In any Turkmen household with a small courtyard, one can find a round clay oven called a tamdyr. The tamdyr has existed in the daily lives of people in the Caucasus, East, and Central Asia for centuries.
It is difficult to say how ancient this invention is, but it is possible that the tamdyr appeared at the dawn of humanity when people decided to diversify their predominantly meat-based diet and learned to grow wheat and make flour. Thus, along with the spit, the tamdyr came into existence.
During excavations of the ancient country of Margiana, located in modern-day Turkmenistan, archaeologists discovered remnants of clay ovens in which Turkmen ancestors baked bread.
Much has changed over the millennia, and the world has changed too, but these simple structures have remained unchanged, preserved in their original form.
At first glance, the tamdyr is an uncomplicated structure. All that is needed to build it is water and clay. However, it is not so simple. The secrets of making tamdyrs were passed down from generation to generation. Those who make tamdyrs are called “tamdyrchi.”
The process of creating the oven has its immutable rules. It is a whole cycle of sequential actions. One missed step will cause the entire process to fail. Take clay, for example. It should preferably be kaolin, with a uniform composition that can be kneaded like plasticine rather than crumbling in one’s hands.
Experienced masters – tamdyrchi – know where to obtain such clay and use it for decades. Armenian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, and other tamdyrs are little different from each other. Turkmen tamdyrs are no exception.
The clay is kneaded with feet, adding wheat straw to the solution, and sometimes sheep or camel wool to increase the oven’s heat retention properties. Such a tamdyr lasts a long time and does not crack from heat.
From the prepared clay, balls are rolled, beaten against the ground like dough on a table until they become a uniform mass, then rolled into rolls. A smooth circle is drawn on the ground, and the clay rolls are laid out in a circle – one on top of the other – until the walls of the tamdyr reach a height of about a metre.
To give the tamdyr a spherical shape and a certain thickness, the walls are beaten with wooden plates. A decorative ornament – a clay rim – crowns the mouth of the tamdyr. The surface of the oven is polished to make it smooth. Then the tamdyr is dried.
The dried tamdyr is placed on a brick ring, leaving a small opening at the bottom – a bellows. Sometimes, the tamdyr is additionally lined with a layer of bricks outside for better temperature retention. Now the oven is ready!
Before starting the bread baking process (called chureka in Turkmen), wood is loaded into the mouth of the oven and continuously fired for several hours – an internal burning of the surface occurs. After burning the fuel, when the soot has completely burned off, and the walls of the tamdyr have turned white, the tamdyr is ready for use.
The inner surface, cooled after firing, becomes hard, and then the tamdyrchi adds the final touch – an ornate bas-relief on the wall of the tamdyr, usually a stylised image of an argali’s horns. This element is considered a Turkmen talisman designed to protect the hearth from evil spirits and other disasters – both the chureka itself and those who prepare and eat it.
Just before using the tamdyr, it is heated with wood or kindling until it is hot, then ash is removed through the bellows, and the inside walls of the oven are sprayed with saltwater. The raw dough is carefully and skilfully thrown into the oven so that it does not lose its shape and adheres neatly to the wall.
People who have had the necessary skills since childhood can almost immerse themselves in the fire-breathing mouth of the tamdyr, quickly placing the dough on the hot wall with their bare hand, and then, after 5-7 minutes, using a special thick glove to remove the finished, hot chureka from the walls.
There are small tamdyrs that can hold six to seven flatbreads, and there are those that can hold up to forty.
The tamdyr oven is not just a tool for baking bread, but it also holds a special place in Turkmen culture. It is often the centerpiece of the house and a symbol of hospitality. Guests are welcomed with freshly baked tamdye and chebureks, and the oven is always kept warm to ensure that there is enough bread for everyone.
The baking process itself is an art form, and bakers take great pride in their skills. The dough is carefully prepared using flour, water, yeast, and salt, and then left to rise for several hours. Once the dough has risen, it is flattened into discs and placed on the walls of the tamdyr oven. The bread is then baked until it is golden brown and crispy on the outside, and soft and fluffy on the inside.
In Turkmenistan, churek and chebureks are not just a meal, but a way of life. They represent the warmth of home, the joy of family, and the pride of tradition. So if you ever have the chance to try these delicious dishes, take a moment to savor the flavors and appreciate the cultural significance behind them.
The tamdyr oven is an essential attribute of any rural home in Turkmenistan. And not just rural homes. A round clay oven, smelling of heat, can be seen in the courtyards of city dwellers too. With their own wheat and flour, why not bake bread themselves, especially if the family is large – let the children know the taste of real flatbread.
By the way, if you’re walking home from work or just strolling around the city, and you’re tantalized by the fragrant smell of hot bread coming from a courtyard where women are performing their sacred duty at the tamdyr, feel free to go in – no one will ever refuse to treat you to freshly baked chureka.
In conclusion, the tamdyr oven is not just a tool for baking bread, but it is also a cultural symbol of hospitality, warmth, family, and tradition in Turkmenistan. Its versatility and unique baking process make it an essential part of any household, whether rural or urban. The taste and aroma of freshly baked tamdye and chebureks are unmatched, and anyone who has the chance to try them should take a moment to appreciate their cultural significance.