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2007 †N5(26)
A family hearth is a notion of reality in Turkmenistan

Early in the morning, translucent columns of fragrant haloxylon (saxaul) smoke rise over the villages and outskirts of Turkmen cities. It is mistresses kindling universal clay ovens — tamdyrs — in their yards in order to serve fresh baked bread for breakfast to the delight of their folks.

A prominent archeologist, Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi, who was the first to discover the ancient city of Margush, found among its survived foundations the remains of ancient hearths — an exact copy of the present day tamdyr. It turns out that thousands of years ago a simple clay construction had already served as a family hearth for ancient ancestors of people living in this area.

It is impossible to imagine a Turkmen home without a tamdyr. It is such a customary and widespread thing here. Often times, a house foundation is still under construction whereas the tamdyr in the yard is already supplying builders with hot bread, and not only it. According to philosophers, the national cuisine based on technologies worked out in the course of centuries is one of the determining factors of the nation’s originality. For the Turkmen cuisine, tamdyr is a basis of basics. It is it that contains secrets of a unique taste of seemingly simple and uncomplicated dishes.

A tourist passing by a village bazaar will be surprised to notice spacious areas with fixed hollow clay hemispheres with holes in the upper end. Concentrated women are sedately strolling among them. They look inside, knock smooth clay sides, touch their inner surfaces with palms. It is a serious process that would not stand a fuss. They are hostesses who are selecting a new clay oven for their family. Perhaps, they are getting ready to remove to a new house, or it is time to replace the old one, or a new member has joined the family so that it is high time to set the second hearth.

There is a workshop near the "trading area". Vepa, the owner of family business, is a hereditary "tamdyrchy" (a man who makes tamdyrs). He learned the trade and subtleties of production in the childhood from his parents. Vepa is glad to visiting guests and willingly shows all stages of the birth of tamdyr.
"We get the raw material in the definite place, he tells. It’s an old deposit, my great grandfather used to fetch clay from there. It is very good clay. It is plastic, homogenous, burns well and doesn’t crack. A tamdyr becomes firm and durable. Some of them serve many years and require no repair. We soak the clods of clay and mix it with wheat straw. Let’s drop in the shop, though, you’ll see by yourselves".

In a spacious building several young men are working. One of them is kneading pliable clay with bare feet, the other one is adding select golden straw. Another two are beating against the ground tight, twenty kilograms in weight, spheres ready for further treatment. When the clay sphere reaches necessary consistence (a special feeling is needed to determine it), it is rolled out to a form of sausage, and then flattened to a certain thickness, beaten off with special board and turned into a roll.

Then the main process begins. On the even earthen ground Vepa draws with compasses a regular circle and his assistants begin to unroll the clay along the line. One roll covers exactly half of the circle. The ends of the clay are moistened and the second roll is "glued". The circle is locked and an even clay ring, one thirds of tamdyr’s height, is ready on the ground. They give it some time to dry out, and then the master, slightly soaking the upper edge, makes small hollows with a finger. The "first floor" is then covered with the second one with its upper end narrowed into a cone shape. The whole cycle is repeated until the tamdyr walls are ready. Thus, to make a foundation it takes six rolls of clay.

Then they start giving it a shape. The master, having two special grooved wooden hammers, thoroughly beats off the walls of the future tamdyr from both sides giving it a certain density and ideal spherical form. The only thing left is to smooth over surface imperfections, form the mouth with clay welt, dry it out properly and put it for sale. It is not all, though.

The whole cycle of work includes "turn-key" fixing at the client’s yard. On a fixed date, the masters bring the oven to the customer. They arrange its place: sometimes they simply even the earthen ground or lay a concrete foundation. They put the tamdyr on the ring laid out with bricks, leaving a small hole — an ash-pit — at the bottom and smear it with clay. Sometimes they raise one layer of bricks round the tamdyr to the height of two-thirds of tamdyr’s. It is done to maintain temperature inside of the oven. Then, they put in wood and burn the oven incessantly for several hours. By doing so, they bake the tamdyr’s inner surface.

Nowadays, most of people use natural gas (it is supplied free of charge in Turkmenistan) for the first baking and everyday use. When the inner surface, cooled down from baking, becomes hard and pinkish in color, the masters add the last stroke: over the ash-pit they model a small patterned bas-relief — an element of the national ornament — serving as a protection against evil eye. The family hearth is ready for use.

Usually, the size of tamdyr is defined by the quantity of choreks (national round flat bread) baked in it. The smallest one is for six choreks, the largest — for forty ones. The working principle is simple: tamdyr is thoroughly heated, then the ash is raked out through the ash-pit, the ash-pit is closed and raw round cakes are glued to the well warmed-up surface. The upper outlet is covered with a special lid and in a few minutes ready bread is taken out. The microscopic pores of the clay oven’s internal ceramic surface absorb the smell of haloxylon and transfer it to the dough. Therefore, the hot and fresh chorek made in the tamdyr can’t be compared to anything.

Tamdyr is a universal oven. Of course, its main function is to bake bread, however, a great number of other dishes are cooked in it. But it is going to be a separate story.

Alexander TUMANOV, photo by the author

©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005