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The orange sun had just come out of the blue waters of Helmand river. The Afghan soldier standing guard at the top of a tower in a military camp along the river was on his second cigarette, Benson & Hedges, he said. He rested the burning cigarette on top of the machine gun mounted on pile of sacks filled with sand and cement--an improvised bunker meant to stop incoming bullets--and picked up a giant loaf of bread. He tore a small piece from it, dipped it halfway into his teacup, and put it in his mouth.
"Fast food, you see," he said. "Morning, afternoon, evening, it's always naan time."
I watched him eat the giant loaf of naan, occasionally sipping from the glass, which still had boiled tea leaves floating on the edges, then finish with a loud belch. He was good to fight until that afternoon, he said.
Nothing beats the uniquely Afghani character of naan (not even the sophisticated suicide bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices that local terrorists have become so well versed at making). Known as naan-e-Afghani, this long loaf of bread is considered the national bread of Afghanistan. In fact, naan is so popular in Afghanistan that, according to one local policeman, Genghis Khan's army used to take loaves of it on journeys during battle.
Wheat is one of the major crops in Afghanistan (yes, after opium poppies), and therefore ends in the form of bread in most Afghans' kitchens. Making Afghan naan is similar to the traditional ways of making Indian naan. The dough is prepared with flour and water and is often sprinkled with cumin, caraway, and even poppy seeds. Early--before dawn--bakers spread the dough inside a hot tandoor, and let it bake for several seconds. When the bread is ready, it usually puffs at several places, often with dark brown spots.
The fresher the bread, the tastier it is.
It was 5:30 a.m. when I arrived at an Afghan National Army checkpoint in the outskirts of the Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, with members of the Royal Gurkha Rifles in the British army. The Brits were all set for lunch that afternoon: boxes of MRE ration that mostly consisted of tuna ravioli, lemon tart pudding, packets of plain and sweet cookies and biscuits, tubes of Vegemite and cheese, and a couple of sachets of powdered drink mixes, all of them stacked on the back of the Land Rovers we were traveling in.
But the Afghan soldiers prefer to keep their lunch simple, just plain naan. As the Afghan army trucks lined up after the British Land Rovers, an Afghan soldier brought about two dozen loaves of Naan-e-Afghani, each about a foot long and eight inches wide, wrapped in a dingy piece of thin cloth, and threw it in the back of the Ford pickup truck.
On the road, a couple of shots were heard coming from the mud huts in the maize field. The British gunner on top of the Snatch Land Rover responded with a couple shots from the mounted machine gun. Within minutes, we were back on the road.
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