History of the Naan

The Naan has made a mark in South Asian cuisine through the centuries. We look at where it began and how it is enjoyed in its different forms today.

History of the Naan

Naan was originally cooked at the Imperial Court in Delhi.

The Naan is one of the most popular flat breads served with South Asian food. In particular, accompanying food from the Northern Area of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajizkistan and surrounding areas.

Have you ever been spoilt for choice for its vast selection today and wondered about its origin? We explore and discover more about this delightful and enjoyable flat bread which is popular in many parts of the world including the UK, USA and Canada.

The Naan originates from India but is today eaten in most types of South Asian restaurants and homes around the globe. It has transformed from a basic form of bread for many to experimental creations by chefs and food enthusiasts today with different fillings and flavours.

Its first recorded history can be found in the notes of the Indo-Persian poet Amir Kushrau in 1300 AD.

It was originally cooked at the Imperial Court in Delhi as naan-e-tunuk (light bread) and naan-e-tanuri (cooked in a tandoor oven). During the Mughal era in India from around 1526, Naan accompanied by keema or kebab was a popular breakfast food of the royals.

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In 1926, overlooking the hustle and bustle of Regent Street, Veeraswamy, Britain’s oldest Indian restaurant served Naan on its menu.

Founded in 1984, Honeytop Speciality Foods became the first company in Europe to supply authentic Naan bread on a commercial scale to major retailers and restaurants. They introduced the first 13 week shelf-life flatbread.

The word Naan is derived from the Persian word ‘non’ which refers to bread, and initially appeared in English Literature dating back to 1780 in a travelogue of William Tooke.

In Turkic languages, such as Uzbek, Kazakh and Uyghur, the flatbreads are known as nan.

The ingredients for making it usually consists of dry yeast, all-purpose flour, warm water, sugar, salt, ghee and yoghurt. The ingredients are used to make a smooth and stretchy elastic dough which is used to make them. Modern recipes sometimes substitute baking powder for the yeast. Milk may be used to give greater volume and thickness to the Naan.

The methods of cooking it have evolved over time. Naan is traditionally cooked in a tandoor, or clay oven. This is different from from roti or chapatti, which is usually cooked on a flat or slightly concave iron griddle called a tawa. However, now the method of baking is also used to make a Naan, giving you the opportunity to make them in your everyday oven. Typically, it’s served hot and brushed with ghee (clarified butter) or butter.

So which came first? The Naan, Chapatti or the Pita Bread? Actually, it was the yeast. The yeast was first used in Egypt in 4000 BC but wasn’t understood till much later. Flat breads from 4000 BC-19th Century were un-leavened. People came to grips with the process of the yeast in the 19th Century. Pitta Bread was one of the earliest form of flat bread. Naans were cooked around the 14th Century and Chapatti followed in the 16th Century.

The ‘World’s Biggest Naan Bread’ was made in 2004 by Honeytop Speciality Foods. It measured exactly 10ft by 4ft and celebrated the launch of Brewers Fayre’s Curry Nights in the UK. It took over five hours to make and required eight staff to carry it!

Another major record broken was by the restaurant called Indian Ocean. They broke the Naan World Record by making 640 Naan breads in just one hour. They out-numbered their target- 400, set by the Guinness Book of World Records. They were distributed to charity and greatly appreciated by the Salvation Army Hostel in Manchester, UK.

In Birmingham’s Balti restaurants in the UK,  a ‘Family Naan’ can be ordered, which is a large table sized Naan cooked for everyone to share with their balti dish. There are also, many ethnic bakeries opening in the UK, making fresh ones for customers at fantastic value, for example, four freshly cooked Naans for £1.

There are various derivatives of South Asian flat breads. These are: Chappatti, Bhatura, Dosa, Romali, Puri, Luchi, Tandoori Roti, Pitta Bread, Kulcha, Paratha and of course, Naan. There are also many varieties, including:

  • Plain Naan – simplest form which is brushed with ghee or butter.
  • Garlic Naan – topped with crushed garlic and butter.
  • Kulcha Naan – has a filling of cooked onions.
  • Keema Naan – includes a filling of minced lamb, mutton or goat meat.
  • Roghani Naan – sprinkled with sesame seeds, and is popular in Pakistan.
  • Peshawari Naan and Kashmiri Naan –  filled with a mixture of nuts and raisins including pistachios.
  • Paneer Naan – stuffed with a filling of paneer (cheese) flavoured with ground coriander and paprika.
  • Amritsari Naan – stuffed with mash potatoes and spices and also known as ‘Aloo Naan,’ originating from Amritsar, India.

They are being used as the base flat bread for many different toppings such a mixed vegetables (sabzi), grilled meats and even the advent of ‘Naan Pizza’ is being seen in stores and at dinner tables.

The Naan today is available in UK supermarkets and produced in high volumes as an accompaniment to a curry or balti; chefs are always creating new varieties of this original flat bread of the Mogul era, and people are also having a go at making it in their own homes. It has made its mark in history as being a staple form of flat bread fully enjoyed by millions around the globe.

Which is your most favourite Naan?

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Smriti is a qualified Journalist with an optimistic take on life, enjoying sports and reading in her spare time. She has a passion for arts, culture, bollywood movies and dancing - where she uses her artistic flair. Her moto is "variety is spice of life."

Images courtesy of The Blissery

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