Naan: Indian Flatbread

Food and Travel, International Food
on August 30, 2011

Naan (pronounced NAHN and sometimes spelled “nan”) comes from the Persian word for “bread” and refers to a flatbread primarily associated with India. Traditionally, naan was leavened by airborne yeasts and baked in a tandoor oven. Slapped on the hot side of the oven, naan puffs, browns and takes on a smoky flavor—all in about 60 seconds. The classic teardrop shape comes from dough being stretched during baking. Other important Indian flatbreads include roti and chapati, both of which are baked on a griddle.

If you’ve never seen a tandoor, it’s worth asking the proprietor of an Indian restaurant if you can take a peek. A commercial tandoor looks something like a top-loading washing machine with a clay cylinder for cooking. With some imagination, you can conjure its ancient predecessors: clay vessels excavated from Indus Valley civilizations dating back to 3000 B.C.E. A charcoal fire would be lit at the bottom, and the tandoor’s barrel shape would make for areas of very intense heat. Today’s commercial tandoors approach 900F; hence naan’s instantaneous puffed-up drama.  

Historians speculate that since Neolithic times, when stone-age farmers first learned to mill wheat and barley, doughs baked on hearthstones have been staples of the human diet. If you’re lucky enough to travel to India, use naan to gather up food and sauces (in rustic settings, fingers are the only utensils), and use your right hand. The left hand is used for personal hygiene, and eating with it constitutes very bad table manners.
Look for packaged naan next to the pita bread at the supermarket.

By Jo Marshall, writer and creator of Cookcabulary