Monday, May 13, 2013

A wonderful bread of the Uyghurs

This is the bread that feeds most of Central Asia, as well as the Chinese far west, northern India, and then out through Afghanistan to the Balkans. 

This has been around for so long that no one knows where it started or who introduced it to whom, but as far as the Chinese are concerned, these definitely are culinary imports, for people who live on the northern plains of China refer to these as 胡餅 húbĭng, or “foreign breads.”

Always round, always rimmed like a pizza, and—at least in the Arid Regions—almost invariably adorned with decorative pricks of a special nail-studded tool, nang vary in size from a few inches across to others that are around 16 inches in diameter. Generally made out of wheat flour, some places prefer corn, and their flavors are given slight variation courtesy of toppings like sesame seed or nigella.

Special nang nail pricker
What makes these breads truly special is their ovens, often referred to around this area as nang pits (nángkēng ). 

These heavy clay jars look very much like the tandoori ovens of India, with slow-burning fuel at the bottom providing the heat source and the clay walls themselves serving as the cooking surface. Raw rounds of raised dough are slapped onto the interior of a hot oven, and since the dough cooks the instant it touches the clay, the loaves stay perfectly attached while they bake until the cook gently pries them off.

I wish I had a tandoori oven, but as I don’t, I have adapted this simple bread recipe for a regular oven. A large clay pizza tile on the bottom rack of the oven provides a crunch similar to that of the nang pits. Repeated light baths of plain water while the loaves are rising and just before they hit the heat lend a nice texture to the crust. I've used Korean bread flour here, which has just the right amount of gluten to supply that requisite chewiness, but have also thrown in some wheat germ to add more flavor and earthy color.

A wonderful Uyghur custom that you can follow is to welcome your guests with hot tea and a fresh loaf that is torn apart and shared, a token of friendship and a tantalizing taste of the feast that will follow.

Baked round Uyghur bread
ngbĭng 饢餅 
Hot & chewy
Makes 4 small loaves serving 6 to 8

1¼ cups warm filtered water, plus extra for brushing the loaves
1½ teaspoons yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh peanut or toasted sesame oil
1 cup wheat germ
2½ cups (more or less) Korean or Chinese bread flour
2 tablespoons butter, softened
Optional toppings: about 1 teaspoon per loaf of toasted sesame seeds, nigella seeds, fennel seeds, ground black pepper, coarsely ground dried chilies, coarse sea salt, etc.

1. Pour the water into a medium bowl and sprinkle the yeast and sugar over it. Stir the yeast into the water and then give the yeast about 20 minutes to completely foam.

Puffy after second rising
2. Stir in the oil, wheat germ, and about 2 cups of the flour to form a loose dough. Turn the dough out on a floured board and knead it until it is soft and no longer tacky, adding more flour as needed only to keep it from sticking. Form the dough into a smooth ball. Rinse out and dry the bowl, and then rub the inside of the bowl generously with the softened butter. Place the ball of dough back into the bowl and toss it around in there to thoroughly coat it with the butter. Cover the bowl with some plastic wrap and a towel and let it rise in a warm place until doubled, about an hour. Remove the towel and plastic and punch the dough down, and then fold the edges onto the top of the dough. Flip the dough over, cover it again with the plastic and towel, and let it rise again until double, about 30 to 45 minutes.

3. Lightly knead the dough and cut it into 4 equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball, and then use a rolling pin to roll each piece out on a board lightly dusted with flour to form circles around 7 inches in diameter. Place the circles on lightly dusted baking sheets to rise, and brush each circle with some water. Cover the circles and let them rise for around 30 minutes, or until puffy.

Pat down with your knuckles
4. Place the oven rack at its lowest setting, place your clay tile on the rack, and heat the oven to about 500°F. While the oven is heating up, shape the circles into nang: Wet one hand and lightly pat the inside of each circle, leaving a rim around the edge about 1 inch wide so that you end up with something that looks like a pizza (see photo on right). Use a dough prick or sharp fork to thoroughly perforate the inside of the circles up to the rim. Lightly brush the circles with water and sprinkle on the optional topping. Depending upon the size of your tile, bake one or two of the breads at a time. Use a pizza peel or a rimless baking sheet to slide the dough onto the tile. Bake the breads for about 7 minutes, or until they are a golden brown around the edges. Serve hot or warm.