This is the story of bread baked upside down.
The bread is baked on the concave ceiling of an oven that might, in another life, have been used to bake pizza. I first spotted the Uzbek naan in a translucent window late at night, staring back at me with its glossy tan face behind firmly locked doors. Samarkand Bakery had closed for the night.
I have walked down that road many times before, even during broad daylight, but this was the first time that this 17-year-old bakery appeared in sight. This is the distracted story of my life – I might walk down the same street lost in deep thought for months, even years, only to suddenly spot something interesting that has been there forever. I blame it on the frenetic pace of life, on the overload of information we process every day, and on the schizophrenic screen of my insomniac phone. Is this your story too?
To my credit, this is also the routine story of Naif. Shops and bakeries are as tightly packed together as cheap paper plates – you might peel one off and never realize that there are actually two stuck together.
It was frustrating; I was desperate to touch, feel and taste this new form of bread that resembled a giant bagel, a stunted Bundt cake, possibly a Frisbee with the centre sunk in. I stuck my face closer to the dim window, my eyes wide with the naivety of a three-year old who cannot fathom why toy shops must ever sleep.
The second trip to the alley bore bread. The bakers were awake and slapping balls of dough into discs, each about 25cm in diameter. The flattened discs were stamped in the centre with a spiked, geometrically patterned tool and stretched over a cushion to be slapped into an oven that looked positively prehistoric. Its floor was cordoned off into two semi-circular sections, each with gas pipes that fuel a meandering train of small flames. The ceiling was freckled with the circular scars of breads past.
There was nothing about my first taste of this naan, torn into scorching hot pieces across dancing fingers, that was not to love. Its firm golden domed crust, its downy inner chambers, its warm caramel aroma, its mildly sweet flavour – all three dirhams of it urged me to hunt down the nearest chai or rich mutton stew or slab of creamy cheese.
I once begged the only Urdu-speaker who could understand me at the bakery, Sameer, to deliver their naan home because my mother’s delicious trotter stew deserved nothing less. Sameer obliged and cycled across in time for dinner. I returned the favour by buying a handsome stack of twelve naan all at once. This was not just another impersonal food delivery – but one where someone had gone out of their way for nothing more than a few dirhams. It is this sort of story, one of simple acts of kindness, that we need more of in a world where things have been quite like the Uzbek naan lately – a little upside down.
Sameer no longer works at the bakery. Such is the typical Dubai story of change. Old friends leave and we find new friends to break bread with before the cycle repeats itself again. I have made a new friend now – Shahzad from Afghanistan. He served as my translator as I tried to understand everything about this naan from the master baker, Daler from Tajikistan.
It is not only the Uzbeks who enjoy this naan, but also the Tajiks, Azerbaijanis, Russians and Persian-speaking Afghanis. The bread is depressed in the centre with the spiked tool – Shahzad calls it ‘naan par’ though the name ‘chekich’ is more commonly used – to ensure the centre doesn’t rise and ruin the unique ringed shape. The bread must be slapped against the hot oven roof so that it bakes and browns gradually over fifteen minutes as the radiant heat and steam engulfs the vaulted chamber – quite similar to a tandoor.
The floor of a regular pizza oven might cook the naan too quickly, causing it to dry out and harden before it can develop its bouncy, airy, chewy inner chambers. The inverted cooking naans are sprayed with water, which gives them their gloss, a chemical reaction that the bakers may not be able to articulate but one they invoke out of habit.
The Tajik and Uzbek word for ‘thank you’ is ‘rahmat.’ I pronounce it profusely to Daler under Shahzad’s expert guidance before leaving the bakery on my most recent trip. To think I might have almost been deprived of their valuable baking lesson. They were initially suspicious that I might be from the ‘baladiya,’ (municipality) then incredulous as to why I would be interested in writing about them without charge. This is the story of the small guy, keeping his head down and working his dough, completely oblivious to the fact that he is crafting one of the most beautiful breads of the city.
It is also the story of experiencing the joy of travel in your own backyard – because travel is not merely a concept of distance, but one of experiencing a different culture.
No, this is not just the story of bread baked upside down.
Where is it available?
Naan from Samarkand bakery is often available at selected supermarkets in Deira (United Hypermarket, Al Maya Lals in Mamzar, Jesco in Al Baraha, Al Maya near Hyatt Place Rigga and Asheknani behind Muraggabat Road) and Ansar Mall in Sharjah.
The bakery is in the alley behind KFC on Khaleej Road and is only open from 5-11pm; call 050 427 8307 (Urdu/Tajiki/Pashtu).