I love glass and glassmaking. Glass is fire and imagination combined. Long have I loved watching craftsmen at historical sites blow air into a molten mass to form a useful bowl or bottle, or see the artisans of Murano twist and sculpt it into a decorative statue. When I was a child, I played with prisms and suncatchers – throwing rainbows around my room. Years later, I am still in awe of how three opaque substances: sand, soda ash, and limestone are combined at very high heat to form the brilliant rigid-liquid we call glass.
After my trip to Ithaca I drove over to Corning, New York and spent a several hours in the Museum of Glass. I could have spent a week. While touring the Origins of Glassmaking and the Ancient Glassmaking galleries, I found a few glass mementos from the Silk Road. There were pieces there from the dawn of glassmaking: a glass pendant from ancient Mesopotamia dated to 1450 BCE, along with slightly younger core-formed cosmetic bottles and vases from Egypt. The collection is stunning, but the pieces that caught my eye were two small seals made in Egypt in the 8th Century ACE that were used in the spice trade along the Silk Road. They are glass seals – of no more than 4 to 6 centimeters a piece – for orders of cumin stamped with with Arabic script to denote the owner of the shipment and the quantity ordered.
The inscription on the first translucent, dark-green glass seal reads: “Ordered [by] the Servant of Allāh, Abdullāh, the Commander of the Believers, a full measure of white cumin.”
The second seal has a bit more of the lip and body attached, is made of slightly lighter green glass, and is a seal for a shipment of black cumin. The inscription on this one is more generic and simply reads: “A measure of black cumin.”
It is unclear whether this would have been true black cumin (kala jeera) from the Himalaya or Central Asia (Bunium bulbocastanum) or Nigella sativa used to give a pungent onion flavor to dishes (kalonji). Misuse of the name black cumin to denote nigella persists to the present day, so it is impossible to know.
Despite the confusion in spice names, these two glorious little glass seals have survived more than 1200 years to give us a glimpse of how at least some spices were packaged for shipment. Since the glass originated in Egypt, it is tempting to assume that the orders either originated in a large emporium in Alexandria, or were at least shipped through there from their points of origin. The Abbasids used Alexandria as a major center for trade with India and China, so this is not just simple conjecture. Based on large chunks of green glass found in medieval spice shipments (like those in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology), the spice vessels themselves may have been made from the same green glass as the seals.
Wrapped in burlap or cloth and packed tightly in the hold of a ship or dhow, these spices and their glass seals traveled hundreds or thousands of miles across the known world from origin to end-point. How far people were willing to go for flavor, and how much they were willing to pay for it a millenium ago.
And how much we take for granted today.
Likewise it is with glassware itself. Take another sip from that glass and consider the millions of microscopic sea creatures (foraminifera) from the sand that have been melted together to form that machine-made vessel in your hand. The calcium carbonate of their bodies has been combined with ash and limestone and remade into the glass. Less art perhaps than the seals or the early pendants and vessels in the Corning museum, but still no less of a miracle. (Words by Laura Kelley: Photos of Islamic Glass seals by Laura Kelley; Photo of Foraminifera from Wikimedia.)
Wherever I go, for work or for personal travel, I like to hit a good restaurant during my trip. If that restaurant can be a Silk Road restaurant, all the better. I had the chance this past weekend to find a little gem of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York. Spicy Asian restaurant is a small place on Elmira Road, that delivers a knockout of a great dinner.
The restaurant has two menus. the first is packed with Chinese-American standards like General Tso’s Chicken and Orange Chicken as well as Egg Rolls and Wonton Soup. The second menu, and the reason I chose to dine there, is a menu filled with authentic Szechuan specialities featuring sour cabbage, tripe, frog, pig trotters, and fish prepared in a myriad of different ways.
I started with a couple of appetizers I just couldn’t resist: peanuts in black vinegar and a tea egg. The peanuts were boiled to perfection and mixed with black vinegar, Asian cucumbers and spring onions, and the tea egg was fragrant with star anise and cinnamon with a gentle flavor of strong black tea.
For the main course, I chose the Sliced Fish with Sour Cabbage. The fish was tender but firm, and easy to eat with chopsticks, in a savory and lightly sour brown sauce. The cabbage was sliced into long ribbons that provided a strongly sour accent to the mild white fish.
I sipped green tea throughout the meal and afterwards got to chat with the owner’s mother and beautiful young daughter. I wish I had more time to spend with them and their little gem of a restaurant, and I have only one regret – that I wasn’t dining with a group of people to sample more of their wonderful food.
If you are in Ithaca and looking for some really good Szechuan specialities, Spicy Asian is highly recommended.
Move over Hannah Glasse. Your published recipe for butter chicken that is widely hailed as the first English recipe for curry, has an English contender. In a 1675 anonymous manuscript full of recipes and potions in the Wellcome Library in London (Wellcome Manuscript 4050) is an English recipe for a vindaloo-flavored roast. In the recipe, cloves, mace, and lots of black pepper form the spice base. This is then mingled with some minced sweet herbs and mixed with vinegar for a marinade and baste for the roast. Not a vindaloo stew or braise like we are accustomed to today, but a recipe for vindaloo-flavored roast hen, mutton, or lamb. A proto-vindaloo, if you will.
Of course, there is an earlier published recipe for a curry than Glasse. The recipe entitled, A Curry for any Fish can be found in the 1680 edition of Arte de Cozhina by Domingos Rodrigues. But because it is in Portuguese, it is often passed over by people writing about the spread of curry into Europe and the Americas. Like the 1675 recipe, Rodrigues’ recipe is not in the form of a stew or braise, but rather it is a thick sauce to be ladled on top of a poached fish. The recipe specifies that it is also good for meat, but not for seafood.
Older than either Glasse or Rodrigues, however, is the recipe for vindaloo-roast in the 1675 Wellcome manuscript. Tucked unassumingly onto the bottom of a page with recipes for hare, venison, and mutton (along with some recipes for pancakes and jelly) is a recipe entitled: “To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb the Indian Way.”
The recipe reads:
To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb ye Indian Way
Take a hen and cut her down the back and wash her from the blood and dry her, then take salt, pepper, cloves and mace and beat the spices very well, then take also sweet herbs and some shallots and mince them very small with lemon and mingle all these well together; then rub up the hen all over with these things and lay it flat in an earthen pan and cover it with some vinegar and let it steep two hours; then roast it and baste with this liquor—when it is enough, set the liquor a cooking, take off the grease, and pour off the hen; dissolve anchovies in it and heat it with beaten butter. So serve it up.
A more modern presentation of the recipe prepared with a chicken would read:
Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675
1 small 4-4.5 pound chicken
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1½ teaspoons mace
6 shallots, peeled and minced
Leaves from two sprigs of rosemary
¼ cup minced parsley
¼ cup minced cilantro
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, ground
Zest from two lemons, minced
2 cups of white wine vinegar
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 handful dried anchovies
½ teaspoon cornstarch to thicken gravy (optional)
Wash and dry the chicken and split it down the back. Flatten the bird by pressing it down with a heavy saucepan. Grind the cloves and the peppercorns and mix them with the salt and 1 teaspoon of the mace. Add the minced shallots, the rosemary, parsley and cilantro. Grind the fennel seeds and add them to the herb and spice mixture. Add the lemon zest and mix well.
Coat the bird on both sides with the spice mixture and then lay it as flat as possible, skin side down, in a ceramic or enamel baking dish. Add the vinegar around the edge of the bird, and spoon some over the bird without washing the herbs and spices away. Cover and let marinate for at least 2 hours. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. while the bird is marinating.
When ready to cook, lift the bird out of the pan and place it on a plate. Then pour the marinade into a bowl. This will be used to baste the chicken as it cooks. Place a rack inside the ceramic or enamel pan and place the bird on it skin side up. Place into preheated oven.
After about 20 minutes, place the pats of butter on the chicken and place back in the oven. Lower heat to 350 degrees F. Every 10-15 minutes throughout the baking time, baste the chicken with the marinade. After about ½ hour, flip the bird over so it is skin side down. Cook this way for about 15-20 minutes and flip it skin side up. Total cooking time for a 4-4.5 pound bird should be about 1.25 – 1.5 hours. While you bake, mince the anchovies. I left the head and spine intact, and strained them from the sauce later.
When the bird is done, remove it from the pan and set aside in a warm spot. Pour the mixture of marinade and cooking juices into a small saucepan, and if you desire, skim the fat from the top. Then add the anchovies. Heat, but do not boil, and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly, to mingle the flavors. Then strain the solids from the gravy. I used a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth.
Return the strained sauce to a cleaned saucepan and reheat for another 5-10 minutes, watching that it doesn’t boil. Add the remaining mace and mix well. If the gravy doesn’t thicken enough as it reduces, take about ¼ cup of the sauce and put it in a teacup or small bowl. Add some cornstarch to the cup and whisk or mix well with a fork to break up the cornstarch. Whisk the sauce in the saucepan and drizzle the mixture of cornstarch and gravy until the gravy thickens up to your desired consistency.
Carve and plate the bird and spoon a small amount over the chicken. Serve the remaining gravy on the table for diners to add at will. I did not reheat the bird, given the tendency for people in the past to eat dishes warm or cooled, but not hot.
The bird was really delicious. The sauce made with the mace and vinegar was fantastic! Although I was a bit skeptical about this recipe being a proto-vindaloo based on the ingredients, it very much tastes like I would expect and early European version to taste. If that seems a bit convoluted, just think how the butter chicken recipes of de Peyster or Glasse in the 18th Century compare with modern versions of the recipe. Minus the tomato sauce in many modern versions, the taste is different, but it is clearly an attempt to recreate Indian flavors. Likewise, this recipe from Wellcome manuscript 4050, is definitely an attempt to recreate the flavors of an Indian vindaloo.
The major difference between my version and the original recipe was extra mace added in the sauce to balance out the overwhelming taste of vinegar. In fact, I think that there was such a tendency for the vinegar to overpower the herbs and spices used on the bird, that I would use much less of it in subsequent preparations. One way to do this would be to use about 1 cup for the marinade. Another way would be to skip the vinegar in the marinade, and just baste the bird with ¼ cup of vinegar in addition to the butter and cooking juices. Minus the vinegar, I would also let the herbs and spices sit on the bird for a longer amount of time, perhaps even overnight.
Another change I made was to put the butter on the chicken as it was roasting rather than add it to the sauce as it is being reduced after cooking.
As with many modern recipes from the Silk Road, this recipe gives a lot of freedom to the cook to alter amounts of ingredients or even whole ingredients. In this early recipe there is the direction to, “then take also sweet herbs.” I chose parsley, rosemary, and cilantro with a bit of added ground fennel seeds. Different choices would lead to different flavor, especially with less vinegar in the mix.
For me, cooking this recipe and enjoying the dish with my husband on our 20th wedding anniversary was a wonderful experience. It was like time traveling with a delicious twist. Eating a dish that was cooked when Charles II was restored to the throne of England was fascinating.
Think about 1675 for a moment. Subcontinental flavors were creeping into European cuisine, and interest in eastern cultures that wasn’t purely economic was on the rise. The importance of science in society was taking a more modern shape as the cornerstone for the Greenwich Observatory was laid, Leibnitz was demonstrating integral calculus, and van Leeuwenhoek was opening doors to the microcosm. All in all, the globalized world that was beign created by the the massive trading corporations was smaller than that fueled by Silk Road trade.
From a European perspective, however, the world was also more diverse and complex place than ever before. New species were being discovered on a nearly daily basis, and early travelogues and anthropologies added faces and customs to the people from far-off lands. Sea monsters began to disappear from maps as man gained greater mastery over the seas, and science replaced mythology and folklore with anatomic description. Europe was on the doorstep of The Enlightenment, and this is what at least one English family might have been eating. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photographs of Wellcome manuscript 4050 from the Wellcome Trust. Photograph of Vindaloo Roast Chicken by Laura Kelley.)
Although we have no recipes definitively attributable to the ancient Phoenicians, and little information about the foods and dishes they ate, we do know from their material culture that they dined in style. The platter below is a beautiful example of Phoenician craftsmanship from the 8th Century BCE.
In the center of the platter, a man stabs a raging lion. The pair are surrounded by a ring of flying ducks and prancing stallions. In the next ring, archers on foot and mounted spearmen advance among trees behind chariots. The design, which may represent a hunting expedition, is encircled by a serpent with delicately patterned skin. One of the most stunning things about the platter is that the musculature of the animals and people is produced by repoussé, or hammering from the reverse side to raise the metal. And speaking as a former anatomist – it is gloriously correct in the highlightling of the stallion’s haunches and the leg muscles of the hunters.
The Silk Roadiness of the object is evident in the use of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian styling. The clothing and hairstyle of the figures is Egyptian while the subject matter of the central scene is a common Mesopotamian theme of combat between man and beast. Phoenician artists frequently worked in the styles of neighboring cultures, in part because they had so much contact with them as a major trading hub between the civilizations in Western Asian and Northern Africa. I just wish we knew what filled the platters!
(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Phoenician Platter from Walters Museum by Laura Kelley)
From cowrie shells; and iron, copper and silver coins; to various kinds of paper, many different materials have been used by merchants and customers as credit or legal tender. Bolts of silk measuring roughly 22 inches wide and 41 feet long were also used as a form of currency by the Chinese, especially in foreign trade or as gifts to foreign lands. The silk used as currency was of lower quality than that used for luxury goods or tribute. Generally it was a plain basketweave (one thread above, one below) and both undyed and undecorated, as in this photograph of a silk bolt used as payment for the expenses of soldiers at a garrison in Loulan (Korla) in the 3rd or 4th Century ACE.
It wasn’t until the 20th Century, that people actually began to print money on small pieces of silk and use them as banknotes. This use of silk money was usually a temporary thing, fueled by a local or regional government’s need to raise money quickly, or by a shortage in paper, or both.
In 1918, Khorezm (now in far western Uzbekistan) was seized by Junaeed Kurban Mamed when he invaded Khiva. Mamed executed the legitimate ruler Asfandiyar, set Asfandiyar’s younger brother, Seyeed Abdulla, up to rule in his place. This invasion and coup threw the economy of the state into chaos, and the new government started printing banknotes to raise money. Lacking sufficient paper resources, they started to print and circulate currency on small pieces of silk.
Unlike the presses used to print paper money, the designs and official seals on the silk currency were applied by hand with wooden (probably elm) stamps, with separate stamps used for each color. The dyes used were traditional and derived from local plants and fruits with oak-apple (dark brown to black), pistachio leaves (green), madder root (red), and the Japanese pagoda tree flowers (cream to yellow).
The notes were printed with Arabic, Uzbek, and Russian text. The notes were issued in 200, 250, 500, 1000, and 2500 tanga denominations. At the time of issue, the value of 5 tanga was approximately equal to one Russian ruble, so the 250 tanga note was valued at 50 Russian rubles.
April 1920, on the territory of the Khiva khanate the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic (KPSR) was established, and more silk money was printed. In 1923 an even exchange of the silk banknotes and soviet currency was established. Despite this, many people held on to the silk banknotes and up until the 1950s and 1960s homemade quilts and suzani in the Khiva region could be found incorporating the banknotes as part of the design.
A little Silk Road History for a warm January day. . .
(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Silk Currency Bolts from the British Museum (Collection Image AN00009/AN00009325_002_l.jpg); Photo of Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ by Laura Kelley.)
Today I’m cooking for a holiday get together with friends we’re having this evening, but wanted to share a delicious recipe with you that is just perfect for this time of year.
These Afghan cardamom cookies are spicy and savory, and deliver a blast of cardamom flavor as they melt in your mouth.
They are also really simple to make, and take no more than a half-an-hour from sifting, to cooling rack, to table. Try them to add a different kind of Silk Road spice to your holiday dessert spread.
1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
½ cup melted butter, slightly cooled
¼ cup whole milk, warm
¼ cup ground pistachio nuts, plus a few whole nuts to press into cookies
Preheat the oven to 350°. Sift together the white flour with the sugar and ground cardamom. Add the butter and milk and mix well. Roll the dough into 1-inch round balls and place them on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden around the edges.
Remove from the oven and press a whole pistachio into the center of the cookie as it cools. Sprinkle finely ground pistachios on top of the cookies while they are still hot.
(Makes about a dozen-and-a-half cookies.)
Variation: Substitute some lard or other animal fat for all or some of the butter for additional savory, umami flavor and mouthfulness. Life is hard in Afghanistan, and in lean times women will even use corn-oil to make these cookies. They turn out fine every time.
A slide show of some of the must-eat-at restaurants in Asia. Stunning photography by David Hagerman, David Lett, Carla Capalbo, yours truly (me) and others. The restaurants I included were, Hua’s Shimao Mansion in Beijing’s Central Business District, Mirza Bashi in Khiva, Uzbekistan, and in Western Asia, Pheasant’s Tears Tasting Room in Sighnaghi, Georgia. Check out the lovely photos of some great restaurants and the people who prepare the food. . . [MORE HERE from Zester Daily]
Natto, or fermented soybeans, are everywhere in Japan. There are natto burgers, natto bruschetta made with heaps of natto mixed with melted cheese or tomatoes on toasted bread, and even natto curries and sushi. But the most common way Japanese people eat natto is for breakfast over steamed rice with condiments, such as pickled fruits and vegetables. To me, one of the most interesting things about Japan’s beloved, traditional natto is that there is nothing uniquely Japanese about it. . . [MORE HERE from Zester Daily]
This bowl is a fine example of pinched-glass craftmanship. It is of Roman (possibly Byzantine) origin and is believed to be dated to the 5th Century ACE (based on the age of the tomb which is from the Hunnu period.) It is also proof of the power of the Silk Road on both trade and politics, because it was found a few years back in the tomb of a Mongolian noble family. In Tuv province, not too far from modern Ulaanbaatar, the tomb of a wealthy, noble family yielded two similar bowls that were unfortunately broken. Also found in the same tomb was a jade seal of the Xiongnu Emperor.
Scientists are undecided as to how the bowl came to Mongolia. Some believe that it could have come through trade routes, and other believe that it was such a special object that it was probably a present from a Roman noble family to a Mongolian family in the Far East. The style of ribbed glass work was all the rage in Rome from the 1st C BCE to around the 1st C BCE, so it may have been a precious object of the Mongolian family for several centuries before it became part of their grave goods. It is difficult to know. Treasures tell no easy tales.
(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Roman Bowl from the Mongolian Tomb borrowed from Ulaanbaatar Post.)
I saw you green, then Turning red as you ripened. Pleasant to look at and tasty in a dish, But too hot if excess is used Savior of the poor, enhancer of good food. Fiery when bitten, this makes it difficult Even to think of the good Lord himself!
– Purandara Dāsa, 16th C. Indian Poet
Potato, papaya, pineapple, cassava, and chili peppers, all were brought from the New World to the Indian subcontinent by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century or in the case of the potato, in the 17th century. All of the plants grew well in the hot climate of the south Asia and were adopted into local cuisines, but only the chili pepper spread across Asia like wildfire.
In fact, the speed of its spread across India from the late 15th Century to the mid-16th Century was so quick that several European botanists (notably Fuchs (1542), but also later writers such as Dodoens (1554) and Gerarde (1597)) described chili peppers as part of the native flora of India. Dodoens writes:
The Indian pepper is hot and dry in third degree. Indian pepper is used in diverse places for the dressing of meats, for it hath the same virtue and taste that the usual pepper hath. Furthermore, it coloreth like Saffron, and being taken in such sort it warmeth the stomach and helpeth greatly the digestion of meats
The same doth also dissolve and consume the swellings about the throat called the King’s Evil [scrofula], all kernels and cold swellings, and taketh away all spots and lentils of the face, being laid thereunto with honey.
It is dangerous to be used in too great a quantity: for this pepper hath in it a certain hidden evil quality, whereby it killeth dogs if it be given them to eat.
This is good evidence that by the mid-16th Century that at least some of the culinary uses of the capsicums were well-known within the monastic and academic communities of Europe, even if they were confused about the geographic origin of the genus. Although brief, these early botanical references to the use of chili peppers in the kitchen are important because they predate formal, published, European recipes by more than 100 years.
One of the earliest European cookbooks containing recipes for dishes with chili peppers is Domingos Rodrigues’ Arte de Cozhina, published in 1680. This book, in fact, contains several recipes that use different types of chili peppers, so the knowledge and use of the differing flavor and heat of chili peppers was fairly sophisticated in this early reference. Rodrigues was the cook for the royal household of Portugal, so we can be certain that at least the royals like their dishes hot. (One of Rodrigues’ recipes.)
Indian scholar, KT Achaya, has claimed that the 17th Century ayurvedic text, the Bhojanakutuhalam, contains the earliest published recipes for chili peppers. However, my detailed read of the text finds only three brief mentions of chili peppers that ascribe some ayurvedic qualities to them. The Bhojanakutuhalam contains no chili recipes. This leaves the Portuguese reference as the earliest published culinary reference for chili peppers I have been able to uncover – at least so far.
In 15th and 16th Century India, the rapid adoption and naturalization of chili peppers is a result of a perfect storm of hospitable climate, rampant poverty, and the high nutritional value of chili peppers. According to the USDA, 100 grams of cayenne chilis contains 318 calories, 2000 mg. of potassium, 293 mg. of phosphorus, approximately 150 mg. of calcium and magnesium and 76 mg. of vitamin C. Not only would this have boosted general caloric intake, but the impact of the micronutrients of overall health status would have been significant. Thus, the addition of chilis to the diet of India’s undernourished poor, would have been nothing short of a nutritional windfall.
Interestingly, many of the medicinal uses attributed to chili peppers by Fuchs and Dodoens (following Brunfels (1531)), such as the use as a treatment for scrofula, were actually attributed to black pepper by Discorides. So, for more than 1500 years, western knowledge of the medical uses of pepper remained virtually stagnant. When chili peppers were brought back from the New World, some of the medicinal uses long described for black pepper were simply transferred to chili peppers. Much the same thing happened in the Ayurvedic system, when chili peppers were introduced to the subcontinent, as witnessed in the pages of the Bhojanakutuhalam.
In the Ayurvedic system, chili peppers are classified as pungent amongst the six tastes, are used to restore balance to an unbalanced kapha-dosha, and should be avoided by those with a diagnosed excess of pitta-dosha.
Today, modern scientific and medical communities are rediscovering the medicinal uses of chili peppers. Accepted uses today include use as a treatment for neuropathy, neuralgia, and back pain, as well as treatments for some digestive disorders and use as an anti-clotting agent. Research is also underway to look a chili peppers as anti-cancer treatments (pro-apoptotic) as well. Congruously perhaps, many of the researchers doing this work are in India, or part of the great Indian scientific and technical diaspora around the world.
(Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photographs of Fuchs chili pepper plate from the Missouri Botanical Gardens manuscript, and photograph of the cover of the Bhojanakutuhalam by Laura Kelley.)