Walking through Kashgar’s Old Town in far-western China, I do a double take. On a dusty street corner there’s a stall piled high with what looks exactly like bagels.
Kashgar may be an oasis city on the Silk Road route, but these bagels aren’t a mirage – they’re everywhere in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. At Kashgar’s weekly livestock market, they’re dunked in a mutton soup. Inside the town’s Old Tea House, beautifully suited old men gather after mosque and dip these round breads in tea. And at our hostel in Turpan, an Australian woman is joyfully slathering them in peanut butter for breakfast.
They’re not bagels, but girde naan.
Naan made its way to China along the Silk Road, and is a staple part of life in Xinjiang province, which more closely resembles the neighbouring ‘Stans’ than Beijing in everything from landscape to cuisine. There are many varieties of naan sold at street stalls, and girde naan is one of the smallest.
While bagels are either steamed or boiled and then baked, girde naan are instead usually cooked in a tunur, or tandoor. Still, the result is remarkably similar. They both end up with a lustrous, golden crust, but on closer inspection, the ‘hole’ in the centre of girde naan doesn’t actually go all the way through.
They’re also slightly different in texture. Steaming or boiling bagels before baking gives them a very thin crust and slight chewiness, while girde naan tends to have a crunchier crust with a fluffy interior when hot out of the coals. Both breads are best eaten within a few hours, but girde naan in particular begin to resemble rocks before long.
So is there any connection between the two? Probably not – and while Jewish traders from Eastern Europe definitely travelled the Silk Road, there’s no written records to prove the theory that the bagel has Chinese ancestry. As Maria Balinska points out in her book, The Bagel: the Surprising History of a Modest Bread:
“...just as Italian pasta has been shown to predate Marco Polo’s Chinese travels, so the girde and its ancestors probably have no more in common with the bagel than the cheering fact that, presented with similar ingredients, human beings have a tendency to create similar products.”
Small, ring-shaped breads are not unique to either Eastern Europe or China. There’s evidence of Ancient Egyptian civilizations enjoying bagel-shaped bread, Roman soldiers ate twice-baked bucellatum, Italy has tarali, Turkey has simit, Arab cultures enjoy ka’ak, and that’s just the beginning.
While they’re all similar, none are quite the same for Australia’s Uighur community.
Layla Abraham, who grew up in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, misses the girde naan of her childhood.
“We can’t get it here, so I haven’t eaten it since I’ve been back home,” says Layla, whose family own Sydney’s Kiroran Silk Road Uighur Restaurant.
“It’s the best when it’s fresh – that’s when it’s really crunchy on the outside, and soft on the inside,” she says. Girde naan is bought and eaten daily in Xinjiang, and once it becomes stale, it’s softened in soup or tea.
“My family like to cut it up in thin slices, and we’d spread butter and jam on it. But you can have it with soup, have it on the side of a meal, you can have it any way you’d like.”
This traditional flatbread, scored in a decorative wheel pattern, has a unique sweet-savoury flavour, the sweetness being balanced by heady cardamom. It is commonly eaten in Ethiopia for breakfast after mass, and is also a popular addition at celebrations.