There are little “kitchens” located all over Abu Dhabi where small teams of men bake bread. The term kitchen is used loosely. The shops are no bigger than closets.
The whole operation revolves around a fiery hot oven.
The first time I saw a bread shop like this, I had do a double take. It was a grimy little place. The man baking the bread worked the dough next to his crusty feet. His long discolored toenails scraped each piece of dough. Sweat dripped from his forehead into the oven.
It was unsanitary. I called it foot bread, and assumed it tasted like such. There wasn’t any way I was going to eat that bread.
Flash forward a few years.
When a buddy came to visit me in Abu Dhabi, I decided he needed to see the foot bread place. I searched for the one I had originally walked by, hoping to show him the toe nails near the bread. I couldn’t find it, but stumbled upon another foot bread bakery. The bakers were much cleaner, but their feet were just as close to the bread. It would have to do.
We watched the three-man team of bakers work. Baker #1 handed blobs of dough to Baker #2, a man who was armed with a rolling pin. He rolled out large rounds of dough, and then passed them over to Baker #3, who pressed the dough onto a pillow, and then slapped it into the oven. A minute later, Baker #3 grabbed the bread with a metal tool, and slung it onto the counter close to where we were standing. The result: a pile of bread, each the size of a medium sized pizza and about as thick.
A quick Internet search reveals the following information about foot bread: it is called Nan-e Afghani. The oven is a tandoor.
The bakers were extremely friendly, and allowed us to take pictures of them working in the inferno of a shop. They even hammed it up for the cameras, seemingly happy for the attention. Not many Westerners are patrons of the foot bread shops, and we were a bit of an anomaly.
Out of appreciation for their hospitality, we decided to make a purchase. I loaded a plastic bag full of piping hot bread. It cost us little over $1.
I still didn’t plan on eating the bread. My buddy, however, wasn’t bothered. He ripped off a piece and jammed it into his mouth. I followed suit. Maybe it was the baker’s sweat that fell into the oven or the bits of charred dough that season the oven’s side or a combination of the ingredients with all of the above. Whatever the case, it was the best bread I’d ever eaten. I’ve since returned to buy bread from the shop, and will continue to do so.
I don’t get too adventurous with food while travelling. However, I do know that my best food experiences have usually come from places I last expected—roadside vendors, mom-and-pop shops and closet kitchens. The trick, I suppose, is to find a way to suspend Western ideas of what a kitchen is supposed to look like and how we think food is supposed to be prepared.
There isn’t anything wrong with being cautious about where you eat, but it’s important not to let that steal the culinary surprises that lurk in small places like foot bread shops. A little foot sweat in your bread probably won’t kill you anyway.