Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Around the World by Bicycle Searching Out Flat Bread

LOS ANGELES -- Jeffrey Alford sits in a restaurant booth, showing off some of his chekiches -- a graceful goblet-shaped Uzbek model, a rugged Kazakh version that looks like a rather brutal currycomb and a big, flamboyant Turkmen chekich that suggests a Baroque candlestick with a bunch of nails sticking out of one end.

A chekich is a Central Asian bread punch. In the countries where Alford picked up these chekiches, people usually punch their flat breads with patterns of holes before sticking them into tandoor ovens.

With his wife, Naomi Duguid, the tall, soft-spoken Alford has traveled through vast areas of Asia, usually on bicycle, enjoying a leisurely, ground-level view of the world. In their travels, the pair noticed how much of the world's cuisine revolves around flat breads, rather than the high-risen breads people in the West mainly eat.

The result was their book "Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas'' (Morrow, 1995).

Flat breads are ancient -- the very first breads were all flat. Having been around so long, they tend, as the book makes clear, to have an intimate relationship with the rest of a meal. Often they enter right into the composition of dishes, going under, over or all around other foods or getting layered into stews and salads. From pizzas to little savory pies such as the Indian samosa, they also take well to substantial flavorings.

Altogether, Alford and Duguid include about 70 bread recipes in their book and an entire chapter is devoted to breads from Central Asia, using information picked up during their travels along the Silk Road.

Also included are recipes for steamed breads and fried breads, Tibetan breads and Ethiopian breads: Chinese buckwheat bread, Indian chickpea wafers, lacy Malaysian coconut pancakes, tortillas and Canadian berry bannock. With its recipes for traditional accompaniments to the breads -- about twice as many as the bread recipes -- the book presents the world's cookery in a whole new light.

Alford fell into the bread game by easy stages. On graduating from the University of Wyoming about 20 years ago, he got the travel bug. After a spell in western Ireland, he cycled through Italy and Greece, then kept heading east by way of Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, where he stayed with a friend's family in Herat.

He ended up in Trivandrum in southern India, where he spent nearly half a year, then he spent a couple of months in Sri Lanka, where he really started to study Asian cookery. After more travels in Asia he went back to the University of Wyoming to get a master's degree in creative writing, which he eventually earned, though with a year off for more travel in India, Nepal, Taiwan and China. His thesis: a non-fiction essay on bread and travel.

He kept traveling. He was back in Tibet in 1985, the spring it was opened to the outside world. Back in Laramie, a couple of friends told him of their plan to cycle from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. Alford decided to do the same sort of thing, cycling from Tibet to Nepal over the Himalayas. He wrote to 72 corporations before rounding up a sponsor for the project.

It was in Tibet that he met Duguid, a Toronto labor lawyer on a five-month leave of absence. They met on the rooftop of a Tibetan hotel and decided almost immediately to get married.

The next year, Alford and Duguid read that foreigners would be permitted to travel the Karakoram Highway, which has been laboriously constructed through some of the most rugged terrain on Earth: the Hindu Kush and the Pamir and Karakoram Mountains. So they cycled from Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province, China, to Hunzaland in northern Pakistan.

They conceived the flat bread book then, but it took a long time to sell the idea. "Lots of publishers wanted a book entitled '100 Flat Bread Recipes,''' Alford says. "Our idea was a book about the cookery that revolves around flat breads.''

In the following year, 1987, they planned to cycle from Tibet to Sichuan. "But there was a war,'' he says, "so instead we went to Kashgar again, this time north over the Kunlun Mountains.''

Boring Kashgar again? No problem. "Kashgar is a bread-lover's paradise,'' Alford says, his eyes brightening. Their first child was born in Toronto in 1987. They've been writing ever since and their next project is a rice cookbook, but Alford says the book is not closed on breads.

"The more we learn,'' he says, "the more we realize how little we know. Breads are just an endless subject."