place on ungreased cookie sheet or slap onto heated, all-metal wok inside a traditional oven preheated to 350°. Cook for 10 minutes and turn for even cooking. Total cooking time about 15 – 20 minutes.