*** This is not a recipe post. Instead, it details background and findings from research I did on the first bread I’ll make for my “Breads of the World” 2021 baking project. If you’re not into that, check back next week when I expect to have the recipe and photos up. ***
In the lead-up to the 2004 election, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend (now husband) around the East Coast, visiting graduate schools we optimistically thought we might have a chance of getting into. (Also sightseeing, but very virtuously telling ourselves that wasn’t our main objective.) One evening, I remember getting into bed at our hotel and watching The Daily Show, then hosted by Jon Stewart, and his plea to his audience and to the country: he wanted us to make his job – and the jobs of all comedians – hard, by electing John Kerry rather than incumbent George W. Bush, insinuating Kerry would be more difficult to satirize. Well, we didn’t. But I think of that now and then, as what happens in this country continues to make my “job” here hard. Too many times I have tried to weave together current events and food in a respectful and hopeful way. Too many times I have sat at my keyboard wondering how and whether to acknowledge what is happening, and what to say, and how to transition from that into whatever I have to share with you, because to not acknowledge it is to live in a dream world that too easily slides into complicity.
Today I can’t do it. There’s no transition. It doesn’t work. As Deb said on her instagram feed, “There’s not and never will be a ‘I like to unwind from watching an armed insurrection on live TV by roasting chicken.’ There’s no ‘Wow, really, they didn’t see this coming? Welp, let’s go slice some cabbage!’… But I am here, in the same place as the rest of us, angry and worried. And also, I still need to make something for dinner. Hope you get to refuel with something delicious tonight; we all need it.”
We need it. I need it. And in my attempts to avoid watching the news all day or doom-scrolling or refreshing that feed one more time, I fell down a rabbit hole researching the first bread I wanted to make for my “Breads of the World” project. And I got so interested by that and so excited about the bread itself that I want to share that research with you. No recipe today, thanks to the half-a-pie, the pitas, the pizza, and the sourdough loaf I already have kicking around my house (I’ve been retreating to the kitchen a lot lately), but hopefully next week after we’ve demolished a few of my current bakes and are ready for another.
My first entrée into this project is a Persian bread called, by turns, komaj or naan-e-komaj. According to Wikipedia this is similar to an Armenian sweet bread called nan e gisu (and sounds similar to another one called noon-e sheereen or Gata), which I’d also never heard of (but you can bet it’s on my list now). Like the bread’s history and origins, the recipe I’m planning to use was difficult to track down. I first ran across this bread, golden from turmeric and sprinkled with an intriguing combination of both cumin seeds and powdered sugar, through a search for Persian breads on pinterest, and gradually wound my way backward to a recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia by authors Greg and Lucy Malouf.
The Maloufs acknowledge the recipe in their book is their own interpretation of a bread they ate, and so I wanted to see if I could trace back to a source recipe, maybe something more authentic or traditional. As these things often go on the internet, not only did I not find an “authentic” or “original” recipe, likely because there isn’t just one; I found a pile of conflicting information to sort through. Komaj, or naan-e-komaj, seems to come in broadly two iterations: stuffed and unstuffed. The food site Persian Good calls komaj a “Persian oatcake” and provides a recipe for a fairly simple yeasted dough that, after it has risen, is treated like a cookie rather than a bread: stamped out with a cutter and sprinkled with sesame seeds before being baked. Conversely, in a list of Middle Eastern recipes from the Lorna Sundberg International Center, a division of the University of Virginia’s International Studies Office, I found a version of komaj that is unyeasted, but stuffed with date paste. The Malouf recipe seems to combine these alternatives, meeting in the more complicated middle with a fluffy, yeasted bun enclosing a filling of dates and cardamom, stamped out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter.
This sounded too good to pass up, but I wasn’t done with my research yet. Given the differing versions of the bread, I wanted to know more about it. The result was, of course, yet more tangled threads that don’t quite connect. Forgive the hashed metaphor, as O. Henry would say. The Maloufs’ recipe is for a wheat-flour based bun that they tasted “in the oasis town of Mahan in the south-east of Iran.” However, my searching turned up an article from the Journal of Ethnic Foods that cites komaj or “naan-e-komaj” as one of the “most important rice flour–based breads in the north of Iran” (Gharibzahedi). Rice flour based? North of Iran? Further, the article cites komaj as a bread from the Mazandaran province just south of the Caspian Sea, and here it is not baked, but fried in oil. Yet the description – “A Persian date bread with cumin and turmeric” – sounded like the same product I’d been chasing, and the ingredient list, which included not only rice flour, but wheat flour, milk or yogurt, egg, baking powder, and vanilla (cumin and turmeric are optional here, and sometimes raisins, cinnamon, and walnuts are incorporated as well), was fairly similar aside from being chemically leavened rather than with yeast (Gharibzahedi).
All this leads to some food truths I already know, and imagine I will continue to uncover as this project continues: food moves. Food changes. Food is adapted. As Naz Deravian says in the headnote to her recipe for Dahate Naan or “peasant bread” in Bottom of the Pot, “Stuffed ‘peasant’ or ‘rustic’ breads are common in all parts of Iran with slight variations to the recipe, usually in the filling, which distinguishes its provenance” (186). Her recipe, which has cardamom in the filling like the Maloufs’ but exchanges dates for walnuts, is also from the Caspian region, but a different province and ethnic group than the fried, rice flour-based Mazandaran bread I’d been chasing. A traceable step in the bread’s evolution? Or a happy coincidence of similar flavors? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The combination of savory-sweet here, with cumin, turmeric, dates, cardamom, and the orange zest I’m thinking of adding, making yet another version, is intriguing enough without knowing how and whether it moved from northern to southern Iran, acquiring yeast, stuffing, and the need for an oven on the way.
Until next week, then, when I hope to have a recipe and results to share. In the meantime, please be well, and if you know anything about this bread in particular or others like it, do leave a comment letting us know more about it!
Who’d of thought bread could be so complicated???
This was definitely a more complex rabbit-hole than I’d expected. But I’d be willing to bet there are many dishes – breads included – that carry a complex and tangled history much like this! Kind of makes me want to be a food historian…
I know Chelsea! It’s all fascinating!