Bread and Salt

Bread, called nan in Persian, is the staple food of Iran in all regions except around the Caspian, where rice supplants it. Nan is a Persian word first used in Achaemenid Iran (550-330 BCE), from which all other languages borrowed it. In Iran, bread and salt are treated with great respect.

The main Persian breads are flat breads but they are well leavened and light and usually eaten fresh daily. Leftover bread is often used like croutons in soups and with yoghurt or milk as if a cereal.

In cities, several types of bread are prepared fresh daily- barbari, sangak, lavash and taftun- and every neighborhood has its own specialized bakers for each of these breads. Each type of bread is cooked at a different time of the day. Light and fluffy barbari, for example, is usually made in the early mornings and is a favorite breakfast bread (perhaps only the baguette parsienne can compete with nan-e-barbari). Crispy sangak, on the other hand, is made throughout the day and is most popular for the evening meal. It is long and oval-shaped, made with whole wheat flour, and baked in a tanur (the name for an oven, known as tandoor in India) on very hot stones by indirect heat. Lavash bread is paper-thin, round, and pliable, and usually eaten at lunch time. It is perfect under and over kababs to keep them warm. In cities, it is made on the walls of tanurs by bakers, but in villages it is made on a saj (a heated, flat, or domed iron pan) in homes. Taftun is thicker than lavash and the easiest bread to make.

Sweet gingerbread or Nan-e qandi which is oval, brittle and tastes sweet and spicy

Several other types of breads, from various regions in Iran, are also made. One is nan-e qandi, a thin, crispy, unleavened, sweet bread. Another is nan-e shirmal, a sweet saffron bread made with milk which is usually eaten at tea time.

My sketch of stone-baked bread (Nan-e sangak). The bread is cooked by indirect heat on hot gravel.

‘THE CURE’

Worn out with hunger and thirst, the Mullah arrived at a village. Hearing that the village headman was ill, he said, “Take me to his bedside, and I’ll put him right in no time.” They took him into the house and gave him a plate of bread, honey and butter. He ate the lot and then prayed for the headman’s recovery. It so happened that one hour later the headman died, and the villagers said to him,”What kind of a cure was that, which made our headman die?”

He said, “If it hadn’t been for that cure I’d have died.”

My sketch of Saveh sweet saffron bread; also known as Nan-e shirmal (Look below for the recipe) and sweet gingerbread or Nan-e qandi (right)

Saveh Sweet Saffron Bread (Nan-e shirmal)

Makes 4 loaves | Preparation time: 15 minutes plus 6-26 hours of resting | Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 1 package or 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 2 cups warm milk
  • 2 cups sugar or 1 cup grape molasses or 1 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup oil or melted butter
  • 5½ -6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cardamom

Glaze:

  • 3 egg yolks
  • ½ teaspoon ground saffron threads dissolved in 2 tablespoons rose water

Decoration:

  • 2 tablespoons sesame, poppy or nigella seeds

Directions:

1- In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and allow to rest for 10 minutes undisturbed. Add the sugar and 3 tablespoons oil, and stir with a wooden spoon until creamy.

2- Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and cardamom into a bowl. Gradually add it, one cup at a time, to the yeas mixture, stirring constantly until 5½ cups flour have been added and you have a sticky dough.

3 Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead dough for 5 to 10 minutes, dusting with more flour as needed, until the dough no longer sticks to your hands.

4- Turn the dough in a generously oiled, wide bowl to ensure it is evenly coated. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm, dark place for 4 to 24 hours.

5- Punch the air out of the dough while still in the bowl. Flip it over, cover, and allow to rest for another 2 hours.

6- Preheat the oven  to 350°F (180°C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

7- Turn the dough out onto the work surface and punch down. Divide it into 4 equal balls using a dough scraper. Place 2 balls in each baking sheet. Use your hands to flatten each ball to a 7-inch-diameter disk.

8- To prepare the glaze: In a bowl whisk together the egg yolks and saffron-rose water.

9- Prick each loaf all over and generously paint with the glaze. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

10- Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes until a tester comes out clean.

11- Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow to cool on a cooling rack. Keep covered to prevent drying. Nush-e Jan!

Source: Food of Life Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies by Najmieh Batmanglij

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