The types of bread which are baked in various regions, towns and villages in Uzbekistan in a Tandir (clay oven) differ in their size, weight and in particular in their taste. There is good reason for this: Each baker works individually and tries to make his own bread better than that of other bakers, so it sells more easily in the bazaar.
Amongst the types of bread baked in a clay oven, the Samarkand bread called «Osiyo» («Asia») has become very well known in the Oriental world thanks to its fine taste, its elegant form and its heavy weight. Tourists who come to Samarkand admire it and call it one of the seven culinary wonders of the world. Indeed, the Samarkand bread Osiyo was always famous and popular along the Great Silk Road. According to an old custom, tradespeople from Samarkand always took a bite of Samarkand flatbread and then hung the rest on the wall before they embarked on a long journey to a far-off country. This action meant: I want to eat the rest myself, thus I hope to return home. When they returned after a long time, they ate the rest of the bread. Samarkand bread does not go moldy and does not lose its taste even after a long while. If one dips the dry bread in cold water, it immediately becomes soft and edible again.
Various tales have spread in the Orient and the West about Samarkand bread Osiyo.
One particuarly good story says that the Arab army leader Kutayba conquered Samarkand with his warriors and took the treasures of the historical sites of interest. Bute he particularly liked the bread and water from Samarkand..
Water could be found in Mecca, but only the bakers in Samarkand could bake this delicious bread. For this reason, the army leader Kutayba sent four Samarkand bakers with a caravan to Mecca. The aim was to bake the Samarkand bread Osiyo there in order to please the Kalif. When the caravan arrived in Mecca, the bakers got to work and baked the same bread for the kalif that they had been making in Samarkand. But the Kalif who already knew the real taste of Samarkand bread, were not happy.
The bakers defended themselves. «In order to bake Samarkand bread Osiyo with the right taste, we need wheat flour from Samarkand!».
So wheat flour was brought from Samarkand and the bakers went to a lot of trouble and baked a whole clay oven full of bread, but the bread still did not taste like Samarkand bread.
«Are you trying to annoy me?», asked the Grandvizier of the Kalif in a rage. «Why can you not make Osiyo Samarkand bread? Do you need Samarkand water?» The bakers nodded.
So on his orders, water was also brought from Samarkand, but the taste was still not to the Grandvizier’s liking. The oldest baker had another suggestion:
«Oh, Greatvizier, we have done our best to make Samarkand bread Osiyo. But in order to make it as delicious as the bread you tasted in Samarkand, we need Samarkand air. Please tell your army leader to send Samarkand air here. Only then can we fulfil your wish!»
The Grandvizier did not know how to answer because he could not imagine how air could be transported from one place to another. So it was decided that Osiyo bread should only be baked in Samarkand. Since then and still today, Samarkand bread is regularly sent to Mecca as a delicacy.
Samarkand bread Osiyo is considered to be one of the wonders of the historical, flourishing town of Samarkand. Just as the tourists admire the emblem of Samarkand, the pearl of the Orient – Registan Square – they also wish to taste the other emblem of Samarkand, namely Samarkand bread Osiyo.
Bread is one of the things human beings eat daily and it was been held in high regard in Uzbekistan since time immemorial. The tradition of Uzbek hospitality means first of all offering bread to a guest. When bread is transported in a basket, it is carried on the head out of respect for the bread. Bread plays an important role in Uzbek cuisine and is eaten with practically every meal.
According to archeological excavations, it is assumed that people started to bake bread from cereals already 15000 years ago. This was exactly the time fire started to be used. Even in a chapter of the holy book of Fire Worshipers (Zoroastrians) «Avesto», the bread which the people living by the Zarafschan River in Samarkand baked in a clay oven is talked about in detail. Tandir clay ovens were found in many parts of Uzbekistan during excavations. And bread baked in such ovens tastes best.
These clay ovens are built in the courtyards of properties and bread is baked in them. More than 60% of Uzbekistan’s population lives in the country. This is proof of the fact that most people baked their own bread at home in a clay oven.
The average diameter of the inside of a domestic clay oven is about 80 cm, with a height between 80 and 100 cm. Large tandirs were only manufactured for bakeries. Whilst the clay ovens in Buchara and Samarkand stood horizontally on the ground or on a clay pedestal and the opening was on top, in Fergana and Tashkent it was fixed to the wall. All around the mounted tandir, openings of 10-15 cm in size were installed as smoke outlets. Then the inner wall of the clay oven was greased with cotton oil and a fire was lit for 24 hours. After this process, no surplus clay sticks to the bottom of the bread. Before baking, branches of cotton bushes are burnt until the wall of the oven turns a light color. Only then is the bread put into the oven.
In Samarkand a traditional competition is held amongst the best bakers. Bakers from different regions take part and present their bread, which can contain raisins, nuts, meat, cream or other fruits. The bakers explain their personal baking process to the spectators.
True to the saying: «seeing once is better than hearing a hundred times», we visited one of the best-known baker families in Samarkand in the house of Amin Norkulov in the parish of «Qushtamgali».
Mr. Norkulov, who served in the army in Leisnig, Germany, between 1974 and 1976, is from a 4th generation baker family in Samarkand. His ancestors were bakers all their lives. Already at eight years, young Amin started to learn the secrets of baking bread from his father. After learning the finer points and skills of this craft, he set up his own business which he has had for over 35 years. He honors and loves his profession.
Three to five bags of 50 kg each of flour are used every day to bake the bread, with a daily output of 150 to 250 loaves. In addition, wheat flour, yeast, milk and salt are required.
The baker prepares the dough every night at one o’clock. Some round pieces of dough are formed into a flat shape and sesame seeds are sprinkled on. A bag of flour makes about 50 loaves with a weight of 1300 g each. This requires much strength, work and time on the part of the baker.
When the dough has been shaped, it is covered with foil or a cloth and left for an hour to rise. Meanwhile, the baker prepares the fire in the tandir oven. When the wood has burnt away, the pieces of dough are placed individually on a special kitchen utensil called a rapida (sleeve protection), with which the pieces of dough can stick to the wall of the hot clay oven without their burning themselves. The bottom of the dough pieces have to be moistened so they stick better to the wall of the oven. In this way, the individual loaves are arranged in a row along the wall of the oven.
As the opening of the tandir is not large enough, the baker, depending on the number of loaves, goes into the burning clay oven to stick the dough pieces to the wall. Then the mouth of the tandir is covered. The bread is ready after about 10-15 minutes. The red-hot bread is carefully extracted with a special poker and spread out in a room to let it cool down. First of all, the baker tries his bread. The loaves are only sent to the bazaar in Samarkand if it is perfect.
The baker Amin married his children off very well and built many houses for his family. Today he lives happily in the circle of his family in Samarkand and, as he says, many of his dreams could be fulfilled thanks to his profession.
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