Behind the counter at Maiwand Market, the man smoothed out a brown paper bag he’d sliced open and stacked on it five three-foot-long flatbreads that had just emerged from the pizza ovens. The woman in front of me held out her arms as if to receive a small child, and he loaded the stack onto them. The pack of customers behind her parted, and she made her way through the crowd to the cash register, her cargo steaming.
I didn’t see how she could make it that far without diving teeth-first into the loaves. After visiting two bakeries in a half-hour period, I was getting high off the fumes of freshly baked bread.
Afghan restaurants, halal butchers, and markets cluster along Fremont Boulevard near Thornton Boulevard, Little Kabul’s Main Street. It’s the best place to find Afghan flatbread, or naan-i-Afghani. Like Indian naan, the bread is traditionally cooked by slapping it onto the wall of a tandoor, or vertical clay oven. However, in Afghanistan the dimpled and slashed loaves are as long as a five-year-old and a foot in width.
Like its Indian counterpart, though, Afghan naan is best when it’s fresh. Which is why Maiwand’s three pizza ovens — the American equivalent of the tandoor — are fired up all day, with a crew of five hustling about to roll dough, slash it along its length to eliminate air bubbles, and send it into the ovens on pizza peels.
Fremont’s Afghan community purchases bread from Maiwand or Pamir Food Mart down the block. Maiwand’s loaves are made with a mix of whole-wheat and white-wheat flours, which leaves the insides spongy but gives the flavor of the bread an appealing nuttiness. At Pamir, a pair of mustachioed bakers sprinkle their all-wheat or all-white naan with sesame and black cumin seeds, and send them out, wrapped in plastic, through a small window in the back of the dim market.
Naan is part of daily life in Afghanistan. In a culture where you eat with your hands, the bread serves as fork, spoon, and sponge for stews and curries. In fact, in both Dari and Pashto, the country’s two major languages, the word for “bread” is the same as the word for “meal.”
Afghan naan goes stale rather quickly, so if you make a trip to Fremont for a couple of loaves — $1.50 apiece, by the way — you can keep it fresh by slicing it up and freezing it the moment you get home; a few minutes in a warm oven and the bread regains its crisp edges and soft center. Or, if you’re like me, drive home with the warm loaf spread across your lap, tearing off chunk after chunk, and trying not to swerve too drunkenly.