Our daily bread

Written by Anoothi Vishal | Anoothi Vishal | Updated: Jun 30 2013, 06:46am hrs
The Arab world and the Indian subcontinent share many linkages, especially when it comes to breads

Earlier this month, as I sat in a picturesque Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum, the spectacular valley of the moon in Jordan, I came across the ancestor of what we popularly call the roomali roti in the subcontinent. The roomali, of course, is one of the most versatile indigenous wraps that we haveused to cover grills hot off the tandoor or sigri at restaurants ranging from small hole in the wall stalls to smarter ones. And it has variations across different regions in the country: the Konkan belt, for instance, has the maande, roughly four times the size of a roomali, garnished with poppy seeds and folded into envelops. This bread is now vanishing even from traditional tables just as so many of our other older recipe are. But travel around the world and you are likely to come across parallels.

Shrak is the name of the traditional Bedouin bread which looks and tastes like the roomali. It is popular not just in Jordan but in the entire Middle East. Also called the markook, it is thrown to great thinness before being tossed onto a hot iron griddle (ulta tawa, as we call it in India; the technique of making it remains the same) shaped like an inverted wok. It accompanies hot Bedouin grills, including distinct chicken tikkaesque roasts that I had for dinner that evening.

Clearly, food and bread-making have many global linkages. It is not for nothing that bread enjoys such spiritual significance in so many parts of the world. Wheat, which began to be cultivated in west Asia and spread from there to other parts of Europe and Asia, changed human civilisation. From hunter-gatherers, we became an agrarian society. And though bread has been made from many traditional grains (barley, maize, even riceour own appams are a take on that), wheat is central to all societies that have great bread traditions.

In north India, it was the Muslim period that ushered in a rich period of bread making. Breads began to be made in hot ovens in the manner of their Central/West Asian counterparts, where brick ovens are used to make bread. Everything from naan to those delicious baqarkhanis, sheermal and even kulche bear the stamp of this tradition. Prior to this, the Hindu tradition of bread-making in the subcontinent comprised flat breads like roti, parantha made on a griddle and the fried pooris (the latter being also a ritualistic food, since dipping any food in ghee also cleansed it, according to the Vedic tradition).

Subsequent colonisation by the Europeans saw the popularisation of leavened bread and double rotithus called because the dough rose thanks to the yeast addedbecame a way of life. While bread is intrinsic to so many regions around the worldfrom the Mexican tortilla to the rye breads of northern Europeit is really the Arabic culture and cuisine that has it as its mainstay. According to food historians, bread-making originated in Egypt but the entire region, often called the cradle of civilisation, not in the least because of its reputation as the birthplace of three important religions, has a unique connection with bread that extends beyond mere culinary one.

In the Arab world, if a piece of bread falls on the floor you are supposed to pick it up, kiss it and eat itbecause this is supposed to be a divine gift. Christianity, of course, as we all know, revers bread quite distinctlyin the Lords prayer, at mass and in narratives of miracles. In Spain, with its Moorish past, this is a common ritual of eating too. And in Greece and Italy, both influenced by the Arab traditions, you never cut bread with a knife. You put it on the table and tear off pieces to dip in olive oil or wipe off the sauce with.

But what I find really interesting is the influence on the Indian culinaryscape. Naan is, of course, the most recognisable bread in India today. The first reference to it is found in the notes of Amir Khusrau in 1300 during the Khilji rule in Delhi. It is refered to as the naan-e-tanur (cooked in a tandoor) here.

But while its origin may be Turkish, the older Arabic tradition has the taboonwhich is an equivalent. At the desert camp, I had one stuffed with mince; quite similar to a keema-stuffed naan that we may order in India. Finally, there are also the sweet breads that are similar in both parts of the world. The sweetish baqarkhani or sheermals that we scoop up with kofte and kebab may have come to us through the Persian root but the Bedouin chubab (sweet crepe like loaves with date syrup mixed in, eaten for breakfast) and the khubz mohalla, baked in an tannur/tandoor are close cousins. Sharing bread can have totally different connotations!

Anoothi Vishal is a food critic