Spring on the Silk Road Means: Black Locust Blossoms

Black Locust Blossoms
Black Locust Blossoms

Spring has finally come to the Central Atlantic and all the leaves have opened out into a sea of green. In our area, dairy cows graze and suckle their young in fields of buttercups and the first cascades of wild roses are blooming on the edge of the woods. This time of year also means that the fleeting blooming of tree flowers is also upon us. My favorites to be had in abundance here are the black locust flowers (Robinia pseudoacacia) that bloom in off-white grape-like clusters. Just pick, clean, prepare and enjoy a bit of nature’s sweet bounty.

I was introduced to eating locust flowers when I was a little girl. My Austrian grandfather would gather them from the trees around his house and make them into pancakes or fritters that he then dusted with a bit of confectioner’s sugar or a dash of honey. The flowers themselves have no taste, but the pea-like base of the flower is lightly sweet and crunchy. They are sweetest when the flowers are barely opened, so if you live in more northern climes than we do, keep your eyes peeled for the blooms and pick them as soon as you can.

Black Locust Leaf
Black Locust Leaf

The trees themselves have deeply crenulated light-grey bark that is easy to slip your hands into sideways. This gives even younger trees an aged appearance. The leaves are pennate, or arranged like feathers around a central stalk and sway gently in a fern-like manner with even a light breeze. If you are relatively confident that the flowers will be pesticide free, I recommend that you NOT wash the flowers before preparing as this will rinse away some of the fragrance and flavor. Instead, pick thru the blossoms by hand for insects or other impurities.

Most European recipes I have come across over the years emphasize the sweet nature of the flowers. Many different nationalities make fritters or pancakes, doughnuts, or if harvest is bountiful, they can be used to flavor custards, jams, and syrups, and other sweet foods. The Italians add a bit of cheese (usually ricotta) to the fritters for an added flavor.

On the other hand, many Silk Road countries prepare them in a savory or spicy manner, or use them to add sweet flavor to dishes that are otherwise not sweet. Some cultures in the Eastern Europe/Western Asia area also make flavored sodas with the syrup.

In India, people lightly saute the flowers with whole spices (a couple of cloves, black pepper, some cumin (not too much) and coriander, and serve the flowers over rice as a seasonal delicacy. In the north and in some areas of the Himalayas, star anise is used as a the dominant flavor. Since they are a wild food with a limited season, the spicing of the fritters or sauteed flowers is very variable. Because whole spices are used, the flavor is a bit milder than if the spices were ground. This allows for the natural sweetness of the flowers to shine through. In an Ayurvedic diet, the flowers are also useful as an antispasmodic and laxative, and poultices of them can be applied to speed the healing of some skin lesions – like chickenpox.

Eggs with Locust Blossoms
Eggs with Locust Blossoms

The black locust is a common tree in China, and is often called ( 洋槐 “yanghuai”), or Foreign Scholar Tree, as both the tree itself and the flowers can resemble the Scholar Tree (Japanese Pagoda Tree Sophora japonica that is native there. Two common ways of preparing them in China are as rice-flour fritters that are then served with a rich and savory brown sauce, or as an addition to chilli-pepper laden scrambled eggs. In the latter, the sweet flowers add both texture and a light flavor to the otherwise spicy eggs.

Further east in Japan and Korea, bunches of flowers are cooked in a tempura batter and eaten with a variety of dipping sauces, or in a “dry tempura,” flowers can be broken off the stem, rinsed, mixed with small chunks of tofu, sprinkled with tempura batter, and lightly fried. Likewise the individual flowers can be parboiled, and lightly pickled (1 week or less) in rice vinegar and sugar and eaten as a condiment or light snack. In Vietnam, locust blossoms are used with mint, chopped vegetables and shrimp to flavor summer rolls which are then dipped in a peanuty chilli-garlic sauce.

So, as you can see, there are many ways to enjoy locust blossoms beyond fritters and pancakes. I hope this inspires you to get out there and pick them during their fleeting season. Since my post only listed a few Asian recipes for locust blossoms, if you would like to share some of your own recipes, please do so in the comments.

Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photograph of Black Locust Blossoms by Fotodietrich @ Dreamstime.com; photograph of Black Locust Leaf from Wikimedia; photograph of Eggs with Locust Blossoms by Laura Kelley.

The Silk Road at the The Corning Museum of Glass

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.

Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE
Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE

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.”

Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE
Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE

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.)

Foraminifera
Foraminifera

Spicy Asian – Authentic Szechuan in Ithaca

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.

Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY
Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY

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.

(Words and photo by Laura Kelley.)

A 1675 Vindaloo Roast Chicken

Cover of Wellcome MS 4050, 1675
Cover of Wellcome MS 4050, 1675

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.”

Recipe for Vindaloo Roast in Wellcome MS 4050
Recipe for a Vindaloo Roast in Wellcome MS 4050

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

Ingredients
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)

Method
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.

Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675
Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675

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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.

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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.)