Bread always evokes warm memories of my travels and experiences around the world. Naan, a flatbread native to the Middle East and India, is no different. Naan takes me back to Afghanistan for both of my deployments. While, yes, it was a war and, yes, it was a very terrible situation to be in, not every moment was bad. In fact, I had some pretty good times and made some long lasting friends while in “The Suck.” Often, while breaking bread, or naan, with others.
Between 2006 and 2007 I was in charge of running the dinning facility of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Farah. I had on other Navy petty officer and nine local national Afghan cooks to help me feed between 300 and 700 ISAF troops four meals daily.
Having spent four previous years stationed in Italy, it was a welcome surprise when two platoons of Italian special forces troops embedded with us from Herat a few hours to our north. These guys would bring back from there frequent supply trips to the Italian HQ cans of Roma tomatoes, legs of prosciutto, cases of vacuum sealed bags of Lavazza, and even whole wheels of cheese!
Once a week we’d send Agha, the elder cook in the kitchen for naan from the local baker so that a few of these Italians and I could do pizza night for the base. Each of these loaves were about the size of a half sheet pan. The conversation with Agha went a little like this:
Me: “Agha, we’ll need naan from out in town.”
Agha: “Ok, Mr. Aaron. How many do you want?”
Me: “About 60-70. Enough to feed everyone.” Knowing how much everyone loved pizza night and even this would not be enough.
Agha (with wide eyes): “Ohhh, Mr. Aaron, this is very many. The baker will need two days to make.”
Me: “Ok, let’s get him started. How much money do you need?”
Agha: “Hmm... 70 pieces of naan? I think 15 dollar huub hast (‘is good’ pronounced with flemmy Hs)
For less than $.50 per loaf, we fed 300 troops delicious naan pizzas made by true Italians.
While on patrol on my second trip to beautiful AFG I remember our unit taking up shelter overnight in a recently abandoned qalat. The family had rushed out probably to a neighboring village to wait out our visit and any subsequent trouble from the Taliban. They were in such a hurry to leave that all of their bedding, a rug and blanket on the dirty floor, tea set, And even a bowl of sour dough starter were left behind. In this “house” made of dirt without a stick of furniture, though I was a bomb tech by this time, the chef in me couldn’t help but be a little envious of the family that would return to this place and some delicious sourdough naan.
How long had they been cultivating this slant of starter? You can’t just go to the local supermarket for a packet of Red Star. Really the only way to make naan in this region is by sourdough. That’s just how it’s done, some flour, water, and a pinch of dough from the last batch. It doesn’t get much more rustic than that. Then again, I’ll have to tell you about how they make yogurt in a land without refrigeration. Think sack of cheese cloth hanging from a jingle truck fender! ...but I digress.
Here’s my attempt at sourdough naan that turned out very well and went great with my souvlaki chicken, hummus, and grilled asparagus Greek salad with tzatziki sauce.
this bread can be cooked in the oven but many Afghans’ idea of a kitchen is a dried mud hut with an open fire pit for a stovetop. Often the naan is cooked on a wide flat version of a wok. Grilled on both sides for 2-3 minutes per side until there is some bubbling and a little charring. An unheeded skillet on your stove or an electric griddle set to high as I used.
Though naan is flat it is often found lumpy and uneven, frequently having gaps or holes in places. this is because rolling pins and a clean flat surface is also a rarity and bakers would form the dough by hand. Troops affectionately referred to naan as “foot bread” on the rumor that these bakers weren’t using just their hands and knuckles to work the bread. I, on the other hand, employed a tortilla press a friend's mom gave to me as a gift years ago. With a sheet of plastic wrap and a light dusting of flour, the tortilla press worked like a boss.
This bread goes well with so many dishes. Use it with curry or stew. Just tear off pieces and use it as a scoop. Cut it up into wedges, toast, and serve with dips like the above mentioned hummus. Naan makes a great fluffy taco tortilla for gorditas.
•2C all-purpose flour. You can substitute in a portion of whole wheat if desired
•1C sourdough starter, recently fed and stirred down
•Optional minced garlic, cilantro, sesame seeds, etc for topping or to dill into the dough. I pressed in a healthy dose of Everything But the Bagel seasoning just before laying on the griddle. Yum!
- Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and kneed by hand or with a stand mixer for about 5-7 minutes. Longer if doing it by hand. Add small amounts of flour or milk depending on how dry or sticky it may be.
- Cover and allow to double in size. This could take 4-8 hours depending on the vitality of your starter or temperature. Alternatively, you this process could take one to two days in the fridge which also enhances the sour flavor in the dough.
- Punch down the dough and scrape out onto a floured surface. Cover and let rest for just a couple minutes to allow the glutens to relax. Then cut into 6-8 equal sized balls.
- Flatten dough balls to about 1/4” thick by rolling, by hand, or with a tortilla press as I did. Be sure to keep the other balls loosely covered with a towel or plastic while working.
- You can begin cooking immediately on the hot skillet or allow to rest and proof up a little. Cook for 2-3 minutes each side or until the naan begins to brown in spots. You may get some bubbles as well.
- Serve immediately or allow to cool and store in an airtight container.
This is one of my favorite and most versatile bread reicpes. Give it a try and I’m sure it will become one of your go-tos when you are trying to impress friend or family...or, trying to fill some quarantine time. When you do, take pictures and share the results with us on our Facebook and Instagram.
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