A faint smell of roasted bread, yeast and coal help me find the way to this tiny hole-in-the-wall bakery near the DAFZA Metro station in Al Nahda area of Dubai. Once upon a time, these bakeries used to be common across the UAE, now they’re a bit of a rarity. However, there are those who refuse to go anywhere else for their freshly baked naan or flatbread for the day.
I decided to visit this bakery because it makes naan in the centuries’ old manner – in an open clay oven, staying true to the bread’s roots.
I manage to speak to a man dressed in traditional Afghan garb of a white salwar and khameez, who sits near the bakery’s window with a rolling pin in his hands. Interestingly, this window is the only access point for customers into the bakery. Through it, I see some others inside, standing around a flaming clay oven. Suddenly, the man in white blocks my view and asks me for my choice of bread.
I choose ‘plain’ naan.
Don’t let the word ‘plain’ fool you because what happens next is extraordinary and it all occurs in a few seconds. With his hands covered in flour, the man pinches a ball of dough from a giant dough ball on his workstation. A tiny cloud of flour rises as he slams the dough on a flat surface made of stone, flattening and widening it. He spins it in the air and tosses it to the men standing around the oven.
Was I watching a pizza commercial? Here’s the dough spinning in the air, but without any trace of an apron or a chef’s hat.
Others have placed an order too, so one after the other, he spins the naan in the air towards the people standing near the open oven, who then stick it onto the inner wall of the structure to bake it.
In my family, naan is the first food that babies taste, after being weaned. That’s how long I’ve being eating naan. I have been an expat in Dubai for over two decades and even today, when I eat naan in the UAE, it reminds me of home.
Most people who have gathered here to take naan home are of South Asian origin and some of them tell me that naan is necessary to complete their daily meal.
Bread means home for many expats…
For Muhammed Nisar, a Pakistani expat based in Dubai, naan is an important link to his family back home in Pakistan. “In my family, naan is the first food that babies taste, after being weaned. That’s how long I’ve being eating naan. I have been an expat in Dubai for over two decades and even today, when I eat naan in the UAE, it reminds me of home. It makes me miss them more, but it also makes me hope that I will see them again.
“I remember how the women in my family would make a tandoori roti or naan that would be big enough for four people to eat. All the children and adults in my family would gather round these large naans and we would tear little bits off from the same naan. Without naan, we can’t eat any other dish, as we need it to dip in saalan (gravy). There are several types of naan to choose from in the UAE, buy my favourite is Colchis, which is soft and very nice to eat.” The driving instructor explained as he collected his purchase for the evening from the bakery.
Unfolding the origins
Like a traveller who has adopted a new homeland, naan has many origin stories; however, it has found its home in the South Asian region. Most people believe that it comes from Central Asia, with the word ‘naan’ originating from an old Farsi word ‘nagna’ or naked. It is probably because people baked this type of flatbread in an open clay oven.
However, the origin story pales in comparison with how this bread had its own significance among the Sultans or kings of Delhi and their families, centuries ago on the Indian subcontinent.
It seems that appreciation for this simple bread united the 13th century royalty and the deprived, alike.
Wife of Alauddin Khilji, 13th century ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, would seek bread blessed by Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi dervish.
Meher Murshed, our executive editor at Gulf News and the author of the seminal book on the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Amir Khusro, Song of the Dervish, explains further. According to him, wife of Alauddin Khilji, 13th century ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, would seek bread blessed by Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi dervish, who only fed the hungry and had nothing to do with the Delhi emperors.
The bread that the Delhi Sultans and their families desperately wanted from Nizamuddin’s khaanqah, or hermitage, is a type of roti or bread, similar to the naan we eat today. It was called ‘Tunuk Naan’, as recorded in the book Khamsa-E-Khusrau by Amir Khusro. It was a thin, wide flatbread cooked in an open clay oven.
It seems that two hundred years on, after the era of Nizamuddin and Khusro, naan became a favourite of the Mughal emperors, who brought several of their own Indo-Iranian fusions to South Asian cuisine.
In fact, Asif Khan, an expat from Pakistan, who is a chef at Mahec, a restaurant in Le Meridien, Dubai, says that today, traditional naan is made much in the same way like how it was made centuries ago.
Mughal royal families would often pair naan with different kebabs and gravies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Known to have origins in Afghanistan and Iran, Chef Khan explains, “Mughal royal families, which ruled over most of South Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries, had naan at almost every meal. They would often pair it with different kebabs and gravies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
As the naan travelled the continent, the recipe changed to suit local palates. Today, there are several types of naan. “The most common and popular ones found in restaurants and at home include plain naan, butter naan, garlic naan, Roghni naan - a thick naan, topped with butter and white sesame seeds, stuffed naan such as keema (or minced meat) naan, onion kulcha, masala cheese naan, paneer kulcha , potato kulcha and many more.”
Khan explains that even today, the traditional naan is made in a tandoor or a clay oven and that everyone has his or her own way of making it. According to Khan, “…an easy and simple form of naan is made from refined flour, water or milk, oil, salt, yogurt, sugar and some baking powder”.
The constant complaint with naan
Naans can be fussy. If you don’t eat it immediately, a soft and fluffy naan will turn into a chewy rubbery meal. This is one reason why I don’t have naan all the time because, unlike roti, I can’t repurpose it to have it as a tortilla later on.
When naan becomes old or hard, it can be used as a crust for Naanza (homemade pizza). Some people also use old naan to make bread pudding or bread crumbs, which have so many uses.
However, Khan explains, “…when naan becomes old or hard, it can be used as a crust for Naanza (homemade pizza). Some people also use old naan to make bread pudding or bread crumbs, which have so many uses.”
If all this talk of naan has piqued your interest and you’d like to try making some yourself, here’s a simple recipe from Chef Khan.
Recipe: Homemade naan
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Makes: 4 to 5 naans
2 cups refined flour or all-purpose flour
Salt as per taste
1 tbsp sugar
½ cup yogurt
2 tbsp. oil
½ tsp baking powder
Water enough to make the dough soft
4-5 tbsp milk (optional)
In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients like flour with salt, sugar and baking powder.
Then pour all the wet ingredients like oil, yogurt into the flour.
Add some water as you knead the dough to make it supple.
You can add milk to soften the dough.
You’ll know when the dough is ready and doesn’t stick to your fingers. However, it must be soft enough to sink your finger when you press it.
Cover the dough with a thin cloth to retain the moisture inside the dough. Set it aside for about 20 minutes.
Now, press the dough, as this will release any air trapped inside the dough. Knead again for about two minutes.
Grease your palms with a few drops of oil and pinch a small, ball-sized piece of dough. Roll it in your palms to make it perfectly round.
Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough like a chapatti on a flat surface; it mustn’t be too thick or thin. The size must fit on your pan that you will use for roasting the naan.
Now, heat a flat pan on medium flame and grease it with some oil. Splash some water on the pan and let it evaporate.
Place the rolled-out dough on the pan and let it cook for about a minute.
Gently flip the naan and let it cook for another 30 seconds.
The naan is ready to serve. You can either fold the naan on the pan or cut it into smaller pieces to serve.
Serve warm with any curry or korma.
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