With a rich history of breadmaking thatstretches back hundreds of years, the bread of Uzbekistan is not just sustenance; it’s a culturalemblem, an art form, and a testament to the country’s enduring traditions.
A short queue of local kids patiently waits across a plain white door. I knock to find a man eatingbread. In his broken English, he signals me to wait. Thanks to Google Translate I tell him, I amhere to watch the process. He smiles and welcomes me in. Behind the door is a small makeshift bread-making factory that opens into a courtyard andAkhmal Mir’s home in Samarkand. His 70-year-old mother is busy weighing the dough, cutting itinto pieces and making round shapes. This is one of the many bread-making factories inUzbekistan that is a successful cottage industry. Uzbek bread locally known as non or lepeshka is sacred in the country. And it is especially soin Samarkand. Legend has it that a 14th-century emperor tried to reproduce the same bread inother cities of Uzbekistan by getting the flour, water and equipment from Samarkand. But failedto get the same taste because the air of Samarkand is very special.
The art of making Uzbek bread is a labour-intensive process that has been passed down through generations. The ingredients consist of flour, typically sourced from locally grown wheat, andwater. Yeast is added for leavening, and sometimes yoghurt or milk is added to enhance theflavour and texture. The dough is kneaded until it reaches the perfect consistency, and then it’sleft to rest and rise. Once ready, the dough is expertly shaped, with the decorative patternsadded by skilled bakers who use their hands or special tools. Finally, the bread is baked in atandir (tandoor), a traditional clay oven. The tandoor oven is an integral part of Uzbek breadmaking. These cylindrical, wood-fired ovensare present deep in the ground like pits and can reach scorching temperatures, giving the breada unique flavour and texture. The bread is stunning to look at; glazed to perfection with justenough shine and sprinkled with black or white (or both) sesame seeds. The bread comes in just one shape — round.
Although walking through the many bazaars inUzbekistan makes it clear that there are as many decorative patterns at the centre of bread asthere are bakers. These patterns are not mere decorations; they carry a deep culturalsignificance, often representing the sun, prosperity, and family unity. The patterns areembossed using bread stamps, called chekich, which are made of walnut wood with iron pinsarranged into floral patterns.
Culturally, the bread is never placed face down or cut with a knife, it is always only torn by hand.The bread is deeply intertwined with the country’s culture and traditions as it is connected tocertain rituals signifying life’s major events such as marriage, childbirth and the departure of ason for military service.
It plays a central role in social gatherings wherein guests are greetedwith bread and salt as a symbol of hospitality, friendship and goodwill. In addition to lepeshka, there’s also patyr, a thinner, flatter bread perfect for wrapping aroundkebabs and other fillings and samsa a triangular pastry filled with meat, vegetables, orpumpkin, popular as a snack or appetiser.
(Published 14 October 2023, 23:15 IST)