Jammed between two restaurants on a backstreet of Abu Hail is an Iranian bakery which performs a curious form of hot stone massage.
As I patiently watch from the street, Shahid scoops up a chunk of dough, showers it with sesame seeds and whacks it against the flat base of his moistened bread peel. This nan-e-sangak or “bread of little stones” is betrothed to my favourite minced lamb kababs sold beside a community mosque in Twar. The dough is a heavily hydrated mix of whole wheat and refined white flours, leavened and rested until it is wobbly. Shahid’s palms stretch the lazy mass into a clumsy rectangle, urging it awake as he yanks it thin, invigorating its spineless surface with his fingertips like an expert masseuse.
Shahid is Bangladeshi, though he’s mastered one of the most prized Iranian breads. He docks the dough rhythmically, tenderly at first, then losing all mercy and piercing its skin until the chunk stays obediently flat, taut and riddled with holes. The dough is leavened but it is not meant to rise any thicker than a sheet of deflated bubble wrap. Shahid lifts the peel, plunges it through a triangular orifice and inverts the dough over a sloped oven floor crowded with searing hot pebbles.
Cooking over stone is a technique as old as time. Hot stones are traditionally used to grill meaty cuts of Yemeni “madhbi” or to create the sticky rice, vegetable and runny yolk crust around the edges of a Korean “bibimbap” stone pot. Stone retains heat exceptionally well even after the source of heat is removed and its porous structure absorbs moisture from the surface of the food, helping it crisp up. When I moved back home to Dubai from New York in 2010, I insisted on lugging back only two of my many kitchen “children” – my 10-inch chef’s knife and my pizza stone. A fiery hot pizza stone can crisp and char the underside of a pizza in eight minutes or less, a trait that has made us inseparable friends no matter where on the globe I have to relocate.
As Shahid strategically jerks the peel away, the dough catches on the pebbles and gets dragged into a thin, two-foot long skin that will sweat in the sauna until it blushes a spotty tan brown. The pebbles are so hot that they suck every drop of moisture from the surface of the sangak, but the inner moisture transforms to steam, pushing the layers apart until a tender chamber of springy air pockets form within. I ask Shahid to undercook my sangak intentionally – I prefer it moist and chewy on the inside.
As Shahid rescues my sangak back to the cooler world, I reminisce about the first time I tasted sangak at the erstwhile Abshar restaurant in Deira. Warm slices of sesame-sprinkled sangak would descend on the table with a plate of mint, rayhaan, rocket leaves, radish, cool soaked walnuts and salty feta. Rayhaan is a type of basil whose exact scientific classification I am still struggling to find. It is neither the Italian basil nor the Thai basil. It has an undertone of aniseed and lemon that brightens the warming, nutty, earthy, charred flavours of sangak. It might be the same as the medicinal Tulsi plant of India. Whatever its scientific name, it made for a spectacular herb, crunchy walnut and feta filling for the stack of sangak that I would demolish while waiting for kababs. The chewy inner chambers of a slightly undercooked sangak also made it the perfect dipping tool for kashk bademjan – roasted and pureed eggplant with walnuts, fried onions, garlic, dehydrated yogurt (‘kashk’) and mint. For that matter, I’ve yet to find a situation where this bread doesn’t transform something simple to spectacular.
Shahid unpegs a few sangak loaves from the wall where they had been left to cool, plucking away pebbles that have stubbornly lodged themselves into its surface. Those sangak are not mine; they will go home with another customer who has approached the bakery for his weekly supply of bread. The two-feet loaves are laid flat on the counter, slashed into eight pieces, stacked over brown paper and snuggled into a tight bundle. Many Iranian families freeze fresh sangak, only to toast it back to life for breakfast every morning.
But my order of sangak will not last past the evening. Shahid and I exchange our loot, his sangak slices for my five-dirham note, and I walk away with a meltingly hot plastic bag full of bread whose destiny has been pre-written with juicy kababs.