Over 4000 Varieties of Pakistani flatbread

By Azam Gill, France (2nd SSC)

Pakistani Flatbread - Photos of General Ayub Khan and Charles de GaulleAzam Gill, FranceIn 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle famously complained: “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” Five years later, when he visited Pakistan, had he realized that Field Marshal Mohammed Ayub Khan was busy governing a nation with over 4,400 varieties of bread, he would have certainly nominated the Field Marshal to the French Legion of Honor. Alas, de Gaulle missed his cue, time waits for nobody, but here’s the story of Pakistan’s flatbread varieties, a dormant cultural resource.

Nearly half a century after de Gaulle’s Pakistan trip, I was at my friend Xavier’s, a Toulouse University IT Lecturer. I had promised to make tawa griddle nans at his place to go with my feisty veal korma. Bread-making without using a commercial bread maker is a forgotten skill in Europe. So Cathy, his wife and, bright young Julien’s excitement at flatbread from the mists of time being cooked in their own timeless stone cottage was understandable.

Equally logical was the onslaught of questions at the dining table on the varieties of Pakistani bread. Unable to come up with a definitive figure, furiously rummaging through my memory box, I started calculating by retrieving and flipping parameters, failing to take Xavier’s reputation for rapid calculations into account.

First, of course, came the types of flour: white, semi-whole wheat, corn, millet, sorghum, rye, chick-peas. A convex or concave tawa griddle, with or without yeast to each variety increased diversity and, Xavier proportionally spat out a number while Julien was engrossed in his korma boti. Then I thought of ghee, butter or oil in puff-pastry type paratha layers, which may finally be cooked on a tawa griddle or in a clay tandoor oven. Or each of these may just be fried on the tawa griddle, with or without layers of ghee, butter or oil.

Pics of Tandoor, Concave Tawa and Convex Tawa - Varieties of Pakistani Flatbread

The pressure mounted as Xavier kept spitting out figures, Cathy’s prideful smile getting wider. I then remembered that the type of fuel used in a tandoor affected the result of the cooking and offered Xavier the pleasure of computing the varying effects of dung cakes, wood, hard coal, charcoal, gas or electricity — after all, there are electric tandoors dotting the foodie landscape.

Responding to another mental ping, I dragged Xavier back to the variables of water, milk, yoghurt, egg and ghee additions or combinations used to knead the dough. Unfazed, he sang out more figures without missing a step.

While Julien was helping Cathy clear up the table, it hit me — I had forgotten other parameters that should have been fed into Xavier’s brain first. Profusely apologizing, I told him to add the bhatthi furnace, similar to a pizza oven, in which nan variables used to be — or maybe still are — baked in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The result is different — crispy though at times chewy.

Peshawari Naan - Varieties of Pakistani Flatbread

But being a thorough gentleman, he unhesitatingly recalculated, his brain cogs audibly grinding over the double-layered cream cake Cathy put on the embroidered tablecloth. As the cake knife started working its magic, I offered the paraphernalia of stuffing which of course had to be pared down when I came to “any leftovers conducive to stuffing a paratha, nan or kulcha”! So we retained potatos, mooli radishes, fenugreek, spinach, chillies and cheese plus ground chicken, veal, beef or lamb.

The final figure of over three thousand left me breathless.

Xavier had simply calculated every possibility.

We were all getting pretty excited by then, so we jotted down the variables and constants in an Excel file, I added to the data in the next few days and finally received the results — a whopping 4,400, obtained by computing combinations of varying flour, yeast, kneading liquids, griddle, oven, fuel and stuffing, retrieved from my memories of Lahore, Gujranwala, Sargodha and Sialkot!

And there’s more around the corner if someone seriously undertakes a research project, including Sindhi, Balochi and Pakhtun flatbreads. Regional cuisines patiently await an Escoffier to offer them a place in the sunshine.

Chef Auguste Escoffier's pic - Varieties of Pakistani FlatbreadFrance’s ascendancy in cuisine and food science owes much to Auguste Escoffier (1846 – 1935), the legendary Chef de Cuisine who codified the five ‘mother sauces’ for the world — béchamel, espagnole, velouté, hollandaise and tomate. He also retrieved regional recipes and synthesized them into a national pantheon.

Chef Imtiaz Qureshi's pic - Varieties of Pakistani FlatbreadThe strength of India’s veneration of Chef Imtiaz Qureshi, the dum pukht champion, as its Escoffier, is based on ignorance of the Frenchman’s biography. While Pakistan awaits its own Escoffier, the tourism ministry could offer a university grant, to initiate the first step by letting loose a bunch of keen young researchers to catalogue the complete varieties of flatbread.

Countries like Italy and France are renowned for their breads, but they do not boast of them in their thousands. Either they haven’t gone through collating constants and variables the way Xavier and I did, or else they lack comparable varieties.

If the latter, then there is a definite hierarchy in which certain civilizations are blindly taken to be superior in all cultural aspects.

Before screaming “UNESCO Help — another addition to World Heritage lurks in the offing” it might be relevant to make sure the fish are running free in the back pond. To the best of this scribe’s knowledge, either no research into Pakistan’s flatbread varieties has been conducted, or else the research, having sacrificed comprehensiveness for concision, is in an inaccessible classified file. As such, it does not appear on tourist brochures encouraging foreigners to spend their money in Pakistan on gastronomical bread tours.

Having said that, it is also worth pondering the value of such tours for domestic tourists, accidentally deprived of their own heritage.

After all, wheat and cereal are as old as the Saraswati Civilization of Mohenjo-Daro fame. That gives Pakistan a strong territorial claim over the origins of this civilization. Exploring this flatbread tradition will prove to be an enjoyable time machine into the misty past and a modest stone added to its positive resurrection. And leaders’ understanding and managing of multiple varieties will improve their diversity management and, as a consequence, the governance they toil at.


Related Pages:
Lahori Lip-smacks: the Quaid, Takka tin and Takka tak
Christmas in France and how the Gills celebrate it

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  1. Dear Gill Sahib,
    Your marvelous article and research on the varieties of Pakistani breads is a Matter of Pride for me and my son Azeem George. Being close to my Family, certainly I will discuss your research with my Family members, who are attached to this profession of making bread (pain), that there is such a large quantity of breads in Pakistan which we never knew. God bless you forever & ever.

  2. Major Munir Ahmed (HDR-3) says:

    Dear Gill Jee,
    You have compensated your long absence with this fine research oriented article. Your art regarding selection of words is at its best. Keep amusing us with your fine & fabulous writings in future as well. Lot many regards & thanks.

  3. Maj Gen Nusrat Naeem (retd) says:

    Gill you have really lifted the humble flat bread to a new high
    France and Gill make a remarkable combination to glorify our simple looking meals.
    Godbless and keep it up
    Maj Gen Nusrat Naeem (retd)

    • Naeem Jee,
      Basically you’re right, yet our simple looking meals can end up being very sophisticated symphonies of fruits of the earth and the art of mixing spices and cooking techniques, confirming simplicity in proportional ingredients as a criterion of beauty. Sophie Marceau has almost ‘chunni’ eyes, but isn’t she breathlessly fab?!
      Cheers and thanks for your encouraging words!

  4. Lt Col Qadeer Ahmad ( SS-2) 2nd SSC says:

    A very fine article on variety of nan chapati. Certainly a lot of research has been made by our colleague Gill. Well done and keep it up. Rgds

  5. Maj Aminullah Khan Gandapur (GHR-1 Pl Comd) says:

    What about our area BHUTT (an iron sheet about six feet plus turned into U shape and placed over a dug out long pit, burnt to accommodate more firewood) and the bread thrown on it after it has danced on the back of the hands for at least half a dozen time. It gets paper thin in the center and acquires a two to three feet radius. The bread is cut to pieces and soaked into a beef curry in a large burnt clay shallow pot normally 2-4 ft wide. We call it SOBAT. (I had to especially call two people from my village to serve that to Tobe Camp officers, when my son was born there. Col Shakoor Jan had eaten that somewhere in Bannu and he insisted that Gandapur serve that on such occasions).

  6. Col Qaisar Rashid (SSH-4) says:

    Lot of research went in for writing such an exhaustive article which could only be undertaken by our buddy Azam Gill. Will need 4000 days to try the variety.
    Wish we had known earlier.

  7. Lt Col Masood Alam says:

    Dear Gill,
    Thanks for such a great research work and letting us know what we did not know while being in Pakistan.

  8. Qaiser Khalil says:

    I didn’t realize we have so many varieties of bread. Wish I could try as many as possible. Great article.

  9. Maj Mansoor Anjam Hashmi (HDR-1) says:

    Hi Gill,
    Remember me?

  10. Dear Gill,
    As usual an excellent article.

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