Tarim Basin Flatbread

The Finished Product


Level of Authenticity: I made a tasty thing!  I won’t be focusing a lot in this post on what I would do to make this item competition-worthy.  Right now my goal with culinary is to improve my skills at adapting regular recipes for gluten-free, casein-free, and egg-free diners.

Who/Where/When: This project is based on a find from one of the archaeological sites in the Tarim Basin in Eastern Central Asia.  I’ve previously discussed the first millennium BCE peoples from this region here and here.  According to the information that I had, the dessicated bread was found in a grave dating to 600 CE.  By this time, the ethnic makeup of this region was considerably more diverse, with mummies of Western European and Asian phenotypes, and documents written in Sogdian, Tocharian, Sanskrit dialects (prakrits), and other languages.  The information that I was able to track down about the bread was very limited, so I wasn’t able to determine which particular culture the bread was associated with.

What: My bread is based on an image of a flatbread preserved in one of the Tarim Basin sites, shown briefly at 26:35 of The Silk Road: A New History presented by Valerie Hansen.


Why they made it: My information on this particular piece is quite scanty but I understood from the description that it had been left as a grave good.  Although I don’t think we know the particular cultural reasons that this culture would have left food in the grave, leaving food for the dead is a far from uncommon practice.

Why I made it: I decided to attend Montengarde’s culinary night this month (more about the theme and the great variety of yummy dishes represented here).  The theme was supposed to be Turkish, Ottoman, and Persian cuisine but I decided to stretch the definition a little bit to reach the other end of the Silk Road.


Materials:  All of the baked goods from the Tarim Basin I had information on were made of wheat flour, with other ingredients unspecified.  While I was looking for information on the internet about the bread shown in the video, I found this blog post on How to make Uyghur Bread from Xinjiang.  Now, normally I am extreeeeemely skeptical of claims as to the historicity of a particular craft or performance art based on its being “traditional”, but in this case, Dr. Hansen indicated in her lecture that it’s possible to still get bread exactly like the mummified bread in Xinjiang today, and the picture of the bread she showed looked very similar to the bread pictured in the modern blog post, so I felt a little more comfortable proceeding partially based on the blog post as well as the lecture.

The bread pictured in Dr. Hansen’s lecture was in black and white, but in the blog post you can see that it is a fairly basic white bread dough.  I decided to try the egg-free version of Gluten Free and More/Living Without’s Master Dough recipe, which like most gluten-free bread recipes uses a mix of several different flours as well as a generous amount of xanthan gum, which helps it stick together better in the absence of gluten.  There are a lot of differences in working characteristics between wheat bread dough and gluten free bread dough, which I’ll discuss more under “Tools and Processes” below.

The bread pictured in Dr. Hansen’s lecture did not appear to have any condiments or flavourings sprinkled on it, but in the blog post, it mentions that the bread can be dipped in sesame seeds or other seasonings.  Here I went out on a speculative limb again.  When I was in Turkey a few years ago, I bought a spice mixture called “Bread and Borek Spice” (borek is like spanikopita).  It went stale and I threw it out before I could use much of it, but from what I could recall, it included sea salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and nigella seeds.  I had all of these separately in my spice cabinet so I decided to mix up some of my own bread and borek spice and use it to season my bread.

In Ancient and Modern Foods from the Tarim Basin, Dr. Anderson speculates that flatbreads in this region could have been accompanied with yogurt, fruit, and herbs, or for more special occasions, meat, cheese, and butter.  I wanted to bring some kind of accompaniment for my bread, but dairy products are not within my self-selected guidelines.  I thought about taking a fig or date preserve, but those would have required me to look for a new recipe.  In the end I chose to take pomegranate molasses as an accompaniment.  I’m not really sure how period a condiment it is, but it was very prevalent as a bread accompaniment when I was in Turkey so I decided it at least fit the theme.

Tools and Processes:  I started by mixing my dough with a stand mixer.  This is obviously not period and with wheat dough, I’ve always found it’s possible to achieve a perfectly nice consistency mixing my dough by hand.  Gluten free dough is runnier though, and I’ve also found that my yeast doesn’t develop very well unless I put the dough through the stand mixer.

When working with wheat dough, after you knead it and let it rise, you can easily shape it however you like.  Gluten free bread dough can often be very runny, more like cake batter, and it doesn’t always rise at all before you bake it.  I chose the Master Bread Dough recipe because the recipes it was linked with all called for shaping the dough in various ways, so I believed it would be more easily shaped than some recipes.  After mixing, the recipe called for letting the dough rise for two hours and then refrigerating it at least overnight before shaping.  This recipe also indicated that the dough could be frozen in batches if it was not to be used right away.

The first time I tested this recipe, I took a chilled batch of dough from the fridge to shape it.  It wasn’t runny, but it was softer than I would have liked for shaping into a flatbread.  I decided that next time, I would freeze the dough and then work on shaping it before it had fully thawed.  Unfortunately due to my schedule, I did not have a chance to try this, so I ended by thawing the dough quickly in a gently warmed oven.  As well as working with partially frozen dough, which I would still like to try, a trick I have found works particularly well for shaping gluten-free dough is to shape it with hands or implements that have been wetted, rather than floured.

These limitations meant that instead of picking the dough up and shaping it, as you would with a wheat dough, I was spreading the dough onto the cooking surface.  This impacted my ability to make a nicely rounded crust like can be seen in the Uyghur Bread blog post.  Another shaping feature that can be seen in both the archaeological example and the modern examples is shapes stamped into the bread with a spiked implement.  I tried stamping designs in with a fork, but again due to the runniness of gluten-free bread dough, the designs did not stay as crisply stamped in as I would have liked.

The most important tool that I don’t have that I believe is making a big difference to the outcome of my project is a tandoor style oven.  This is the type of oven described in use in the Uyghur Bread blog post, and also the type of oven Dr. Anderson speculates being used in the area (while noting that its antiquity is unknown).  I have never had a chance to bake with a tandoor oven but I have tasted the difference between naan bread cooked in a tandoor and naan bread baked in a modern convection oven and the differences in taste, texture, and appearance are very marked.

In order to try an effect of having been baked on the wall of a stone oven, for my first attempt I spread my dough directly onto my pizza stone and baked it in a convection oven at 450 F (the temperature recommended by the recipes linked with the Master Bread Dough) for about 25 minutes.  This yielded a bread that was not fully cooked through and it stuck to the stone in many places.  For my second attempt, I spread the dough onto a perforated pizza pan and baked it in a convection oven with my pizza stone on a lower rack, again at 450 F but this time for a shorter period, about 15 minutes.  This produced a product that was fully cooked and lifted away from the pan, though as you can see it did not get very brown.  I find that most of the gluten-free goods I bake don’t brown like you would expect wheat flour products to, even when they are fully baked, and maybe some day I will look into how to achieve a Maillard reaction in gluten free baked goods.  Other than that though, I think I’m pretty satisfied with the recipe and process and it received positive feedback at culinary!  If I ever get the chance though, I would definitely like to experiment with baking with a tandoor oven rather than a modern convection oven.



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