Many gauges exist to measure the varying heights of human success. Some like to look for the writings of luminaries, some for the penetration of the arts such as painting and theatre, while still others list inventiveness in architecture or fairness in justice. While these, and more, do attest to the magnificence of human endeavour there is always the category of food culture that seems easiest to apply. What we eat we understand. Those who really understand have created sophisticated cultures of dishes that give us a sublime sense of living. Within the category of food culture there is one supreme item that makes or breaks our daily existence – our daily bread. Once while reading about Robert Burns, something that must have been an English project in my undergraduate days, I came across a quote, one I carry in my memory bank to this day. “Aye, Robbie, ye asked for bread and they’ve given ye a stone.” Bread, the so-called “staff of life,” is for me the marker of a good life and one of the best measures of a successful society. Mediocre, mass-produced bread in the markets? Watch out – you might be in a very stony land.
Streetside tandoor naan baker, Azerbaijan
Fortunately, a good part of the world does not offer stone bread. Central Asia developed bread baking skills long ago, carrying those traditions to today. Whether in Iran, Georgia, Tajikistan or Azerbaijan, the tried and true method of baking in stone or tiled ovens, called tandoors, remains a standard. These ovens can be found in family bread operations in cities and villages anywhere. Persians long ago created the tandoori flat bread, naan, that these ovens produce. The technique is now universal. No matter where one travels through this part of the world, the use of the magic words “tandoori” and “naan” will keep the traveler happy and content. No sojourner will ever starve with this basic language skill. In Azerbaijan, the naan tends to be a thicker variety of bread called kata, much like a giant bagel, but much softer. In Tbilisi, Georgia, basement tandoor bakeries produce something similar, with street level windows providing access for the public.
Basement Tandoori bread baker, Tbilisi, Georgia
Regardless of location, half the fun is always in the locating of these bread shops and getting one fresh from the oven.
Iranians, true masters at this bread baking art, have over thirty varieties of naan, many shaped like snowshoes. Yet a tandoori oven is not the only means by which naan can be produced. Our last day in Iran, in the city of Kashan, provided the opportunity to observe a different approach to bread baking. As we hurtled through the outskirts of the city on our final push to Teheran and our 2:30 am flight back to Baku, I spotted a bakery operating a floor above street level. Great wide steps led up to it with people going in empty handed and others leaving with armfuls of flat bread.
“That’s it!” I said excitedly to our driver, Masood (bread, as you can tell, is always exciting). “Our last chance to get into a naan bakery! Stop!!” Masood pulled over and Heather and I hurried back to the bakery, rushing up the bakery steps. Once again, and this is the story of our experience in Iran, the bakers were delighted and amazed to find Americans in their midst. After exchanging pleasantries and our extending an invitation to them to come to New York, a great flat bread in the shape of a heart suddenly came off the giant stove. It was very thin, much thinner than a normal naan, and very hot.
“For you,” said the chief baker, handing me the steaming goodie. “Thank you for coming to Iran. We are happy to see you.”
Iranian bread bakers with a gift for America