Thursday, October 27, 2011

Kashgar Bread

      "Well, that seems to be a very specific topic." I can hear you think.

Yes. Apart from being able to read your mind, I'm also quite aware that this post sports a rather narrow focus - but it's a gread focus! Bread is the bomb! Especially the bread in Kashgar. Man, do those kids know their bread or what? 

It's not 'what'. Thats for sure. It's damn good bread.

I don't even know where to begin talking about it. All the different kinds and all the times I ate it and the fact that I ate bread and apples (and nothing else) for about 5 days and still wasn't really sick of it. Yeah, you're hearing this. It was that good. Just believe me already! The truth is, I began to write about the amazing food in Xinjiang in general, and I realised that I had a page full of photos and stories that were just about bread. Without even beginning to discuss the pilaf and lamb and honey and markets everything else I had myself excited. 

No matter the kind of bread, they call it ‘nan’ and yes, it’s pronounced the same as Indian naan. You whippersnappers can google that history and get back to me. A local dude told me that Napoleon had something to do with brining the foods that Kashgarians invented to the wider world, but I’m pretty sure every country in the world thinks they invented spaghetti and pizza, so let’s just move and talk about how awesome it is now.

So yes. This is a post entirely about one kind of food (bread) from one very small city (Kashgar). Let us begin, and for lack of another idea for structure, we shall travel chronologically through my bread experiences.

Humble nan beginnings.

We arrived in Urumqi, the big (read: capital, but not actually very big) city of Xinjiang on nightfall. It was cold, and as usual, the train station and surrounding area was an assault on the mind and body. Auditory overload from the shouting and hawking-then-spitting-combo and traffic jamming was accompanied by the visual shock of being in such an entirely different place. As usual, in a ‘developing’ area like Xinjiang, you don’t actually want to know what that bad smell is, and the concept of personal space is also still in the ‘developmental’ stages. As usual, you feel dirty and smelly and generally sleep-deprived from your train ride. No, you will not find a genuine taxi. For a few ginger moments you wonder why you came.

And then. Just when you thought all hope was lost. You feel light behind you and as you turn towards that comforting neon glow, a lady materialises, and she is selling hope.

Big, round, carb-filled hope. Crispy yet chewy, slightly garlic flavoured hope. It’s bread hope. And it’s 5 kuai for two bigger-than-your-face pieces.

This was my first introduction to the bread of Xinjiang province. Yes, I concede, it isn’t exactly Kashgarian bread, but they pretty much invented it in Kashgar, and it’s where this breaddy tale begins. So shoosh!

This is a much better picture, from the centre of Kashgar Old Town, of what this nan actually looks like. The puffy thick part around the edge is so chewy! Every kind of bread in Kashgar is ripped with hands, and I actually got guns from just ripping my bread apart. It’s tough stuff. Nevertheless, you can chew on that thick part, but the big thin middle section is a whole different story. It satisfyingly cracks like a crispy thin crust – which is kind of exactly what it is. The best ones have flecks of garlic or salt or red onion on them, and the flavours are just so wonderfully rustic and authentic. 

People seem to buy this nan in massive bags of ten or a dozen. You can see people everywhere, walking with armfuls of nan.

The other thing that makes this nan so special is the beautiful pattern on the surface. Little stamped conentric circless start from the and spread out. 

The awesomeness that is a bagel from Kashgar.

My personal favourite was the bagel. I mean, the locals didn’t call it a bagel – but it’s exactly what it looks like. You find out as soon as you life one of these puppies, though, it ain’t no ordinary bagel. The begin with, they weight a ton! It is easily the most dense bread I have ever eaten in my life. Ripping chunks apart could prep you for the marines, and one mouthful is probably instant death for anyone even remotely celiac.

What do they taste like? They kind of taste like white bread - except healthy. The shiny golden brown top is crispy, and the inside is heavy and moist. The walls of the bagel ovens are salted, so the undersides will often hit you with amazing chunks of rock salt that have incidentally transferred. It’s actually an incredible experience.

The old dudes at the Tea House knew the perils of this bagel life. Despite the tens of dentists around Old Town (still baffles me) most of the locals had terrible teeth. My strong young healthy chompers could barely manage the Kashgar bagel, so I am sure it must have been impossible for them to chew through one on a daily basis. Their solution was to rip the bagel to chunks then plop most of it in their bowl of tea. They wait for it to soften, then slurp it all up together in big spoonfuls. This makes complete sense when done with the staple, but apparently delicious, local lamb soup. Tea baffles me a little.

I couldn’t bring myself to dunk the chunk in the bowl, but I did sip the tea while breaking my teeth on the still-hard-bagel, and I slowly came around to the idea that the two flavours might maybe be mixable.

Nevertheless. The bagel has cemented itself a place in my culinary heart.

I think one of the other reasons for this, is because bread was just so clearly a part of life in Kashgar. It was their staple even more so than their famous rice– and noodle–based dishes. Bread was always for breakfast, it was usually in lunch, and often in dinner. When you walk down the main street of Old Town, about one in three of the people there are employed by the local bread trade. They either cook it or sell it or eat it in trade of their fruits. It is like the lifeblood of Uyghur people.
In the early morning the smoke billows up from their nan ovens, and strong young men knead the colossal balls of dough, muscles rippling from the strain. One will be standing in front of the mouth of the oven, checking the progress of the baking, holding his long iron tongs ready to extract a fresh-and-ready bagel for you. He’s sweating from the heat that rises straight up and over him, and he’s an expert at what he does. He learnt the skill from his father. He is an artisan. 


Lastly, we have the surprisingly easy to eat rippy-strippy nan.

This is the main kind of bread (aside from two bagels) that we took with us on the desert trek (which I will write about soon, I promise). This one is really delightful actually. It reminded me of a croissant in the way that it flaked off, and ripped apart so smoothly. The bread was so soft and easy to chew, and without a doubt it had a creamier texture than any of it’s other nan siblings. That first picture I have of it is from our sandy sunset picnic, which was just such a perfect time. A quintessential Kashgar experience.But this is what it looks like close up. It is not to be confused with the number one mentioned nan.

Apples and bread. Bread and then some apples. A sip of water, too! And then we would maybe have and apple, or maybe a little bread, but definitely later on we would have some bread and apples.

One other thing you have to know about bread in Kashgar, is that it’s a completely hands-on experience. Everybody touches the bread with your hands – the people that make it, the dude you but it from, three people who looked at that bagel before you, then your own grubby hands. In the beginning I would internally flinch. 

“The dirt under those fingernails is at least as old as me.” I remember thinking about one old guy who we brought breads from. If you asked for four nans, he would run his fingers across the top of the majority of loaves, push some others aside, and feel about at least six before he chose a different four and put them in your bag. You just have to get over it. Once you do, your world will open up to a whole new level of deliciousness. Withoutadoubt there is something to be said about the action of ripping your bread apart as you eat it. The bread becomes an experience.

And, dear friends, that is what the bread in Kashgar truly is. An ­­experience.

1 comment:

  1. good collection of various Uyghur Nan breads, miss them so much, it's almost been a year for me not tried those breads. thx for the post


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