Silk Money from the Silk Road

Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C. ACE
Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C, ACE
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.

Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ
Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ

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 codeine online.

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.)

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend
Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

This five-spice mix forms the backbone of Uyghur cuisine – at least that part of it that deals with roast meats.  Variations of this mix are used to flavor many Uyghur dishes, with other ingredients – salt, garlic, onions, etc., added to the mix as needed.

The flavor of the Uyghur five-spice blend is robust and smoky with light spicy bites from the Sichuan peppercorns, and the effect it has on roast meats is phenomenal.  Feel free to use it on kebabs and roasts like the Uyghurs do, or just on regular old steaks like I do.  My kids love when I use it on beef and lamb, and miss it when I don’t.

It has a great deal in common with other five-spice mixes from East Asia, and also with some of the masalas from the Himalayas – especially those from Tibet and Nepal.   (To read a post about the variations in these spice mixes, follow this link.)  In fact it is sort of a combination of both sets of spices.  With the east, it shares Sichuan pepper and star anise, and with the Himalayan masalas it shares black peppercorns and black cardamom.  Interestingly, the base of the Uyghur five-spice blend is made up of roasted cumin, which is found in abundance with Western and Southern Asian spice mixes.  So once again, the Uyghur recipe blends ingredients from across the Silk Road with unique results.

As to chili peppers, there are a number of them used in Uyghur cooking that range from mild to blazing hot.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any of these in the US, and thus turned to the familiar and widely available Japone. If you can find Sichuan chilis, these are a good moderately-hot substitute for Uyghur chilis.

I need to stress that there is no set recipe for these mixes.  They vary by region, city or even by household, depending upon individual and familial tastes.  That said, however, the roasted cumin is always there as are the Sichuan peppercorns to some degree or another.  The smokiness, however, can sometimes come from black cumin instead of black cardamom, and sometimes I have had versions that distinctly had cinnamon as part of the mix.  Here’s my favorite blend:

1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
10 dried red chilies (Japones will work but Sichuan is best)
Seeds from 4-5 black cardamom pods
3-4 star anise pods (pieces are fine)

Dry roast spices separately until fragrant (do not scorch or burn)
Grind together

Uyghur Big Plate Fried Chicken

This is a quintessential Uyghur Dish. Stir-fried chicken, potatoes and bell peppers in a rich, savory sauce redolent with star anise and cinnamon. Roasted cumin flavors the base of the sauce, with black cardamom lending a smoky taste, and Sichuan pepper offering up a few bright, spicy lights. Interestingly, the heat of this dish is extremely variable and ranges from mild to four-alarm hot, although most people prefer the dish with moderate to high heat.  As written, the dish is moderately spicy and sure to please anyone who desires a taste of The Silk Road.

Uyghur Big Plate Chicken
Uyghur Big Plate Fried Chicken

2 cups water
¼ cup light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 cinnamon stick
3-4 whole black cardamom pods
2 star anise pods
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt

2 pounds of chicken (bone-in pieces or boneless breast meat)
3 tablespoons hsao xing rice wine
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons black rice vinegar
1 tablespoon broad bean paste (Doubanjiang) *
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
3 – 4 star anise pods
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small bunch spring onions (6-8 stalks) roughly chopped **
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1½ – 2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced or minced
1 heaping tablespoon Uyghur five-spice mix
6-8 dried mild-to-moderately hot red chili peppers ***
1 cup water
2-3 medium golden potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ -inch chunks
2 medium red bell peppers, cored and cut into chunks
2 tomatoes, diced

Marinate the chicken. Mix the liquid marinade ingredients together in a large bowl. Break the cinnamon stick into pieces and lightly crush the black cardamom and the star anise pods before adding to the marinade. Add salt and stir well. Add chicken pieces and stir well to evenly coat the chicken with the marinade. Cover and rest at least overnight, stirring occasionally.

Preparing to cook. In a small bowl, mix together the hsao xing, light and dark soy sauces, black vinegar, bean paste, sugar and salt. Stir well until sugar and other solids are dissolved. Lightly crush the Szechuan pepper and the star anise pods and stir into the mixture. When other ingredients and prepared, drain chicken but do not rinse.

Cooking. Heat the oil in a wok on high heat and when the oil begins to smoke add the drained chicken pieces and stir fry for about 3-4 minutes or until the chicken becomes opaque and starts to color. Remove meat from the wok with a slotted spoon or strainer and set aside.

If necessary add a bit more oil to the wok and when it smokes, add the spring onions and stir fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic begins to swell and color. Add the ginger and stir for another minute or two. Add the Uyghur 5-spice mix and the whole chili peppers and stir well to coat the onion mix in the wok. Cook for 1 minute to warm the spices.

Add about 1/3 – to ½ cup of the water and stir. When the water has heated up, add the potato slices and stir well. Cover and cook for 6-8 minutes stirring occasionally. Add more water as necessary to keep the potatoes from burning.

Now add the bell peppers and tomatoes and stir – lifting more than stirring to keep the partially cooked potatoes intact. Give the hsao xing and soy sauce mixture a good stir to bring the solids back into solution and then pour into the wok and stir once more. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes then add the chicken back into the wok and stir. Cover and cook another 3-5 minutes or until the chicken has warmed and the rest of the vegetables are cooked but still firm.

Plate and serve with rice, noodles, or naan flatbread.


My favorite things about Big Plate Fried Chicken – called “Chong Tahsilik Tohu Qorimisi,” in Uyghur –  are the clear links the recipe has with Central Asian and Himalayan cuisines.  In particular, the rich star-anise laden sauce has many variants across Central Asia and the use of black cardamom is common in the Himalayas and parts of Central Asia.  That said, however, there are several clearly Chinese ingredients as well, such as black vinegar, broad bean paste and hsao xing rice wine.  Although Chinese in origin, Sichuan pepper has many close relatives (same genus, different species) that impart similar flavors in Himalayan cuisine as well, so it is difficult to know whether this ingredient links the recipe to China, or to the Himalayas.  The bottom line is that this is a UYGHUR dish, and as such it is a product of the Silk Road that joins ingredients and preparation methods from a variety of cultures to form its own unique recipe. Uyghur cuisine is a one of the world’s lesser-known fusion cuisines.

Big Plate Fried Chicken is available everywhere in Xinjiang Province. It is a standard in restaurants and is also a commonly prepared home-cooked meal.  It can be served as single main course –  which is the most common presentation at lunchtime – or it can be part of a larger multi-course (usually) evening meal.  With only a couple of changes, the sauce is used with lamb or mutton as well as chicken.

Some adjustments have been made in cooking to adjust for vessel shape and material.  Uyghurs usually prepare stews in a large cast iron pot with slightly slanted sides very much like the Uzbek qozon or cauldron.  These vessels can get blazingly hot, but like any cast-iron pot or pan, they take a long time to heat up and to cool down.  The meat and the potatoes cook much quicker Uyghur style than they do in a steel wok. Because of this, I suggest stir-frying the meat first, then removing it from the stew while the vegetables cook, and then returning it to heat up before serving.


*   I used the kind that has few (if any) chili peppers in it (low heat).
** If you use the giant Asian spring onions, 1-2 should suffice.
*** Any mild-to-moderate red chili will work, but I used Japone chilies.

(Words, recipe and photograph of Uyghur Big Plate Chicken by Laura Kelley.)

A Silk Road Summer Bean Salad in Zester Daily

What summer picnic is complete without a light and refreshing bean salad? These light and refreshing salads complement roast meats and vegetables wonderfully and are easy to prepare and are extremely nutritious as well! What’s not to love? My favorite bean salad is also a Silk Road favorite from Pakistan. Read all about the bean salad, the silk road and Pakistani cuisine HERE!

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