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

Silk Road in the News #8: A Maritime Silk Road Stop in Australia?

Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE
Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE

African coins, some possibly minted as early as 900 ACE, have been found buried on the Wessel Islands of Northern Australia, and have thrown accepted notions of when non-Aboriginal peoples first visited the continent into question. The oldest of the coins were minted in Kilwa, an island off the coast of Tanzania that was once a luxurious stopover for merchants and travelers on the Maritime Silk Road.

For over 600 years, Kilwa was the most prominent port, trading post, and resort on the east African coast. It had a glittering mosque, decorated with coral and Chinese porcelain, and a palace with an octagonal swimming pool. It controlled the trade in gold, ivory and slaves out of Zimbabwe, up into Arabia, into Persia and across to India.

Originally discovered in 1944 by an Australian soldier, Maurice Isenberg, the coins were treated as personal curiosities for decades until Isenberg sent them for appraisal in 1979. At that time, Isenberg found that 5 of the coins were over 1,000 years of age and from Africa, while the others were minted by the Dutch East India Company.

The coins came to the attention of an Australian graduate student, Ian Mcintosh, before Isenberg died in 1991. In July of this year, Mcintosh, who is now a Professor from the Indiana University-Purdue University, will be leading a team of international researchers to the Wessel Islands to try to discover how the coins came to the island. They will be using a map, hand-drawn by Isenberg, to locate the site of the original discovery and to determine whether other artifacts could be buried nearby.

Great Mosque at Kilwa
Great Mosque at Kilwa

The Kilwan coins could have come to Australia as part of a horde from much later than 900 ACE, or they could be evidence that non-Aboriginal peoples stopped on the Wessel Islands when trading goods from Africa for those from the Indo-Pacific along the Maritime Silk Road over 1,000 years ago.

It is unlikely that African merchants brought the coins to Australia, unless as sailors on other vessels, because African ships weren’t equipped to go further to sea than Arabia and India. They could travel up to Arabia on small boats sewn together by coconut fibers. But once they got to Arabia and India, large vessels from these nations could travel all the way to Tang China and down into the Spice Islands.

Additionally, the famed Chinese-Muslim mariner, Zheng-He made many, celebrated trips from mainland China to Africa and back during his life time in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. He was also not the first Asian to trade for Africa’s rich bounty of animals, spices, ivory and gold.

Other finds from the Indo-Pacific, including the wreck of an Arab-style dhow off the Indonesian island of Belitung are evidence for an early, rich trade between China, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. One of the bowls found aboard that wreck had a manufacturing date of July 16th, 826 ACE – earlier even than the Kilwan coins.

I will be watching the progress of Mcintosh’s work closely and report significant findings here. So, stay tuned.

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Great Mosque at Kilwa from Wikimedia; Photo of the Kilwan coins from original news reports of the story.)

No Cuisine is an Island #1: An Indian Shellfish Curry

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

The booksigning at the Smithsonian went well. Actually it went very well – we sold and signed all but two of the books purchased for the event. I also really enjoyed meeting people and discussing the book with them. I was pleased to see that people were most interested in the book’s message that cuisines are interconnected, and how dishes we think of as cornerstones of national cuisines actually contain ingredients from all over the world.

To that end, I thought that a demonstration of how globally-sourced ingredients were combined for one of my favorite subcontinental dishes was in order. The recipe is for a delicious sweet, spicy, hot and sour shellfish that will amaze you. The recipe and description are followed by an analysis of ingredients and their origins. What seems like and Indian or subcontinental dish has connections to five continents and many more nations. It is truly global, and should be savored by all.

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

Ingredients
1 pound shrimp, peeled, rinsed and deveined, or
1 pound sea or bay scallops
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon mustard or other seed oil
2 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4-5 hot, dried, red chili peppers, torn or chopped
1 large onion peeled, sliced, and separated into crescents
3-4 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup of water to moisten (more if needed)
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste dissolved into 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (20–30 sprigs)
¼ teaspoon Indian Garam Masala

Method
1. Shuck and devein shrimp or prepare scallops and place into a bowl with the cayenne pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, cover, and set aside for at least 1 hour.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and when hot, sauté the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Remove from heat and let sit while shrimp or scallops marinate in the spices.
3. When almost ready to cook, reheat oil and add the mustard seeds and chili peppers and sauté for a minute. The mustard seeds may pop as the warm up, so you may wish to cover the pan, and shake to move contents. When done, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
4. Warm the sauté pan with the fennel and mustard seeds up again and add the onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions turn translucent and start to turn golden.
5. Add water to moisten. When water is warm, put in the cumin, coriander, and tomato and mix well. Cook 3–5 minutes to fully warm the spices.
6. Add tomato sauce, tamarind, lemon juice mixture, and salt. Cook to warm and add yogurt and cilantro leaves. Cover and gently cook for 15 minutes. Add garam masala and mix well. (The recipe can be paused here to allow other dishes to finish.)
7. If paused, reheat curry base and add shrimp and cook for 3–5 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice or bread.

Now, here comes the fun part. The map below depicts where the ingredients from this dish hail from. Lines terminate only in rough geographic areas, not on specific places:

Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map of Ingredients Source
Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map

The only ingredients that originate in India are black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and they are all in the garam masala used to finish the dish. Important certainly, but in this dish, almost an afterthought. Turmeric may also originate on the subcontinent, but no one is sure whether that is the case, or whether it arose in Southeast Asia and was adopted in antiquity by the Indians.

From South America there are chili peppers, and peanuts in the peanut oil, and from North America there is the tomato, and possibly the cayenne pepper. From North Africa (Southern Mediterranean) there is black mustard seed in the mustard oil, and from East Africa there is the lovely, sour tamarind pod. From Southern Europe there is fennel and yellow mustard seed and from Asia minor there is coriander or cilantro. Onions and garlic probably hail from Central Asia (Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan) because that is where most of the genetic diversity in Allium species is found, and cumin is Western Asia’s gem, which has been flavoring dishes from ancient Mesopotamia to today.

Cloves and nutmeg used to round out the garam masala of course come from Indonesia’s Moluccas, and the dish is usually served on rice which comes from China’s Pearl River valley, but it can also be enjoyed with bread, or potatoes from the New World.

All of these ingredients made their way to India through movement of people and ideas or through trade and conquest. Some ingredients arrived deep in prehistory, and some are relative newcomers which only arrived in the middle or late centuries in the last millennium. The Silk Road was an important part of the spread of these ingredients and in the forging of links between cuisines and cultures.

To some degree, we tend to think of the world’s borders and biodiversity much as we find them today, but a simple exercise like this shows us that this is not really the case at all, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of human history. With apologies to locally-sourced aficionados, eating-locally is a relatively modern concept when compared to the global nature of most dishes.

Cultures combine ingredients differently, but most cuisines include ingredients from places beyond their national borders. Each bite connects us with the past and with the people who often travelled great distances to bring variety home. Diversity is a wonderful concept, appreciate it the next time you enjoy a delicious curry or stew or koresh or bhaji or braise or . . . (Words and ingredient analysis by Laura Kelley; Photo of Shrimp or Scallops with Spicy Tomato Sauce by Celeste Heiter; Map of Ingredients drawn by Laura Kelley).

The Color of Pomegranates

Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice

He grabbed a pomegranate from the table next to him and flashed a shy smile my way as I approached. I nodded and a quick flash of steel followed by a skilled twist and the fruit was open. He placed half on the machine, spun the wheel and a few seconds later blood-red juice flowed from it’s silver jaws into my glass. The scent was light but complex and the taste, sweet and tart and almost unbearably delicious. This was nothing like the bottled juice full of citric acid or sugar that one finds in US markets, this was Isfandiyar’s nectar, a wonderful treat!

Domesticated in Mesopotamia by the third millenium BCE (and possibly well before), pomegranates have also been recovered from later Bronze Age archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus. The Egyptians had orchards full of pomegranate trees by the time of Hatshepsut’s rule (1479-1458 BCE), and the Phoenicians were an important force in spreading the fruit across North Africa and into Southern Europe as their seaward empire grew. The spread north and eastward was across the ancient network of land and maritime trade routes we have come to call the Silk Road.

As the fruit has been traded and adopted, many cultivars have been selected for that vary in fruit and seed color, sweetness, acidity, and astringency. The fruits themselves vary in color from a creamy off-white, to yellow, to the familiar shades of pink and red to a dark, to an almost-black purple. Seeds (sometimes called arils) also vary in color from crimson to a clearish-white color.

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity and even death and rebirth. They have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Think on that as you anticipate the fruit of this year’s harvest. Above all, when they finally arrive, drink a fresh glass of juice and know the taste of heaven. (Words and photo of a Young Man Selling Pomegranate Juice by Laura Kelley).