A metal mixing vat was already in operation when we entered the back of the bakery, grinding in slow rotation against a solid stone base. I peered inside. Clumps of flour and water merged together stubbornly, giving way to the pressure of a large belt-driven turning arm. The whole machine croaked and quivered under the protests of the thick bread dough — though the mixing arm continued through the strain, relentlessly. I watched the churning waves of dough rise and fall along the contours of the container. This, I was told, is the first step in making a special type of bread, for the Muslim tradition of Ramadan. It’s called “Ramadan Bread,” and over the following two hours, I had the pleasure of seeing the step-by-step process of how it is made at Istanbul’s Unis bakery.
Unis is located right across the street from our apartment in Istanbul. I had been there dozens of times, but had never the occasion to venture beyond the front counter, where their finished breads and pastries are seductively displayed in neat, organized rows. That morning, however, I decided to ask one of the bakers something I was curious about – could he show me the secrets behind making Turkish bread?
It was an unusual request for a foreign tourist. The baker paused for a moment, and then called his manager Jüber, who instructed me to be back at the bakery at 2 pm sharp.
Morgan and I were a couple minutes late, so when we encountered Jüber,he quickly ushered us inside so we wouldn’t miss the mixing process. Jüber has a pretty good grasp of how the baking process goes down; he has been managing Unis bakeries for 40 years. Since co-founding the chain in 1972, he has overseen the growth of Unis to 50 stores across greater Istanbul, and Unis is now one of the most recognizable bakery chains in the city. The particular store in our neighborhood, he told us, is only one of five stores that does the actual baking for the entire chain. The rest of the stores run on the company’s extensive distribution service.
“In this store, we go through 1500 kilos of flour a week” Jüber explained, scooping out handfuls from the different flour bags to show us the variety of grains. “During Ramadan, for instance, we will be baking nonstop until 9pm tonight. We need to produce about 5000 loaves.”
The pressure to produce such large quantities of bread is nothing new for Jüber and his crew of trusted bakers. The bakery’s back room only closes one hour each day, from 10 to 11pm. I had thought the place was empty at night, but it turned out the bakery’s busiest hours are in the early morning, when Unis makes most of its bread products to have ready by breakfast time at the neighborhood’s local hotels and restaurants.
“Alright, how about that? We’ve been eating Hilton bread every morning,” I joked to Morgan.
A loud clang diverted my attention to the rising racks. The bakers had pulled out one of the shelves, and were beginning to shape the dough balls into Ramadan bread’s signature form – thin saucers with a pizza-crust crease around the outside, and thin, mogul-like mounds spread throughout the middle. They did it fast, dicing the dough with their hands in a flurry of movement that seemed mechanical. “Trust me, it’s not as easy as it looks” Jüber said with a knowing smile.
Watching the whole process, I felt like such a city kid, with no idea where most my food comes from, or how it’s made. For the bakers, the process was second-nature. For me, I was just fascinated by all the tricks and intricacies which they had obviously perfected over decades. They were the little things I never would have thought of. Things like pouring ice into the flour mixture to keep the dough from getting sticky in the summer heat; like spreading a water mixture over the top of the bread’s “moguls” so they wouldn’t get too crispy; and like releasing three bursts of steam into the oven trays to set the proper humidity. It was a glimpse into a time-honored Turkish tradition.
When Jüber mentioned that we were the first foreigners to ever request a lesson in baking, it also made me appreciate how sometimes unusual requests are granted simply because no one else asks. I made a mental note that we need to do this type of thing more often.
The best part? Jüber gave us one of the breads as soon as it came out of the oven. Morgan and I juggled the scolding hot loaf across the street, and promptly into the kitchen of our apartment, where we fashioned a stick of butter and feasted.
Video Credit: Morgan