Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Baking na'an

Na’an is an unleavened flat bread and a staple of the Afghan diet. The Kabul Military Training Center has its own bakery on the premises as the demand for na’an is so great, and I visited the facility this week. The bakery building itself is rather nondescript and surrounded by discarded shipping containers, scrap metal and disorganized collections of firewood. If a single-wide mobile home sat there, you would swear you had stumbled upon a cyclone-ravaged disaster area. One my colleagues thought we had walked to the dump.

I’m not sure why the metal collection outside the building, but the firewood was waiting to feed the wood-burning ovens in the bakery. Firewood is a valuable commodity in Kabul as few trees grow in the dry terrain surrounding the city, and this wood reportedly came from the southern regions of the country. Oddly, none of it was stacked near the doors to the bakery. In fact, none of it was stacked at all but strewn as far as thirty yards from the sole entrance to the building. Already I have learned that the Afghan idea of organization often differs significantly from mine, and since the heat emanating from the bakery indicated that wood was indeed making its way indoors somehow, I gave no more thought to the disorder outside and ventured into the building.

The bakery had three rooms, each with a stone oven that resembled a hive with a large hole in the front. Underneath each oven was a raging fire. As it is now spring in Kabul, the heat was not crippling; but I wondered how high the temperature of those rooms will rise during >100 degree summer days. In each room one man worked at the oven, taking the fresh disks of flat dough and pressing them onto the stone ceiling. I was happy to see that for protection from the stone's heat all of these gentlemen wore gloves -- the only concession to occupational safety that I could identify in the entire place. After the disks had baked a few minutes in the oven, the bakers picked them off the stone with a long iron thongs and tossed them into a collection bin.

The other workers in the room were busy mixing by hand fifty pound bags of flour with water, then rolling the dough into balls before pressing it into disks. These other men also spent considerable time and energy imploring me to take photographs of them. Almost every Afghan I’ve met has been thrilled to pose for a photograph. If we really want to stop the Taliban, my recommendation is that we arm front-line soldiers with digital cameras and color printers, because if the Afghan insurgents are like their fellow countrymen they will interrupt any activity to pose for a snapshot; and they will wait to resume previous activity if you promise that a copy of the photograph is coming soon.

As a visitor and because I was taking photographs, the workers showered superfluous hospitality on me by baking a special sugar bread. It was simply a regular na’an loaf with sugar sprinkled on top, but I felt lucky as it was the Afghan equivalent to being in Krispy Kreme when the hot light is on and you get a fresh original glazed directly from the oven. The sugar loaf was delicious, as the exterior of the na’an had a crispy sweetness and covered a thin inner layer of warm dough. The flour tastes like a hybrid of white and wheat. If Afghanistan has an event similar to the Indiana State Fair, the sugar na’an likely holds the same status as an Elephant Ear or Funnel Cake.

Earlier I referred to the workers as men, but most looked to be teenagers – a few very young teenagers. A translator told me the daily wage there was less than $1, but you got all the na’an you could eat. One of the rooms also offered free Bollywood movies on a portable television with a small screen but surprisingly powerful speakers as that section of the bakery sounded like an Indian discotheque. I spotted a worker wearing a Cleveland Indians t-shirt complete with a large depiction of the arguably racist Chief Wahoo, mascot of the team. Dr. John Kim, a colleague of mine and a native of the metropolis formerly known as The Mistake by the Lake, rushed to get his photograph taken with this Afghan who was completely befuddled by our interest in his clothing. Western garments, especially those discarded, outdated, unwanted and mistakenly produced, make their way to developing countries and to people who see them simply as valuable wardrobe additions, usually with little knowledge of any graphic that might adorn the clothing. In Eldoret, Kenya I once saw an elderly native man walking through town with a shirt that had “F - - k You!” written across it. John and I are on the lookout for t-shirts proclaiming “New England Patriots, 2008 Super Bowl Champions. “


sandra said...

WOW HOW COOL IS THAT! But you didn't comment on what the naan tasted like. It looks delicious! Did you get to try some?

sandra said...

Hey thanks for that tasty edition to your blog! Now I know you read what we write :)
wow, ron! if your current jobs don't work out you could definitely be a food writer! Actually, you should seriously consider it! I'm craving one of those right now but unfortunately am stuck 2hrs north of mexico city...maybe a sugared soft corn tortilla - blah!