Persian Noon: Flatbreads of Islamic culinary tradition
They call it ‘noon’ in colloquial parlance. The proper word in Persian is Naan. In English flatbread. Bread is eaten all over the world in myriad forms. One of these is broadly called the ‘flatbread’ in English, which in itself comes in endless shapes, sizes, tastes and flavours. I am convinced from my personal experiences in a few countries, as well as from research that nothing contributed more to the emergence of these varieties of flatbreads more than Islamic culinary traditions. I wish to give a taste of a few such fragrant breads over the next few columns. Right on top of the list of countries where I have tasted amazing flatbreads is Iran, where it is known as Naan.
Variety of Persian Noon
As I said before, in colloquial usage Iranians often call it ‘noon’. My first encounter with a ‘Persian Noon’ was at my Iranian host Saeed’s home in Tehran. We, in India, are fairly familiar with a variety of Naans, but the bread with which Saeed entered, literally holding a couple of them in his arms like holding a baby, stunned me by its sheer size. Each of those breads couldn’t have been less than two and half feet by one foot. A deep warm odour filled the room. It was called Noon Barberry, Saeed informed me.
But why this strange name: Noon Barberi? Shahin explained to me: A community called Hazara lives in the Khorasan area in the eastern fringes of Iran. Sometime way back in history the mainland Iranians used to consider them uncivilized, barbarians, ‘barber’ in Persian. Over time the two communities came culturally and economically close. These people used to make this bread originally, which during the 18th – 19th century CE entered into the regular mainland cuisine. Since these lovely breads, with hints of both salt and sugar, were made by ‘barber’s it’s Barberi.
Over the next three weeks I ate many new dishes in Iran. Each of those foods I have enjoyed to the hilt. But for now, we stick to the story of ‘noon’. The various kinds of ‘noon’s that I have tasted in Iran truly entice the connoisseur’s deepest culinary senses.
Persian Noon across the geography of Iran
Barberi apart, there’s another variety of huge flatbread, named Lavosh. It comes from Armenia. This is much thinner than Barberi and is embossed with dots. Because of its being so thin it can be easily folded or rolled. You can make a wrap with it by putting ground meat, chopped onion, tomato and capsicum inside its belly. In a small restaurant in a village, named Varzaneh, near Isfahan, they made a wonderful Falafel roll with fried ground chickpeas and chopped vegetables inside. Lavosh also tastes lovely eaten plain with honey-dip. Then there is the Noon Sangak. ‘Sang’ in Farsi means stone. Traditionally this bread is baked on small heated stones. Unlike in India or the whole South Asian subcontinent, I didn’t see bread being baked in Iranian homes. There are small bakeries almost in every district in the cities.
Fluffy and smelly encounter
And my deep love affair with the Persian ‘noon’ finally drove me straight into a bakery in Isfahan. A golden day was melting into a dazzling dusk of myriad colours. I was returning to my hotel. The smell alerted my nostrils. And then I noticed the longish queue. A small bakery. People were purchasing various kinds of breads from its counter. I had no reason to buy any. I hesitated for a moment, and walked straight inside. Besides a smiling nod, none paid any attention. I kept snapping away.
A tall muscular gentleman, clad in a white apron and a cap, was tearing out large morsels of dough from a large heap with vengeance, shaping them into balls with his palms, rolling them flat on a rolling pin and passing it onto his assistant, half his size, who in turn was putting them on an iron disk, slowly spinning in a slit in the wall. I couldn’t see what really is happening as the disk with the unbaked bread rotates to the other side of the wall. But every time it is returning, riding on it was a fluffy bread almost the size of a table-cover sheet. These breads head straight for the counter of the bakery, hot and fresh. But in Iran grocers also sell all kinds of bread. Western loaf breads are not popular in Iran.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)