Compact flatbread a popular choice for hungry herders when on the go
In the local language, proverbs related to naan bread abound, including "A day without naan turns your legs to jelly" and "Think more before speaking, chew more before swallowing naan".
Naan, a flat, leavened bread, is enjoyed by many in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region on a regular basis. The bread has a long history and has become deeply ingrained in local culture. The wheat-based bread is typically baked in cylindrical clay ovens made of alkali soil, and the finished products have long shelf lives, making them convenient pocket companions on long journeys.
These days, naan is also helping people lift themselves out of poverty in less-developed areas in Yuli county, Bayingolin Mongol autonomous prefecture, Xinjiang.
The residents around Lop Nur, a dried-up lake bed in Yuli, have unique techniques for baking the bread, which have been passed down through the generations.
However, the tradition has been under threat as fewer people are willing to try to be breadwinners by making the bread, which is laborious work and can be taxing on the lungs given long exposure to smoke and flour.
"But demand for the bread still exists and that gives impoverished rural families an opportunity. So they were organized into a cooperative to bake naan and earn more money," said Abdulla Omarjan, executive head of the county's online business association.
In November, the local government began plans to integrate farmers' land and help them rent it out to local enterprises, which will use modern methods to boost productivity.
"For 1 hectare, the owner can get a rent of 10,500 yuan ($1,570) per year," Omarjan said.
Women working for a naan baking cooperative in Hongguang village, Yuli county, make stuffed naan. (Photo Provided To China Daily)
"At the same time, the government will find new jobs for those who rent their lands out in the naan baking cooperatives. In that way, farmers not only receive rent money but also can get salaries from their jobs near their home."
Jin Yankun, deputy head of the county, said there are eight sizable cooperatives that employ more than 200 employees, with over 35 workers from impoverished families on the payroll. The lowest salary is 1,500 yuan a month, while the highest, for those with experience, can reach 6,000 yuan.
"Naan is a good choice of reserve food because it is nearly fully dehydrated during production and can be preserved as long as half a year in dry conditions," Omarjan said.
The food has made its way into history as part of decisive events.
"It is said that during the An Lushan Rebellion, a revolt by a border general which began in 755 in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the emperor took naan with him during his escape from the capital Chang'an to Xianyang, Shaanxi province," he said.
Another legend from the same dynasty that spread in the region is that Xuanzang, the well-known Chinese monk, ate naan for energy on his journey to India to collect Buddhist texts.
Nowadays, naan is a frequent companion of nomads. The compact and virtually nonperishable food can accompany herdsmen over long stretches of time and grassland, Omarjan said.
Bakers and businessmen alike are hoping that the variety of naan made in Yuli gains in popularity and grabs market share on the internet.
"It's different from naan made elsewhere in Xinjiang," Omarjan said. "Its size is much smaller and its recipe calls for more lamb lard. It weighs just 55 grams and its diameter is a mere 7.5 centimeters, which means that it takes more time and energy to fill earthen ovens with batches of these smaller naan than bigger ones."
The oven is usually heated by burning locally grown red-willow branches to make the naan taste better. (Photo Provided To China Daily)
Kahar Kari, a local baker who has 10 years of experience, said that the earthen pit oven becomes a caldron of white-hot embers and he needs to be quick when sticking rolled flour inside.
"My oven is 1.3 meters deep and I need to lean in and put half of my body inside," he said. "Sticking each naan inside takes two seconds. When I first made naan at age 17, it was really hard and I could only stick 60 in at one time with my face too red and my body sweltering. But now I can make 400 at one go. It really takes years of practice."
Despite the hardships, Kari still insists on handmade naan instead of using modern ovens and kneading machines.
"We use locally grown red-willow branches to bake naan so that it has even better flavor," he added.
Over the past half year, Yuli's online and offline sales revenue from naan reached 7 million yuan. And as the executive head of the online business association, Omarjan is helping the age-old food gain in popularity on China's major e-commerce platforms.
"Local online business companies are helping with packaging and taste adjustments, and we hope that Yuli naan will soon enhance its brand cachet across the country," he said.