Along the famed Silk Road; the route traveled by Marco Polo, one finds the beautiful land of Uzbekistan. Home of the fabled city of Samarkand, of Bukharan rugs and beautiful, almond eyed women said to be some of the most exotic in the world, Uzbekistan is also the crossroads of culinary traditions. The flavors of Russia, China, Persia, Afghanistan, India, Mongolia, Nepal, Azerbaijan and Armenia all blend together through the centuries old trade routes, bringing flavors, spices, cooking techniques and foods right through this bounteous nation.
The magnificence of this small nation cannot be underestimated by any traveler. Astounding tilemakers, the Uzbekis have been covering their buildings with perfectly glazed, complicated tiles for several millenia, inventing colors, patterns and designs many in the eastern and western worlds have copied repeatedly. Their rugs, rich with bright colors and patterns are some of the world’s finest, gracing mansions from Tokyo to London to San Francisco.
Among Uzbekistan’s gastronomic treasures are its breads. A wide variety of superb breads are produced there, largely flatbreads, but also deep, rich glazed creations of astounding design, complexity and pattern. One might say that the tilemaker’s art transferred readily to the breadmaker. In fact, the breads were made in the same ovens where the tiles were made.
Most breads are cooked on a shelf or on the bottom of an oven. Because Uzbekis use tile-makers ovens, they actually bake their breads on the roof of the oven and in ancient times, literally would have the bread baking while the ceramic tiles baked on the oven floor. It may even be surmised that when a cook salted the bread and the salt fell upon the tiles, salt-glazed pottery was invented. The interaction of cooking and tilemaking is embodied in Uzbekistan’s ovens and its history.
Here, we offer one of the Uzbekis’ favorite breads. One graced with sesame seeds and deep, comforting flavors of the Orient, of history and multi-cultural exchange. Eating this, one can imagine drinking Chai in a trading post with Marco Polo, discussing his experiences in the court of Kublai Khan or his trading business in the Venetian Republic.
The Uzbek table is always graced by the glories of fine bread and tea (Chai) and the richness of regional culinary traditions, or should we say international ones, keeping in mind that being in the heart of the Silk Road, they always had access to the best of flavors from all of Asia.
Imagine skillful Jewish bakers from the region (there were many Jewish people living in the area more than 2,700 years ago) bringing these recipes with them when migrating to Eastern Europe and the Holy Land, then think of today’s bagels and bialys. See a connection?
- 3 Cups flour
- 1 Tablespoon dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 Tablespoon oil or fat from sheep's tail or rendered chicken fat
- 1 teaspoon white sesame seeds
- 2 teaspoons black sesame seeds
- 1 Tablespoon chopped fried onions or shallots
- Mix flour, dry yeast, sugar, and salt in a bowl and gradually add one cup and two tablespoons warm water. Make a ball and leave that in the bowl, and cover with a thick cloth and allow to rise until double in bulk; this can take about two hours.
- Heat oven to 500 degrees F, and put parchment paper or aluminum foil on two baking sheets.
- Divide dough in half, roll each half, one at a time, on a cold towel to make a nine-inch circle. Cover with heavy cloth and let rise until it doubles again, about fifty minutes.
- Uncover, leaving one-inch sides, punch down the center, or make a hole and gently shape it doughnut-like. Repeat with other half of the dough. Brush foil or parchment and the dough with fat. Sprinkle sesame seeds and minced onion pieces on the top of each piece of dough. Put on the oiled baking sheet.
- Put ten ice cubes, or a very wet towel bunched up in a ball in a pan, on the floor or lower shelf of the oven. Put the baking sheet into the oven and bake the dough for eight minutes. Then remove the towel (use tongs), brush tops with a little more oil, and bake another seven minutes or until crisp and nicely colored. Do not over bake. Cool and serve.