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 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.)

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:

Ingredients
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)

Method
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

Marinade
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

Ingredients
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

Method
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.

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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.

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*   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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The Silk Road History of Rhubarb in Zester Daily

Everything you wanted to know about rhubarb’s Silk Road history, from its origins in Tibet and early use as medicine to its adoption as a food, in Zester Daily. A great recipe for savory lamb and rhubarb stew included! Read all about it HERE.

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Food and Wine Frescoes from the Wei and Jin Tombs

Desert Near Wein-and-Jin Tombs, 2012
Desert Near Wei-and-Jin Tombs, 2012

In an inhospitable area between the Gobi and the Taklamakan Deserts northeast of Jaiyuguan, China a time capsule was buried almost 2000 years ago. Underneath the treeless, grey sand that blankets the region today are a series of over 1000 tombs from the Wei-and Jin period (265-420 ACE). The walls of the tombs are decorated with frescoes that depict details from everyday life in a land that was temperate, fertile and teaming with life. Images of farming, hunting, animal husbandry, cooking, feasting, and playing musical instruments adorn the walls; there is even an image of China’s early pony-express mail delivery that shows a galloping horse and a man carrying a letter in his hand with an urgent look on his face. Paintings filled with the nuances from the everyday lives of the people who lived near one of China’s main Silk Road corridors in the remote hinterlands of the dynasty.

Many of the frescoes have to do with gathering or preparing food. The one depicted below shows a woman and a girl picking mulberries or mulberry leaves. The fruits could have been used to make jams, juice, sauces, desserts or wine; or they could be dried and eaten like raisins. The leaves could have been used to give a sour flavor to food and salads, used to make tea, used as anti-inflammatory medicine, or if of the correct species to feed hungry silk-worms and provide a place for the metamorphosis of next season’s egg-laying moths.

Mulberry Picking
Mulberry Picking

The girl is wearing wearing ribbons and both she and the adult female have short hair which identify them as from the Qiuci ethnic group. The Qiuci were Indo-European settlers in ancient China who spoke an Indo-Iranian dialect, traded on the Silk Road, and eventually became part of the early Uyghur empire. Many historians believe that they arose from the people who first brought Buddhism into China from India and Pakistan. Given the Indo-European roots of the Qiuci, the mulberry leaves could have been used as a flavoring for bread, as is done in some Indian parathas today.

Cooking
Cooking

The second fresco presented here show servants preparing a meal. The head cook is picking meat from bones on a board to the right. Possibly recycling meat for another meal from uneaten parts of a roast, or preparing bones for soup. Mutton is hanging from hooks on the ceiling to age, and another cook is stirring a pot to the left. In the foreground and background there appear to be steamer trays lined with dumplings or buns.

Warming Wine
Warming Wine

The third fresco shows a maid warming wine. She holds a tray with cups in her right hand and with her left she reaches for a ladle to fill the cups with wine from the warmer. Grape and raisin production and wine-making is an ancient industry in Xinjiang and Gansu and this painting shows the popularity of wine in the Wei and Jin Dynasty.

Dining on Kebaba
Dining on Kebabs

The last painting shows two men having dinner together. The man to the left is the host of the meal and perhaps a noble because he is sitting on a low-bed or a couch. His guest is someone of relatively equal importance because he is depicted at the side of the host and more or less the same size as the host (other frescos denote a marked difference in the size between master or mistress and their servants). The guest proffers a large trident-like skewer with bite-size bits of meat on it – kebabs. Although evidence for kebab eating goes back to Akrotiri, Greece in the 17th Century BCE, and possibly earlier to Ancient Mesopotamia, this fresco gives a solid date range to the food in western China at almost 2000 years ago. Introduced to China by Indo-Europeans coming across the main track of the Northern Silk Road (the Uyghur word is kewap), kebabs are now enjoyed all across China.

Many other images are captured in the tomb paintings: dancing, raising chickens, a Bactrian camel on a lead, and herding horses. To preserve the paintings, only one or two tombs are open to the public at a time and different tombs are open on a rotating basis to allow for repeat visits. One has to descend almost 30 meters beneath the arid surface to enter the cool, damp rooms of the tombs to view the frescoes, but it is a unique way to experience life in ancient China. Where there is now barren desert, there were rich farms, pastureland, and trading posts teaming with travelers and traders, moving goods, ideas and culture around on the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos from postcards of the Wei and Jin Tombs by Laura Kelley (photography is not allowed in the tombs)).

Cooking with the Kazakhs

Home Sweet Yurt
Home Sweet Yurt
While still in Uzbekistan, I had a yurt homestay with an extended family of Kazakhs. Ever since I was a child, dreaming of Central Asia and Mongolia, I have wanted to stay in a yurt. A wooden frame wrapped in skins and decorated with colorful fabrics. The sometimes elaborate carved or painted wooden doors. Simple on the outside and dark and mysterious within. All of the life is within. People talking, sharing stories, singing, or playing instruments for each other to pass the time. It was all that and more. So, I am happy to report another childhood dream realized.

The camp was perched on a mesa next to the ruins of an ancient fortress called Ayaz Kala that was inhabited between the 4th Century BCE and the 7th Century ACE. In its heyday, Ayaz Kala stood guard over an oasis and a fertile farming plain that existed in the first millennium BCE. It also provided refuge for the inhabitants when the countryside was under attack by invaders. Today, the seemingly endless Kizylkum Desert lies below the fortress, with its shifting sand, scrub vegetation and dried salt lakes. Even with the unusually wet rainy season that just passed, the Kyzylkum is a hot, dry and foreboding place.

Ayaz Kala from the Yurt Camp
Ayaz Kala from the Yurt Camp


When I arrived, I was welcomed by the enthusiastic matriarch of the family. It was afternoon and blazingly hot in the desert, with no shelter except for the yurt – so I hunkered down for a nap to await the cooler weather that comes with the setting of the sun. Inside the yurt was indeed dark, but it was a lot less hot than outside. As I drifted off to sleep, I gazed at the beautiful woven and printed fabrics that hung from the roof or were draped around the yurt shutting out the harsh climate and decorating the inside all at the same time.

Some of the designs on the woven yurt straps had clear Scythian roots, while the printed fabrics were still geometrics, but were more modern looking. I fell asleep with visions of Scythian warriors, roaming the steppes on horseback, and hordes of their hidden gold filling my head.

Yurt textiles
Yurt Inside


When I woke up I could already smell the wood fires burning, someone was beginning to prepare dinner. I headed out to find the cook. I found a pair of women, sisters-in-law, getting ready to make bread. The older woman was stirring and stoking the tandyr oven to warm it up, and the younger woman, putting the finishing touches on the form and size of the bread and getting ready to stamp designs on it with a checkish bread stamp.

Kazakh Woman Stoking the Tandyr
Kazakh Woman Stoking the Tandyr


Now, most people in Uzbekistan, regardless of their ethnicity, use two different types of tandyr oven. One that is vertical for samsas – small meat-or-potato-stuffed pastries, and one that is tilted as you can see in the photograph, for the ubiquitous Asian flatbread, called “non” or “naan”.

The sisters-in-law were laughing and joking and generally having a good time and allowed me to join in. We all had enough Russian to communicate, so it worked out fine.

They allowed me to help with the tandyr, which I must say is a hot job. It was probably still in low 90s or high 80s F, and standing in front of the oven and feeding the fire is tough, with the flames sometimes blazing up outside the mouth of the stove. When the fire was ready, the older of the pair covered the hole you see in the oven on the bottom left with stones, to help the fire settle and keep the heat inside. When the oven was ready, the older of the pair excused herself to go get something.

Kazakh Woman Stamping Bread
Kazakh Woman Stamping Bread


The younger sister-in-law started to stamp the bread with the checkish using very quick strokes so that the bread didn’t stick to the tines of the tool. When she was done with each bread, she simply started to pile them on top of some bread forms she had. She allowed me to try my hand at a few breads with the checkish and having watched her carefully, I did just fine. The designs were in good form and no sticky mistakes, and ready for the oven.

Stamping the Bread - Closeup
Stamping the Bread – Closeup


The older sister-in law reappeared with a sweater and a heavy jacket on and a re-wrapped headscarf that also covered her lower face – looking something like a wild bandit. She placed oven mitts on her hands and was ready to bake some bread. One by one, she took up the breads that we had stamped and sprinkled water on them to help them adhere to the side of the oven. One-by-one, she slapped them – by hand – on the side of the oven. No tools were used, just protected hands. SLAP, another bread in the oven, SLAP another, and so on.

What surprised me most about the process was that, 1.) she didn’t turn the bread, and 2.) total baking time didn’t exceed 4-5 minutes, maybe less.

When the bread was done, she grabbed it with, again with her hands, and tossed it on a bread mold to cool. They offered me a piece of bread when it was just a minute or two out of the oven and it was hot and slightly crisp on the outside, but soft and airy on the inside. In other words, it was perfect. Our evening meal was simple but delicious. A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, plov and and of course “non”.

After dinner, a went out to one of the areas laid with carpets on the edge of the mesa to watch the sun set and the stars emerge from the firmament. One by one they came . . . so many stars. I laid down just to get a better look at the sky and heard a strange vibrating sound from a distance. In all honesty, I thought it was someone’s ring tone when I first heard it, but it kept on going.

Jaws Harp - A Tradtional Khorezem Instrument
Jaws Harp – A Tradtional Khorezem Instrument


I went into the main tent to find a man playing what I would have called a, “Jews Harp”. He held the main part of the instrument between his teeth and in large, gorgeously graceful strokes, caressed the tongue of the instrument to produce its characteristic twang. It was magical to hear out there in the middle of desert.

What I learned that night is that the, “Jews Harp” is actually a traditional musical instrument in the Khorezem area of Uzbekistan where we were. The player hypothesized that perhaps, the term, “Jews Harp”, and been confused with the more descriptive term, “Jaws Harp”. Another Silk Road legacy reclaimed.

I stopped to look at the stars again before making my yurt – so many stars – and could still hear the sound of the jaws-harp as I drifted off to rest. (All Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

Uzbek Homestay in Paradise

I’ve just returned from a homestay in a small mountain village in Uzbekistan’s Nurata mountains.  For a couple of days, I was welcomed into the life of a family in a small house perched amongst steep rocky hills.  Sitting on the porch of the house, one can hear a symphony of birds with occasional accompaniment from barking dogs, lambs calling for their mothers and donkeys braying in the valley below.

View from the House to the Southwest
View from the House to the Southwest

When our car pulled into the village the eldest son of our host greeted us and led us to the house up a narrow and sometimes steep unpaved road.  When the road became too difficult to drive, we walked the rest of the way up to the house.  Trees dripping with mulberries and young walnuts – the cash crop of the village – hung over a swift running stream fed by a mountain spring.

Our Host
Our Host

The entire village is made up of a few Tajik families who emigrated together from Bukhara a few hundred years ago to the Nurata mountains. Since then the village has pretty much kept to itself. People are born and die within the confine of these peaceful hills, they marry people they grew up with and expect their children to do the same. Now added to their centuries-old culture are mobile phones, sometimes electricity, wealth from local gold extraction, and thanks to the UNDP, homestay tourism.

Our host met us and ushered us across a planked bridge and up some steep steps to his home. When we arrived, his wife was busy already preparing dinner and met us later.

Most of the meal was cooked on an outdoor wood-fired stove with a pot inset into the stove. The pot was generally shaped like a wok, with steeper sides. In the photo below you can also see an Uzbek tandyr oven used for baking bread and roasting meat. Like the cylindrical, vertical tandoori ovens, it gets blazingly hot. There was also a smaller indoor stove – also wood fired – used for heating water, steaming and boiling foods.

Cooking Dinner
Cooking Dinner

As with all Uzbek meals, it began and ended with an endless pot of green tea. Accompanying the tea were small dishes of red-skinned peanuts mixed with local walnuts and raisins; and a selection of cookies and candy. We ate outside, which is done whenever weather allows. Breakfasts tend to be eaten inside because of the chill in the air, but lunch and dinner are taken au plein air.

Just before dinner, our host pulled out a small bottle of medicinal vodka and poured us all a glass – for our health. Bread and salads came first. The naan was different from city bread and made from a coarsely ground flour with no yeast. Hot and delicious, no meal is complete in this country without it. One of the salads was the usual chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with dill, salt and just a hint of dilute white vinegar. Another salad had rice noodles and with just a few diced tomatoes and onions and similar seasoning. Uzbek tomatoes are large, flavorful and meaty and lack the acidity often found in tomatoes in the west. They are also very juicy, but it is contained by the flesh of the fruit and it is easy (and not messy at all) to eat them on the fly like an apple as I love to do.

Cooking Dinner - Closeup
Cooking Dinner – Closeup

Uzbeks do love their yogurt and it is served with every meal. This being no exception, there was a medium size bowl of watery yogurt flavored with green onions, garlic and salt. This can be a community bowl for dipping naan or one can pour it into a tea bowl and sip it along with the meal. Another type of yogurt on the table was a yogurt cream with lots of dill, garlic and salt in it for a great blast of flavor. The yogurt was homemade and although wonderfully sour was also creamy and many degrees more gentle than the now popular-in-the-west Greek yogurt. The center of dinner was a type of Dimlama – large hunks of beef on the bone, stewed with chunks of potatoes and sliced carrots and onions. Seasoning was mild: a little fresh dill, a little pepper, a little ground cumin and coriander and salt. This dish had a thin, brothy, sauce that was delicious with the naan.

When we were nearly stuffed to the brim, our host’s brother sent his daughter up with a large plate of pilaf – or plov – rice with lots of carrots and onions topped with a bit of beef dripping off the bone. We tucked into it and finished about half before settling back in our chairs to watch the stars come out overhead.

We were treated to some sweet, sad songs on one of Central Asia’s stringed instruments the rawap* by our host. He sang an old Tajik song to remind us to appreciate what we have in life – when we have it. In a repetitive verse, he sang that when you have children, you don’t appreciate them. It is only when they are grown and gone that you realize what a wonder they were. In turn, we were also reminded to savor love, health, and life. Something that is easy to do under the stars in paradise.

(All words and photos by Laura Kelley)

* If you’d like to know more about the rawap and other Central Asian instruments, click here for my post on my trip to the Uyghur instrument maker’s shop in Kashgar last year.

A new company called, “Responsible Travel Along the Silk Road,” can arrange Nurata homestays, Yurt-camp experiences, as well as a variety of other eco-tour excursions.

White Mulberries

I spent many a contented hour of my childhood grazing on wild mulberries in the woods near my parents home.  My friends and I would feast on the dark, ripe berries, rushing to get to them before the birds, and return home only when we were dizzy from their sweet flavor.  Our mouths and hands would be stained a reddish-purple, and the scent of the fruit lingering on our clothes and in our hair.

Woman Selling White Mulberries at the Chorsu Bazar
Woman Selling White Mulberries at the Chorsu Bazar

Memories of those lazy childhood summers were brought back to me in a wonderful way yesterday, because I have arrived in Tashkent’s peak mulberry season.  For only fifteen short days in late Spring, white mulberries ripen to perfect sweetness and appear in the markets.  Picked in the early morning, the fresh fruits are spoiled by afternoon unless dried or preserved, so the opportunity to enjoy them is fleeting indeed.

I bought some mulberries from the woman in this pictures and picked at them while walking through the market and into the evening. The flavor of the fresh berries is incredibly sweet, but different and less robust than their darker cousins I enjoyed as a child. They are sweeter, but seem in some way less ripe or less ready than red mulberries. No surprise then, that in the west, mulberries are associated with young love of the forbidden kind. The kind of love shared by Pyramus and Thisbe in Babylon.

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse
Thisbe by John William Waterhouse

In the Ovidian drama, the young lovers who have been forbidden to meet by their feuding parents, and speak to each other through a crack in the wall of their adjoining houses. They even share kisses through the wall. When they can no longer stand their separation, they agree to meet by Ninus’ tomb in the shade of some mulberry trees to profess their love.

When Thisbe arrives, she encounters a lioness fresh from a kill, she flees and leaves her veils behind as she runs. Pyramus arrives and sees the same bloodied huntress and assumes that she has killed Thisbe. Bereft, he falls upon his sword to join his love in the afterlife. As he falls, his blood splashes upon the white mulberries and stains them, turning them dark. Thisbe returns and finds Pyramus slain by his own hand, and grieves for her lost love. Then she takes his dagger and dispatches her own life. The Gods, hearing Thisbe’s lament, changed the color of the mulberry fruits to honor their forbidden love.

Feuding families . . . star-crossed, young lovers . . . a double suicide . . . If it all sounds familiar, it should, because it is a plot shared by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. He also later wrote a farcical version of the story in the play performed by the Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Heady stuff to be thinking of while browsing the Chorsu Market in Tashkent.

(Words and Photo of Woman Selling White Mulberries by Laura Kelley. Illustration of Thisbe from Wikimedia)

An Evening in Tashkent

If you ever find yourself hungry in Tashkent and want a wonderful sit-down dining experience, go to The Caravan.  The food is classic Uzbek: Lagman, Norin, Beshbarmak, and Manti, and it is very good.  But the dining experience at Caravan goes beyond the food, the restaurant is a work of art, and its beauty enhances the enjoyment of the food. The garden is draped with grape arbors and colorful ikat fabrics as well as beautiful handicrafts.

The Caravan
The Caravan

Traditional Uzbek music plays softly and water gently flows and turns an old-fashioned water wheel. Broad, shallow threshing baskets adorn the roughly plastered walls, and chili peppers are everywhere to warn off the evil eye. Kitchen utensils of heavy cast iron – pans, spatulas and ladles are also add to the authentic look and feel of the place. In addition to western table-and-chair eating arrangements, there are traditional Uzbek platforms with low tables on them around which people curl up, sip tea and enjoy the light Spring breeze.

Caravan Restaurant, Traditional Uzbek Table
The Caravan, Traditional Uzbek Table

In case you missed it the first time, go back to the first picture and take a look at the antique Suzani that hangs on the back wall. I love how the embroidered circles in the cloth work with the baskets hung on the wall, and I love the personal touch that it brings to the table. It was once part of a girl’s dowry and her temperament and patience was judged by how finely and consistently she perfected her stiches. Every stich tells a story.

Chili Peppers and Water Wheel
Chili Peppers and Water Wheel

Our meal started with a pot of green tea with lemon. I got re-acquainted with the Uzbek tea ritual in which the host pours the tea into his or her own cup and back into the pot three times – this mixes the tea with the water and makes it more flavorful. Then the host drinks a few sips from his own cup to show that the tea isn’t poison. Then he offers tea to his guests in a pecking order based on age with the oldest or most senior person first. Another wonderful tea ritual is that if bubbles form in the middle of the cup when poured, you quickly touch them with your fingers and then touch your head and pocket. This symbolizes money and that money will come to you.

Basket Decoration, Detail
Basket Decoration, Detail

With the tea we had a plain lepyoshka with a few sesame seeds on top. It was very puffy and airy which means that yeast was used in the baking. Lepyoshka with yeast is a variation that has become very popular as an alternative to the more traditional, dense, unleavened constructions. With the lepyoshka we had katik yogurt with lots of cream on the top of the glass.

I had the lagman. Simple, I know, but I do love it, and this bowl was by far the best I have ever had. The bowl was filled with different types of noodles, greens, meat and bathed in a light but flavorful broth. There were wheat-based noodles, rice noodles and an egg-based angel-hair noodle that had different textures and flavors. Onions, spring onions and slices of garlic made up the vegetable base, along with red and green bell peppers and bits of tomato. There were also minced greens, with cilantro and dill leading the way for added flavor. The bits of mutton provided its usual earthy flavor blast but was wonderfully tender. What really made the dish stunning was the broth. A lamb or mutton-base with a distinct tomato overtone formed the soup-base. Above that were subtle but definite flavors of star anise and cinnamon. I shared a bit with one of my dining companions and she agreed that it was fabulous.

The Best Lagman Ever
The Best Lagman Ever

The lagman was served with a carafe of diluted pomegranate vinegar flavored with dill, daikon radish and a red pepper. Condiments were a minced combination of green chili peppers, scallions, red chili peppers, onions, tomato and garlic with a light, dilute white vinegar on them, and some chili peppers pounded with lots of sumac. Simply heavenly!

Also on the table were pumpkin manti with a mild garlic yogurt cream dressing, lamb dolma with a gentle yogurt and dill dressing and chuchvara – a wonderful dumpling swimming in a flavorful broth. The selection of drinks on the table included tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice and the ubiquitous carbonated cola. All in all it was a great meal to begin a wonderful adventure. Tomorrow, I go in search of norin. Stay tuned!

(All Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)