Naan: India’s Taste of Comfort

Each of the many types of Indian flatbreads has earned a well-deserved following, from roti and kulcha to paratha and puri. However, the standout favorite that has become a commonplace item on Lehigh Valley grocery store shelves is naan. While commercially packaged naan, available in different sizes and flavors, offers convenience, the texture can’t compare with soft, fluffy, and chewy lusciousness of warm naan pulled from a traditional tandoor oven. 

When Meris photographer Ryan Hulvat was traveling in Dubai several years ago, he booked a food tour of the city and was promptly smitten by the bread that street vendors baked in vertical clay ovens dug into the ground. Brushing the loaves with ghee – Indian clarified butter – and a sprinkling of fragrant garlic intensified the flavor and allure of the naan that couldn’t be replicated at home without investing a few thousand dollars in a backyard tandoor. 

Hulvat then decided the next best alternative would be to document the behind-the-scenes process of naan artistry at a local Indian restaurant. Fortunately, Bharath Sundararaman and Aparna Bharath, husband-and-wife owner-operators of Cumin N Eat – pronounced “que-min and eat” – generously invited him into their kitchen to watch, learn, photograph the action, and eat lots of samples.

The dough for their naan is quite simple and straightforward, with an all-purpose flour base. It almost resembles pizza dough, but a few key additions change the flavor and texture game: Eggs provide extra richness and plain whole-milk yogurt supplies distinctive tanginess. Since the dough is made in bulk for the restaurant, it’s rolled into hand-size balls and placed on trays and refrigerated overnight for faster prep the next day.

A rolling pin flattens the individual balls into flat disks before a roller docker with a spiked surface (which can also be used for pizza dough and other pastries) punctures the top, allowing the bread surface to aerate and not blister.

The next critical step brings a commercial gas-fueled tandoor heated to 475°F into play. While the exterior is state-of-the-art stainless steel, the cylindrical interior is lined with thick clay walls – which has been essentially the same for the past 5,000 years or so. Lava rocks at the bottom push the heat upward.

The prepared naan dough is transferred to the top-loading oven via a special type of cotton-covered gaddi cushion with a coconut fiber filler. For each loaf, a piece of rounded dough is placed on top of the cushion then rolled by hand directly onto the oven’s clay wall. It takes only a few minutes to bake before the chef utilizes hooks and skewers to remove the bread. The oven lid is replaced to reheat the oven. (Note: Chef Sandy is so perfectly attuned to his bread-craft that he doesn’t even need to look at the temperature gauge.) Each naan loaf is cut into four pieces and is ready to feed hungry fans. In the unlikely case you have leftover naan to take home, reheat by covering with a damp towel and microwaving for 20 seconds.

Varieties of naan offered at Cumin N Eat include plain or brushed with butter, garlic naan, chili garlic naan, and spicy bullet naan. Patrons enjoy it as a stand-alone appetizer or an accompaniment to main dishes with plenty of aromatic sauces – all of which beg to be scooped up with naan. (Hulvat found the lightly zesty chicken curry and extra-zesty goat curry to be optimal naan partners.) The well-stocked menu is available in house, for take-out, or delivery service.

Cumin N Eat  | Dorneyville Shopping Center | 3333 Hamilton Blvd., Allentown | 610.351.0343

As seen in the Winter/Spring 2023 Issue

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