Crispy, chewy and well per­fo­rated, the Ira­nian bread San­gak makes for a per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to your mezze, says our food cul­tur­al­ist Arva Ahmed.

Slow-cooked on a bed of hot peb­bles, San­gak evokes nos­tal­gia in Arva Ahmed

Friday - - Front Page - San­gak is avail­able at Khoory Special Kababs in Abu Hail, Ab­shar Restau­rant on Jumeirah Beach Road, Sadaf Restau­rant on Mak­toum Road

JPHOTOS BY ANAS THACHARPADIKKAL ammed be­tween two restau­rants on a back­street of Abu Hail is an Ira­nian bak­ery which per­forms a cu­ri­ous form of hot stone mas­sage.

As I pa­tiently watch from the street, Shahid scoops up a chunk of dough, show­ers it with se­same seeds and whacks it against the flat base of his moist­ened bread peel. This nan-e-san­gak or “bread of lit­tle stones” is be­trothed to my favourite minced lamb kababs sold be­side a com­mu­nity mosque in Twar. The dough is a heav­ily hy­drated mix of whole wheat and re­fined white flours, leav­ened and rested un­til it is wob­bly. Shahid’s palms stretch the lazy mass into a clumsy rec­tan­gle, urg­ing it awake as he yanks it thin, in­vig­o­rat­ing its spine­less sur­face with his fin­ger­tips like an ex­pert masseuse.

Shahid is Bangladeshi, though he’s mas­tered one of the most prized Ira­nian breads. He docks the dough rhyth­mi­cally, ten­derly at first, then los­ing all mercy and pierc­ing its skin un­til the chunk stays obe­di­ently flat, taut and rid­dled with holes. The dough is leav­ened but it is not meant to rise any thicker than a sheet of de­flated bub­ble wrap. Shahid lifts the peel, plunges it through a tri­an­gu­lar ori­fice and in­verts the dough over a sloped oven floor crowded with sear­ing hot peb­bles.

Cook­ing over stone is a tech­nique as old as time. Hot stones are tra­di­tion­ally used to grill meaty cuts of Ye­meni “mad­hbi” or to cre­ate the sticky rice, veg­etable and runny yolk crust around the edges of a Korean “bibim­bap” stone pot. Stone re­tains heat ex­cep­tion­ally well even af­ter the source of heat is re­moved and its por­ous struc­ture ab­sorbs mois­ture from the sur­face of the food, help­ing it crisp up. When I moved back home to Dubai from New York in 2010, I in­sisted on lug­ging back only two of my many kitchen “chil­dren” – my 10-inch chef’s knife and my pizza stone. A fiery hot pizza stone can crisp and char the un­der­side of a pizza in eight min­utes or less, a trait that has made us in­sep­a­ra­ble friends no mat­ter where on the globe I have to re­lo­cate.

As Shahid strate­gi­cally jerks the peel away, the dough catches on the peb­bles and gets dragged into a thin, two-foot long skin that will sweat in the sauna un­til it blushes a spotty tan brown. The peb­bles are so hot that they suck ev­ery drop of mois­ture from the sur­face of the san­gak, but the in­ner mois­ture trans­forms to steam, push­ing the lay­ers apart un­til a ten­der cham­ber of springy air pock­ets form within. I ask Shahid to un­der­cook my san­gak in­ten­tion­ally – I pre­fer it moist and chewy on the in­side.

As Shahid res­cues my san­gak back to the cooler world, I rem­i­nisce about the first time I tasted san­gak at the erst­while Ab­shar restau­rant in Deira. Warm slices of se­same-sprin­kled san­gak would de­scend on the ta­ble with a plate of mint, ray­haan, rocket leaves, radish, cool soaked wal­nuts and salty feta. Ray­haan is a type of basil whose ex­act sci­en­tific clas­si­fi­ca­tion I am still strug­gling to find. It is nei­ther the Ital­ian basil nor the Thai basil. It has an un­der­tone of aniseed and lemon that bright­ens the warm­ing, nutty, earthy, charred flavours of san­gak. It might be the same as the medic­i­nal Tulsi plant of In­dia. What­ever its sci­en­tific name, it made for a spec­tac­u­lar herb, crunchy wal­nut and feta fill­ing for the stack of san­gak that I would de­mol­ish while wait­ing for kababs. The chewy in­ner cham­bers of a slightly un­der­cooked san­gak also made it the per­fect dip­ping tool for kashk badem­jan – roasted and pureed egg­plant with wal­nuts, fried onions, gar­lic, de­hy­drated yogurt (‘kashk’) and mint. For that mat­ter, I’ve yet to find a sit­u­a­tion where this bread doesn’t trans­form some­thing sim­ple to spec­tac­u­lar.

Shahid un­pegs a few san­gak loaves from the wall where they had been left to cool, pluck­ing away peb­bles that have stub­bornly lodged them­selves into its sur­face. Those san­gak are not mine; they will go home with an­other cus­tomer who has ap­proached the bak­ery for his weekly sup­ply of bread. The two-feet loaves are laid flat on the counter, slashed into eight pieces, stacked over brown paper and snug­gled into a tight bun­dle. Many Ira­nian fam­i­lies freeze fresh san­gak, only to toast it back to life for break­fast ev­ery morn­ing.

But my or­der of san­gak will not last past the evening. Shahid and I ex­change our loot, his san­gak slices for my five-dirham note, and I walk away with a melt­ingly hot plas­tic bag full of bread whose des­tiny has been pre-writ­ten with juicy kababs.

The dough catches on the peb­bles and gets pulled into a thin, long skin that will sweat in the sauna un­til it blushes a spotty tan brown

The per­fo­rated san­gak bread at the new Ab­shar restau­rant makes for a per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to plates of mezze

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