Suitcase and World: The Lifeblood of Central Asia. Bread.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Lifeblood of Central Asia. Bread.

Bread sellers in Urgut (Sunday market), Samarqand province, Uzbekistan.  (Photo by Betta27)

Whether it's called non, naan or nan, bread is the lifeblood of the Central Asian diet.  According to a report, called Cereal Worlds, published by AACC International, the per capita consumption of bread, in some rural regions, is as high as 500 grams per day.   In some areas, nearly 50% of the daily caloric intake comes from bread.

I had my first taste of Uzbek bread in Latvia.  It was the sight of the long line of people queuing up to buy the bread that caught my attention.  But it was the sight of the bread being baked in a wood fire fueled tandoor style clay oven that convinced me to fork over .50 Lats to get a loaf.  You know it's going to be good bread when it's baked over fire.  Bro and I bought the bread to accompany some smoked fish. It was our picnic lunch for the day and one of the most delicious, yet very simple, meals that we had on our trip.  The bread was so good - crusty on the outside but very light and fluffy on the inside.

I am most definitely to eating the bread when I get to Central Asia but before then I wanted to learn more about it.  I started by Googling the words *Central Asia bread*  and what I got back was a results list dominated by articles on wheat.  Despite some initial reluctance on my part to read about wheat production in Central Asia, it did make sense to start my education with reading about the ingredient that is most important in bread making.  Here's a brief digest of what I learned.

Kazakh farmer examining his crop of spring wheat.
(Photo from CIMMYT)
When it comes to bread making, gluten, protein and overall quality of the wheat kernels are key indicators for assessing the suitability of the wheat for baking.  Basically, you need the *right* wheat to produce the desired voluminous, fluffy, even pored dough that delivers the desired taste and provides high nutritional value.

Common criteria for wheat include high flour protein, high water absorption, good dough extensibility, tolerance to mixing, and high loaf volume.

The majority of wheat grown in the Central Asian countries is winter wheat which is generally poorer in quality, in terms of protein, gluten and other attributes, from spring wheat.  Winter wheat is planted in the fall. It makes a partial growth, becomes dormant during the cold winter months, resumes growth as the weather warms and is harvested in the early summer (June and July).  In contrast, spring wheat is planted in April to May, makes a continuous growth and is harvested in August to early September.

Spring wheat is the *right* wheat for making Central Asian bread. 

In Kazakhstan, the highly desirable spring wheat is grown in the northern regions of the country while winter wheat is grown in other regions of the country.  Kazakhstan is able to grow so much wheat that it typically ranks in the list of top 10 wheat exporting countries.  It even grows enough spring wheat to export.

None of the other four Central Asian countries grows enough spring wheat to make their bread and therefore, they import from Kazakhstan.

Despite the higher prices, large quantities of what is simply referred to as *Kazakh wheat* are imported by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan.  Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have banned the import of wheat from Kazakhstan but they do permit the import of the wheat flour. 

Enough about the wheat.  Now, about the bread.

Prior to independence from the Soviet Union, the daily bread that was typically eaten in Central Asia was the dark pan-type Russian bread that is produced in large quantities in large baking pans.  Since independence from the Soviet Union the cuisine of each of the five *stans* has been rapidly returning to their respective cultural roots.  This included putting the traditional Central Asian flatbreads back on the table.  These breads are now now the main type of bread consumed in small cities and is the only type consumed in rural areas.

(Photo from Elena Tour)

A typical flatbread is one is what is called tandyr bread which is made from lean dough that is baked while stuck to the concave walls of a clay oven.  An example of the tandyr bread is the Uzbek bread that I had in Riga.

The recipe for making tandyr bread is very simple - dough mixed with water, yeast and a bit salt.  Milk and oil are occasionally added.  The dough is then needed til smooth and elastic.  It's then allowed to rest and rise.  After that, it's flattened into a disk that are typically five to 5-10 cm in thickness.  The flatbreads typically come in 3 sizes - 15-20 cm (small), 20-30 cm (medium), and 30-40 cm (large). 

Stamping the bread.  (Photo from The Silk Road Gourmet)
The disk is then stamped in the center using a wooden tool, studded with pins, called a chekich to create distinctive patterns in the crust of the bread.

Before baking, the top is often sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds and or basted with  milk to give the final product a nice sheen.

Chekich.  (Photo from Uzbek Journeys)

Aside from flat breads, Central Asians also make a large variety of dough based foods including other types of bread, cakes and pastries, dumplings, and noodles.  Thankfully I don't have any allergies to wheat!

As Central Asian farmers work to develop strains of wheat that will enable them to continue to produce the wheat needed to make their daily bread, they are also fighting another battle - one brought on by climate change.

In a USAID report documenting the organization's joint effort with UNDP to improve the climate resiliency of Kazakhstan wheat and Central Asian food security, 

"....climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the wheat growing regions, increase extreme temperature events, and change seasonal precipitation patterns. These changes could significantly threaten Kazakhstan’s ability to serve as the region’s breadbasket. Climate change is expected to exacerbate challenges to food security by reducing water availability – critical for agriculture – and increasing natural disasters like droughts and floods. Harvests during drought years in Kazakhstan can be as much as six times smaller than harvests during normal years!"

Despite the fact that the negative and often unpredictable effects of climate change are a major threat factor to food security in Central Asia, there is there is very little local awareness or concern about climate change in the region.  USAID and UNDP, in partnership with the Central Asian governments is working hard to effect awareness.  Hopefully, for the peoples of Central Asia, this will happen sooner than later because I cannot imagine life for them without their daily bread.

For me, I plan to eat as much Central Asian bread as I can - it's too delicious to pass up!

Central Asian flatbread. (Photo from International Student Voice Magazine)