Category Archives: Central Asia

Rhubarb’s Silk Road History 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)

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:

Origin of Ingredients for Indian Curry

Origin of Ingredients for Indian Curry

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).

Keeping Christmas Real

Tajik Madonna and Child

Tajik Madonna and Child

Every now and then around this time of year I post one of my photographs of a woman and her child to remind myself of the holy family’s humanity. (Click here for one of the Bangladeshi madonnas).

The emphasis on divinity and religous iconography in the two-thousand or so years since the holy family walked the earth has a tendency to eclipse the reality of who they were. They were poor. For a period of time during Jesus’s childhood they were wanderers or fugitives. At other times, they were a solid, salt-of-the-earth, working-class family.

And yet many believe that Jesus’s words and deeds made him special. That he was an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. He said he was the son of God. Over the years this was taken to mean that he himself was divine. I wonder sometimes if it is possible that he was trying to say that we were all sons and daughters of God. That is to mean that he was not divine, but that we are all special or divine and capable of great love, great deeds and great sacrifice. Then I wonder if we would recognize such a prophet if we encountered him today.

The photo I chose this year is of a woman and her child who I met along the Tashkorgan highway earlier in the year. She is poor and a wanderer who sells amber and garnet jewelery and artifacts to tourists and travelers. For Tajik women, a fair complexion is most desired, but the trader’s dark skin tells us that she spends a lot of time outside under the high-altitude sun. She is young and her beauty has not yet been marred by her harsh lifestyle. Her teeth are stained by high-mineral content ground water, a badge she will wear for the rest of her life. Her lovely, chubby baby is clothed in unmatched remnants, much like her mother, but she is happy and playing with a large chunk of milky yellow amber on a string.

So, I guess the point is that the madonna and her child is not a gold-encased painting in an alcove or on an altar or mantle in a private home, they are on earth all around us. The paintings are just representations, not of one particular mother and child pair but of every single one. Try to remember that the next time you encounter a poor, wandering family. They might have something important to say. (Words and photo of Tajik Madonna and Child by Laura Kelley).

Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food # 3: Cloves

“And somewhere near India is the island containing the Valley of the Cloves.  No merchants or sailors have ever been to the valley or have seen the kind of tree that produces cloves:  its fruit, they say, is sold by genies . . . the islanders feed on them, and they never fall ill or grow old.”

Summary of Marvels  (Ibrahim ibn Wasif-Shah, ca. 1000 CE)

From Indonesia’s Moluccas (Maluku) Islands to the rest of the world come the tiny but powerful flowerbuds we know as cloves.  More accurately, cloves are flowerbuds from the Syzygium aromaticum tree that are picked before opening and dried in the sun until they resemble the little reddish-brown batons used in most of the world’s cuisines.  Mentioned in the Indian Ramayana by the 5th or 4th century BCE (but possibly as early as the 10th Century BCE) and in later Sanskrit medical texts (Charaka Samhita) from the 1st Century BCE wherein they were recommended along with nutmeg to freshen the breath, these little blasts of bittersweet peppery flavor that we know today for their ability to energize other spices was first used for its aroma and as a medicinal ingredient.* **

Cloves Dried and in Flower

Maluku natives and other Indonesians smoked cloves and used them to treat stomach ailments, but did not use cloves in cooking.  These medicinal and aromatic uses were exported as the clove trade began in antiquity.  The Han Chinese used it as a breath freshener to mask the scent of tooth decay and halitosis and used cloves in perfumes and incense.  Additional medicinal uses in China and India included chewing cloves as a dental anesthetic or using an external rub of clove oil as a general analgesic or to lessen the pain of rheumatism.

Aromatic and Medicial Uses of Cloves

It is unclear when cloves started to be used as a culinary spice.  It is used in modern five-spice powders and garam-masalas, but there is little but unreferenced and contradictory information about the antiquity of its use in these culinary mixtures.  In the west, by the time of Pliny the Elder, the clove was still used as an aromatic perfume (NH 12.15), and there is also no mention of the culinary use of cloves in the 4th century ACE Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome.  In the 6th and 7th century Byzantine writings of Kosmas Indicopleustes and Paulus Aegineta, cloves are still used for their scent and clove oil used topically as medicine.

There are intermediate uses of cloves as both medicine and culinary spice in 9th Century Europe at the Carolingian monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, where monks used cloves to season their fasting fish (Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, 1877; viii, 121) along with pepper and cinnamon and several other indigenous plants and herbs.  In the 10th Century, Andalusian traveller Ibrâhîm ibn Ya`qûb notes that the burghers of Mainz (Germany) used cloves to season their food.

Ingredients for Baharat

Also in the 10th Century, it appears in The Book of Dishes by Ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, listed as an aromatic along with musk, ambergris, and rosewater.  In this 10th Century tome, it is used along with purslane in a peach drink and in a relish of crumbs, raisins, vinegar and spices.

By the 13th Century, the acceptance of cloves as a culinary spice is widespread. In the 13th Century Andalusian Cookbook translated by Charles Perry, cloves are used in Ahrash, a type of lamb-burger, Mirkâs a cheese-based sausage; Sweetened Mukhallal a meat stew topped with beaten eggs; Madhûna, a baked chicken dish, a stuffed lamb breast; and an egg-based sausage, as well as several other dishes.

Also in the 13th Century, in the Book of Dishes by al-Baghdadi, cloves are used in the recipe Hummadiyya to flavor meatballs and the broth they cook in along with cinnamon, coriander, ginger, and pepper.

Kyrgyz Bal

Although I cannot yet prove my suspicions, my intuition tells me that that Arabs might have been the first to use cloves as a culinary spice and that this was spread to Europe with the conquest of Andalusia and Catalonia in 711 and throughout the known Islamic World during the Abbasid Caliphate, beginning in 750.

Called kutakaphalah in Sanskrit, qaranful in Arabic or karyphyllon in ancient Greek (as well as cengkeh in North Moluccan Malay), it is now hard to imagine the culinary world without cloves.  What would any of the eastern Asian five-spice powders be without cloves, or the subcontinental garam-masalas, not to mention Arab baharat, Moroccan Ras-el-hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga and Ethiopian berbere?  Thailand’s Massuman Curry is also clove laden as are the many spice rubs used on kebabs in central and western Asia, and cloves are a major constituent in my favorite Central Asian spice tea bal.

Bal
Bal is a ubiquitous Kyrghyz hot drink served to welcome guests, with meals, and almost any time in between. It is a hot peppery tea made of boiled spices sweetened with honey that is delicious – especially on colder days. Although not enjoyed cold in Kyrghyzstan, it also makes an exotic iced tea drink as well.

4 cups water
2 teaspoon ginger, peeled grated and minced
1 stick cinnamon, lightly crushed
10 whole cloves, lightly crushed
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons honey

Boil water until it has reached a rolling boil. Add spices and return to a boil. Lower heat and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes then remove from flame and let steep another 10-15 minutes. Strain into teapot or serving vessel. Stir in honey until completely dissolved.

In today’s world, we primarily use cloves in the kitchen, but still have medicinal and aromatic uses for them. In Indonesia, they are still used to flavor kretet or clove cigarettes. Interestingly, modern science is also investigating cloves for their antimicrobial properties (Yukawa et al., 1996; Kurokawa, et al., 1995) and finding that cloves have both good antiviral and antifungal activity in vitro. In antiquity, empires were built on them and men were enslaved and died for them. Remember that and more the next time you throw a bag or a bottle of cloves into your basket at the market. (Words and Research by Laura Kelley; Special thanks to Charles Perry for pointing out the use of cloves in the 10th and 13th Century recipes.  Photo of Dried Cloves from Wikiemedia; Photo of Clove Flowers by Timothy Motley; Photo of Kyrgyz Bal by Baby Kato).

Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food #1: Orchids
Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food #2: Saffron

* (Some claim that archaeological evidence of the use of cloves has been found at ancient Mesopotamian sites. This evidence (a jar purported to contain cloves) comes from excavations at the ancient city of Terqa, Syria (modern Ashara) on the middle Euphrates that dates to 1760-1600 BCE. However, the scholarly community is divided about whether the contents of the jar is actually cloves. With multiple trading “middlemen”, it is not out of the question that ancient Mesopotamians could have used cloves. Their presence in a scribal area could be for purposes of initial or early description. Until definitive evidence is produced, however, such as mass-spec or other type of constituent analyses, I am hanging back on saying these are cloves.)

** (Older scholarly documents (IH Burkill etc) and the internet are awash in references to a 3rd Century Chinese text that mentions cloves, but my perusal of Shen Nong Bao Cai Jing and several other turn of the millenia medical texts finds no mention of cloves at this time).

The Uyghur Musical Instrument Workshop

Instrument Maker’s Workshop

In a world of mass production and consumption, it is wonderful from time to time to appreciate the beauty and increasing rarity of hand-crafted goods. One of the ways that I was recently able to do so was during a visit to a Uyghur musical instrument workshop in Kashgar. There I found a variety of instruments crafted from mulberry or apricot wood that, in addition to being functional, were works of art – true masterpieces of inlay and marquetry.

A selection of fretted and unfretted lutes and other stringed instruments hung from the walls and ceiling, bodhran-like daf drums in stacks on the floor. In the rear of the store is a large, magnificent rawap or rabab decorated with snakeskin, bone and horn, and the bowed kushtars with carved birds perched lightly on the top of the neck where scrolls are positioned on western violin-like instruments. Reeds, pipes and painted and inlaid camel gourds were scattered on the central tables of the store. A treasure-trove of Uyghur musical culture all under one roof.

For the most part, many Uyghur musical instruments are related to Central and Western Asian instruments with some even having counterparts in the Levant and on the Arabian Peninsula. Some scholarly work suggests that some of these instruments even arose from Mesopotamian instruments and the history of their use is several millenia old.

Uyghur Lutes and other Stringed Instruments

In the lute-like class, there is the tanbur which is a long-necked fretted lute with a pear-shaped resonator of mulberry wood and a thin, graceful walnut neck. The tanbur has fourteen frets tuned in a semi-tempered chromatic scale and five metal strings attached in three courses to a bridge. The dutar is made from separate ribs of mulberry wood glued together with often a narrow half round strip on the outside of the joins. Its flat front has no soundholes. Its long thin neck has movable frets usually tuned in a half-diatonic scale. It has two strings and is strummed or plucked with the fingers of the right hand. The khushtar is a stringed instrument that resembles a viola that has 4 strings tuned G, D, A, E.  It is played upright, often while balanced on the knee and bowed with the right hand while the left works the frets.  The setar is a lute with four (sometimes three) strings and a large and variable number of movable frets (sometimes as many as 25 -27).

Selection of Snakeskin-covered Rawaps

For me, the most visually stunning of the instruments is the rawap. It has a rounded base made of a single piece of mulberry wood that is usually covered with snakeskin. In the case of this instrument workshop, python skin imported from Burma was the most commonly used skin. In addition to the snakeskin, the horns just above the junction of base and neck are characteristic. Today these are usually constructed of marqueted bone, but one or two examples in the shop had old-school horns on them. Both the base and neck are often inlaid with intricate designs. These instruments have three strings laid in three courses and are usually played with a plectrum on the right hand.

Mr. Ababakri Playing a Rawap

The most special part of the visit was to meet the shop owner, Mr. Muhammad Emin Ababakri, who is a fifth generation Uyghur musical instrument craftsman, and to get a brief tour of the workshop where all of his remarkable creations are made. Made by hand, by himself and by the other craftsmen he employs. I got to view several stages of instrument construction from honing the neck of a lute to tuning a newly made dutar and making sure the tone was of good enough quality’s to sell in Mr. Ababakri’s shop. You’ll find no plastic or nylon on his instruments, all of his frets are made from viscera or silk, and no plastic in the inlay, only bone, horn and wood – the finest traditional materials for the most beautiful instruments.

Musical Instrument Workshop

Alas, I left the shop empty-handed, because the instruments are dear even by western standards, but I will fondly remember the trip and may even write back to see if a rawap can be shipped to the US someday. (Words and photos by Laura Kelley. For those wishing to contact Mr. Ababakri, his card is scanned beneath the Uyghur musical samples.)

This first example Uyghur music is of a musician named Envar playing the dutar and singing:

This next you-tube video is great (if a bit cheesy with the musicians on a rotating lazy-susan) because it showcases several instruments and shows basically how they are played and sound. I also like the traditional riff rendered on a modern cello:

Mr. Ababakri’s Card