Naan Controversial: Food For Thought

Bread is one of man's oldest sustenance.

Throughout history, mostly every country, nearly every culture, has its own portion of bread.

Whether it is the Iranian Persian lavashs, tabuns, sangaks, Mexican tortilla, Scottish oatcake, North American jonnycake, Middle Eastern pita, and Ethiopian injera, nearly every culture has had its bread served with many a dish.

In the subcontinent, bread is a vital part of nearly all the three meals of the day. Whether it is the paratha, chapatti, roti or naan, we love our bread in all its forms.

In all of these, perhaps it is the naan bread that has gained the most fame through its time. Not just being served in abundance in the subcontinent, but also in tables, restaurants, and homes around the world.

It is a staple accompaniment to hot meals in Central and South Asia, including Afghanistan, Iran, northern India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the surrounding region.

The first mention of the naan can be traced to the notes of an Indian musician, scholar and a poet. That man was Amir Khusrau and it was within his notes that we discovered the culinary habits of the Mughals; the naan was accompanied by either a portion of qeema or kebab, particularly as breakfast.

Though the Mughals relished the naan, they weren't the ones who had made it. Culinary historians point towards the Persian speaking Central Asian nations – particularly the regions around Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Tajikistan. Through conquests and trade, the recipe of the naan found its way scattered across the subcontinent.

Naan is usually leavened with yeast; unleavened dough (similar to that used for roti) is also used. It is cooked in a tandoor giving tandoori cooking its name. Which is what makes roti different from naan, the former is cooked on a flat or curved pan or tava.

A typical naan recipe involves mixing white flour with salt, a yeast culture, and enough yogurt to make a smooth, elastic dough. The dough is kneaded for a few minutes, then set aside to rise for a few hours. Once risen, the dough is divided into balls (about 100 grams or 3½ oz each), which are flattened and cooked. In Indian cuisine, naans are typically graced with fragrant essences, such as rose, khus (vetiver), and kevra (a pine essence native to Southern India), with butter or ghee melted on them.

The most common of derivatives of naan are the Peshawari naan and Kashmiri naan. These are filled with a mixture of nuts and raisins and are much broader and thicker than normal naans. Possible seasonings on the naan include cumin and nigella seeds. Besides toppings, naans also come with stuffings. The most common is the aloo, potato, naan. Though served mainly in the Punjab region, it makes for a complete meal unto itself.

Sometimes, people get their naans brushed with ghee or even butter. Some even sprinkle a dash of glaric over the naan to give it an added taste.

The role of a naan in a meal is quite similar to that of a chapatti, it replaces the fork and knife and accompanies parts of the food, sometimes curry, sometimes meat.

In Myanmaar it is referred to as Naan bya and is a popular breakfast choice served usually with tea or coffee. It is round, soft, and blistered, often buttered, or with boiled peas on top, or dipped in mutton soup.

In Turkic languages (such as Uzbek and Uyghur), the bread is known as nan. In Tajik it is called non. Besbarmak is the most popular Kazakh dish. It consists of mutton meat with small pieces of pastry boiled in broth and sprinkled with parsley and coriander. The naan is a vital part of this traditional dish.

The next time you venture out towards your dinner or lunch, here's some food for thought: the naan has been served to kings and queens, and continues to conquer many appetites around the world.

It joins the proud family of few universal cuisines that have brought together some memorable times and good food.

In his Element... Abbas Premjee

"My first lesson in classical guitar was quite an interesting one," muses Abbas Premjee. "My teacher had given me this assignment, and when I performed it the following week, he said, 'okay, now let's make some music out of that' – for me that was a shock, I thought I was playing music!"

We're sitting at the home of classical guitarist Abbas Premjee in the suburbs of Karachi. Abbas is perhaps one of the lesser known of members of the Kolachi Quartet, the improv fusion jazz group. While the rest are associated with big bands and record labels, Premjee is not that well established with audiences. In the coming weeks, his debut album and video and set to be released. The musician discussed the album, the video and all things classical and jazz.

"I picked up the guitar when I was about ten years old," recollects Abbas, "and I taught myself how to play it. I've been involved in music ever since." A humble hobby soon became a lifelong ideal, as through the years Abbas continued to learn and play the instrument. His early influences were broad, "In those days you would get influenced by whatever was there to listen to, you didn't have a choice actually." But Abbas was not alone in his hobby. "Amir Zaki used to live near my house, we were friends, and I learned a lot from him, and he may have learned some stuff from me." It was during these stern times of the country, the two guitarists would share their arts and guitar techniques; everything from cords, solos and leads.

In the early eighties, the country's music scene was in its conception stage, scattered musicians searched for an output of their fledgling art amid the concrete ruling of martial law. Some would eventually find that release, whereas others would have to wait longer.

Abbas Premjee on the other hand was not going to be part of history, for the moment, "In 1985, I finished my secondary education and left for the United States for higher education in engineering." Though his heart was set to the tuned to the strings of the guitar, his responsibilities to his family had to come first.

At that point in time, many of the country's musicians were poised to take a bold leap into stardom, though ventured into obscuredom. But those that did survive became Pakistan's pillars of pop and rock. Family responsibility however steered Abbas away from music and into the world of engineering. "But I was still playing the guitar though, even when I went to the States, I was a part of a band there. And being part of that band, especially the fact that it was jazz, literally opens your vocabulary in chords and melodies. I didn't however consider getting an education in music there, at that point in time."

But in his senior year, he opted for a class in classical guitar; it would mark a turning point in his musical ambitions. With a classical rock influence and a part in a jazz band in the States, Abbas dove head in to the world of classical guitar, "I had no idea what it was, because it's a pretty isolated little field. It has its own ideology and discipline, and I wasn't exposed to any of that."

Following his first lesson, he was intrigued. What became a single class became another degree in music. And then another. A series of scholarships later, Abbas felt the tug to return to his home. Finally, after nearly 10 years abroad, he did so.

"It was actually a culture shock for me," he recollects, "I was in a specific environment, totally immersed in the guitar and I had come back changed to a changed environment."

First things first, once again Abbas' call to music would be cut short. Family business obligations had to be dealt with first. His family's business was suffering a lot of setbacks and ultimately his father passed away.

In 2004 Abbas Premjee pushed all of his setbacks aside and began to record music. These recordings, or sketches as Abbas calls them, would eventually become the base of Elements, his upcoming debut album. Around this time, he also started to delve deep into eastern classical music. "I thought if I could get into eastern music, I'd get into something that's appreciated in this region." But it things weren't easy for him as he soon found himself in a world of gharanas and being from a house with no music history, learning eastern music would prove to be a difficult task. "Unfortunately, there's a reluctance to impart knowledge out here," he speaks about his ordeal. "I then got a hold of books, the right kind of books that helped me eventually learn."

But Abbas was not deterred and continued to learn music and make compositions. So much so that he procured a mohan veena, a classical hybrid instrument that has deep roots in the eastern music field.

Ultimately, his growing musical knowledge and prowess would prove to be the strength of Elements. But would that strength be enough to attract an audience? "It wasn't easy," Abbas speaks about getting a music deal, "but there are some people who want to encourage new kind of music and they made this possible." At the same time, he acknowledges that he is a very un-commercial artist in a commercial driven market. "I don't fit the profile of a commercial artist, and in that sense this could be a bit of a gamble."

In the coming weeks, his album will be released and only then will Abbas find out if that gamble has paid off. Abbas was kind enough to offer a preview of the upcoming album. Abbas has had good help from the likes of Gumby, who helped out on drums and Khalid Khan who filled in bass duties.

The intro track coaxes you straight in. Like a warm greeting, we're being told to relax, sit back and to relish the journey in store for us. Titled contemplation, the track defines a meeting between the east and the west.

Immediately following is Jhoom Dewanay, the track for which the video has been made. With vocals by Mansoor (a singer Abbas discovered himself), the track is literally a composition of a story. The motifs of the album, a note here and there, are scattered throughout the track, being the smaller part of a bigger picture. The video co-directed by Abbas and Sharik Chapra, composed entirely of photographs and digital paintings. In it we delve deep into the world of mystical Arabia, where the story of the song unfolds. Not only is the video eye-catching, it is entertaining and most of all quite different than the dancing videos out there.

The next track is quite upbeat—the first one of the album—and features Irfan on vocals. Abbas is keen to work with unknown vocals because according to him he can "polish the vocals" according to his own advantage. Singing in his native multan tongue, Irfan's vocals not only stand out but blend in gracefully with Abbas' composition.

Entrainment is a brooding number that follows. The vocals here are strong and lead one deep into the song, tugging at emotions. Seek Peace is an award winning track that was featured in the United Nations World Music competition. Although it didn't win first prize it came second and after listening to it one can imagine why out of 15,000 entries, this track was one of the few that stood out. Featuring a quote by Hazrat Ali, the track is light, thought-provoking and seemingly fits into the mood of the album.

Although he talked openly and extensively about the album and his music throughout, it is ultimately his music that will speak for him and perhaps even speak to audiences.

(Photography by Asma Inayat -- asma.inayat@gmail.com)

Camelot for a new Age

On January 21st, 2009, historians would remember the day change swept America and perhaps the entire world.

Barack Obama is poised to become the 44th President of the United States of America, a country that came out in its stride demanding for change. More so than others, it was perhaps an insistence from Hollywood; an insistence for George W. Bush to leave and an insistence for Obama to take his place; that was the most effective.

The most powerful nation in the land boasts some of the most powerful entertainment and media houses. And almost every president, since Kennedy, has to come to terms with the media and eventually Hollywood.

During the last few months and years of Bush's presidency, there has been an outcry from Hollywood for his outing, some public, some subtle and even some shouting. We have seen Michael Moore craft an entire series of award winning pseudo-documentaries attacking George W Bush. We have seen Al Gore transform from a goofy Vice-President to a venerable environmental messiah. We have also seen an African American woo not only the world of politics but the world of Hollywood as well.

Hollywood and Politics have quite the love and hate relationship. And there have been some poignant times in the history of the United States where we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly side of this relationship.

The most prominent display happened during the 1960 race to the White House. Vice-President Richard Nixon hoped to secure a republican presidency but he did not count on his candidate being so strong with Hollywood.

Contrary to Nixon, who represented the dull and boring establishment, Kennedy stood out almost like a movie star. He was tanned and always smiling, appearing confident and calm in front of cameras, whereas Nixon appeared confused and pale. For example, during the debates of the 1960 election, Kennedy used his image to great advantage. In the first ever televised debates, Kennedy knew that his image would play a big role. He rested before the debates and used make-up unlike his opponent, who deemed it too "feminine." Instead, Nixon appeared almost haggard like and unkempt, viewers of the debate clearly favored with the younger, dashing, candidate.

And the results clearly had an effect; Kennedy won and eventually went on to have a favorable relationship with Hollywood. His reign over the White House was such a pristine picture that would end up being associated with the fairy tale of King Arthur. They would call his reign, Camelot.

In recent times though, that relationship has been quite strained. George W Bush wasn't a media darling, in fact, he's had a troublesome relationship with Hollywood and Michael Moore has been spearheading that trouble, since Bush's election.

In 2002, we saw the release of Bowling for Columbine which was an attack on Republican ideals, such as Gun Control and media violence. Though it didn't attack Bush directly, the pseudo-documentary gave Moore more ammunition than before. Two years later, Moore led an all out assault against Bush and his war in Fahrenheit 9/11. Hollywood had suddenly created a new craze, it had made a nation mock its own leader and the world loved it. Every move that Bush made during his remaining tenure of Presidency became the object of scrutiny or mockery.

The most recent jab comes from Oliver Stone in the form of W. Although some dub the movie controversial and an attack, the movie is perhaps humanizes Bush from the past demonizing of Moore's perspective.

Bill Clinton's reign, though marred by controversy, was much favorable with Hollywood. In one of his last televised addresses as President, he prepared a video of his last day at the White House. Included in the video was a small snippet of him accepting an Academy Award. Though that was simply a skit, it clearly indicated that Clinton liked Hollywood and vice versa.

Obama has had a similar journey. He first came into the spotlight in the 2004 election when he made a key note address. He then caught the attention of the producers of the West Wing, who even modeled a character after him in the show. Some say that it was the character of Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) on the West Wing that braced America for the change they now have.

In February 2007, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 Presidential Elections. He made the announcement in front of the Old Capitol building and set his campaign ablaze. Obama's popularity would ultimately spill over into Hollywood, with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney carrying the torch for him.

Obama's status with Hollywood was completely clear when the choice between him and Hillary Clinton became wasn't much of a choice. Immediately, the majority of Hollywood would side with Obama, even the likes of Oprah Winfrey.

Will I Am, of the Black Eyed Peas, released a song about the Obama campaign, called, "Yes We Can." The lyrics of the song are composed almost entirely of excerpts from Obama's speech on January 8, 2008, following the New Hampshire presidential primary election. The video features appearances from numerous celebrities like Scarlett Johansson, Tatyana Ali, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Kate Walsh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adam Rodríguez, Kelly Hu, Hill Harper, Amber Valletta, Eric Balfour, Aisha Tyler, Nicole Scherzinger, Nick Cannon and Bryan Greenberg. Within a week of its release over four million viewers on had seen the video on YouTube alone. Clearly Hollywood had given Obama its blessing.

Edward Norton believed in the campaign so much that he had arranged for a documentary crew to follow the campaign wherever it went. And now, HBO plans on releasing the documentary in the near future.

Will Smith and his family were so sure that he'd win that he and his family filmed the entire election day in all of their home cameras. African Americans in Hollywood especially took a much bigger interest in this Election. Obama's heritage played an important role in the election. His critics accused it of being his greatest weakness, but his followers saw it as a sign of change.

Now Obama is poised at a new age, an age one hopes that will be filled with prosperity and betterment, an age where historians will begin with a fairy tale-esque "A long time ago…" as the new age of Camelot once again begins.