Kashgar Naan

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.

Making naan: Rolling out the dough

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.

Making naan: Topping and Placing bread in the oven.

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.

Naan baking in the oven

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).

Kashgar Naan

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.

Riding Down the Karakorum Highway

I arrived in Kashgar after a nearly three-day trip from DC with a layover and shower in Urumqi lasting only a few hours.  I was met at the airport by a couple of wonderful Uyghur guys from Kashgar Guide/Xinjiang Travel who whisked me straight out of the city and onto the Karakorum Highway for a bit of adventure.  Dust swirled as we sped southwest on the highway past blooming apricot trees and swaths of wheat sprouting bright green amid the sand and clay.  We stopped in Opal to buy food for a picnic and found fresh naan and lamb kebabs as well as a gorgeous seletion of fresh fruit.  We packed it all up for a lunch at Karakol Lake and started out again. We continued for a way on the dusty plain, but soon the mountains were looming up on the left. They rose higher and higher until they formed a massive snow-capped wall in front of us.

Karakorum Highway

As we began to make our way through the Karakorum Range through the Ghez River Valley, the mountains rose higher and higher until some of the peaks topped 8000 meters in height. The land around me was like a living geological textbook – with some of the best examples of uplift and water erosion I’ve ever seen. The strata in most cases can be read like a book. It is not a fertile place. It is dry and forbidding this time of the year. Many of the lakes and streams were low or dry, but I was told that was becasue the snows on the mountaintops hadn’t melted yet. Then water is plentiful and the plains flood and the rivers roar with clean water from on high. Everywhere, domesticated yaks and camels graze freely on the sparse dried vegetation they can find amongst the dry rocks and gravel.

Mighty Muztagh

We were told by some Tajik herdsmen that in this area they only make Yak dairy in September and October becasue the pasture is so poor before the melted snow comes. They leave the milk for the young at this difficult time until the young yak are fully able to graze on their own.

Herd of Grazing Yak

After we left the Ghez Valley the road turned south again and continued to rise in altitude. As we left the mountains we entered into a valley of some of the most splendidly desolate scenery I have ever seen. The Pamir foothills rose on the right. Great cloud banks moved over head casting deep shadows over the land below and my head was full of Steve Reich marimbas and the whistle of cool Spring wind.

Splendid Desolation in the Pamirs

We met a mixed group of Tajik and Kyrgyz traders camped by the roadside selling amber goods ranging from necklaces to scorpions embedded in the harded sap. The tall Kyrgyz trader haltingly told me in English that he would give me the hat off his head – so I bought it. I saw him on the return journey with a new hat, so apparently that is part of his sales routine. So many hats so few tourists.

Tajik and Kyrgyz Traders

We finally stopped for lunch at Karakol Lake and dined on the naan and kebabs as well as the most sweet small oranges I’ve ever had, and fantastic local pears. The fat from the lamb flavored the naan perfectly and the pears were crisp and sweet and juicy with firm texture and would, I think, make good cooking pears. We wanted to make Tashkorgan before dark and walked around only briefly. I was not yet adjusting well to the altitude – we were already approching 4,000 meters – so the briefest of walks was fine with me.

Yurts near Lake Karakol

Tashkorgan gets its name from the ancient Stone Fortress on the outskirts of the city. The ruined fort, which is the ancient capitol of the Tajik people, was inhabited more than 2000 years ago as part of the kingdom of Puli. The capital and surrounding encampments were at their most powerful between the 7th and the 10th Centuries ACE. Then began a period of war and decline that lasted form more than 100 years until the city was a shadow of its former self. When the Mongols conquered, the city was sacked and destroyed. Its odd though, the modern city of Tashkorgan still has a lot of Tajiks living permanently there as if standing guard over the ruins of their lost city. This population swells seasonally with the influx of other semi-nomadic Tajiks as well.

Kids in Tashkorgan

We walked around the modern city first and came upon a small market on a side street. They had the most delicious looking roasted chickens coated with chili peppers and sesame seeds – spicy and earthy at the same time. I bought several different types of chilis – each one more powerful than the next. The kids were everywhere and unlike in the States, they roamed freely through the streets. They are gorgeous and looked like they could be from anywhere in the northern hemisphere – other than China and Eastern Asia.

The Stone Fortress

My guide, Hasan, and I climbed up to the great fortress and sat on top overlooking the deserted plain below. The fort is surrounded on three sides by mountains and opens on the east to the Taklamakan desert. Turning away from the modern city which lay nearby, the rest of the landscape is today exactly as it was when the Stone Fortress was bustling with life and love and trade. Ancient ammunition still littered the ground. Now and again we spied a perfectly rounded stone a bit larger than the rest that was used with a slingshot in defense of the realm. We sat for a long time as the sun started to fade. The silence was broken only by the tittering of an eagle in the distance like an echo out of the past. (Words and photos by Laura Kelley)