Following Naan Through Asia
Yield: 12 servings
Daryush Reza, a professor of Persian language from Tehran, stepped off his flight onto a steam-seared Mumbai tarmac, about five years ago. It was his first flight out of Iran to anywhere, and he was very excited, but also a little hungry. “Airplane food never filled anyone’s stomach,” he says. So he made his way to a North Indian restaurant just beyond the international airport and ordered naan and butter chicken. The chicken appeared, very hot and very satisfactory. And the naan consisted of little triangles the size of his palm, and were golden-brown and brushed with a film of butter. But Reza, a man of appetite, was disappointed. This minuscule naan was nothing like what he was used to at home, where naan was a meter long. “That is how proper naan should be,” he recalls thinking.
However, Reza—who would soon become my mother’s Persian professor in Mumbai’s Iran Culture House—grew to love this Punjabi-style naan, no matter how small it might be. But the point of the anecdote lay elsewhere: in the forging of personal and national identities through a piece of flatbread, and the pride in which different Asian cultures take in their own versions.
In the northern state of Punjab in India, naan is a puffy flatbread, blistered and smoky, and the perfect supporting act for the state’s heavy, buttered gravies. It shows up on any international greatest hits menu of Indian cuisine. In Uzbekistan, discs of non are stretched flat in the center, with a spongy outer hem. This bread is then stamped with custom designs using a tool called a nonpar, each unique to its own bakery as edible advertisements—some even have phone numbers etched into them. In Iran, the nan-e-barbari or nan-e-sangak are drawn out up to a meter’s length and sold on street corners around the country. In Afghanistan, naan-e-Afghani stretches up to a foot and is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner as a communal platter, with two or three people tearing off pieces. In China, naan is mostly found in the northern wheat-producing parts of the country, home mostly to the beleaguered Uighurs. In Turkey, it is served as the canoe-shaped pide, papered over with vegetable, beef or egg.
Of course, there are more varieties in other countries. But all are connected by a few similarities: they are all thick wheat flatbreads, leavened with yeast or bread starters (or even fresh yogurt), and cooked in a special tandoor.
It’s most likely that the first leavened bread was made in Egypt, although with civilizations as ancient as those across Asia, it is always hard to pinpoint who bakes the first iteration of the naan. But the diffusion of flatbreads, much like that of wheat itself, began at the cradle of agriculture known as the Fertile Crescent, the area that straddles present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran. In her paper, “Traditional Flat Breads Spread from the Fertile Crescent: Production Process and History of Baking Systems,” Antonella Pasqualone—professor of food science and technology at University of Bari, Italy—writes, “From there, flatbreads spread to the Mediterranean area (North Africa, Sardinia island, and coastal Spain), the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and the Anatolian peninsula, then to the Balkan area and the Caucasian region, up to Xinjiang.”
The brick-oven flatbread then marched toward Italy, carried by medieval Arab merchants, only to transform into the base of the pizza. In reference to the pizza, “the flatbread was only a slight modification of the tandoori (or tandir) oven flatbreads baked in much of Asia,” writes Robert Spengler—archaeobotanist and the current director of the Paleoethnobotany Laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History—in Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Food We Eat.
The word naan likely comes from Iran. Two thousand years ago in pre-Islamic Persia, the powerful Sasanian army crisscrossed an empire that stretched from Georgia to the Arabian Peninsula and east to India, their backs bowed with supplies of pebbles and flour to make bread. Naan was, and is traveler food—sustaining, hardy, easy to carry, and therefore ideal for those on the move.
We imagine, perhaps, that ours is the first truly globalized world. But globalization, whether through trade or brutal conquest and colonization, has carved its inroads into every country, carrying goods and ideas from one country to another. Flatbreads are an edible testament to the tides of ideas moving across the world. And no matter where in the world we are, our love for bread is a language all of its own.
This recipe was published in The At Home Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our quarterly newspaper shipping exclusively to L&T members. Get your copy.
- 1,000 g. maida flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 500 g. lukewarm milk
- 2 tbsp. plain yogurt
- 3 tbsp. ghee
- 2 tbsp. chopped garlic
- Garlic butter, to brush on naan
- 3 tbsp. chopped cilantro
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- Combine the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately. Mix both the mixtures.
- Knead into a soft dough and allow to rest for a minimum of an hour.
- Shape in a teardrop shape by first folding into a triangle. Crust the chopped cilantro and chopped garlic on it, and then roll it out and cook in a tandoor.
- Brush garlic butter over it, once cooked.
- To cook the naan in the home oven, preheat your oven to its highest setting, not to exceed 572℉.
- Arrange rolled naan on a baking tray and then bake for 4 to 5 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the naan from the oven and apply the garlic butter.
Chef’s note: Since the temperature of the tandoor can go up to 896℉ and the naan is slapped onto the clay lining the inside of the tandoor, it cooks in under a minute and remains soft. When the same recipe is used in an oven, the naan will be hard and crispy. A really hot tawa pan may be used to replicate the cooking of a naan in a tandoor. A great naan can only be made in a tandoor.
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