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Delicious staple food Naan in Xinjiang

Kashgar(喀什), the last city in China to see the sunrise. At nine o’clock Beijing time, people are just coming out of their houses. At this time of day, the brightness in Kashgar is about the same as it is in Beijing at seven in the morning. Along with the taste buds of the Xinjiang people, the naan tandoor is awakening. As the most common staple food in Xinjiang, naan is known as ‘the softest part of the Xinjiang people’s heart’.

Skyline of Kashgar.

There are many types of naan, and as well as the usual large disc shape, the “wowo naan”(窩窩馕), named for its nest-like hollow , is very popular with the people of Kashgar. The size of the wowo naan is much smaller than ordinary naan, with a wide, plump rim and a nest-like hollow(pronounced “wowo”窩窩 in Chinese) in the middle, which allows the dough to ferment more thoroughly.

Regular disc-shaped naans.

In addition to a properly fermented dough, the naan tandoor is another key to making good naan. A tandoor is about half the height of an adult man, similar in diameter to a well, and can hold about 130 naans.

An old baker in Kashgar is baking wowo naans.

In Xinjiang, the owners of naan bakeries are often skilled in the art of naan baking, which has been passed down through their families.

Before placing the fermented dough in the tandoor, they sprinkle some water into the tandoor, which lowers the temperature of the inner wall, allowing the baker to enter.

Inside wall of the naan tandoor.

They then stick the naans one by one along the inner wall from the bottom up, and when they reach the deepest part of the tandoor, they have to put half of their body inside. When baking a normal disc-shaped naan, the mouth of the tandoor is wide open all the time and the high temperature of the inner wall, about 480 degrees Celsius, will cook the naan in a few minutes. Wowo naan baking is different – once the dough has been placed in the tandoor, it needs to be covered and stewed, and then, once the dough has set, baked open until the skin of the naan dries and forms a smooth, water-tight crust.

Compared to regular naan, wowo naan lasts longer and stays crispy on the outside and soft on the inside when you eat it. But whatever the type of naan, it is generally agreed that the best naan is the freshly baked kind.

The smooth and water-tight crust of wowo naans.

For the Uyghurs, naan is not only an ancient cultural heritage, but also a sacred food made of water, fire and earth – for example, the crumbs of naan that fall to the ground should be picked up and put on a high place for the birds to eat; and at wedding time, the groom and bride must eat naan dipped with salted water to symbolise that they have the blessing of enjoying the same life and growing old together.

Image at the top by Rashpal Singh/Unsplash

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