My quest for perfect Uyghur nan bread is still ongoing. In the seven years since I was in Xinjiang, I have never eaten anything like the freshly baked nan bread sold in the streets. Of course, there are countless different varieties of bread being sold – but my favorite was the big, disc-shaped bread. Thick around the edges and thin in the middle, slightly oily and usually topped with sesame and sometimes onion or other spices, it is sold on the street in every city in Xinjiang for only 1-2 kuai.
I’ve eaten at several Uighur, Uzbek, and other Central Asian restaurants in the US since then and I’ve never found it. They serve a bread called лепёшка(lepyoshka) in Russian that is thick and bready, but nothing even resembling the big disc bread.
The big oily round bread is not the only type of bread in Xinjiang. One other variety is a big, round, thick, extremely dry bread that can be stored for a long time. Other nationalities in the region (like Kyrgyz, Kazakhs) make this bread too. I remember visiting a Kyrgyz yurt where the hosts kept a big partially eaten round of dry bread in the corner covered with some cloth. They took it out and served it to us with tea. This bread is usually eaten with soup, sauce, or other liquid as it is too dry to eat on its own. Yet another common variety resembles a bagel, or more precisely, a bialy. We’ll cover this variant in part 2.
My own attempts have been getting better after many tries and many burned or misshapen breads. I’ve gotten good results with a pizza stone, but I suspect the perfect nan bread requires a tandoor oven. FarWestChina has a good post and video about how Uyghur bread is made in Xinjiang.
Before buying some bread stamps in Uzbekistan for cheap ($2-3 for each one), I bought an Uyghur bread stamp from Taobao – just do a search for 囊戳子 and you’ll find plenty of them. It is a bit tricky getting it to the US – I went through a Taobao agent called Bhiner that was fairly straightforward. The shipping ended up being far more expensive than the stamp itself (it cost around $30 total and the stamp itself was only $9). You can sometimes find bread stamps on Ebay or Etsy as well, though it is quite expensive (the shop I linked charges $50 including shipping!). The stamp is definitely important in making an authentic bread, but I have used a fork plenty of times with decent results. Finally, in New York, Fortuna grocery in Brooklyn sells bread stamps (they keep them behind the cashiers where they sell plates and teapots).
This bread tastes good by itself and especially with soup or sauce (like dimlama or dapanji). I also like eating it for breakfast with kefir or yogurt.
Flour (experiment with all purpose or bread flour, they will give different results)
1. In a large bowl, make a mountain of flour and indent the middle. Pour warm water into the middle, add 1/3-1/2 packet of dry yeast, salt, and a bit of sugar. Mix well and let stand for a few minutes. When it has gotten frothy, add the egg in. Then mix everything well, adding water as needed.
3. Lightly oil a bowl and put the kneaded dough ball in, cover with a cloth and let rest for at least 40 minutes in a warm place.
5. Roll the dough out into a round, flat circle. It should not be too thick or too thin, maybe a bit less than 1cm thick. Do not let the dough get too thin, or it will burn when you bake it! Let the dough rest for another 20 minutes.
7. Time to stamp down the center. If you have a bread stamp, stamp concentric patterns all around the center, making sure to press hard so the spikes go all the way through. If you don’t have a bread stamp, use a bottle or other round object to stamp around the center. Then use a fork to poke holes, poking all the way through. There should be holes all over the center. This helps prevent the center of the bread from rising up (we only want the edges to rise in the oven).
8. Lightly brush oil all over the top and sides of the bread. Then put the toppings onto the center, pressing in lightly so they stick. I usually use sesame and nigella seeds, sometimes with very finely diced onion. Some people also put black pepper and/or cumin seeds. Experiment with what you like; there is no fixed recipe.
10. Ready to bake. Put the dough into your 500F preheated oven (I use a pizza stone) and bake until the bread is golden brown all over (10-15 minutes). If you like, you can lightly brush the bread with oil after it is baked. Enjoy!