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Loaves for the multitudes

Working over a stone-lined pit oven for 17 hours a day, Afghan bakers provide flat bread for soldiers and civilians at a military base.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2003


ORGUN-E VALLEY, Afghanistan -- It is 5:30 a.m., and the sun is rising on the Pakistan side of the border. Nik Ziaman pulls the first bread from the fire pit.

"It is hot," Ziaman says in a mixture of English and Dari as he scrapes and grabs in a single motion. "It is better when it is hot."

Ziaman and his crew of three have been at it for an hour at the U.S. Army base in the Orgun-E Valley of southeastern Afghanistan. By the time the bakery shuts down at 9 p.m., the crew will have churned out 1,100 snowshoe-sized pieces of flat bread to feed soldiers and the Afghans who work on the base and nearby.

To feed an army, the bakers will use 440 pounds of flour, more than 10 pounds of salt, half that much baking soda and more than 175 pounds of water.

They also will spend much of their day gathered around an open, stone-lined fire pit that grows warmer as the sun moves across the valley.

It begins with Kamal Uddin.

Uddin is a resident of the nearby town of Urgun. He is slight of build but has a bone-crushing handshake. Crumple to the ground and watch him laugh.

He has never been to a gym; life has produced his grip.

First thing each morning, he dumps the flour, salt, baking soda and water into a washtub.

He has no mixer, just his hands, forearms and chest muscles, chiseled rock hard by a lifetime of mixing, kneading and shaping. He plunges his hands into the flour and rotates his wrists. Again and again he pulls and pushes.

After about two minutes, the ingredients become a recognizable dough. But Uddin is not finished. He works until the air bubbles are out, then covers the washtub with a piece of blue plastic tarpaulin.

There is no break. The first batch of the day has risen and is ready to be baked.

Ziaman squats just above the fire pit. Shir Mohammed moves to the other side of the pit, and Shirin Gul sits on the flour-coated plywood where he will stack the bread. Uddin takes his spot at the far wall.

Uddin takes the dough, which has been formed into fist-sized balls, and spreads it on the plywood in front of him. He pounds it flat, then punches rows into it with his fingers. The result is waves across the bread, the reason the soldiers call it "tread bread."

Uddin hands it to Mohammed, who coats his board with water, then stretches the dough across. His board is a piece of taut linen, coated with flour like everything else. Its backing is wheat and horsehair shoved hard against the cloth and packed tightly. The linen is tied across the back as a handle.

It is Mohammed's task to lean into the fire pit, a hole about 2 feet across with a wood fire in the bottom, about 6 feet down. The walls are made of stone, wider at the bottom, narrowing at the top. Afghan children are regularly injured when they run through a bakery or backyard pit like this one and fall in. There are no health and safety inspectors in Afghanistan.

The oven has a flue at the bottom, leading up to a chimney covered with a bag of sand in the bakery. An Afghan thermostat, of sorts. To raise the temperature, the bag is removed to let in more air. To cool the oven, they plug the hole.

Mohammed slaps his board against the hot stone wall. The dough peels off and sticks to the wall.

About four minutes later, Ziaman uses a small spatula to peel the bread from the wall. Simultaneously, he uses a hook to catch it, pull it out of the hole and toss it across the room to Gul.

"We will do maybe 1,100 this way," says Ziaman, who can understand and speak some English, but not enough to give the ages of the four bakers.

The base's crew of interpreters, and most of the soldiers, are still asleep when a truck arrives to pick up the first two batches of bread. The load is taken to the dining hall, where it will be ready for breakfast.

It tastes like pizza crust, hard at the edges but thick and soft in the middle. It is open to butter, pepper, rosemary, oregano or any seasoning you wish to put on top. Most Afghans eat it plain.

Afghan Tread Bread

(As translated by Nik Ziaman. Your results may vary.)

One generous handful of baking soda

2.2 pounds of salt

88 pounds of flour

35.2 pounds of water (the Afghan bakers measure by weight, not volume)

Mix all ingredients in a standard-size washtub. Knead with hands until it forms a stiff dough. Cover. Let rise one hour.

Punch down and shape into squares, roughly the size of hamburger buns. Smooth dough into a flat shape, and punch with fingers to form waves in the dough. Spread dough on any flat surface covered with water and flour.

Slap bread on inner wall of open pit oven. If you don't have an open pit oven, try spreading it on a pizza rock and baking at 400 degrees for 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes or more.

Serves 200. (Servings not reflective of troop strength in the Orgun-E Valley; the figure is classified by the U.S. Department of Defense. If you have fewer troops, adjust amounts accordingly.)

-- Times staff writer Chuck Murphy is with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For more reports and photos, his online journal is available at www.sptimes.com/reports.

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