‘My oven is my best and oldest friend’: Abu Dhabi’s traditional bakeries are falling on hard times

Abu Dhabi’s flatbread bakers are struggling as clients are forced to relocate.

Kashmiri baker Ghulam Fareed, right, prepares tandoori naan at his brother’s bakery in Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National
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Rich or poor, young or old, when the ovens heat up and the bread starts to rise, the customers flow to the old flatbread bakeries of Abu Dhabi.

The summer is the busiest time of the year, the bakers say, when many families find it too hot to bake at home and instead frequent one of the many hole-in-the-wall outlets across the city.

Tandoori naan has long been a popular food item in the country. Made using wheat, flour, yeast and salt, the bread is best eaten straight from the oven, crispy around the edges, soft in the middle and invitingly warm.

Yet despite churning out hundreds of naan a day, bakers in the Tanker Mai neighbourhood of Abu Dhabi say they are facing tough times.

Gentrification has resulted in many families and older businesses being forced to relocate, and the once-vibrant older community is no more.

After manning his brother’s tiny bakery for the past 26 years, Ghulam Fareed, from Mirpur city in Kashmir, says he is considering moving back home.

“My business is facing harsh times since last year, because shops near by have been shifted to Mussaffah and we have lost our major clientele,” the 51-year-old said.

The Tanker Mai neighbourhood once had many shisha cafes and small businesses, along with furniture movers who would sit on the grass verge by the main road, waiting for customers. But many have gone and building sites dot the area.

Fareed makes about 600 naan, which he describes as a “poor man’s bread”, a day during his eight-hour shift. The tiny bakery is spotless, the patterned tiles on the floor smooth and shiny from the many feet that have stepped on them over the decades. To the right on the wall hangs a framed portrait of Sheikh Zayed. A plain, small shop, its appearance belies the quality of the product that keeps it open.

Learning how to make the naan was easy, Fareed said, taking him only three or four days. He does not know much of its history, only that it is loved by all.

“I don’t know when and who invented this bread. But it must be a culinary art that is centuries old. This is very popular bread in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and many other countries. Everyone eats this bread. Everyone loves this bread.”

Several metres away, regulars queue at Ghazi bakery for their naan. Sultan Mohammed, 21, waits for his friend to shape the dough before passing it over to him to place in the tandoor, the Urdu word for oven, from which the bread gets its name.

The process is always the same: dough is mixed and then left on the countertop to firm. The dough is then kneaded before it is shaped into a flat circle. The final stage is when the baker dabs some water on it and places it inside the tandoor. The naan only takes a minute or two to bake.

Mohammed, who started working in the shop, his brother’s, three years ago, says he will never get used to the heat.

“I’m not happy with my work,” says the Afghan native, as a customer keeps an eye on his order, light-heartedly pestering the baker to make sure it does not burn.

“It’s very hot. I am sitting in a shop whose temperature is always more than 45°C and making bread for 12 hours.

“Sometimes it is unbearable. I was born and brought up in a colder place. I don’t like this but I have no option.”

Opening up the shop every day at 8.30am, Mohammed estimates he makes about 600 to 700 naan a day, with prices ranging from Dh1 to Dh3.50. Like his fellow bakers, he says the future is uncertain.

“It’s a poor man food. Most of my customers are workers and drivers, or those men who live without their families.

“These days business is going down because most of our nearby customers left this neighbourhood. Earlier, there were lots of furniture and other shops and workers used to buy our bread for their meal. We are very concerned and worried now.”

Less than a minute’s walk away, Bangladesh native Alla Uddin, 45, stands by the tandoor in Ahmed Al Arab restaurant.

A veteran, having made naan for the past 18 years, Uddin says business has more than halved.

“These days, I usually make at least 500 bread in 12 hours. A year ago, I used to make 2,000 bread in 12 hours. A year back, we used to use more than two bags of wheat flour every day. Nowadays, only one bag is used.”

A father of four daughters, the baker says that although he has considered leaving the job, his responsibilities prevent him from doing so.

“I dream to own my own bakery, but I don’t have money,” says the baker, who claims not to have so much as burnt a finger over the past 18 years, so good are his skills with the tandoor.

“My only friend is this oven,” he says, turning around to make an order. “I talk to my oven about my family, my worries, my dreams. Everything. He is my best and oldest friend.”

Zaineb Al Hassani is a senior news editor at The National.