When eating at an Indian restaurant there is only one guarantee: there will be Naan. And it will be good, crisp and hot, and in plentiful supply. The chicken in the tikka masala might be dry, the Saag Paneer might be bland, or the Laal Maas so spicy it is unpalatable; but the naan, the naan is always delicious.
We must have all had it at some point in our lives, the flat teardrop-shaped piece of bread, blistered and bubbly from the heat of the oven, the Ghee leaving a warm salty shimmer on its surface. A delicious vehicle for whatever savory dish rests before you. It’s common practice in the subcontinent to use naan instead of forks and knives. In fact, after a meal where Naan serves as the main utensil, it makes you wonder why we persist in using those cold metallic implements so common to the western table.
Naan: Breakfast of Champions
Naan bread both delicious and efficient, is one of the oldest forms of bread, emerging soon after leavening was first discovered in Egypt. The first mention of it recorded by the Indian musician, scholar and poet Amir Kushrau in 1300AD. Kushrau separated Naan bread into two varieties: “Naan-e-tunuk” which means light or thin bread, and “Naan-e-tanuri” which means cooked in a Tandoor oven.
Kushrau writes about the habits and lifestyle of the Mughals or Mogals, the Indo-Persian rulers of the time (think Genghis Khan)who conquered the second largest empire to exist in Indian history, introducing a period of proto-industrialization that would turn India into the world’s largest economic power and usher in what many have come to call “India’s last golden age”. In fact, these Mughals brought Naan bread with them when they first conquered the subcontinent. It is said that an army travels on its stomach, making Naan bread a veritable breakfast of champions. Indeed according to Kushrau it was most often enjoyed in the morning, alongside qeema.
At the time Kushrau was living in the royal court, and his writings reflect that. Naan was one of the few leavened breads made at that time, making it more time-consuming. Thought of as somewhat of a delicacy, it was limited to the richer members of society and the nobility. Roti an unleavened flatbread also made in a Tandoor was crunchy and quick and the majority of Indians would have eaten that instead of the soft chewy Naan.
Persisting in the Face of Adversity
It is necessary when making traditional Naan to bake it in a Tandoor oven. The Tandoor can reach 900℉ which helps achieve the Naan’s signature puff and the bubbly, blistered texture. These ovens have to be extremely hot or else the Naan will not stick to the sides and cook properly. Like so many in the midwest I do not possess a traditional Tandoor oven, but Naan, so long a food reserved for royals, needs to become approachable to the layman! No more will it be relegated to the select few who possess a horde of servants to knead their bread, slap their dough, and stoke fires rivaling those of Hades. There is a multitude of Youtube videos instructing the curious on how to make their own DIY Tandoor, but in November the thought of spending a frigid evening slapping raw dough to the inside of a houseplant pot seemed rather abysmal.
These needed to be accomplished inside without an obscene amount of expense, inconvenience, or confusion. The traditional western oven, be it convection or otherwise, was the only viable appliance to use. After many experiments including bricks and yes even houseplant pots, what ended up being the most successful and easiest method was one utilizing a pizza stone. I turned up my oven as high as it could go (550℉) and allowed the stone to get extremely hot before carefully placing my Naan on it. Closing the oven immediately and keeping a careful watch through the oven window allowed me to get a pretty good result. It puffed, it blistered, and minus the smoky flavor you get from a good Tandoor oven it tasted pretty fantastic.
If your oven is old enough it might allow you to open the door during pyrolytic cleaning, (something that is impossible with newer models) enabling you to achieve even higher temperatures and get that much closer to the classic cooking method. If you’d like to go a step further, adding charred wood chips in a shallow pan on the lowest rack of the oven is a good way to create that smoky flavor.
The Layman’s Naan
1½ tsp fast-action yeast
1 tsp sugar
½ cup warm water
300g strong white bread flour
1 teaspoons salt
5 Tablespoons natural yogurt
2 Tablespoons melted Ghee
Chopped Cilantro, garlic, and nigella seeds for garnishing the Naan
Put the yeast, sugar and two tablespoons of warm water in a bowl and stir well. Leave until it begins to froth.
Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk to combine, set aside.
Once the yeast has started to show some activity, add the yogurt to the yeast and combine.
Pour the flour/salt mixture out into a heap on the surface of your counter.
Using your hands make a well in the middle of the flour.
Pour in the yogurt/yeast mixture.
Followed by the melted Ghee.
Working the dry ingredients into the wet, coming from the outside in gradually work though dough into a mass.
Knead the dough for about five minutes until smooth and elastic, form into a ball, then place into a large greased bowl and turn to coat. Cover with a clean dishcloth and place in a warm placid environment where the dough can remain undisturbed for 1½ – 2 hours.
When the dough has roughly doubled in size, tip it out onto a lightly floured surface and knock the air out of it.
Divide the dough into eight equal pieces. Cupping your hands over each piece rotate your hands in a small circular movement pressing the dough firmly against the surface of the counter. This movement should help round out your balls of dough into perfect little spheres. Do this to each and then allow to rest 5-10 minutes covered.
While the dough is resting place your pizza stone on the center rack of the oven and crank it up as high as it goes (probably 550℉).
When your oven has reached it’s highest temperature prepare your first Naan by rolling it out with a rolling pin into a flat circular shape. It doesn’t have to be perfectly round, Just make sure it’s fairly thin approximately a 1/4 of an inch. If the dough wants to spring back allow it to rest for several minutes. This allows the gluten to relax and will make it easier to roll out.
Place the Naan in the hot pan and close the door of the oven. After about two minutes the Naan should begin to bubble. Turn the dough over and cook an additional 2-3 minutes.
When you have finished cooking all the Naan brush each with melted ghee and sprinkle with seeds, and garlic if using.
Fresh Naan straight from the oven cannot be paralleled in taste or texture and so I highly encourage you to eat it promptly.