Next up in the Little Zurich World Bread Series, a series where guest-bloggers from all around the globe write about the importance of bread in their culture, is Sudan. I’m really excited that Omer accepted my invitation to contribute. As many Westerners, I know next to nothing about Sudan and it’s so great to read how bread connects people around the world, no matter what culture, religion or skin-colour we have. Thank you so much Omer for your contribution. (Overview of all world bread series posts here).
I was honoured when Fran asked me to be part in this wonderfully thoughtful project of compiling international breads and their stories. In my opinion, breads are humble and timeless foods that by their nature imply a primal understanding of the culinary arts. They are the foundations upon which our diverse cultures flourish, allowing a few simple ingredients to magically morph and diversify into so many deliciously interesting varieties as we travel over lands and seas. Breads really are a universal language of food. Fortunately this compilation lets us make such a journey, and with ease, allowing us to learn from one another’s relationships to breads and realise we have more in common than we may think. I believe we still have much to learn from bread and even more to share, which is why I am delighted to contribute to the Little Zurich Kitchen’s: World Bread Series.
My name’s Omer and I run a food blog called The Sudanese Kitchen (instagram here) as well as a cookbook initiative aiming to preserve traditional Sudanese recipes and Sudan’s broad and uncharted culinary anthropology. Feel free to visit the site for bread recipes and more.
Bread means life
Breads take pride of place in the Sudanese diet, often used to eat a wide variety of Sudanese foods through commonly practised hand feeding. Bread is so entwined with the Sudanese way of life that it is usually called “aish”, which means life. Aish is also a name given to sorghum, a common grain and main staple in Sudan that has been sustaining life for millennia through an age-old bread making process to produce breads unique to Sudan, such as aseeda and kisra. Breaking bread has come to represent a gesture of peace through the social interaction of food, and remains resolute pillar of the Sudanese ethos.
First leavened breads created by accident
The innovation of bread making is said to have begun in Ancient Egypt some 10,000 years ago when the first grain grinding stone was found, called a quern. This mainly produced unleavened flatbreads, made of flour and water as people began to uncover the mysteries of the grains. A few millennia later, a monumental discovery was made, once again by accident, which went on to change the future of bread making forever. One day some unleavened dough must have been left out a little too long in the warm, dusty environment. Eventually some wild yeast spores in the air from early beer brewing must have reached the dough and fused, the process of fermentation altered the flat dough into something totally new – leavened (raised) dough. A curious local must have smelled, tasted and baked the first bread and discovered it’s transformative flavour, which after many experiments gave rise to modern bread baking.
However what many overlook is that the Nubian civilization, further upstream in neighbouring Sudan, was another ancient culture that shared many similarities with the Ancient Egyptians and was its predecessor. It is therefore highly likely that bread making was a regular part of both cultures that eventually spread to Ancient India, the Middle East, and the early Mediterranean civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Breads made from wheat, sorghum and millet
The common bread making grains found in Sudan are wheat, sorghum and millet. Wheat is commonly grown in north Sudan owing to the cooler climate and is used to make gurassa, thick pancake bread. Wheat is also used to make oven-baked flatbreads, called aish baladi – national bread. Central Sudan is where the majority of sorghum is grown to make the unique Sudanese breads kisra and aseeda. Kisra is wafer-thin pancake bread that has a slightly sour taste from its fermented dough, which is cooked on a flat metal hot plate. By definition, aseeda is more of a porridge mould than bread, though still provides plenty of carbs as a filling accompaniment to mullah, Sudanese stews. Aseeda’s fermented dough is cooked in boiling water until it thickens into a thick, smooth porridge that is poured into bowls and left to cool. The cooled porridge mould is then turned over and served with a flavourful stew called mullah. Millet is commonly found in western Sudan and is used to make the unfermented and highly nutritious millet aseeda, which locals say provides them with energy for the whole day.
Bread as an accompaniment to each meal
Breads play a vital role in the customs of Sudanese food. As a child I became accustomed to having bread with most meals, constantly using it as the vehicle to carry most foods. The daily presence of these breads was something that I took for granted and only understood its importance when my family moved to the UK at the age of 7. After this point I began to be tormented by bread memories, such as smelling the freshly baked baladi breads from the local bakery just around the corner of our house in downtown Khartoum. The bakery seemed to be baking breads on a continuous basis as I’d sometimes smell it first thing in the morning and often as late as 1am. In any case, I’d drop whatever I was doing and go grab a fresh batch for the family.
Kisra (thin sheets), gurassa (thick pancake) and aseeda (porridge mould), when served with mullah (Sudanese stew), are very communal foods that gather large groups of friends and family. I remembered how we’d all eat together using clean hands while sharing from the same plate, our hands plunging while avoiding obstruction, like graceful dolphins in a sea of bread and mullah. Gurassa can also be made using dates. My family made this version on picnics in Khartoum or for long train journeys to and from northern Sudan. I remember sitting on the train as it pulled away from Atbara station on our way back to Khartoum and eating the freshly made fermented date gurassa with cinnamon and clarified butter, thinking it was the best thing I’d ever eaten.
The kitchen as the heart of the family life
While in northern Sudan visiting family, I learned that only a few generations ago, each household had a small bread oven in the kitchen and made their own baladi breads. The various grains were collected from the fields and milled into flour either by a local mill for the community or at home using a manual mill by pushing a handheld stone over a stone plate, known as a murhaka. The flour is mixed with water in a fermenting jug called a khamara, usually containing active yeasts from the previous batch, and left somewhere warm to slowly activate into the bases for the various breads that were produced on a daily basis. This type of slow cooking came to typify traditional Sudanese cooking, as often beans are left to soak overnight before boiling, dough requires a fermenting time, stews are left for hours and other foods are left to dry in the hot sun before the are used in daily cooking. As such kitchen activities are occurring regularly throughout the day, establishing the kitchen as the life of the home where many people, usually women, can be found talking and preparing the days means, often preparing the day’s lunch at the same time as cooking breakfast.
After prayer teas
One of my favourite memories of being in Sudan is of the whole family gathering shortly after sunset prayers, Maghreb, and taking tea together. Served alongside the tea are homemade cakes, biscuits and if we’re lucky, freshly baked gargoush. Gargoush is mildly sweet aromatic bread made of fermented chickpeas, flour and black cumin seeds. The name is onomatopoeic meaning crunchy due to its tough texture. Many enjoy this texture though others find it ideal for tea dunking, as it slowly soaks up the hot liquid and becomes a chewy delight.
After living outside of Sudan for so long, my love of bread had broadened to the plethora of breads the UK has from its numerous international communities. I’m thankful for the foundations bestowed upon me from my time in Sudan, and look forward to tasting even more breads as well as new and exciting foods on an endless journey of food discovery.
Thank you Little Zurich Kitchen.