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Flat Bread Earth


Jeffrey Alford sits in a restaurant booth, showing off some of his chekiches: a graceful goblet-shaped Uzbek model, a rugged Kazakh version that looks like a rather brutal currycomb and a big, flamboyant Turkmen chekich that suggests a Baroque candlestick with a bunch of nails sticking out of one end.

A chekich is a Central Asian bread punch. In the countries where Alford picked up these chekiches, people usually punch their flat breads with patterns of holes before sticking them into tandoor ovens.

With his wife, Naomi Duguid (pronounced "do-good"), the tall, soft-spoken Alford has traveled through huge areas of Asia, usually on a bicycle, enjoying a leisurely, ground-level view of the world. In their travels, the pair noticed how much of the world's cuisine revolves around flat breads, rather than the high-risen breads we mostly eat in this country. The result was their book "Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas" (Morrow, 1995).

For instance, here at Uzbekistan Restaurant in Hollywood, the bread looks like a small pizza with very puffy edges. It goes naturally with cuminy kebabs and a salad of thinly sliced onions. Alford and Duguid clearly have a lot of affection for such Central Asian breads; they devote the first chapter of their book to them.

Flat breads are ancient; the very first breads were all flat. Having been around so long, they tend, as the book makes clear, to have a more intimate relationship with the rest of a meal than high-risen bread does. Often they enter right into the composition of dishes, going under, over or all around other foods or getting layered into stews and salads. From pizzas to little savory pies such as the Indian samosa, they also take well to substantial flavorings.

Altogether, Alford and Duguid include about 70 bread recipes in their book. Steamed breads and fried breads, Tibetan breads and Ethiopian breads; Chinese buckwheat bread, Indian chickpea wafers, lacy Malaysian coconut pancakes, tortillas, Canadian berry bannock. With its recipes for traditional accompaniments to the breads--about twice as many as the bread recipes--the book gives a whole different squint on the world's cookery.

Alford fell into the bread game by easy stages. On graduating from the University of Wyoming about 20 years ago, he got the travel bug. After a spell in western Ireland, he cycled through Italy and Greece, then kept heading east by way of Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, where he stayed with a friend's family in Herat.

He ended up in Trivandrum in south India, where he spent nearly half a year. "I went back recently," he says, "and I was very pleased that so little had changed since the late '70s. Five of the six restaurants around the train station were still there."

Then he spent a couple of months in Sri Lanka, where he really started to study Asian cookery. "I asked a woman I was renting a room from to teach me to cook," he says. "Two days later she'd set up a little work station for me in her kitchen." Then he spent five months in Thailand, where the family of a Thai friend back in Laramie conveniently turned out to own a restaurant in Bangkok.

He went back to the University of Wyoming to get a master's degree in creative writing, which he eventually earned, though with a year off for more travel in India, Nepal, Taiwan and China. His thesis (a little unusual for creative writing majors) ended up being a nonfiction essay on bread and travel.

He kept traveling. In 1985 he was in Tibet the spring it was opened to the outside world. Back in Laramie, a couple of friends told him of their plan to cycle from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. Alford decided to do the same sort of thing, cycling from Tibet to Nepal over the Himalayas. He wrote to 72 corporations before rounding up a sponsor for the project.

It was in Tibet that he met Duguid, a Toronto labor lawyer on a five-month leave of absence. "She's always taken long trips," Alford says. "It was a tradition in her family." They met on the rooftop of a Tibetan hotel and decided almost immediately to get married.

The next year, Alford and Duguid read that foreigners would be permitted to travel the Karakoram Highway, which was laboriously constructed (though sometimes delayed by unforeseen glacier movements) through some of the most rugged terrain on Earth: the Hindu Kush and the Pamir and Karakoram Mountains. So they cycled from Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province, China, to Hunzaland in northern Pakistan.

They conceived the flat bread book then, but it took a long time to sell the idea. "Lots of publishers wanted a book entitled '100 Flat Bread Recipes,' " Alford says. "Our idea was a book about the cookery that revolves around flat breads."

In the following year, 1987, they planned to cycle from Tibet to Sichuan. "But there was a war," he says, "so instead we went to Kashgar again, this time north over the Kunlun Mountains."

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