Kutab (qutab, кутаб) comes from Azerbaijan: a Turkic country on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, formerly part of the Soviet Union. Although they don’t share a border, Azerbaijanis can understand Turkish and vice versa to some extent.
Kutab is a wonderfully simple dish that makes a great brunch: thin dough stuffed with filling and grilled on a saj (or in my case, a frying pan). The filling can be vegetables, cheese, and/or meat; I made mine with cheese and realized how similar it was (at least in concept) to a quesadilla.
Cheese (your preference; I used a mix of mozzarella and feta)
Greens (up to you; I used spring onions and cilantro; dill, basil, or parsley would be nice too)
1. Make your filling: mix the cheese, greens, and some oil together in a bowl.
2. Make a dough of flour, water, salt, and oil. It will be easier to roll out the dough if you let it rest for a bit (30min-1hr, covered so it doesn’t dry out). No need if you’re in a hurry, though.
3. Break the dough into small pieces as above. Lightly oil a piece, then roll it as flat and wide as you can. It should be almost paper-thin and slightly translucent when it is thin enough.
4. Spread the filling on one half.
5. Fold the dough over and press hard around the filling so the dough seals.
6. Cut a nice round shape out of the dough.
7. In a frying pan or on a griddle, grill the kutab on medium heat until the bottom has golden brown spots (should take 3-5 minutes). Flip the kutab over. The other side will get done much more quickly, so be attentive – after 1-2 minutes it should be nice and golden brown. Eat by itself, or with melted butter, sour cream, or yogurt. Enjoy!
We covered the iconic round Uyghur nan bread in another post. Another one of my favorite Uyghur breads is “girde nan”, which resembles a bagel, or more precisely, a bialy. It’s shaped like a bagel but the hole doesn’t go all the way through. They cook it in tandoor ovens just like nan, slapping it onto the walls and prying it off with tongs when done.
Making these yourself is actually really simple, and way easier than the big disc-shaped bread because you want it to be thick. The instructions are the same as for nan, but shaping them is much easier. You can put your favorite bagel toppings on them too; I like putting garlic even though that isn’t really common in Xinjiang.
1. In a large bowl, make a mountain of flour with a hole in 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.
2. When you have a somewhat firm mixture, flour a surface and knead the dough for 10 minutes.
3. Oil a bowl and put the kneaded dough ball in, cover with a cloth and let rest for 1 hour in a warm place. Preheat the oven to 500 F at this stage.
4. When the dough has finished resting, punch it down and knead it a bit more.
5. Take a piece of dough and roll it into a ball; flatten it a bit with a rolling pin and use your thumbs in the center to make a deep indentation. Use a fork and poke holes all around the edge of this indent and in the center so it doesn’t rise.
6. Coat the outside with egg or oil, and add your favorite toppings: sesame, nigella seeds, poppy, garlic, onion, etc. Bake on a pizza stone for ~10 minutes or until golden brown. Enjoy!
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. You can sometimes find bread stamps on Ebay or Etsy as well. The stamp certainly helps give the bread the right look, 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.
Ingredients Flour (experiment with all purpose or bread flour, they will give different results)
Warm water. Ratio of flour to water by volume: 3 to 1. By weight: 1.5:1.
Directions 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 and a bit of sugar. Mix well and let stand for a few minutes. When it has gotten frothy, add the salt and the egg in. Then mix everything well, adding water as needed.
2. When everything is well mixed, flour a surface and knead the dough for 10 minutes until it no longer sticks to your hands.
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.
4. When the dough has finished resting, punch it down and knead it a bit more. You will have to eyeball how much dough you want to use for how big/thick you want your bread.
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.
6. Form an edge all around the bread with your hands. If you’ve rested the dough for long enough, it should mold easily without resistance.
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!