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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.