Pukhtoon Sediqi, 24, works at the Afghan Bakery in South Delhi’s Bhogal. Owned by his relative, it is one of the many bakeries that serve fresh bread made by naanwais, the traditional bread makers, to the growing Afghan diaspora in the nation capital. Sedeqi had served in the Afghan national army for three years before moving to India. “At least there is no war here and one can work,” said Sediqi, in a mix of Hindi and Urdu. “Back home, my family was attacked by [the] Taliban because I joined [the] army.”

Sediqi lives with his parents, six siblings, wife and four children in Jungpura. “Delhi is good but who wants to leave home. Yeh majboori hai (it’s a compulsion).” He arrived in Delhi a few months ago, part of the steady trickle of migrants from Afghanistan who started leaving the country in the late 1970s after the Soviet invasion. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says around 14,000 Afghans live in Delhi, as of July.

Fleeing the war, they have tried to recreate their life from back home, including through food. Since the late 1990s, naanwais have been baking and selling a variety of traditional Afghan breads such as naan Afghani, roghani and lavasa in Delhi, adding yet another chapter to the city’s diverse culinary landscape.

Pukhtoon Sediqi left Afghanistan after his family was targeted by the Taliban.
Pukhtoon Sediqi left Afghanistan after his family was targeted by the Taliban.
“There is war everywhere in our country, which has resulted in a lack of jobs,” said Jalaludin Islami, a 31-year-old baker from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. Islami now runs a bakery in Lajpat Nagar.
“There is war everywhere in our country, which has resulted in a lack of jobs,” said Jalaludin Islami, a 31-year-old baker from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. Islami now runs a bakery in Lajpat Nagar.
Syed Bashir, 42, has been living in Bhogal for the past six years, selling Afghan breads. He initially worked at friend’s bakery, but soon after started his own. Before migrating to Delhi, Bashir owned a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. “Business is good here,” said Bashir. “I had to shut my shop in Kabul because of the war. I don’t know if I will ever go back, but for now I am focussed on my business here.” He lives with his wife and four children, who are studying in a local school.
Syed Bashir, 42, has been living in Bhogal for the past six years, selling Afghan breads. He initially worked at friend’s bakery, but soon after started his own. Before migrating to Delhi, Bashir owned a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. “Business is good here,” said Bashir. “I had to shut my shop in Kabul because of the war. I don’t know if I will ever go back, but for now I am focussed on my business here.” He lives with his wife and four children, who are studying in a local school.

The number of Afghan bakeries has risen over the years – from one in 1997, Lajpat Nagar today has five Afghan bread shops. They are also found in other South Delhi neighbourhoods such Khirki, where a large number of Afghans live and run small businesses.

Most of these bakeries open around daybreak and continue till late into the night, serving freshly-made breads. Naan is a staple food in Afghanistan, eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, it is rarely made at home as the process is time-consuming: it requires a large tandoor and a lot of fuel. Instead, the naans have been traditionally bought from the local bakeries.

An Afghan boy waits for customers at a bakery in Bhogal.
An Afghan boy waits for customers at a bakery in Bhogal.

The naanwai starts his day around 5 am, preparing the dough, which is usually made of maida or atta. Yeast is added to help it rise. The dough is then divided into balls. The average weight of a dough ball used to make an Afghani naan – a dense bread traditionally eaten with a vegetable and meat stew – is around 250 grams. On the other hand, the dough balls used to make lavasa – a flatbread usually had with tea – are lighter and flakier.

Once the dough balls are weighed, they are wrapped in folds of soft cloth before being stretched and flattened. The entire process is done by hand. In the case of roghani, a little oil is applied on each bread before baking, resulting in a buttery naan, usually eaten at teatime.

A wooden stamp or a hair comb is used to mark a pattern on the surface of the bread. This is done to aid the baking process, as the breads are quite thick, as well as for decorative purposes. A few poppy or sesame seeds are sprinkled on the naans before they are placed in the tandoor. The entire process takes about two to three hours from start to finish.

The Delhi naanwais make the naans in batches of 30 and anywhere between 600 and 1,200 naans are made in a day. Usually two to three people – often men – work simultaneously to make the breads. Each naan costs between Rs 10 and Rs 20 and the Afghani naan is the most popular. Some bakers have also started making sambosa (an Afghani non-vegetarian version of the samosa) and cakes.

The dough balls are carefully weighed.
The dough balls are carefully weighed.
They are flattened before being wrapped in folds of soft cloth.
They are flattened before being wrapped in folds of soft cloth.
A traditional Afghani stamp is used to dot the surface.
A traditional Afghani stamp is used to dot the surface.
These holes help in the baking process.
These holes help in the baking process.
Naanwais at work in Bhogal.
Naanwais at work in Bhogal.
Most of these bakeries open at dawn to serve freshly-made breads and continue till late into the night.
Most of these bakeries open at dawn to serve freshly-made breads and continue till late into the night.

In Afghanistan, the bakeries traditionally use wood-fired tandoors. However, in Delhi, most Afghan bakeries use gas-fitted tandoors as procuring wood is a costly and tedious process in the city. Unlike the gas-fitted tandoors, which can be accommodated in small spaces, the wood-fired tandoors need large shops with wide chimneys to get rid of the smoke. “Gas tandoors impart a different taste to the bread [not as smoky as the bread from wood-fired tandoors] but getting a slice of your culture in Delhi is a big deal and no-one complains about the taste here,” said a bakery worker, who didn’t wish to be named.

The Afghani naans are significantly different from their local counterparts, found in dhabas and restaurants across Delhi, both in terms of size and shape. While most of these breads are consumed by Afghans, Kashmiris and people from Middle Eastern countries with a similar culture of bread-making, some locals have also developed a taste for them.

“I like this roti,” said Ganesh, a salesman who lives in Bhogal. “I buy it regularly because it’s fresh and cheap. I eat it with sabzi or dahi.”

Ganesh is a regular customer.
Ganesh is a regular customer.

All photos by Aabid Shafi.