Letter from China: Taste of home

 Published: 1/17/2012 2:01:00 PM GMT
Original Cached

We scrape and squeal our way through the permafrosted outskirts of Urumqi. It is midwinter, half past nine at night. Nadira is putting the finishing touches to her plans for a getaway to China's southern shores.

We are on the hunt for bread. Not just any old bread but naan, the holy grail of central Asian cuisine without which no expedition to China's eastern shores could be endured. Naan has to be a last-minute purchase. Nadira must have enough for her month-long sojourn and Lop Nur naan, noted for its longevity and capacity to withstand the damp air of her island retreat, would be just the thing. Lop Nur, an ancient lake, has become the source of Urumqi's latest naan craze: she has ordered 200.

Naan is usually a disc-shaped, sesame-sprinkled loaf best eaten hot from the pot-bellied clay ovens that dot Uighur neighbourhoods. Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking that all naan is the same, but to the discerning eye the finer points are myriad.

The most sacred naan of all is, of course, that from one's home town and no journey is complete without bags full of the discs bulging from every piece of luggage. Lies must not be told in the presence of naan; it must not be thrown, trampled under foot or thrown away. Vows taken in the presence of naan are binding and it must never be mistaken for bulka, the common loaf-shaped bread sold in plastic wrappings from Chinese-style supermarkets. Naan is as close to a Uighur's heart as the blood coursing through his veins.

We slither up to the limits of the city where no snowplough has gone before. We pass, in my mind, several perfectly good naan sellers on our way, but Nadira is unwavering. It has to be Lop Nur naan or nothing. We close in on our objective. We finally skid to a halt.

Neither of us has actually seen Lop Nur naan and when a rough wooden door opens to reveal a dusty grey pile of tiny bagel-shaped nuggets in a corner, Nadira's face falls. They are a far cry from the familiar golden spheres she is used to, but what can she do? Not daring to criticise naan in public, we grab 200 and retreat as precariously as we had come back to the city. Passing my local baker on the way home just closing up for the night, she jumps out and buys 100 of the more familiar shapes. She is now ready to head south.

Every week Guardian Weekly publishes a 'Letter from' one of its readers from around the world. Submissions should focus on giving our readers a clear sense of a place and its people. Please send them to [email protected]

NEWS MAP Urumqi on the map

TAG CLOUD Tags Cloud

Get Adobe Flash player

Previous Next
News in Pictures

Celebrate the Year of the Dragon

Michael Jackson honored in Los Angeles

ShowBiz Minute: Moore, Jackson, Pitt

Raw Video: Kim Jong Un visits North Korea school

Exiled Tibet leader urges action on China violence