The first smell every morning in the streets of Kashgar is the smell of woodsmoke, followed a short time later by the comforting toasty smell of baking bread.
It’s six am and the bakers of Kashgar have already been at work for two hours, mixing and kneading dough, waiting for the first rising, and getting the waist-high outdoor tonur ovens ready.
Today I’m one of them. My apprenticeship begins at nine sharp and will be over by lunchtime, but today is the day I learn to make round crusty nan bread alongside Uyghur baker Abdrachma and his five fellow bakers. I’m unbelievably excited – my first job was in a bakery, and I feel very at home amongst the heat and the ovens, weaving between the banter and work rhythms of the bakers.
The Bayawan Bakery is down a long lane to the side of the Id Kah mosque, opposite a small Uyghur school. The lane is a busy with children walking to school hand in hand with their mothers, motorbikes ferrying boxes of goods and passengers, old men in embroidered green caps out for their morning stroll and young men and women rushing to work.
The laneway is lined with small businesses, the shops selling tea and medicines just beginning to open with sacks of spices, dried flowers, exotic plant resins and coiled dried snakes lining their entrances. As I walk past the sweet shop the plump shopkeeper is laying out deep rectangular tin buckets of rock crystal sugar and sweet biscuits, attracting small swarms of yellow wasps that he absent-mindedly bats away. Further down is a row of stalls selling dried figs, sultanas, almonds, walnuts and pistachios. Everywhere the air is faintly clouded with smoke from the bakery ovens.
Bread is the most important sustenance for Uyghur people, and eating bread marks each meal of the day. Bread is the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Xinjiang, bakeries on every street recognizable by the stacked rounds of bread on tables in front of the ovens. It’s very much part of life and cycle of each day.
There are round nan breads with beautiful patterns and raised edges, sprinkled with sweet dots of onion. There are smaller rounds of thicker bread, Turpan nan, with a thicker layer of onion and black nigella seeds on top. There are giant flat rounds, hemek nan, typical of Kashgar, and small fat bagels, gizhder, shining and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The Uygher saying goes that ‘baking is a simple business, but you will never be out of work’ and bakers are considered as essential to Uyghur society as teachers and doctors.
Inside the Bayawan Bakery I meet Abdrachma, the owner, who will be my teacher for the morning, and I’m surprised to discover he is the younger of the two men standing in the doorway, rather than the older man next to him who turns out to be his father and also his newest apprentice.
Abdrachma is a childhood friend of our guide and translator Waheed, whose real talent is in Silk Road and mountaineering bespoke tours, but can arrange anything – last time I was in Kashgar he arranged for me to visit a local house and learn hand-pulled noodles, lady-style.
After spending three years as a baker’s apprentice learning the trade, Abdrachhma then worked for a succession of bakers before opening the Bayawan – his first bakery – only two months ago. He’s tall and lanky and has the same pale and sleepless look common to all the bakers I’ve ever made acquaintance with. It’s a tough profession working every day of the year from before sunrise until after sunset, and in Kashgar it’s probably tougher than most places – Abdrachhma and the other five bakers sleep in sets of bunk beds in the room at the back of the bakery.
He may be young but he has already developed a reputation amongst locals for the quality of his bread, each batch selling out before the next arrives. He makes six hundred loaves a day and rarely has any left over.
Making Uyghur Nan
Inside the bakery the smell of yeast is strong. The workroom has two long wooden benches, one on either side of the room. On one, curved rounds of dough are proving under a light cotton sheet, and on the other two bakers are kneading and weighing dough into pieces. Out back is a dough-mixing machine in the combined bedroom/workroom (‘we used to do it all by hand, but the machine makes it easier’) and sacks of Xinjiang flour stacked all the way to the ceiling.
I watch one of the younger bakers make a nan. He takes a ball of dough, flattens it with his palms first then with a narrow rolling pin, before picking it up to make a raised edge using the thumb and forefinger of both hands. It looks easy but I know it won’t be when I try it later.
Next he adds a pattern of concentric circles to the dough using a tukche – a doorknob-shaped device set with a circular pattern of blunt nails or chicken feather quills. The holes made by the tukche will allow the bread to cook more evenly without trapped bubbles of air.
Reaching behind me the young baker picks up the completed nan and spins it deftly through the air like a flying saucer, landing in exactly the right place on the oven workbench outside. The ovens, three beehive-shaped pits as high as a man’s waist, are set into a long tiled work counter. Heat shimmers above the narrow opening and an orange glow comes from deep within.
The oven baker takes the nan and smears the surface with juice from chopped white onions, then sprinkles a good handful of the onions mixed with tiny black nigella seeds and white sesame seeds. Then he spreads the nan on a curved cushion, upside down, and using the cushion reaches his arm in and sticks the nan to the side wall of the oven.
This rhythm cotinues for the whole batch – the inside baker presses and shapes the nan, then spins it to the outside baker who add toppings and bakes the bread.
Removing the bread ten minutes later is accomplished with long metal poles ending in small hooks. The baker fishes the bread out of the oven and onto the bench to cool.
While it’s still way too hot we all have a taste – there is really nothing on earth that beats the taste of bread fresh from the oven, scented with smoke, and tasting of sweet little roasted pips of onion and salt. The salt, sometimes seen as dark flakes on the back of the bread, comes from the layer of salt used to seal and line the oven before every baking. It’s one of the other secrets of Uyghur bread.
And This is the Bread Fiona Baked….
Then it’s my turn to make nan. Abdrachhmed watches patiently as I flatten and roll the dough, then make a complete balls-up of the edge, once, twice, three times. It’s much harder than it looks and involves an awkward knuckling of the left index finger I just can’t seem to get.
As the dough stretches a gaping hole threatens so I resort to laying it down and heaping up an edge with my fingers. Not correct technique, but it works well enough.
I take the tukche and press a circular pattern with a light girl’s touch. ‘Harder! Harder!’ the young bakers tell me, until I’m punching holes like a ticket conductor.
On go the onions, and then straight into the glowing oven. I make another while the first cooks, nervously waiting to see how it turns out.
Not bad! says Abdrachhmed, ignoring the uneven crust and bubbles in my bread. I’m already grinning like an idiot. Nan! Me! Who would’ve thought?
In my daydreams I own my own bakery, basking in the meditations of kneading dough and making bread, forgetting all about the sweat, the burns, the early nights and earlier mornings, the complete lack of a life outside baking….
I’m never going to be a great baker, and it would take me another three years to get even close to Abdrachhmed’s skill. But when I’m making a succulent roast Xinjiang-style lamb and want some flat bread to go with it, I can have a crack at making my own.
Here’s a recipe should you want to have a go at it too. I think in place of building your own tonur in the back garden, you could use a very hot oven and a pizza stone!
Uyghur Nan Bread – A Recipe
Uyghur nan is made using a simple yeast dough recipe. Abdrachhma insists that the secret to the best bread is in the flour – he uses only unbleached local wheat flour.
Makes 2 nan
3 cups unbleached plain flour
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon dried yeast (Abdrachhma uses Turkish brand Pakmaya)
1 teaspoon salt
1 small white onion, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon nigella (kalonji) seeds
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 200C
Place a pizza stone place in oven to preheat
Add the yeast to warm water and allow to froth
Combine salt and flour in a bowl
Add water and yeast to flour mixture, mix well
Turn onto a floured board to knead
Knead dough well (at least ten minutes) and separate into two balls
Cover dough balls with a dry cloth and leave to rise, about half an hour
Place finely chopped onion in a sieve over a bowl to collect onion juice
Set juice aside (there will only be a small amount)
Add nigella and sesame seeds to chopped onion, mix, set aside
Using a small rolling pin, roll balls of dough flat to a diameter of 20cm
Cover one round while you work on the other
Now lift dough by its edges and make the raised edge of the nan by grasping and pinch the edges, circling it round like passing a piece of rope through your hands. The nan will slowly stretch an increase in size to a diameter of 30cm
Using a tukche or fork, make concentric paterns of holes in the base of the nan, avoiding the edge
Be sure the holes go all the way through to the base
Spread the surface of the nan with fingers dipped in onion juice
Sprinkle over 3 teaspoons of onion mixture
Slide nan onto hot pizza stone and straight into oven
Bake for ten to fifteen minutes until nan is golden brown
Remove from oven and repeat for second nan
Completely and utterly delicious on its own, or serve with meat , soup or noodles.
If you would like to learn how to make Uyghur nan bread or other Uyghur foods while you are visiting Kashgar, contact Waheed at Silk Road Expedition for more information.