Photo: Naomi Duguid
Photo: Naomi Duguid

from Issue 3


Food: Flatbreads

by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford

From Urumqi and Kashgar to Kabul, from Samarkand to Dushanbe and Ashgabat, daily bread means flatbread, called nan or naan or non in most of Central Asia. Central Asian flatbreads are usually made of leavened wheat dough baked in tandoor ovens and, at their best, there is nothing we would rather eat. Like food cooked over an outdoor grill, they have a hint of flavour from the fire, as well as the seductive taste and aroma of roasted grain.

The tandoor ovens of Central Asia vary in size and in design details, but all are vertical cylinders with a smooth clay inner surface and thick walls that entrap the heat and allow for multiple loaves of bread to be baked along their walls simultaneously. Some tandoors, especially in Afghanistan and Xinjiang, are open at the top, so the baker reaches down into the oven for the bread; whereas the tandoors of the Tajik and Kyrgyz nomads in the Pamirs, as well as those we have seen at bakeries in Tashkent, have a slit or opening in the cylinder so the baker can simply reach in from the side. (Modern tandoors are often heated by a gas flame rather than traditional wood or charcoal.)

Traditionally, a large fire is made at the bottom of the oven, which then heats the oven’s walls. The thickness of the walls helps trap the heat inside. Once the walls are very hot, the fire is swept aside and the breads are slapped onto the hot, smooth, curved surface of the inner walls to bake. They stick to the walls because the dough is moist, and as they bake the dough firms into crust and the breads detach from the walls.

Flatbreads come in many shapes and sizes. At bakeries in Afghanistan, nan are often stretched into a long, oval shape, and have a rippled top surface (see Afghan Snowshoe Nan below). In Xinjiang, Uighur nan (similar in appearance to Uzbek nan) are usually round with a flattened central area surrounded by a soft rim of crust (see Uighur Nan below). Just before the bread is to be baked, the dough is shaped into flattened rounds or ovals, pressed out and flattened (with a bread stamp or with wet fingertips) and then placed on a cushion and slapped onto the hot inner walls of the oven. Because the breads are flat, they cook through quickly, resulting in a crisp, dense bottom crust with a more tender top surface.

Tandoor baking can be replicated in a contemporary home oven by baking the flatbreads on a baking stone or on unglazed quarry tiles placed on a rack in the upper middle of a very hot oven.

More on flatbreads, including recipes, is available when you buy Steppe 3.

Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford are travellers, writers, photographers and cooks. Together they have co-authored five award-winning cookbooks that explore food in a cultural context, including Flatbreads & Flavors; Seductions of Rice; and Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Their next book, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travel in the Other China will be published in May 2008 by Artisan in the US and by Random House in Canada.