Food: The flatbread goes fusionArchive
It wasn’t quite Ammi’s qeema paratha but it was enticement by aroma nonetheless. Before you can even dig into a shiny, succulent and luscious coconut naan, the sweet smell of coconut has already begun tangoing with the wholesome fragrance of piping hot naan on the floor of your taste buds. And as you take the first bite, a generous amount of shredded coconut mixed in sugary syrup arrives at the party — this is a dance of flavour like no other.
Cocount naans are the quintessential fusion naan — tradition meeting modernity, fused to create a blend of the extraordinary for a new generation of Pakistanis. When Pizza Hut first arrived in Pakistan back in the early 1990s, local vendors would dismiss their pizzas as just another qeema naan with a fancy name. Today, qeema naans are a thing of tradition and pizzas are very mainstream, but the humble flatbread — naan — has been reinvented.
The modern fusion naan is stuffed with fillings previously unheard of in the subcontinent: from chocolate to coconut to chicken teriyaki and even tarragon. The concept is not new, or course, but is a different take on naans. One can now eat the traditional bread filled with beef, minced meat, cheese, garlic, chicken, and potatoes.
The coconut naan, for example, tastes heavenly and the sweet, syrupy filling overpowers the taste of the naan. But gradually you start feeling full — a few more bites later, you give up. It’s very sweet, it’s scrumptious, but even a quarter portion of the naan would do. One could ideally finish off a fusion naan meal with this one for dessert.
In Lahore, this union of Eastern naan and Western fillings started off early last year, as a group of four students from the Lahore University of Management Sciences unveiled their start-up, Maro Tandoor. Their debut offering was their signature Nutella Naan — a bizarre and unimaginable combination that was never tried until then.
The finger-licking Nutella filled inside a flatbread may not create the most appetising image in one’s mind. But one bite into the hot, freshly baked naan with chocolate oozing out and you’re automatically drawn towards it. And who would mind generous dollops of Nutella oozing out of whatever, even if it’s a naan? It sure makes for a rich, mouth-watering, high-on-chocolate meal, or even a snack. This blend of sweet and savoury is a sure winner. You’ve been warned!
The savoury naans are usually offered as complete meals for those who wouldn’t want to feel stuffed all the way up to their mouths after lunch or dinner. And some eateries offer their naans with an interesting assortment of sauces, including Thousand Island, tomato ketchup, chilli garlic sauce and green chillies blended into a paste. Take your pick! With Maro Tandoor popularising sweet and savoury fusion naan in Lahore, the trend has caught on in other cities: Islamabad followed suit with Naan Stop, while Peshawar has NaanSense offering similar and other assortment of naans. Jumping on the bandwagon are also investors in Gujranwala, Multan and Karachi. Many other shops opened later in Lahore and Islamabad.
If you thought Nutella Naan was out of the box, there’s more — a Snickers Naan. Yes, that nutty caramel chocolate can now be had inside a naan too. Just that the chocolate doesn’t ooze out of this naan as it does from the Nutella one. Bite in and you do get the peanuts from the chocolate, but a bit more of the chocolate inside would add some kick. Bounty or Toblerone naan anyone?
Another variation is Chicken Tarragon naan, something we always thought was a continental dish served with rice. Who would have thought it would find its way inside a naan? Succulent bits of chicken, tarragon, mushroom in loads of white sauce is what trickles out of this crispy naan topped with sesame seeds, and served with tomato or chilli garlic sauce. It’s lip-smacking and fulfilling. Once in your mouth it feels like pizza and you almost forget it’s a naan.
Then there’s the Achaari Naan. A filling of chicken tossed in herbs and loads of spices is sure to blow your top off. It’s as spicy as spicy can get, which is a downer because the spices completely overpower any taste it might have. A slight disappointment there but could be improved, and I have a hunch it will taste as good as a chicken achaari handi / karahi with naan does.
Another popular fusion naan is the Pizza Naan. There are tender chunks of chicken or beef with sausages, mushrooms, cheese and pizza sauce filled inside a crispy naan. This one’s a must-have if you’re a pizza fan. But then, who isn’t? The naan isn’t as thick as a deep-pan pizza or a calzone, which lets the cheesy filling do the trick.
Then there is the BBQ Naan. It may sound fancy but once you take a bite it feels like chicken tikka with naan, which isn’t really unusual, right? In here you will find mildly-spiced chicken-tikka chunks with tomatoes, herbs and spices generously stuffed inside a soft fluffy naan. While it tastes delicious, there’s nothing remarkable about it. If I’m eating out and a dish reminds me of home-cooked food, why would I spend money?
An all-time favourite of many is the Chicken Cheese Naan. Delicious and mouth-watering, the winning combo of chicken strips, oodles of cheese and some spices inside an oiled naan topped with herbs can’t go wrong. It just leaves you wanting more.
The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @SheharyaRizwan
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 20th, 2016