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Uzbekistan’s bread winners

The 'naan', Uzbekistan's 'non', is part of folklore and sociocultural life

Plain and festal breads at a market in Samarkand. Photo: iStock
Plain and festal breads at a market in Samarkand. Photo: iStock

The announcement over the PA system has just been made. It’s precisely 5 minutes to go before Uzbekistan’s superfast Afrosiyob train service from the capital Tashkent to Bukhara, is to pull up at the Samarkand Railway Station for its much-anticipated 15-minute halt. Suddenly, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety mixed with excitement in my compartment as the station comes into view. A phalanx of co-passengers is already crowding the doorway, ready to leap out on to the platform and get their hands on a type of bread that’s considered the best in the country. The Samarkand non. A version of the Indian naan, the Samarkand non is also baked in an oven similar to a tandoor. The major difference, however, lies in its appearance. This style of flatbread has a darker crust, and is heavier, larger and more filling, with a texture that is dense. The finished loaf is coated with a light brushing of oil, making it the preferred non to take on journeys or as gifts for far-off friends and family. I later help my cabin mate stuff two gleaming, circular discs of the flatbread he’s just purchased from the platform kiosk into his carry-on, as the zipper of the bag threatens to give way. But we soldier on till we are certain that his family in Bukhara will get their quotidian dinner share of the bread that’s now comfortably ensconced between his clothes.

Over the next few days as I traverse the country, I am made aware of how important the non is to the Uzbeks. In Bukhara, over a tub full of bubbling xamir—a sourdough prepared the night before—Alisher, the chief bread maker or nonvoy at a friendly neighbourhood nonvoy khona (bakery) near my hotel is giving me a crash course in all things non. All this, peppered with several bread-based proverbs thrown in for good measure. “Respect for non is respect for country" is what my translation app spits out at me, as Alisher turns his attention to a batch of soon-to-be-baked Bukhara-style, nigella seed-topped non that he embosses with his signature bread stamp called a chakich. It even has his cellphone number etched on to it! “We never waste bread. Even if a crumb falls on to the floor, we pick it up and touch it to our forehead. Also, we never use a knife to cut bread. Tearing it with one’s hands is the norm," says Alisher. In fact, in the country’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, once the non is passed around, the most distinguished guest should be the first one to snap a piece off the disk. I encounter more “bread-folklore" that night at my hotel as I lay my head down on the pillow. My reverie is interrupted by a slight bump underneath the pillow near the nape of my neck. It turns out to be a piece of dry bread that I later learn the housekeeping staff place under every pillow as a sort of amulet to ward off nightmares.

In Tashkent’s gargantuan Chorsu Bazaar, I dodge past qazi or horsemeat sausage vendors, as I make my way towards the nonvoy khona section. Here, I pick up two plump, lamb-stuffed somsas that are dead ringers for our desi samosas. Only here, the breading is super flaky and made from pea flour called sorgo. Later that day, en route to the airport, I stop by the city’s open-air Chigatay Darvoza Non Bazaar for some Tashkent lochira non. This unique mould-formed non is baked from shortcrust pastry made from milk, butter and sugar. It has a perimeter that is marked with spoke-like patterns that come from a tool called a bosma, which, in olden days, used to be made out of repurposed spokes from a bicycle wheel. I pick up half a dozen to take back home. Only this time, it’s me single-handedly trying to stuff the lochira non into my rather unyielding suitcase!

Bread folklore

— At an engagement, a loaf of bread is divided equally between both sides, signalling a fair partnership.

— Special kulcha non dough is rolled between the feet of children when they take their first steps.

— When going off to war, a soldier is given a bite of bread and his family keeps the remaining loaf to signify that they await his safe return.

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