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Afghan flavour on Sharjah streets

Jehan Sher Yusufzai / 26 June 2010

Said Nawaz Afridi waits patiently at the shop counter of an Afghan bread shop in Al Mussala, Sharjah. The summer heat has not dampened his appetite for food. “I love eating Afghan bread because it’s fresh, tasty and charges me up. I eat it thrice daily,’’ says the Pakistani.

Mohammed Haneef, also from Pakistan, agrees with his compatriot, so do Nabeel from Egypt and Shah Jahan, an Indian expat. “It’s good and filling... easy to digest,” according to Nabeel. Shah Jahan says of the cross-border gastronomic switch: “Though rice is our staple food, I eat Afghan chapati twice a week.”

Afghan bread can be found in abundance here in the UAE. Asian expats from the subcontinent and thereabouts generally call them ‘roti’ and business is booming for bakeries which sell the staple.

After the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979, many Afghans left their country and migrated to Pakistan, Iran and the UAE. Some turned food entrepreneurs and opened hotels and bakeries.

Soon, traditional dishes like the Afghan pulao, kabab and bread gained in popularity among the local population and expatriates.

It’s not hard to find an Afghan ‘tandoor’ or ‘bhati’ bakery on the many congested streets of Sharjah. The tandoor bread is called ‘Khubz’ in Arabic and there are four varieties. The ‘sada’ (simple) bread is a favourite among Pakistanis and Afghans, the ‘kulcha’ or Peshawari bread is smaller in size, while ‘roghani’ bread is sprinkled with oil. This variety is perfect for breakfast. Then, there’s the Irani bread which is a hit with Egyptians and Emiratis, not to forget the Iranians themselves. ‘Bhati’ bakeries make a thinner chapati, which is a rage among Pakistani Punjabis, Indian expatriates and Bangladeshis. Breads sell for between Dh1 and Dh1.50 and prices are controlled by Sharjah Municipality.

These traditional shops are open from 4am until midnight from Saturday to Thursday. On Friday, they close at 11am and reopen after Juma prayers.

Mohammed Gul, a hardy Afghan, takes pride in his business, which he has been running successfully for two decades now. His look spells contentment and his bakery in Nasserya district of Sharjah is drawing a throng of tandoor bread faithfuls.

On request, you get a peek into how rotis are made. It’s warm in the tiny room with a sizzling tandoor (traditional oven) coming to life.

The bread is prepared from wheat flour, soda, salt and ‘hambir’ (a concoction of old flour), which are mixed well in a small machine known as the ‘makina’ in Arabic.

Gul employs five people in his establishment. One prepares the ‘phara’ or dough. The second spreads the phara on a flat plank, while the third inserts the spread (phara) into the gaping tandoor using a flat plate with a long handle. The fourth is an assistant doing all three processes in turn. Such bakeries also employ a delivery man to cater to orders on the telephone.

“The financial crisis may have affected the flow of customers to some extent, but by the grace of Allah the Almighty, it will be restored very soon,” he says as he watches the continuous flow of customers to his shop.

Profits have fallen a bit, he says due to the hike in electricity charges, and hopes the government will make a concession for small businessmen like him. “I request the authorities concerned to announce a subsidy on wheat flour for bakeries.” 

Outside the shop, crowds swell at the counter for their hot, daily bread, while others rush home with their purchase in plastic bags. There’s plenty of chatter, hugs and handshakes going around.

Gul settles into his seat with a sigh, sweat dripping down his temple. He seems happy with his social responsibility of providing food. It’s hard work, he reminds this writer, still wearing that contented look. Afghanistan may be wracked by sectarian violence. But here in the UAE, this Afghan has made his peace... through food.


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