24 april 2018

Central Asia news

A few words on the phenomenon of Uzbek flat cakes

30.08.2006 13:21 msk

Mikhail Zakharzhevsky (Tashkent)

Uzbek flat cakes. Photo by Ferghana.Ru
Узбекские лепешки. Фото ИА Фергана.Ру
Uzbeks' daily ration inevitably includes what is known as issik-non or flat cakes. Baked in tandyrs or ovens of clay, they are famous for their unique nutritious properties and taste that never palls. Whoever has tasted flat cakes even once literally falls in love with them. Far away from home, Uzbeks miss flat cakes badly. What do we know of this bread save for its unforgettable flavor and the fact that "it cannot be had anywhere else?" What is its secret?

Bread like that cannot be had anywhere else indeed. Numerous attempts have been made to bake it in Russia and distant foreign countries since the middle of the 20th century - with nothing to show for the effort. The unique taste was missing.

As the legend goes, the emir of Bukhara once tasted flat cakes from Samarkand, summoned the best Samarkand baker, and told him to bake flat cakes for him in Bukhara. The baker carried out the order and got a wrong taste for all his skills. The enraged emir demanded to know what the baker could say in his defense and heard the following reply, "It's the Samarkand air that is missing."

The role of the air is exaggerated, but there is a kernel of truth in the statement all the same. Baker is supposed to follow the traditional technology of course, but a great deal also depends on the place where he is working and on how skilfully he handles local water, dough, climate, and even the oven itself.

Uzbek flat cakes are mostly baked in tandyrs, specially constructed ovens. It is the tandyr that is one of the integral elements of flat cake baking. Flat cakes require between 4 and 8 minutes inside the tandyr. They are retrieved then with a special scoop or skimmer (just do not forget to don a glove). Whenever a flat cake slips of the inner wall of the tandyr and falls into the ashes, this cake is considered sacred. (Holy Hyzr has entered the household and the bread is bowing to show its respect - or so the legend states.)

Obi-Non is the most commonly baked kind of flat cakes. They require ordinary dough and a special ferment that is only used for this kind of cakes. Obi-Non owes its distinctive flavor to the ferment. The yeast cultivated in this ferment is as unique as that used to bake the Borodino bread in Russia. No substitutes are allowed, in other words.

It follows that the term "yeast" in Uzbek cuisine does not have anything to do with the yeast made in China that is available at every store nowadays.

Making dough for Obi-Non, bakers use the special ferment bought in advance or make it with their own hands. Chopped onions and sour milk (this latter is made with its own special yeast) are added in thick meat broth with which dough is made. The dough is left alone then and diluted with warm water 16 hours later. All of it is left alone for between 4 and 6 hours again. Water is then added with some flour and the mass is permitted to ferment for another 40-minute period. It is only after this last fermentation period that cakes as such are formed by hand. Some of the ferment is left for later use. (Hamir-Kutush or a piece of dough is often used for the purpose.)

Uzbeks treat ferments with utmost respect. Ferments are stored in some secluded nook. People never sit with their legs stretched out in its direction and never step over it. Some recipes are kept a secret to be passed down the line from the baker to his apprentice.

When dough is ready, it is divided into equal parts first shaped into spheres and then flattened by hand. Before flat cakes are put in the tandyr, their thin central parts are decorated with an ornament (a special tool known as Chekish is used for that). The ornament prevents deformation in the tandyr. Raw flat cakes are always sprinkled with the seeds of sesame, caraway, or poppy.

Flat cakes are hand-made, and here is a fairly interesting fact. Back in the 1970's, the Soviet Ministry of Food Industry ordered the Research Institute of Baking to make production of flat cakes a mechanical process. All of the Central Asian population was buying flat cakes from private bakeries then, disdaining loaves of bread from state bakeries available at stores, and that was a gross violation of the ideological postulates.

Scientists racked their brains but the task proved a sheer impossibility. No alternatives to hand-making were found. Fortunately, the whole idea was dropped. There is no saying what a ban to make flat cakes privately and sell them would have resulted in.

There are lots of kinds of flat cakes. Apart from the most commonly baked Obi-Non and Patyr (this latter is made of short pastry and mutton grease), there are numerous unique kinds. Baked but rarely, they even look exotic to the Uzbeks themselves. As a matter of fact, every region of Uzbekistan boasts of its own "specialty" baked only there - with unique ferments, technologies of baking, and flavors.

Shirmoi-Non cakes use the ferment made of the pea and anise broth. The broth begin frothing in 12-14 hours, and the froth is used to make dough for Shirmoi-Non, dietetic and even medicinal cakes.

Gala-Osiegi-Non cakes from the settlement of Gala-Osie near Samarkand are famous far beyond the territory of their native region. Whoever comes to Samarkand always takes some cakes with him or her. Over 15 kinds of this cake are known, each of them using a complicated recipe and ferments that include cream or lactoserum with onion and sesame oil added.

The Ferghana Valley in its turn is famous for its Katlama cakes whose every layer is soaked in butter or sour cream.

There are also Jizzali-Non or cakes with cracklings, Zogora-Non (corn cakes), Kuk Patyr (herbal cakes), and many others.

Uzbek cakes are never cut with knives, they are broken into pieces by hand. Pieces are not to be put on the table the ornamented side down, it is considered disrespect. There is also a tradition in accordance with which a traveller takes with him or her a piece of a cake leaving the rest at home to await his or her return. Engagement in Uzbekistan includes a special rite of bread breaking - to make the alliance enduring.

Bread has always been regarded as a blessing in Uzbekistan. No wonder baskets with flat cakes used to be carried on the head throughout Orient once.