For the Uyghurs of far western China, food is a treasured form of dissent
When is bread no longer just any old bread? The answer of course, at least in Xinjiang, is when it’s Uyghur Nan. Like many loaves in other cultures, Nan is made with flour, yeast, and water and baked in an oven, but that’s where the similarities end. Nan might look and taste like bread, but for the Uyghurs of far western China, a Muslim minority group at odds with Han Chinese culture, it is a source of ethnic pride — a tasty yet sacred way of asserting independence.
A frisbee-shaped sphere of sesame-speckled bread of varying sizes and thickness, Nan, to the novice, is best eaten piping hot from the waist-height pot-bellied clay ovens known as tonurs that dot Uyghur neighbourhoods. Young men who have learned the trade from an early age spend a few years bent over the searing heat under the expert tutelage of a ‘master’ and then often go solo back in their village or in one of the many neighbourhoods of the capital.
Bakers twirl the raw dough skilfully in the air with a couple of fingers, position it on a flat cushion and poke it all over with a hammer-shaped implement studded with nails. It is then placed on the interior wall of the oven. When ready, the baker then removes each loaf with a flick of a piece of metal, smothers them with oil and leaves them to cool. Competition is fierce and customers discerning. Many Nan bakers don’t make the grade, but the fame of others ranges far and wide, and people will travel across the city just to sample their wares and collect enough loaves to last a week.
Villagers only pay money for Nan as a last resort, so women train up their daughters in the art from childhood. Getting a good fire going in the base of the oven is the key to a successful batch, and many are the hours spent sweating over the week’s bread, particularly in the scorching heat of summer. Once a week, or twice if there are many mouths to feed, they make mountains of the precious commodity, a back-breaking and thankless task but without which Uyghur traditional life would be unimaginable. Uyghurs travelling abroad or to parts of China where Nan cannot be found cram their luggage with as much as they can to last the sojourn, and groups of government-sponsored students are often sent off into the interior with a full-sized tandoori oven and their very own Nan baker to ease the transition to their new life.
Tourists and foreigners love to eat hot Nan as it emerges soft and fresh from the salt-encrusted walls of the tonur, so it puzzled me to see the newly baked loaves being allowed to turn hard and cold where they were scattered once cooked. The beauty of Nan, as a friend explained it to me, is that it is designed to last several months and thus perfect for lengthy journeys and prolonged storage. The harder they are the better. The most sacred Nan of all to a Uyghur is that of their own hometown, and students arrive at college with bags bulging with enough loaves to last through the first pangs of homesickness until they find a Nan-master in their new city who can replicate the taste of home. Streams of villagers visiting sick relatives in the capital never dream of leaving their own oasis, sometimes days of travel away, without bundles of the home-baked spheres in tow to comfort the ailing patient.
Whilst I prefer the softer variety, the crème de la crème for my Uyghur friends is the larger, and once cool, almost rock hard version, which they float in their morning bowl of hot milk. The uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that all Nan is the same, but to a discerning eye the finer points are myriad. But whether it is round and bagel-shaped, half a meter wide and paper thin or soft and fluffy mixed with milk or yellow oil, Nan serves important symbolic functions.
Historically Nan formed part of the staple diet of Uyghur people, and in poorer remote regions this is still the case. In many areas babies, often until the age of two, are fed almost soley on masticated bread transferred by the mother directly into the baby’s mouth. Many villagers, regardless of their economic state, hold Uyghur Nan in such high esteem that it takes on almost mystical life-enhancing qualities and is seen as an elixir of life and health and the cure-all for every ill. City-reared Uyghurs still revere it but more as a symbolic adjunct to a table full of sweetmeats. Once a guest arrives they are invited to partake of Nan. It will be broken, not cut, and distributed around the table by the head of a household but cleared almost immediately once the main dishes arrive.
To an Uyghur, Nan is the symbol of the Uyghur nation. Fears of encroachment by Han Chinese in this province that Uyghurs claim as their own has produced a conflict of interests where food is often the battleground and Nan a part of it. Nan must never be mistaken for what we understand as ‘bread’ in the west, in particular ‘Bulka,’ a Russian-loan word for an oblong loaf-shaped block sold in plastic wrappings in Chinese-style supermarkets. Soft, fluffy and slightly sweet, many Uyghurs are beginning to enjoy the so-called western import eaten with relish by their Han Chinese rivals, but it would never do to admit this in public.
No, the awe in which pure Nan is held gives it an almost religious aura. Once placed in a tower in the middle of a table, broken and distributed, it has the power to command the conscience of a room. It is a sin to tell a lie in such a setting. Pacts are made and vows sealed over Nan. It must never be criticised, thrown, turned upside down or stepped on. If dropped, it must be picked up immediately, kissed and placed on a shelf out of harm’s way. It must never be thrown into the trash. Crumbs and left-over pieces must be carefully swept into a cloth and produced at the next meal.
When the time comes and it is simply too old or mouldy to eat, it will be lovingly saved and placed up high for the birds. The identification of Uyghurs with this national treasure is deep-seated and all encompassing. Nan is as close to a Uyghur’s heart as the blood coursing through her veins. It forms part of the collective consciousness of the community. As every Uyghur knows and will recount with pride, it is superior to any other form of bread in any other part of the world.
Ruth Ingram lives and writes in China. Her writing has also appeared in The Guardian.