March 10, 2013

Naan

March 10, 2013
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Baked at high temperature in a cylindrical clay oven, tandoor, in Southern, Central and Western Asia, naan is a traditional flatbread which, due to the restaurant culture, is perhaps the best known Indian bread in the Western world. Although I’ve visited India several times during the past twenty years, prior to this week, I had never eaten naan. It’s not typical bread served in the temple compounds of Bengal and Vraj, Uttar Pradesh, where I stay. Since I don’t eat in restaurants, in India or outside, I’ve only heard about the wonders of naan from others. For years I was under an impression it cannot be baked in an electric oven. Also, I was discouraged by the fact it’s leavened with commercial yeast, which I avoid cooking with.
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Yeasts are common domesticated organisms in the environment and have been used for fermentation and baking in all parts of the world throughout the history. Industrial yeast was cultivated for the need of brewing business just before the dawn of last century and is the same species as the common baking yeast. However, they belong to different strains to highlight different characteristics.

By giving these invisible fungus-like fellows a bit of sugar, water and flour to feast, they will, in time, produce gas, carbon dioxide, which will expand and aerate the dough. During baking, the yeast will die, leaving behind air pockets that create a soft and spongy texture typical to leavened goods. As expected from the overdose of sugar, fermenting produces alcohol that evaporates during baking.
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The fermentation time of naturally occurring airborne yeast is longer than that of cultivated one. In a warm, draft-free place it takes from twelve to thirty-six hours for the unicellular micro-beings to wake up from their coma. But, once they are awake, they will live, prosper and reproduce by mitosis as long as they have a cosy place to snuggle and something to munch. After all, yeast is a living culture that doesn’t require sunlight as the source of energy. They rather recharge by organic compounds like sugar, alcohol and acids. Seems like humans, despite of professing to be more elevated, have more than one common factor with fungus!
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I baked one batch of naan with buttermilk that was left over from churning butter. It was good but the second batch, which I used milk for, had a better texture. The bread was crunchy to bite but, still, soft. An important thing to remember when baking: less flour, softer the bread.
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A pizza-stone would be perfect for baking naan. In the absence of one, I used my faithful Bengali grinding stone, sil batta, which obviously experienced a shock in 275 C (527 F) but performed excellently despite of the new carbon black look.
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Kalonji tastes mildly lemony and original in naan. Served with homemade butter and a sprinkle of chaat masala, naan is a light meal or snack on its own. It camps naturally with rice and dal, or a wet vegetable dish. I even visualized it with poached fruits, thick, sweet yogurt and ginger syrup! It has a potential to host any kind of vegetable or fresh cheese filling, too. Considering how simple and quick it’s to make, after the fermenting process, it will be a part of menu in our household from this on.
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Thank you.

40 comments:

  1. They look wonderful! Mmmhhh, perfect and addictive when served with butter.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

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  2. Naan is the first thing I look forward to when I go to an Indian restaurant. It is a favorite companion to my butter chicken main dish. I tried to produce yeast at home once and I failed. Maybe I'll try it again.I love to bake and I always use the commercial yeast. Can you explain again why you don't like the commercial yeast?

    BTW: HUGE fan of your food photography.

    Fatemah from Kuwait

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    1. All processes with bacteria and fungus are tricky. The utensils must be clean and the temperature steady. Sometimes it’s difficult to provide suitable conditions at home. I have always been successful with a sourdough starter but have failed many times with yogurt! Especially when fermenting milk sweets. Even at a slightly wrong temperature, unwanted bacteria become active and create a different result than intended.

      Commercially produced yeast is very aggressive! It is cultivated to do fast what nature intended to do slowly and organically. Because it’s a residue of brewing industry, it’s not considered sattvik, in the mode of goodness. Rather, it is tamasik, under the influence of ignorance. According to Ayurveda, it creates mucus and dullness. We become what we associate with. All kinds of micro-organism, mold and fungus thrive in darkness. They are undeveloped living beings physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

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    2. I love your description of commercial yeast. "It is.. under the influence of ignorance." Thank you for showing us a better way to make it.

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  3. Naan is very addictive and just made some this morning. I often make without the yeast and add freshly crushed cumin. Sometimes add mashed very ripe banana as it is a secret ingredient for naan at restaurants in Bangladesh. I'll try your sourdough starter next time.

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    1. Do you use baking powder or just make a basic dough of flour, ghee and liquid, like in chapati or paratha? A good tip about adding mashed banana. The whole process of puffing bread in the oven is interesting.

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    2. Sometimes I use baking powder but mostly just make a basic dough like paratha.

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  4. Always curious to try new way of using my sourdough starter, so I'm really keen on trying this naan recipe of yours.

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  5. This naan looks very appetizing!
    I wonder how you keep a steady temperature for the starter in winter??
    Naan is on my to-do list making a gluten-free version,
    Karuna, Linda

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    1. Thanks for asking, I placed the bowl of starter in the front of a radiator (elevated from the floor level), covered it loosely and, then, built a tent around it with a kitchen cloth. No draft. The yeast was active in 12 hours. The naan did not taste sour at all.

      If you want a stronger sourdough taste, feed the yeast with a little bit of flour and fresh water every day for 3 days. Once the yeast is active, you can store it in a closed jar in the refrigerator. Every time you take out some, you must feed it again with flour and water. It's a good method if you bake every day.

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  6. Never tried naan. I got to know this is an Indian food. Looks like so yummy. Should share this recipe with my mummy . She is good with cooking.

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  7. I really like naan but in Italy I can find it only in the indian restaurant so this recipe could be very useful to try it at home!!

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  8. Hello Lakshmi..

    I discovered you, your blog late last year while you were on a break from blogging and like several.. several others, I am so inspired by you. Apart from your lovely simple recipes and photographs, its your words ..I find them to have such a calming and peaceful effect. Thank you.
    Welcome back.
    This naan recipe is something I look forward to trying sometime for sure.

    Shruti

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  9. This looks amazing. Time to make Naan!

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  10. Sigh. I do not eat wheat, or any other grain except a little white rice. I suppose this means I am reduced to enjoying the lovely photography. :-)

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  11. i make naan without using yeast but using baking powder and wetting it on one side and sticking it to the tava, (so it sticks) then inverting the tava to expose the naan to the open flame, a bit above the flame ( make sure it does not burn)..puff and brown and then scrape it from the tava.

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  12. thinking about satvik and tamasik my grandmother never ate anything fermented (except pickles) e.g. : if we ever made dosa, we would make sure to make the dosa for her before it fermented...i wonder why? i have a feeling it has something to do with satvik food

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    1. Fermented food presents a definitional problem: lacto-fermented items, like yogurt and buttermilk, are considered sattvic, wheras yeast or vinegar (alcohol) based foods are not. Natural, airborn yeast used in idli, dosa, jalebi and so on, to my understanding, is accepted by most people who otherwise adhere to the principles of ahimsa, non-violence. In the strictest sense, an increasing number of living entities are being killed, longer the fermentation takes. Sattvic food is, therefore, freshly cooked. The shorter the disintegration time, the better. Left over, stored and over-ripened food means decay and decomposition, which is done by micro-organic, yet, living beings whose taste is corresponding to rotten and unfresh.

      Fermenting often makes food more digestable. It is, however, acidic.

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    2. Your response prompted me to get a book on fermentation - so many recipes and information - a treasure house. Am also reading - the power of ancient foods - Dr Gene Spiller: thought of you while reading the book !!

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  13. I've tried naan before, but was not upto standards. I hope to try your method. Only concern is keeping it for 36 hours to ferment. Luv your simple photography and naan looks amazing.

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  14. Beautifully written with lovely photos Lakshmi. I love baking with yeast and what you wrote is making me think about it in a new light.
    I have been wanting to make my own sourdough starter for a while but this post inspires me to work on it right away :)

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    1. Chinmayie, you'd be surprised how easy it is to make sourdough. In my opinion, it tastes much better than anything baked with commercial yeast. Plus it doesn't make you bloated and uncomfortable after eating.

      If you make flatbread, the fermentation time can be short because the bread doesn't really need to rise. I've made chapatis from sourdough and they come out beautifully. There is mild sourness but it goes well together with the taste of wholegrain.

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  15. Such an appetizing result - love the natural process here (nature always does know best;)! Thank you for sharing.

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  16. Wow you reminded of my home in India!

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  17. Thanks for the informative lecture on yeast. Your photos are lovely.

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  18. Love your photos - I'll have to try this recipe!

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  19. As I said before, I am really amazed by your pictures. I can't wait to try to make naan bread at home, but your pictures... just stunning!

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  20. Lakshmi, I didn't think it was possible either, but I followed your recipe and just took it out of the oven. Gorgeous! Your photos are just as delicious. Thank you,
    Korana

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    1. Great to hear! Aren't they good. Since posting this recipe I've baked them without sourdough starter with fullcorn spelt flour and yogurt, adding a bit baking powder and a pinch of soda, and they came out fine, too.

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  21. You're back! Or okay, you've been back for a while and I'm just not figuring that out.

    I've never had any type of naan. It sounds and looks good so I don't know what's been holding me back. And homemade butter! This all sounds heavenly.

    I'm happy about your return. Can't wait to see what you come up with. :)

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  22. Lakshmi, Your Blog is beautiful! Thank you so much for the purity of food, recipes, photographs, design, writing and spirit! Jai Shri Krishna!

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  23. Satvik food reminds me my mother's cooking,she always use fresh Idly batter for making Soft thick steamed Roti (Big thick round shape dumpling) without fermenting Idly batter.Thanks for sharing this wonder yummy Nan recipe and tempting clicks. I make Nan batter using sour yogurt.

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  24. : ) so tempting. the naan look so crunchy I can devour this with ghee and a sprinkle of salt. Using sill sems a good idea if I can get such nice naans. Please share pictures of ur sill batta and how u used it, did u season it in some way, how long u heat it before putting naan on it?

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  25. s2001, thank for the comment. There is a picture of my sil here. It's small and holds only one naan per time. I placed it on an oven rill and heated it up with the oven. I didn't season it. Because the oven was very hot, it became a little bit black, which is not so nice. I wouldn't use it again for the job. Now I have a pizza-stone that works even better.

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  26. Nicely presented information in this post, I prefer to read this kind of stuff. The quality of content is fine and the conclusion is fine.

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