I’m not scared of taking on Indian food – far from it, dal is a regular Sunday-night treat, and my perfect kofta curry is a delicious work in progress. But in my house, these things are always served with rice, due to my assumption that the gorgeous, pillowy naans I love for soaking up that rich, spicy gravy were beyond my abilities.
The naan, a word that just means bread in its original Persian, is a flatbread native to west, central and southern Asia. It is baked in a clay oven, rather than over a flame like the chapati, which gives it a crisp exterior, a fluffy core and a distinctive charred flavour. Not being blessed with either the space or the funds for a second oven, clay or not, I’d long ago lumped naans in with pizzas as things that weren’t worth attempting at home. I’ve since changed my mind on the margherita front, particularly after a revelatory moment earlier this year involving a frying pan and a hot grill, but I was still wary of attempting a bread that had no toppings to hide behind. Well, turns out I’m wrong – again.
Though one poster online assures the world that “real naan has a mix of stoneground wheat flour (chakki atta) and white flour”, I don’t find any recipes calling for this – instead, the difference is between plain flour and higher protein bread flour. Most recipes I try go for plain flour, but Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible uses bread flour, and Rick Stein’s India sits on the fence with a 1:3 ratio of bread to plain flour. Now, it is perfectly possible to make decent naan with plain flour – Meera Sodha’s Made in India does so – but the more naans I munch my way through, the more I realise how important their characteristic chewy, elastic texture is. A strong flour, with its higher gluten content, gives the best chance of this.
Though they’re flatbreads, naans traditionally get their bubbly texture from yeast (and, very traditionally, from wild yeasts). Some more modern variations, such as that in Vivek Singh’s Curry, use baking powder instead, with Jaffrey also adding extra bicarbonate of soda. Like Stein’s, the recipe in Charmaine Solomon’s India and Pakistan volume of her Complete Asian Cookbook uses yeast alone, while Sodha tops it up with baking powder.
The benefit of Singh’s baking powder is that I don’t need to leave the dough to prove for hours – after a mere 15 minutes under a damp cloth, it is ready to shape. The snag is that, while it boasts a few bubbles, the overall texture is more like a pitta bread. It is a decent-tasting quick fix if you need flatbread in a hurry (an emergency that surely plagues us all from time to time), but when it comes to texture, you can’t beat yeast. The extra baking powder doesn’t seem necessary if you leave those microorganisms to do their thing – especially as baking powder itself gets to work immediately, and will thus presumably be spent by the time the dough is ready to bake.
Stein, Jaffrey, Singh and Sodha use milk to wet their dough, with the first two adding yoghurt as well, and Stein and Solomon topping it up with water. Milk, and dairy in general, will give the naan a soft, more tender crumb than water alone, but I’m not sure you want to go too far down that road, as you risk sacrificing that aforementioned chewy texture. A little yoghurt for tang and richness, mixed with rather more water, seems a good compromise. Solomon, Singh and Jaffrey also add egg to their doughs, which only seems to make them tough. Some extra fat is welcome, though; Solomon adds ghee, Jaffrey butter and Singh vegetable oil. Personally, I like the flavour of ghee, but melted butter is a decent substitute.
Everyone adds salt and sugar to varying degrees – the sugar helps the yeast to get to work, while the salt does the opposite but is essential for flavour. More interesting are the toppings; though I avoided garlic butter, on the basis that it would give the breads concerned a very unfair advantage (what doesn’t taste good smothered in garlic butter?), I did allow Jaffrey her nigella and sesame seeds and Solomon her poppy ones. Pretty as they all looked, nigella was the only seed to contribute much in the way of flavour, so which you choose, if any, depends on what you’re serving it with. More important, I’d suggest, is a big dollop of melted ghee to finish, as wisely counselled by Jaffrey.
The two big beasts here, the Michelin-starred Singh and the legend that is Jaffrey, disagree on one fundamental point, possibly connected with their choice of raising agent. While Jaffrey instructs you to give the dough “100 strokes” with a wooden spoon to develop the gluten, Singh cautions you to be careful “not to work the gluten too much, or the dough will become stretchy”. Stretchy is exactly what you want, in my opinion, so kneading is a must. However, I must add that although a naan dough ought to be soft and sticky, both Jaffrey and Stein’s are so liquid I have great difficulty kneading them at all, and end up having to add more flour to both just to be able to get them back into the bowl. As with all doughs, do it by feel: if the dough feels at all tough or dry, add more liquid; it should be soft and irritatingly sticky.
Having established my kitchen is a tandoor-free zone, cooking is necessarily going to be a compromise. I find the best way to replicate the high heat and charred flavours is with a very, very hot dry pan – Singh and Solomon’s hot oven leaves them too stiff, more like a pizza crust. You can finish them off under a very hot grill, as Jaffrey suggests, but I find Sodha’s pan method simpler and more effective. Use the oven to keep your curries warm instead.
Put the yeast, sugar and two tablespoons of warm water in a bowl and stir well. Leave until it begins to froth.
Put the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Stir the yoghurt into the yeast mixture, then make a well in the middle of the flour and pour it in, plus the melted ghee. Mix, then gradually stir in the water to make a soft, sticky mixture that is just firm enough to call a dough, but not at all dry. Tip out on a lightly floured surface and knead for about five minutes until smooth and a little less sticky, then put in a large, lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover and leave in a draught-free place (the airing cupboard, or an unlit oven) until doubled in size: roughly 90–120 minutes.
Tip the dough back out on to the lightly floured surface and knock the air out, then divide into eight balls (or six if you have a particularly large frying pan). Meanwhile, heat a non-stick frying pan over a very high heat for five minutes and put the oven on low. Prepare the melted ghee and any seeds to garnish.
Flatten one of the balls and prod or roll it into a flat circle, slightly thicker around the edge. Pick it up by the top to stretch it slightly into a teardrop shape, then put it in the hot pan. When it starts to bubble, turn it over and cook until the other side is browned in patches. Turn it back over and cook until there are no doughy bits remaining.
Brush with melted ghee and sprinkle with seeds, if using, and put in the oven to keep warm while you make the other breads.
Naan breads: worth making at home without a tandoor, or are you better off buying them to go with your homemade curries? Do you prefer a chapati or a paratha? And does anyone have a good recipe for a classic stuffed naan: keema, peshwari or even something a little more unusual?
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