What is naan?
Traditional naan is a flatbread that has been a staple food in Southeast and Central Asia for centuries. It is particularly popular in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and all the surrounding regions.
What is the origin of naan?
The word nān (نان) originated in Iran where it does not carry any special significance, as it is merely the generic word for any kind of bread, like in other West Asian nations or regional ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, Turks or Azerbaijanis. In Turkic languages such as Uzbek and Uyghur, the bread is called nan.
In Burma, where it is slightly softer and resembles pita bread, the bread is known as nan bya. It is sometimes served at breakfast with tea or coffee. It is round, soft, and blistered, often buttered, or with pè byouk (boiled peas) on top, or dipped in hseiksoup (mutton soup).
In Pakistan, naans are typically graced with fragrant essences, such as rose, khus (vetiver), or with butter or ghee melted on them. In Indian restaurants throughout the UK, nigella seeds, one of my favorite spices that I used for my Tunisian Italian breads, are often added to naans.
Even though naan was probably known for a while at that time, Amir Khusrow, an Indo-Persian Sufi musician, poet and scholar associated with royal courts of more than seven rulers of Delhi Sultanate, is the first who mentioned the existence of naan around 1300 AD.
Khusrow documented naan-e-tanuk, and naan-e-tanuri which were both served at the imperial court in Delhi. He described naan-e-tanuk as a light bread or thin bread that was probably baked on a large iron griddle called tawa just like a roti. Naan-e-Tanuri was described as a thicker bread baked in a tanur or tandoor (clay oven).
During the Mughal era in India (sixteenth to nineteenth century), naan accompanied by keema (ground mutton) or kebab was a popular breakfast food of the royals. Naan, due to its advanced kneading technique and use of yeast, which at that time was limited to the rich, remained a delicacy that was mainly prepared in royal households and those of nobles.
Traditional naan recipes vary with or without eggs, as many Hindus do not consume eggs. Some also replace yeast with or in combination with baking powder, or also use a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar.
The flour used in an authentic Indian naan bread recipe may be atta (regular bread flour), maida (refined flour) or a combination of both. In the royal kitchen of Akbar in the sixteenth century, a combination of maida and atta was used. Some people add yogurt or milk to the naan dough to bring softness and volume to the bread, as well as a distinct taste. I personally prefer my naan with yogurt for this distinct flavor and texture. Kneading mashed potatoes into the dough can also make softer naans.
Naan is served very hot and is brushed with ghee (clarified butter) or butter. It can be used to scoop other foods, or is also often served stuffed with a filling.
What are the different kinds of naan breads?
Typical naan breads include:
– garlic naan, brushed with ghee, crushed garlic and chopped cilantro
– keema naan, stuffed with ground mutton or lamb
– Peshwari naan and Kashmiri naan, filled with a mixture of nuts and raisins
– aloo naan, stuffed with potatoes
– paneer naan or cheese naan, traditionally stuffed with paneer (fresh cheese). In France, spreadable cheese like The Laughing Cow (or Kiri) is used. I personally find it more flavorful (and probably fat of course!) than traditional paneer naan.
Although naan sometimes comes in a round or triangular shape, the classic teardrop shape is what we think of when we think of this bread. This shape comes from the dough being stretched during baking.
How to make naan bread?
Traditionally, naan is baked in a tandoor oven. Today’s commercial tandoor ovens approach 900 F, which helps with its instantaneous puffed-up “drama”.
The tandoor oven has to be extremely hot to make Indian naan bread, otherwise the bread will not stick to the wall. In just about 5 minutes, the bread typically puffs up with visible brown spots. A 3-foot long metal rod with a wooden handle on one end and a hook on the opposite end is used to get the bread off the walls.
You could probably simulate a tandoor oven with bricks placed in a traditional oven, and that is something I will probably try next time! However, a great compromise is to use a standard pizza stone. The goal is to reach and maintain a very high temperature in a traditional oven. My oven can be set to a maximum temperature of 550 F. However, I have heard of ovens, probably older, which allow for the door to remain unlocked during pyrolytic cleaning, which can reach higher temperatures.
Just remember to wait until the pizza stone is piping hot and do not leave the oven door open for too long as you place the naans on the stone so as to keep the temperature fairly high.
Some people also recommend to bake Indian naan breads in a cast iron skillet on a stove, but a very hot oven probably gives the best results that come close to a tandoori naan.
What are the various types of Indian breads?
Today, naan is known all over the world as the ubiquitous Indian flat bread. But India’s very rich and varied cuisine features a multitude of other breads that we will definitely have to talk about on 196 flavors, including:
– chapatti or roti: unleavened whole wheat flat bread baked on a tawa or griddle
– phulka: unleavened whole wheat flat bread, baked partly on gas flame
– paratha: whole wheat flat bread prepared similarly to puff pastry by coating it with ghee, baked on a tawa, and finished off with shallow frying
– poori: fried bread,usually prepared for breakfast or during festivals and celebrations
– bhatura: leavened fried bread usually eaten with chickpea curry or a potato dish
– bhakri: millet flat bread
– thepla: fenugreek flat bread popular in Gujarat
– kulcha: leavened flat bread made from maida
But for now, let’s enjoy these deliciously warm and buttery homemade naan breads. I served them for the Indian feast I prepared for my friends Faye, Yakir, Melanie and Oren, a few days before the celebration of Diwali a few months ago. I made the recipe again last month for the bread baking class I gave in Santa Monica. That day, I served them with a savory and a sweet raita. Simply mouthwatering!
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 teaspoon vegetable oil
- ½ cup water , warm
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 egg , beaten
- 3 tablespoons yogurt
- 8 tablespoons ghee (optional)
- All purpose flour (for rolling and dusting)
Add yeast and sugar to warm water and mix well. Cover and keep aside for 5 minutes or until foamy.
In the large bowl of a stand mixer, mix flour and salt well. Add oil and continue mixing.
Add yogurt and egg to yeast and water mixture. Whisk well.
Add the mixture to the flour slowly and knead into a soft dough ball.
Cover and keep in a warm place for about one hour or until it has doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 550 F with a pizza stone on the highest rack inside. Once the dough has risen, lightly oil hands, punch down the dough and knead. Dust with additional flour if needed.
Divide dough into small portions and roll it out on a floured surface. Place the rolled naans aside on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Place 3 rolled naans onto the hot pizza stone. Bake for about 4 minutes until naans are light golden brown.
Remove from oven and smear on melted butter or ghee (optional), or a mixture of ghee, crushed garlic and chopped cilantro for garlic naans.
Keep naan breads in a container until ready to serve. They are best served hot.