Category Archives: Vietnam

Games of the Great Silk Road – Mancala

Most parents will be quick to agree that they learn a lot from their kids. When you have kids, you cease to be the center of your own life and the lessons range from the mundane to the profound. When they are little, you realize how little they know when they come into the world and how much you, as an adult, have come to take for granted. When they are older, you begin to see fragments of yourself or of your spouse or partner who helped raise them. But these characteristics are not a direct reflection. Rather, they are more like a mosaic. From mother to daughter or father to son the tesserae can be the same, but the patterns that they are arranged in can be very different.

Ethiopian Mancala Board, 6th or 7th C.

I am beginning to pass into a new stage, with a teen and a tween in the house, they are beginning to introduce me to things I have never heard of before. By exploring their interests with them, I am learning things about the world that I never knew. This is quite humbling to someone like me who has always considered herself something of a well-traveled brainiac.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the National Geographic Society to see the latest treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings and religious items (The Staffordshire Horde) that have recently been uncovered in England. Rich, finely worked 24-carat gold with sparkling garnet inlay filled the display cases. Videos to explain the details of the craftsmanship accompanied the exhibition, along with recordings and quiz games of Old English helped to bring the exhibit alive and make it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Endodoi Board – Tanzania

On the way out, we did the obligatory pass through the gift shop on the way to the exit. While we were browsing, my daughter came flying at me – begging for a mancala set, telling me how fun it was and explaining how it was played. We got the set and later that evening she taught me how to play. That night, I learned that the game is played all over the world and has been for the better part of the last couple of millennia.

Pallankhuzi Board – Sri Lanka and S. India

What my further research has shown, is that the Silk Road trade of goods, ideas and cultural elements was probably responsible for its spread – at least across the Old World. From Vietnam and Mongolia, through Central and Western Asia, across Central and Northern Africa and into Europe through Andalusia, the Old World plays this game. It passed into the New World with the slave trade and is played from Louisiana and Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Toguz Kumalak Board – Kazakhstan

If you’ve never seen or played mancala, count and capture or any other variety of the game, it is often played on a board containing at least two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. The number of cups varies across cultures and over time, but the game remains the remarkably the same. The goal is to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent, and there are strategies, societies and in some nations, major competitions in which people play mancala. Our board is a nicely carved wooden set with small, irregularly shaped stones as pieces, but some mancala boards consist simply of holes dug in the ground or bored into stone into which other stones or objects are moved.

Girls Playing Oquan in Vietnam

There are 19th and 20th Century claims that the game is arose in ancient Egypt, Jordan or even Mesopotamia – but none of these are accepted by modern game scholars (did you know there was such a thing?) or archaeologists specializing in these areas. The oldest definitive set comes from Axum (Ethiopia) and date from the 6th or 7th century ACE, but an earlier set may come from a 4th Century Roman-era fort in Egypt along the banks Red Sea. The earliest European set is found in Spain’s the Museo de Burgos. It belonged to a daughter of Abd-al-Rahman III, the emir (912-929) and first caliph (929-961) of Cordoba. The scholar Murray, writing in the mid 20th Century, concluded that the game spread from east to west across Africa and from west to east across Asia – which again points to an Eastern African or Levantine origin.

Importantly, Arab and Muslim traders were probably an important force in moving the game around the Old World. The very name, “mancala” comes from the Arabic verb “naqala” meaning, “to move”. It is not mentioned in the Koran by this name, but must have been known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages, as it is referred to in the commentary to the Kitab al Aghani, the “Book of Songs,” which speaks of a “game like mancala.”

Ornate Congkak Board – Malaysia

Today, the game is played competitively in many Central Asian nations, with Kazakhstan having a national association for their version of the game, Toguz Kumalak, whereas in most of Africa, it is a game to be played while relaxing after the day’s work.  Interestingly, in the New World it is sometimes played as part of mortuary or funerary practices – to amuse the spirits of the dead.  This suggests that this might have been a practice among the Africans who carried the game with them to the New World, although this practice seems to have vanished in modern-day Africa.

I’ve played a few games with my daughter and can attest to the game being both fun and a great way to teach strategy and the consideration of future consequences when deciding current moves. Thanks to my daughter, to whom I dedicate this post, I’ve found an unexpected echo of the Silk Road found in an ordinary board game. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos from Mancala Wiki).

N.B. I will be in China for the next couple of weeks and will blog if I can. Hopefully, I will return with loads of tales and photos.

Autumn Means . . . A Bounty of Pumpkins and Squash!

I love this time of year! I love the blustery days and the chilly evenings and snuggling under blankets to keep warm. I love the cacophony of colors offered up by the deciduous trees, and of course, I love the panoply of fall produce – my favorite of which are pumpkins and squash.

They are just so beautiful – all the shapes: round, oval, flattened, tubular, and fluted like an amber bead, or goose-necked, with bumps and warts and all. And the colors – warm shades of orange, ochre, yellow and deep earthy green – some striped, some with a gradation of color fading from one into the next. Such variation in color and shape – and flavor! There are so many ways to prepare pumpkins and squash, that it seems unfortunate that we generally relegate these vegetables to pies or soup. All too often with the familiar triumvirate of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and more often than not – too much sugar.

Autumn Pumpkins

By themselves, many pumpkins and squash are already quite sweet and don’t need much sugar to make their flavors really shine. My two favorites – the Butternut and the Kabocha – are amongst the sweetest. I often use them to temper dishes with sour flavors offered by pomegranates, sour grapes, lemons, or limes.

Across the Asian continent there are a myriad of ways to prepare pumpkin and squash. As main dishes, many cultures stuff them – with rice, or a combination of meat and grains. They appear mixed with curries, stews and braised meat dishes. They are layered in casseroles, topped with sauces, curried, stir-fried and coated with spices and baked. However they are prepared, they are another gift of the New World to the Old and have been dearly embraced since their introduction only a few hundred years ago.

In Western Asia, they can be stuffed with marigold petals or pomegranate seeds in Georgia, layered in an Armenian casserole called Ailazan; baked with eggs in an omelet called a “kuku” (after the Persian work for egg) or braised with fowl or lamb in a delectable cardamom and pomegranate sauce in Iran, used as a stuffing for pastries or prepared with tomatoes and sour grapes in Afghanistan.

In South Asia, pumpkin and squash are curried in rich ginger and garlic-laden sauces, baked and pounded into dips with or without yogurt, used in rice pilafs, mixed with pulses for dals, mixed with seed spices (such as fenugreek, onion, mustard and poppy), cumin, a handful of chili peppers and lemon juice in sweet and spicy dish, and sweetened with coconut cream.

The Central Asians use squash in casseroles like Damlyama flavored with copious amounts of cumin and black pepper, stuff them with their own pulp flavored with tarragon and lemon or nuts, sour cherries and nutmeg and pepper or baked with cinnamon and black pepper, or cooked with tamarind, fenugreek leaves and garlic.

In the Himalayas, the Bhutanese have delectable pumpkin fritters spiced with cumin and use squash or pumpkin layered in their biryani, the Nepali have their Tarkari curries with garlic, ginger and lots of cilantro, the Tibetans coat squash slices in chickpea or lentil flour spiced with chili peppers, star anise, lots of black pepper and some cinnamon and fry the slices until golden, and the Burmese have make a stew of them with shrimp and soy sauce, lime juice, ginger and garlic and lots of pungent peppers. And in the Indo Pacific, one of the most common ways to prepare them are using a tomato-based sauce flavored with sweet soy, vinegar, nutmeg and pepper.

Pumpkin Curry

In the far-east, the Korean’s have their black-peppered squash cooked with soy, ginger and garlic and garnished with sesame seeds. The Japanese cook them similarly using sweet soy or a soy-ginger sauce, and in Southern China there is fish-flavored eggplant named after the method of preparation with brown bean paste, fish sauce and rice vinegar, often used to cook fish. In Thailand, pumpkins or squash are used to flavor the rich spicy curries and are used with a variety of meats or cooked rapidly in a stir-fry with lots of spicy Thai basil, or cooked with crushed black peppercorns, lemon juice and fish sauce to form a rich sour sauce around a sweet kabocha squash. The Cambodians use squash in mixed vegetable stews and stir fries, and use them with in stews with beef, coconut milk, and their ginger-spice paste called Kroeung, the thick fish sauce tuk prahok and lots of Kaffir lime leaves. And lastly in Vietnam, squash and pumpkin are sometimes enjoyed with stir-fried with lemongrass and peanuts, and roasted and pounded into a dip with lime juice, fish sauce and basil.

Certainly not an exhaustive list of Asian pumpkin and squash recipes, but ones that reach far beyond the familiar flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and too much sugar, and all of which are available in the Silk Road Gourmet volumes already published or yet to come.

So enjoy our seasonal bounty of pumpkins and squash, but think outside the box and try an unfamiliar recipe or two. You may discover a favorite vegetable you’ve never tried before – like the Sri Lankan curry posted below. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Autumn Pumpkins by Haywiremedia @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of Pumpkin Curry by Sarsmis @ Dreamstime.com. Recipe in Silk Road Gourmet Volume 2).

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Curried Pumpkin in a Ginger-Garlic Sauce

This curry is sour, sweet, and hot due to its curry leaves, vinegar, coconut milk, sugar, and ground chili peppers. Blended together, these flavors make this dish quintessentially Sri Lankan, but it also complements a wide variety of other cuisines as well.

Ingredients
1 medium butternut squash or small kabocha pumpkin, peeled, sliced and seeded
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds, ground
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
½ cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon chopped chili peppers
10 curry leaves, crushed
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar

Method
Preheat oven to 375°. Place sliced squash or pumpkin on an oiled or sprayed baking sheet and when the oven is hot, bake for 20–25 minutes. Remove from oven, cool, and slice into quarters or eighths, depending on the size of the slice.

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan and sauté onion until it softens and starts to color. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, and mustard and stir for a couple of seconds. Add the garlic, ginger, coconut milk,
chilies, and curry leaves.

Add the vinegar, salt, and sugar and bring slowly to a boil. Add the squash or pumpkin pieces, stir, and simmer on a low heat for 5 minutes until the pumpkin is warmed.

Patterns, Patterns Everywhere: Spice Mixtures

Many chefs and cookbook authors spend their careers touting the unique aspects of the cuisines they cook and write about.  I’m different from most.  I look around and see nothing but commonalities and connections between the major Asian cuisines and spice mixtures.  In The Silk Road Gourmet Cookbook, I write a lot about how ingredients and dishes swirl in patterns across Asia and tell us a lot about relationships between countries whether through trade, diplomatic relations, cultural or religious connections.

A Masala

One of these patterns in ingredients is found in the makeup of the major spice powders. Whether used as a pickling spice, an advieh, a masala, a curry powder, a spice paste or a five-spice powder, the same spices, with some variations in amount, preparation, use, or local addition of ingredients swirl across the continent from Armenia to Indonesia.

Take for example a relatively familiar Northern Indian garam masala: 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cloves, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 2-inch cinnamon sticks, ½ nutmeg corm, grated, 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds.  Moving west of India, the first three ingredients are also found in most Pakistani garam masalas, which tend to omit cinnamon and nutmeg, and substitute black cardamom for the green cardamom found in the Indian masala.  The same ingredients as those in the Indian masala can be found in an Afghani char masala – minus the nutmeg and also replacing the cardamom with black cardamom as in Pakistan; and in Iranian advieh  - this time with the addition of coriander seeds and Persian lime powder.  A commonly used modern Armenian pickling spice share four ingredients with the Iranian advieh but adds bay leave and the New World allspice to the mix.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Pakistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground cloves
4 tablespoons cumin seeds
Seeds from 6 black cardamom pods
Afghanistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon seeds from black cardamom pods
Iran½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon dried Persian lime powder
Armenia2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons whole allspice

East of India, many Nepalese masalas have the same ingredients as the Indian masala mentioned here – only they tend to add black cardamom to the mix.  One important difference between Indian and Nepali masalas is that Nepali masalas are often roasted, whereas this is an option in Indian cuisine.  Sri Lankan curry powder has the same ingredients as the Indian garam masala except that it adds coriander and fennel seeds and omits nutmeg.  Several additional spices and herbs (pandanus) are also added that are not related to the five or six spice base in most of the other mixes.  Like Northern Indian spice preps, the spices in the Sri Lankan curry powders are sometimes roasted and sometimes not.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Nepal2 teaspoons black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole cloves
1 ½ tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black cardamom seeds
Sri Lanka1 teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon whole cloves
⅛ cup cumin seeds
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Tibet2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cloves
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 Tablespoons cinnamon stick
¼ cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 Tablespoons bay leaves
Khirgizstan1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cardamom

Masala Ingredients

Tibet’s masala adds coriander seed and bay leaves to the Northern Indian base and Khirgistan’s five-spice mix omits black peppercorns from the Indian recipe all together.  Sichuan peppercorns replace black peppercorns along with the addition of star anise and fennel in varying degrees in Mongolia, China and Vietnam.  Like Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s curry paste uses many ingredients not related to other spice mixes around Asia (candlenuts, laos etc), but still it shares the core of spices (black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and coriander seeds) with several of the other powders mentioned.

Mongolia2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole cloves
2 tablespoons broken cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons fennel seed
6 whole star anise corms
Southern China2 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
36 whole cloves
5, 2-inch sticks of cinnamon, crushed
2 tablespoons fennel seed
12 star anise corms
Vietnam2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
8 star anise corms
Indonesia1½ tablespoons black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
2½ tablespoons coriander seeds

A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there and the proportions of the spice mixtures change – but the ingredients remain the same – to some degree across the entire continent.  Likewise, we may be different ethnicities or different religions, but to some extent, the foods we eat are part of the cultures we share – all of which have been shaped by the Silk Road (Words and pattern analysis by Laura Kelley).

Lady Lizards for Lunch

Grilled Lizard

A news item caught my eye recently that blended two of my favorite subjects – cuisine and biology. Long story short is that a species of asexual lizard previously undocumented by scientists has been discovered in Southern Vietnam recently. Neat thing about the story is that the lizard was discovered in a restaurant – grilled and plated and ready to be consumed. Lizards for lunch.

A Vietnamese scientist stopped for a bite at a local eatery-pub in Southern Vietnam and noticed that the lizards on the plate were all female, which he thought a bit unusual. Not looking like other regional asexual species, he realized that he had potentially identified a species “new” to science and contacted colleagues at La Sierra University in the United States to help him confirm the find.

Well, sure enough. The Americans sweep in to check out the new lizards and lo and behold the restaurant has grilled up the last of the crop and there are no potential type specimens to inspect. Being resourceful, the scientists pay a bunch of kids to go catch some more of the ones usually served up at the restaurant. They hit paydirt when the kids came back with bunches of the critters – all female, all reproducing asexually, all identical genetically (with minor, standard variations due to replication error). A new species and an interesting one to boot.

Vietnamese Market

All manner of lizards, insects and small mammals are on the menu in Southeastern and Eastern Asia, so it is no surprise that people are eating them. In fact, these new lizards (Leiolepis ngovantrii) are usually marinated and grilled with lemongrass after being prepped by boiling and soaking in banana leaves and are apparently quite tasty. The Thais forego the lemongrass and serve lizard on a heaping bed of their delicious basil.

Interesting thing is that the locals knew all about this “unknown” species and had been enjoying it for years. So, in addition to remote jungles and mountaintops, scientists should add “local pub” to the places where they can make great new discoveries. From experience, scientists have over the centuries made many great discoveries in pubs – but none before like this. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos by Scientific Staff of La Sierra University. Read more about the discovery in Zootaxa 2433:47-61 (2010)).