I have to admit a minor love affair with na’an, or Afghan bread. I thoroughly enjoy it’s fresh warm tenderness with just enough burned bits and ash on it to give it character. When explaining Afghan food to my non-Afghan friends, I feel it important to speak at length upon na’an.
Na’an is the single most important foodstuff in Afghanistan. It is important nutritionally, economically and socially.
Na’an or Afghan bread is a centerpiece of Afghan life and society. Bakeries, known as na’an wayees (or na’an bayees, alternately) are omnipresent, and serve two formal purposes and one informal purpose. Formally, na’an bakeries exist in order to prepare bread for commercial sale to passerby. (10 afs apiece, normal size) They also receive uncooked dough (called Choon-gee), which they bake into na’an for area homes for a fee. (4-5 afs per piece depending on the volume of the dough) The building itself tends to be shaped a certain way, traditionally they look like a gingerbread house, made of mud bricks, covered by a mud and straw mix parge. They usually have ornate mud brick chimneys with multiple ventilation holes permitting the smoke to escape. They also tend to have a metal framed bay window painted green or occasionally blue, which serves as a walk up window for people receiving their orders. Women and children generally drop off their uncooked dough in shallow straw-woven round trays (called Tokri) at the side door, where the straw trays, covered with cloth, sit on the floor of the na’an wayee until their turn to be baked. The uncooked dough is also accompanied by a small amount of dried flour, which is used to assist the baker’s crew in flattening the dough prior to baking.
Dough from the surrounding households waits to go into the oven
The third and informal purpose of the na’an wayee is to give the women of the community a place to gather and socialize.
There is a wide variety of na’an, but most na’an is a variation on the same theme of dough, stretched and perforated either oblong or circular. There are single na’an and double na’an (called Joorah-ie). There is na’an baked with and without oil and na’an baked with and without seeds on top. There is na’an of varying thickness and with varying degrees of salt content.
Most na’an wayees have at least three employees; one man portions the dough, flattens it, perforates it with his fingers and pre-stretches it to approximate size and shape (this person is called Nakhoon-Gir). The next man wets a board with a stuffed pillow-like, very tight cloth on one side, then stretches the dough to its final size and shape over it, which he then slaps against the inside of the tandoor (this person is called Na’an-Puz).
Once it is done, he uses the long-handled scraper to loosen it from the side of tandoor, while piercing it with the long-handled fork to keep it from falling in the fire at first, and then to remove it from the tandoor. It is then collected by hand by a boy who stacks it on a plate if it is baked for a local family, or puts it on display either inside or outside the bay window, sometimes hanging by nails displayed to passerby.
Na’an is normally baked over propane, wood, coal or animal dung fire in a red clay oven known as a “tandoor”. Most tandoors are buried in a mud structure, with some of them open on top and others open on the side. The na’an is most times baked against the walls of the tandoor and then removed with two implements resembling a long scraper and a long fork. Some tandoor bake the bread on the floor of the oven, with the fire banked against the wall or in an adjacent firebox. In the cases of the floor baked ovens, the na’an must be turned once to ensure even baking. Kuchis (nomads) and rural people will sometimes bury their tandoor in the ground, and dig a shaft to fuel the fire.
The women also gather at the grist mill, where the wheat is ground into flour. Traditionally, mills are communal, payment was made in grain and mills were powered by hand, draft animal or water. Now, some mills are electric powered. The women (or children) take the flour home where they make it into dough by the addition of water, salt and yeast and possibly oil and seeds.
Hand powered grist mill
Wheat is the majority crop in Afghanistan, with the great majority of harvest being by hand, using the age old hand sickle, once the wheat is ripe. The wheat is gathered into bundles to dry, and it awaits either the arrival of a mechanized threshing machine, which is rented or communally owned, or it is hand threshed by the beating of sticks and then thrown into the air to separate the wheat from the chaff out in the field. Once the grain is removed, the wheat straw is chopped up into 4-6 inch straws, packed into bags, and then shipped off to be made into a mud straw parge for finishing the outside of houses, the red clay-straw mix that is used to make tandoors, or other items manufactured from mud/clay straw mix.
Na’an is eaten by itself, wrapped around meat kabobs, with cheese, or torn up and served in a clear broth soup known as shorwa. Stale na’an is collected, torn up into smaller pieces, bagged, and then sold/used as animal fodder. Na’an is not only the most predominant food, it is a social glue that holds Afghan society together as well as a cultural meme. There is an old Afghan saying; “Na’an wa piyaaz, payshanee baaz” which translates into “If you have na’an and onions, your forehead should be broad/open (you should be happy).”
*Besides being the centerpiece of the typical Afghan diet, na’an is socially, culturally and economically important. Understanding how it is made and its role in Afghan society is crucial to better understand Afghanistan.*