KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — From before dawn until long after dusk, there's always a line outside the bakery in my neighborhood in Kabul. Presumably, everyone in this line is there actually to buy bread, although watching an Afghan baker at work has its own entertainment value.
First, there's the matter of where the baker, Nasrullah, sits: right on top of the oven. It's a tandoor oven, basically a large clay pot with a hole in the top and a wood fire inside. Nasrullah squats as close to the lip of the oven as he can without becoming a long-lost brother of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Every few minutes, he takes a two-foot-long slab of dough and slaps it to the inner wall of the oven. Almost immediately, the dough gets puffy, turns tan, and emits an exquisite odor that draws Afghans from blocks around. Minutes later, the baker picksup two long iron tongs and gently tugs the bread from the tandoor wall and plops it in the waiting arms of his customer.
After burning myself a few times, I started bringing a light cloth to cover my arms, and to wrap over the bread to keep it warm until I got home.
Most Afghans equate bread with food itself, and in both Persian and Pashto - Afghanistan's two main languages - the words are in fact synonymous. Afghans are carnivores by nature, and generally eat anything that moos, clucks, or bleats, but their favorite food by far is bread.
"There's morning bread, afternoon bread, and evening bread," says Nasrullah, a wiry man who, not surprisingly, always seems to be sweating. "Everything else is just tea."
Bread is the first thing served at any Afghan meal. Most Afghans prefer to eat cross-legged on the floor, and when the bread arrives, they eagerly grab it up and begin ripping it into shreds roughly the size of a soup ladle.
When the main course arrives, Afghans use these bread strips to pinch up chunks of meat or vegetable and pop it into their mouths with their hands. Food doesn't taste as good unless eaten by hand, most Afghans say.
There is an art to eating with your hands, however, something I have yet to master. Once I had lunch with a garrulous warlord named Badshah Khan Zadran. At the time, Mr. Zadran was a renegade military commander, working with the American military in the hunt for Al Qaeda and simultaneously against the Karzai government, which had removed him from the post of governor in the province of Paktia.
Zadran watched me eating for a moment, dipping my hand into a large bowl of yakhni, a typical Pashtun dish of chicken stock that'ssoaked up with pieces of bread.
I thought I was doing a fair job of it, but Zadran's expression reflected mild disgust.
"Where did this man learn to eat?" he asked. He wrinkled his nose, and then dropped what was for him the ultimate insult. "He eats like an Uzbek."
Real Afghan bread has a taste that cannot be imitated anywhere else in the world. A bit nutty with a touch of salt, it is the very antithesis of Wonder Bread. There's nothing special about the recipe - just wheat flour, water, and yeast - so it's possible that the distinctive flavor comes from the native-grown wheat of Afghanistan.
Nearly the entire five years of Taliban rule were years of nationwide drought, and many Afghans had to make do with the wheat of strangers. American military planes air-dropped tons of American wheat (not all at once, of course) to drought-stricken regions of Afghanistan to help stave off starvation.
But after a few weeks, Afghans stopped using the American wheat. Afghan bakers later complained that the dough of American wheat wasn't sticky enough. The bread kept falling off the oven walls and into the fire.
While bread is an important part of the Afghan diet, it is not always served in an appetizing fashion. A friend of mine who works with an international aid agency told me of a massive lunch he attended with 200 guests, all of them Afghans except for himself. The host had to hire taxis to bring in enough bread for all his guests, and the bread was placed on the dusty back seats. When the taxis reached the house, the drivers piled the bread into the open arms of servants.
Those who get squeamish should stop reading this story for the next paragraph.
"They kept piling on the bread, layer after layer, and then servants kept pushing the bread down with their beards to make room for more bread," this friend recalls, laughing. "Once dinner came around, I just couldn't eat it. I was thinking, 'Dude, I know where that bread has been.' "
That, by the way, is the reason I started going to market to buy bread myself.