14 June 2005

The Center of Asia

Kashgar, to begin with, was a flatbread paradise. For sale on every street corner and in every tiny eatery there was a choice of three different types. For the Uighur people who live in Kashgar and the other oases that rim the Taklamakan Desert, dlat-breads are a part of every meal. The breads are leavened rounds 15 to 20 centimeters across (6-8"), with a puffed rim and a center that's been stamped flat before baking and often sprinkled lightly with cumin seed or salt. They are baked in large vertical tandoor ovens. Each round is laid on a baker's pillow—a padded, convex cloth-surfaced wooden disk—then slapped onto the preheated inside wall of the oven. It bakes for only a few minutes, then is lifted out, chewy, golden, and sustaining. In the dry desert air, the breads dry out quickly, but as is the custom all across Central Asia, they are immediately brought back to life when dunked or broken into big bowls of steaming-hot black tea...

The more time we spent around people for whom flatbreads are the staff of life, the more we began to understand the unique relationship these people have to the food they eat. We began to appreciate finer distinctions between different kinds of breads and flours and methods of preparation. Behind every bread we tasted, we came to realize, there were at least half a dozen others we would never taste, and probably never even be told about. And we realized that, unlike the culture in which we grew up, in flatbread cultures most people have a very clear idea of where the food they eat each day comes from, of how it is grown or raised, how it is prepared and cooked. Many times, when we asked people how to make a certain local bread, they couldn't believe that we didn't already know. How could anyone not know how to make nan, or roti, or pitti! ("On the Flatbread Trail" Saudi Aramco World July/August 1995.)

Curious, I followed them to the very edge of the city [Samarqand], and still they went on - out across the desert, until finally we came to a deep ravine. There, laid out upon the sand, like some giant film set, was one of Asia's great open-air, one-day bazaars - sometimes talked about, but rarely seen.

The desolate spot purred with a mass of humanity - Uzbeks, Afghans, Tadjiks, and gypsies - all with something to sell, or looking for something to buy. Spread out upon the sand were rows of carpets and striped kalims presided over by robed and turbaned men. Asian music came from small radios, and there was the scent of cooking fires, under pots of bubbling broth and thick black sausages. Lines of peasant women held up small handkerchiefs and embroidered table cloths, and gypsy women sitting on the sand were selling brightly painted drums. ("Memories of Samarkand" Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1984.)

Today, the 162 mosques in Kashgar alone prove the enduring presence of Islam, though Buddhist influence can be found in the extraordinarily varied artwork, music, and dance produced by the Uighur people. Muslims still gather at the 'Id Gah Masjid to celebrate the major holidays, 'Id al-Fitr and 'Id al-Adha. On those days, Uighurs dance the "sama" in the square, recite the great Uighur Mukharum epics—locally produced poetry and music set down in the 16th century—and celebrate the unity of Islam in the region. ("Kashgar: China's Western Doorway" Saudi Aramco World, November/December 2001.)

1 comment:

  1. Amira,

    Thank you for the soft lifes lessons you continually share with us.

    As you mention the "flatbread people" It reminded me of some of the simple differences here in this area of the country. For instance, I found very few "New Englanders" who know what we that live in the midwest call scones. Even upon explaining the dough and how they are cooked, they look at you with not comprehending what you are even trying to describe.

    The regions of this world hold so many unique and valuable lessons. I love that you see them Amira, because so many people don't. I am glad that you share them with us. I would love to taste and experience the different flatbreads and the people who make and consume them, and be absorbed into their life, even for a brief time.