The Changing Landscape of Mesopotamian Flavors

Mersu Option One – A Date Nut Roll

I’m at it again – questioning the assumptions and conclusions about Mesopotamian flavors that Jean Bottero made when examining the Old Babylonian culinary tablets from Yale University. Is it some manic spirit that grabs me each Spring and forces me back into the ancient Near East or is it just that it is an activity that grabs my attention from time to time? Whatever the cause, those of you who have been following the blog for a while may remember last year about this time a post on Mesopotamian ingredients that were either undefined in Bottero’s work or, in my humble opinion, defined incorrectly or made little sense from a culinary point of view.

Well, I am once again actively engaged in reconstructing ingredients and recipes that I think the good professor erred on. Carob, wheatberries, licorice and pistachio nuts – all are flavors that I think were included in the Mesopotamian diet that Bottero left undefined or defined as other types of ingredients – all too often onions or other plants in the allium family.

Before the Yale tablets, Bottero notes that there were only two recipes. The first one is for “Mersu”, which Bottero defined as a “cake” with dates and pistachio nuts as ingredients. It turns out that the tablet – transcribed in Oldest Cuisine in the World (OCW) – only states that dates and pistachios were received for the making of mersu for the king, not that mersu was a cake or how to make it. The assumption that those were ingredients for a cake was made entirely by Bottero, because mersu/mirsu is simply an Old Babylonian word for a “confection” made of dates. He also makes the entymological link with the verb “marasu” one meaning of which is to stir into a liquid. He neglects to note that a secondary meaning for the verb is to squeeze or crush (although I admit, that this is not generally used in connection with food or offering words.)

Mersu Option Two – Date Balls Covered with Nuts and other Toppings

Could mersu be a cake? Sure. But there are many other types of things that it could be as well. A look at modern Western Asian and Levantine cuisines shows that mersu could easily have been a date-nut roll or a beautiful date “candy” as pictured here. Both sweets are based on pounded dates and chopped nuts or other fruit or nut toppings.

Adding only some type of flour, mersu could be something like the modern Iranian dessert Ranginak which consists of dates stuffed with pistachios enclosed in a thin crust of dough, or it could be like the modern Lebanese Ma’moul which has a pounded date center covered in a layer of semolina that is then covered in a layer of chopped pistachios.

My point, if it is not evident, is that there is no need to use secondary or teritary sources to conjure additional ingredients beyond those listed to have a dish fit for an ancient king and his court. A secondary point is that all too often, I believe, Bottero interpreted the ingredients and dishes on the tablets from a French haute-cuisine perspective, instead of a modern regional one that would perhaps be more illuminating and appropriate for understanding Mesopotamian cuisine.

The second recipe known before the Yale tablets is one that Bottero calls “court boullion”. The ingredients listed are nuhurtu, sahlu, kasu, kamu, cucumber (?), and the meat of a slaughtered animal. Bottero translates these as fennel, watercress, dodder (Cuscuta), cumin and cucumber (all of which he states he is uncertain of). My own research suggests that the ingredients are asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress) wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and cumin. The characters or transliteration for the ingredient thought to be cucumber is not included in OCW, so I cannot research or comment on it liguistically, but I can say that with a flavor lineup including asafoetida, cress, licorice, and cumin that cucumber makes little culinary sense as it would be overwhelmed in the quantities required (15 grams). (Note:  See additional entry below for a better suggested translation of “cucumber”)

Braised Lamb Shank

The recipe states to boil six liters of water with kasu and cook for a long time – I presume this to be until it is reduced by at least half or two-thirds. Then it reads that the cucumber (?) should be added and cooked until it is reduced to 1 liter. Then the liquid is strained and meat is added and cooked. I assume that the other ingredients are added when the cucumber (?) is added, but no specific instructions are given, they could be added when the meat is added, or even before the broth is strained.

Even a modest amount of meat – a pound or two – added to a liter of water and cooked is not going to produce a boullion (for there are no further instructions to strain the liquid again) but rather a stew. A licorice and lamb stew – what an interesting idea! Of course it could have been a braised cut of meat as well – a licorice braised lamb. The point is, it could be many things other than court boullion.

So, my point here is that many of the ingredients listed by Bottero may not be correct, and many make little or no culinary sense. I’ve been told by a real Assyrian language scholar recently that the whole field of plant name identification is, “diabolically slippery”. What bothers me, however, is that there seem to be a good deal of scholarship about plants and ingredients that existed at the time of his writing that Bottero either ignored or rejected without argument. As I said in the first post on this subject, I may not be right about the ingredients, but I am transparently referenced. (See post on Mesopotamian ingredients for the growing list of terms I have examined and the references I’ve used to inform my point of view).

I’ve adopted this as an ongoing project and am interested to see where it leads, I may even try to reconstruct the licorice and lamb stew and give it a taste, but will have to get my hands on a copy of the original reference for the “court boullion” recipe to check the translation and interpretation of the “cucumber” before I do. If I do, I’ll let you know, so we can breathe new life to an ancient Silk Road dish.

(Words and research by Laura Kelley; Confections and Photographs of Date Nut Roll and Date Balls by Kajal of Aaplemint, where many of Kajal’s recipes for her confections can be found. Photograph of Braised lamb Shank by Becky Luigart-Stayner, borrowed from Google images.)

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Additional:

The missing ingredient has been found!  Ukus-hab, is not cucumber or colocynthe, but rather citron!  At least that’s what I think.  See the lexicon link to see the reasons and reference.

A Menu for a Caucasus Celebration

We had friends over again, and as usual, I spent a couple of days in the kitchen preparing for their visit. This time I whipped up a regional tasting menu of Caucasus Celebration specialties from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As they ate and in between the “yummy sounds” my friends kept on commenting that there were, “so many flavors on the plate”.

Many thanks to my decorator, line chef, historian and cyber-guy husband for making everything possible. All dishes were enjoyed with Georgian Tvishi or Kindzmarauli wines.

The Menu

Appetizers
Georgian Dolmas
Pomegranate Pickled Garlic
Armenian Red Pepper
Yogurt and Cucumber Dip
Naan

Main Courses
Grilled Chicken Garo
Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce
Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce
Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce
Sesame and Almond Pilaf

Dessert
Ravane
Saffron Ice Cream
Dried Figs and Apricots

All recipes are, of course, from Volume One of The Silk Road Gourmet.

Georgian Dolmas

Georgian Dolmas: Stuffed Grape leaves, dolmas or dolmades are eaten from Eastern Mediterranean Greece and Turkey clear across Central Asia and in several Eastern Asia countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Georgian variety I served stuffed the leaves with lamb and rice mixture with the strong flavors of dill, lemon and walnuts. Delicious!

The Pomegranate Pickled Garlic: I’ve written about this pickle before in the blog and will likely mention it again, because it is one of my Silk Road pickles. This Georgian dish uses unsweetened pomegranate juice with a hint of vinegar and dill and lots of cracked black pepper to flavor the garlic. The longer it pickles, the milder and more fruity the garlic becomes. Enjoy with naan or other flat bread.

Armenian Roasted Red Pepper Salad: This salad offered a sweeter alternative to the appetizer table. Roasted and skinned sweet red peppers marinate in grapeseed oil and white vinegar with a bit of garlic and roasted almonds added.

Yogurt and Cucumber Dip: Once again, yogurt dips are enjoyed from Eastern Europe throughout Western, Central and Southern Asia. Keeping with the Caucasian theme of the dinner, I chose an Armenian version flavored with mint, garlic and black pepper. The yogurt and the cucumbers create a cooling dip to soothe the palate challenged by spicy or fiery foods.

Grilled Chicken Garo: A sensational Georgian way to prepare chicken that will tease and amaze your guests with unfamiliar flavor combinations. The chicken is first marinated for several days in lemon juice and light sesame or peanut oil and generous amounts of the Georgian spice mixture Khmeli-Suneli. Then the chicken is grilled and enjoyed with the cilantro-based Garlic and Walnut sauce with overtones of fenugreek and lemon.

Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce: Lamb with a light crust of freshly grated nutmeg and cracked pepper is baked and sweetened with a sauce of sour cherries, cinnamon and a hint of lemon juice. Together an amazing and unforgettable combination!

Eggplant in a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce: This recipe couples earthy eggplants with a Georgian pomegranate sauce flavored with red onions, sweet basil and a couple of chili peppers.

Azeri String Beans in a Sour Tomato Sauce: One of my favorite vegetable dishes of all times. Green beans sautéed with onions and then joined by a sour tomato sauce made with white vinegar, black pepper and yogurt. Fabulous!

Sesame and Almond Pilaf: A buttery, nutty, Azeri pilaf flavored with roasted sesame seeds and almonds that is related to Gulf and Levantine rice dishes. I like this pilaf because it has a strong enough flavor to be paired with the main meats and vegetables described here, but complements without interfering with those flavors.

Ravane: This cake is once again a regional favorite eaten from Greece through Central Asia. The Georgian version I made is baked with a mix of nut flours and wheat flour and then permeated with a simple syrup flavored with citrus and cinnamon that is allowed to sit overnight before serving. Sweet, but earthy at the same time. Some versions use only wheat flour, while others make the syrup from honey instead of sugar.

Saffron Ice Cream: Just a little something to complement the ravane. A saffron flavored ice cream made with chopped pistachio nuts and rosewater. Semi sweet and a bit nutty – really good!

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Dolmas borrowed from the Food and Wine Blog by Azat Aslanyan).

Silk Road in the News #5: Viva Vitis vinifera – the Earliest Winery

The earliest winery has been uncovered in a cave in the mountains of Armenia.

A vat to press the grapes, fermentation jars and even a cup and drinking bowl dating to about 6,000 years ago were discovered in a cave complex near Areni, Armenia by an international team of researchers.

They also found grape seeds, remains of pressed grapes and dozens of dried vines. The seeds were from the same type of grapes — Vitis vinifera vinifera — still used to make wine.

6,000 Year-old Wine Press from Areni, Armenia

Analyses of pottery sherds and vessels have provided evidence for wine consumption in the region as early as 8,000 years ago in Shulaveri, Georgia and 7,000 years ago in Hajji Firuz Tepe, a Neolithic village in northern Iran. Although significantly later than the Georgian or Iranian sites, the recent Armenian find is hard evidence of a well-developed viticulture.

Materials for winemaking have also been found at Titris Höyük in southeastern Turkey dated to the late third millennium BCE, and grape seeds and spent skins have been found in Greece dating to about 6,500 years ago. The Greek find is particularly intriguing, because figs were found along with the grapes, suggesting perhaps that a mixed fruit wine was being produced.

Wine residue has also been found in Egypt dating to about 5,000 years ago in the tomb of King Scorpion I. Interestingly, however, the wine was found inside imported ceramic jars, indicating perhaps that a broad regional trade in wine was already underway.

Archaeological evidence of winemaking in China is significantly later that that in Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean and comes from the Shang Dynasty about 3,000 year ago. Like the Greeks, however, some of the Chinese finds have the remains from several different types of fruits on site (peach, plum and jujube) suggesting either, mixed fruit wine or wines produced from fruits other than grapes – like the pomegranate or plum wines enjoyed today.

The more we seek, the more we find. Makes me wonder what other wonders await. . .

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo by Gregory Areshian/Associated Press)

A Super Supra

Tamada, John Wurdeman

We toasted to the mountains and how they have perseved Georgian culture over the millennia, to our ancestors, to our homelands, the men stood and toasted to the beautiful women in their lives and we all toasted to the future. Those were amongst the many toasts that we shared over glasses of Pheasant’s Tears recently at the Supra in Levante’s restaurant in downtown Washington’s Dupont Circle.

Our tamada, or toastmaster, Mr. John Wurdeman, co-owner of Pheasant’s Tears Vineyards, also bade us drink to the musicians and dancers, Zedashe, who illuminated our meal with ancient songs – like the one called Chakrulo sampled here *. The soulful, tight harmonies of the Georgian songs have been adapted for mixed male and female voices by the group with beautiful results. I’m no expert, but some of the recitative songs (particularly those from the Kartli-Kakheti region) seem to be stylistically related to Russian znammeny chant or perhaps share a common ancestor in the Byzantine church with znammeny. The group also played the panduri lute, the doli drum and a sort of goat-skin bagpipe called the chiboni.

Male Dancer – Closeup

There was wine, there were toasts, there was music – this being a Georgian Supra, there was, of course, dancing. Men dancing alone, men dancing with women and small groups of people circling each other, arms and legs blazing. It was impossible not to get drawn into the passionate sounds and sights and let one’s knife and fork down to clap along with the group.The food itself was solid, mostly Turkish offerings of Levante’s that were quite delicious. I had the spiced adana kebab and found it tender and very good and my husband had the beyti which he also enjoyed. The only truly Georgian food item was khachapuri the bread filled with suluguni cheese, but it didn’t distract from the overall enjoyment of the evening.Our dining companions were Maryland Senator, Jim Rosapepe and his wife, journalist, Shelilah Kast who hosts an NPR radio show called Maryland Morning. In addition to being great to dine with and interesting to talk to, both the Senator and his wife have written a book called Dracula is Dead about the fall and rebirth of modern Romania. Georgian embassy staff were also present with their families and at the table next to our own, I spied Oleg Kalugin.

Musican with Chiboni Pipes

The highlight of the evening came for me when the tamada came round to our table to tell us that, “My best friend in the whole world is a Persian Prince. . .” (what an opening line, eh?) “and a few nights ago, he gave me a gift of the Silk Road Gourmet, saying that it was his family’s favorite cookbook.”

Good food, great companions, a commanding tamada urging us on to more toasts celebrating life, and love; beautiful singing and dancing . . . why did it have to end?

It ended as all good parties end, so we can go out and live – to give us more life to celebrate. So, we left with smiles, with CDs and bottles of wine to share with our families. I also left with the knowledge that my book is bringing value and joy to some wonderful people. (Words and photographs by Laura Kelley; use of Chakrulo, courtesy of Zadashe. Special thanks to Prof. Mamuka Tsereteli of American University and the Georgian Wine House for organizing the event.)

* The song Chakrulo was also included as a representative sample of human communication on the Voyager Spacecraft in 1977 . . . I wonder if they like it too?

Culinary History Mystery #2 – The Origins of Ice Cream!

Ice Cream Treats

Triple digit temperatures have hit the Central Atlantic once again, leaving locals and visitors alike to find any way they can to keep the mercury down. Some become shut-ins moving between their air-conditioned homes to their air-conditioned cars to their air-conditioned jobs and back again; some take to the beaches, lakes and pools to swim and soak the heat away; still others turn to cold drinks, ices and of course, ice cream to keep cool.

The origins of ice cream are a convoluted tangle of misinformation and repetition. Alternately the Persians, Chinese, Arabs and Indians are credited with inventing ice cream. This seems to happen because non-dairy puddings and other chilled desserts are treated as synonymous with ice cream – causing a confusion of substance, time and place.

Although the Chinese seem to get the most credit for developing ice cream, the one really important thing bothers me about this version of history is that milk and milk products do not form a large part of the Chinese diet. The Tibetans and of course the Mongolians have lots of dairy in their diets, but the Han Chinese and other ethnic groups do not. Although a modern artisanal cheese industry is today taking root in China and producing Gouda and other western varieties, traditionally, cheese is not something associated with Chinese food. Bean curd-based concoctions, whether fried, or in soup or pudding form, these are often referred to as, “Chinese cheese”. There are only two traditional buffalo milk-based puddings that are sometimes eaten chilled that have any relation to ice cream, namely Jiang Zhuang Nai – the sweet gingery pudding and Shuang Pi Nai – which is a sweetened, cooked custard of milk and egg whites encased between two milk skins.

The pages of Marco Polo’s Travels record a lot of milk being enjoyed as cheese, curds, yogurt, milk, and even a sort of vodka (arkhi) in the Yuan court. So after the 13th Century, milk enters the Chinese diet through the Mongolian-led dynasty. However there is no mention of ice-cream, or anything resembling it.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), however, a poem entitled Ode to the Ice Cheese “詠冰酪” was written by the poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206).

It looks so smooth but still has a crisp texture,
It appears congealed and yet it seems to float.
Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;
As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.

So it’s still possible that the roots of ice cream in China preceded the rule of the Mongols. But from where did the idea come from? Was it indeed an indigenous Chinese idea, or was it an adaptation of an idea that came from far-away shores?

Although information is hard to come by, a few pieces of information have solid references behind them. Ice harvested in the winter or from ice-covered mountainous regions and then used to increase the storage time of foods has been used in many cultures for millennia. The Persians had yakhchals to keep the ice frozen during the warm seasons and the Chinese and Mesopotamians had icehouses. Documentary sources exist of orders of ice coming from pharaonic Egypt to keep food in the warmest months.

Faloodeh

The first recorded ice-desserts are honey and fruit flavored sorbets offered for sale in Athenian markets in the 5th Century BCE. Both the Persians and the Chinese enjoyed ice or snow flavored with honey and fruit or sugary syrups. For the Persians, sherbet was more of a drink than the frozen dessert we now know by the same name. In the 4th Century BCE, the Persians were enjoying an ancestor of today’s chilled faloodeh pudding made from vermicelli noodles, rosewater, lime juice and a bit of cornstarch for thickening.

The next data point we have is from Pliny, recording Emperor Nero (54 to 68 CE) sending slaves to the mountains to gather snow and ice for as a basis for desserts flavored with berries and nuts. This doesn’t seem to be an advance on what the Greeks were doing five centuries earlier, but rather a simple repetition of a great idea.

So to the first century CE, we have ice and snow-based desserts flavored with fruit, nuts and syrups, in both east and west, chilled drinks on a shaved or crushed ice base in the west, and a rocking, chilled wheat based pudding also in the west. The next innovation that I have come across that walks us a step closer to ice cream is the addition of buffalo milk to the faloodeh. This seems to have occurred in China’s Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE) where a frozen concoction of milk, flour and camphor was enjoyed in the royal court.

Tang China was a cosmopolitan place. Arab and Persian traders were there and spreading the word of Islam by the early to mid 7th Century. Soon after this informal contact began, formal ambassadors arrived in China, led by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās, the maternal uncle of the prophet himself. Over the next century contact grew more frequent between the Chinese and the western Muslim world with Arab and Persian fighters assisting the Chinese in quelling rebellions in Tibet and with the exchange of servants from the royal courts. I think it likely that the Persians introduced the early form of faloodeh to the Tang Chinese and the next step in the evolution of ice cream took place.

Interestingly, I’ve seen references (that I cannot confirm) to the Indian use of ice and salt to create an endothermic reaction used to lower the temperature of other substances as early as the 4th Century CE. Also the Arabs are credited with being the first to sweeten ice-desserts with sugar instead of honey or fruit juice. But by the 10th Century CE, ice cream was widespread amongst many of the Arab world’s major cities, such as Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.

Greeks, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, and Indians all can be referenced with developing some part of the process of freezing and flavoring ice, milk or cream to come up with ice cream. Sounds like a Silk Road creation to me – eh? I see ideas flowing around the globe, innovations taking place and being passed on to the next place until a precursor to the modern product emerged.

Today, some amazing innovation in ice cream flavors are coming out of Hong Kong – including: Sichuan pepper and Morello cherry flavored ice cream. Other flavors offered include: black sesame, jasmine tea, pear and port and even gorgonzola ice cream. (Words by Laura Kelley).

Recipe: Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

This is an unusual Lamb and Rhubarb Stew from the Northeast of Iran near Mashhad that borders on Turkmenistan. It uses one of the Chinese gifts to world cuisine – rhubarb – as a souring agent to complement the earthy lamb, much as sour plums or sour cherries are used. Like many other Central Asian dishes, it also relies on herbs rather than spices for much of its flavor. It’s a great example of the foods that came flooding west from the various Persian conquests of the territories to its north and east. Since rhubarb is being rediscovered as a vegetable, it is often available beyond its traditional short “season” which allows this recipe to be made almost any time of the year.

Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

3/4 pound lamb cut into cubes
2 tablespoons light sesame or peanut oil
1 large onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
3 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
4 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup water
1 cup beef or chicken stock (or a mixture of both)
1/2 -1 corm nutmeg, grated
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped (more to taste)
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
11/2 tablespoons sugar (more to taste)
3 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1-inch slices

Heat oil in a medium saucepan and when hot, sear lamb cubes over high heat until golden brown around the edges – stirring constantly. When meat is done, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Lamb and Rubarb Stew

Lower heat to medium and add the onions, sautéing until they start to soften and color. Then add garlic, chili peppers, salt and pepper and stir until the garlic starts to swell and color. When garlic is done, add water and beef or chicken stock and cook to heat. When hot, add lamb back into the pot, grate half of the corm of nutmeg into the stew. Cover and cook over medium-low or low for 1 hour – stirring occasionally – until lamb becomes tender.

When lamb is nearly done, add the chopped mint and stir well. Then add the cilantro and sugar and stir in as well. Cook for another 3-5 minutes and then add the rhubarb and cook another 3-5 minutes or until the rhubarb softens, but is still firm (not soggy). Remove from heat, grate the remainder of the nutmeg in and serve.

Silk Road Roma

“We always knew the Gypsies were coming when we heard the light tinkling of silver bells coming up the lane. The sound of the bells was delicate and light and fell in rhythm with the trot of the horses pulling the covered wagon. We didn’t know where they came from, there were no Gypsy encampments nearby, but they came to the house two or three times a year to see my mother. The wagon was wooden and plain with a brightly colored canvas cloth of red or orange covering the rounded roof. One man drove and cared for the horses during the visit and two women accompanied him. One woman came to our house and the other would go to see the neighbors. The women were always highly dressed in long skirts in dark but bright colors. They always wore head scarves and had dark skin – an olive color – they were not pale like us. As to jewelry, the only thing I could see from a distance were big hoops in their ears of silver and gold.

Roma Hands

It was an exciting time when the Gypsies came. My mother would always send us out of the house. We weren’t allowed to watch or even hear what was going on. My sister and I would hide in the fields to watch the wagon and the women come and go. The man never came into the house. He stayed with the wagon and the horses while the women conducted business. We knew my father wouldn’t approve, but he was out working and wouldn’t ever know that they had visited. We never told him, and knew our mother wouldn’t either. My mother told us that they came to tell her fortune, but sometimes they also sold her things like herbs and plants. One time I remember, they left a snake plant on a beautiful handcarved stand. My mother cared for the plant throughout her life. When I was little she wouldn’t ever tell me what it was for, and would say that it was just a plant, nothing special. When I grew to be a woman, she told me that the plant protected the family from spells and bewitchment.”

A Roma Girl

These words are my mother’s recollections of the visits of the Roma or “Gypsies” to her home in the 1930s and 1940s in what was then still rural Westchester County, New York. She grew up in a German-American community, aptly named Valhalla, and her father helped build the large dam nearby that held the waters that quenched the thirst of New York City residents some 40 miles or so to the south. Her mother had been a woman of the world and travelled from her native Germany to Russia, trans- Caucasus to China and back to Germany before performing in Latin America. A global circuit she did many times in her young life before she settled down in her late 30s to marry and have my mother and her sister. As a girl and a woman travelling in the early 20th Century, she saw many exotic peoples and places as she moved around the world; the Roma are some of those she encountered. The story of the Roma peoples is one born on the Western Silk Road. It is a story that runs like a river from Southern Asia through the Caspian and Black Sea countries to the far ends of Europe.

The Roma were an amalgam of peoples who moved westward out of northern India sometime in the 10th Century. They passed through Persia and the remnants of Byzantium and reached the Eastern border of Europe by the mid-to-late 13th Century. From there they radiated across the continent by about 1500. Many unlucky Roma wound up enslaved in the Balkans – a servitude which for them and their descendants lasted until the mid-19th Century. While all Gypsy populations retain a more or less shared cultural and linguistic core, their fragmentation after they reached Europe seven centuries ago has led to emergence of many distinct groups. Thus, no description of the life and customs of any one group can possibly hold true for all Romani people.

One of the central cultural aspects shared by most Romani people is the division of the world into pairs or opposites: Good – Evil; Clean – Unclean; Day – Night; Gypsy – Non Gypsy, etc. Notions of ritual pollution of the body and its links to social ranking show clear links with Indian caste beliefs, but the division of world into dualistic pairs might also show some linkages with Zoroastrian practice as well.

A Roma Caravan

In terms of food and dining practices, the concept of purity and pollution have led to some interesting practices such as picking up small bits of food with their fingers or a piece of bread, pouring liquid into their mouths without touching their lips with the vessel or glass, and sharing a smoking pipe, but clenching their fist around the end of the pipe, instead of placing the pipe stem directly in the mouth.

Because of life on the move, the majority of Roma have been obliged to find food in the wild: small animals, fruit, nuts, and berries in the woods; fish in the streams; roots and leaves from the forests and fields. Traditionally, Roma catch fish by crouching by a river until a fish swim into their hands, the fish are stroked and then tossed quickly onto the bank; wood fowl, chickens and other game are caught using a whip. Horsemeat is generally, but not universally rejected, probably because of the importance of the horse to a mobile lifestyle, snakes are never eaten because of their negative symbolism, and dogs are not consumed because they are considered unclean.

Methods of food preparation have been similarly contingent upon circumstance. Thus stews, unleavened breads, and fried foods are common, while leavened breads and broiled foods, are not. A meal is traditionally served upon a large tray, perhaps made of brass, set on a cloth on the ground or raised on a low stand; a table is, however, sometimes used. Traditional Roma cooking is done in open kettles, copper pots, or frying pans. These are held over the fire by a chain and hook and set on a stand for serving. When the availability of provisions permits, there are traditionally two meals each day–one shortly after rising and one in the late afternoon. Coffee is widely consumed across the course of the day and can be made from purchased beans or from dandelion roots or other herbs.

Some foods are considered especially beneficial or lucky. Food of this kind consists of items that are either strong-tasting or bright-colored, such as chili, black pepper, garlic, lemon, pickles, vinegar, or salt. Meat is always eaten first and then vegetables are eaten one at a time until each one is consumed.

Bear-Leek Soup

Deciphering what specific recipes are “Gypsy” and which ones are European with a Gypsy flair or preparation is very difficult. Very often recipes are labeled “Gypsy” that are really Romanian or Hungarian in origin. A soup or stew from wild-gathered items such as the bear leek soup pictured here might be a typical traditional Roma dish, even though it is also eaten widely across Central Europe as well. Small game and birds – like hedgehogs and wild waterfowl strung on hazel-wood sticks and grilled over an open flame like kebabs is another Roma-type dish. Stews made of venison, rabbits or other game cooked with plentiful tomatoes and peppers are often called Roma. Garlic and onions or leeks are plentiful as are chili peppers and herbs for flavor and lemon or vinegar for souring. Vegetables are also often cooked in a meat stock or some sort to add flavor and nutritive value.

So do some research and cook some stews and enjoy the food of the Roma – one of the many peoples in the intricate patchwork of the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley and EAC. Photo of Roma Hands by Noltelourens at Dreamstime.com; Photo of Roma Covered Wagon by Nedetojoneil at Dreamstime.com; Photo of Roma Girl by Akarelias at Dreamstime.com; Photo of Bear Leek Soup by Twilightartpictures at Dreamstime.com)

Recipe: Azeri String Beans in Tomato Sauce

To help Sasha Martin of the Global Table along on her quest to cook her way around the world, I am offering up a great Azeri recipe from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One for Azeri String Beans in Tomato Sauce. In this recipe, the sauce is the thing. It is a wonderful tomato sauce, sweetened with sweet basil but given a slight sour tang by the addition of yogurt, sour cream and vinegar. Azeri’s use the sauce on vegetables – particularly green ones – and also on fowl and lamb. For the heck of it, I threw in an Azeri recipe for a Cucumber and Yogurt Dip flavored with mint, cilantro and sumac that just cries out for some flatbread. Enjoy Sasha! Let us know how the meal goes!

String Beans in Azeri Tomato Sauce
1 pound of fresh string beans, trimmed
4 tablespoons of butter
2 onions sliced thinly into crescents
1 batch of Azeri Tomato Sauce

1. Melt the butter in a sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the onions and lower the heat, stirring occasionally for 3-5 minutes. Add the green beans, stir and cover to cook for 20-30 minutes – stirring occasionally – or until the beans begin to soften to your desired consistency.

2. If you haven’t made the tomato sauce at an earlier time, it can be prepared as the beans cook. (see recipe below).

3. When the beans are almost done but not quite, pour in a desired amount of tomato sauce and allow them to simmer on low for a few minutes. Remove from heat and serve.

Azeri Tomato Sauce
8 ounces tomato sauce
2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup plain yogurt
¼ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons white vinegar (or more to taste)

In a small to medium saucepan, stir in the tomato sauce and half of the basil and all of the pepper. Cook 3-5 minutes or until warmed. Stir in yogurt and sour cream, cover and cook another 5 minutes – stirring often. Stir in remaining basil and salt cook another 3-5 minutes and pour over vegetables or meat.

Extra! Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce Extra!
Cool and refreshing with a zing from the herbs and sumac – this condiment will cool down your mouth when eating spicy kebabs! An example of the yogurt-cucumber preparations eaten throughout the Caucasian and Caspian territories, this dish may even remind you of a more highly spiced Indian riata – its distant cousin.

11/2 cups whole-milk plain yogurt
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and grated
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sumac

Combine in a bowl the yogurt, garlic, cucumbers mint and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to allow the flavors to blend. Before serving, stir in some sumac and garnish with mint leaves. Enjoy! (Words by Laura Kelley)

In Praise of Azerbaijan

People often ask me what my favorite type of food is. Truth be known, I have no favorite, or rather, my favorite changes so often that it is impossible to say what it is for very long. No matter how many times I’m asked, however, the cuisine of Azerbaijan is always one of my top choices – at least when considering the cuisines from Volume One of The Silk Road Gourmet.

Mosque with Two Minarets

One of the reasons I like Azeri food so much is that there is interplay of so many different traditions evident in the flavors. The most obvious influence is found from Persian food in a nearly full complement of the main western Asian ingredients: saffron, sumac, fenugreek, cumin, marigold, and sour plums, sour grapes, sour cherries and pomegranates. European influences can be seen cilantro and coriander seeds, mint, savory, red vinegar. Central Asian items include onion, garlic and dill; Indian subcontinent ingredients include cardamom, sweet basil and cinnamon and from the Pacific Rim we have nutmeg and cloves.

The unique combinations of these ingredients in Azeri food are remarkable and wonderful and provide what I like to call – taste revelations: Baked Fish with Sour Cherries, Hens with Dill and Pomegranates, Lamb with Quinces and Capers, Cinnamon Potatoes with Pine Nuts . . . Hungry yet?

Situated on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is another one of the Asian continent’s strategic crossroads between east, west, north, and south. As such, it has been occupied by many foreign rulers and peoples who have left their mark on its modern culture. As with its Georgian and Armenian neighbors, influences as diverse as those of Rome, Alexander, the Uzbek Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan, can be found—both in and outside of the kitchen.

Like Georgia, Azerbaijan has a wide variety of climatic zones as well. In fact, nine of eleven climatic zones are represented, and in Azerbaijan one can simultaneously see all four seasons just by traveling from one end of the country to the other. High mountains, fertile foothills growing tea and citrus, dry steppes, luxurious forests, and Caspian shores—Azerbaijan has it all! So, in addition to a long history of foreign occupation, a widely varied climate has led to one of western Asia’s most diverse cuisines.

Azeri Petroglyphs

Archaeological evidence of habitation goes back to the upper Paleolithic with the caves and petroglyphs of Gobustan. The gold-forging, Scythian horsemen dwelt there in the 9th Century BCE and were followed by the Medes until the 6th Century BCE. The country was incorporated into the Persian Achaemenid Empire by the 5th Century BCE, and quickly became a major center for the Zoroastrian faith because of the natural upwelling of gas fires that allowed them to build many fire-temples. The Sassanid Persians ruled from the 2nd Century CE to the Muslim Arab conquest of the mid-7th Century. The Umayyad or the Abbasids ruled until the 13th Century, but beginning in the 11th Century Central Asian tribes, dominated by the Oghuz Turkmen seized the reigns of power. A western branch of the Oghuz, the Seljuks rose to prominence and ushered in a time of intellectual and cultural flowering throughout the empire.

Mausoleum Gudi Katun

The Seljuks favored an early, angular form of Arabic calligraphy called Kufic script that is often depicted in a maze-like square called square or geometrical Kufic and is used in architecture and textile design throughout the Muslim world. The fascinating thing about square Kufic is that it is a true child of Silk Road cultural exchange. It arose after Muslim traders had regular contact with Chinese merchants and admired their square “seals” used to identify individuals on contracts and shipments of goods. Kufic squares are formed by arranging lines of Kufic script in a square pattern, sometimes by arranging words and phrases in a spiral form. Usually the words depict verses from the Koran or the name of God or the prophet Mohammed or Imam Ali. These squares are then repeated in a pattern to form amazing lattice-like designs like those seen on Azerbaijan’s Mausoleum Gudi Khatun or in the border of the Azeri Kuba Afshan rug that graces the Kelley-family living room floor.

The Seljuks first became a vassal state to the Mongols who ruled from about 1220 to the early 1300s. After the Mongols, the Jalayirids,ruled for about 100 years, followed by Timur or Tamerlane who reinstated patronage of Persian and Muslim cultural and intellectual pursuits. After Timur’s death in 1405, the local Shirvanshah – present in the region for hundreds of years – rose to prominence. The Safavids introduced Sh’ia Islam and were followed by a series of Khanates that persisted until the early 19th Century when they were incorporated into the Russian Empire. Except for a brief couple of years as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, Azerbaijan remained with the sphere of Russo-Soviet influence until the early 1990s.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of its conquered territories, Azerbaijan, like many of the other Caucasus and Central Asian countries have been undergoing a period of national and cultural rejuvenation. With its partially developed oil reserves generating significant income, Azerbaijan is one of the most modern of the post-Soviet states with near 50 percent of its population living in cities.

Thanks to YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Project, Azeri music – some of which, like the Mugham vocal style, are nationally unique forms – are now available for the world to enjoy. If you’ve never heard Alim Qasimov sing, run don’t walk to the internet or music store to hear Kor Arab and some of the post passionate vocal work in the world. You may not understand a word, but the meaning will be clear.  Click here for a link to a YouTube video of Qasimov.

There are so many wonderful things to learn about the people and culture of Azerbaijan – I urge you to listen up, read up, and above all, tuck in! (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Azeri Mosque by Elnur@Dreamstime.com; Photo of the Nakchivan Tomb by Avatavat@Dreamstime.com; Photo of the Gobustan Petroglyphs by Wikimedia)

Happy Nowruz! (Persian New Year)

For today’s post in celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, we have a guest blogger, Azita from the wonderful site Turmeric and Saffron. Azita is an Iranian who celebrates the cuisine and culture of Iran on her website. In addition to being an accomplished cook, she is also talented in food styling and food photography and regularly illustrates the recipes on her site with her lovely photos. Here’s some of her memories of the Norwuz celebrations past, some information about the holiday and of course, a recipe and photos. Many thanks, Azita!

Back home in Iran, the days leading up to Nowruz were always very busy and bustling with many different activities. These would include the cleaning of our house from top to bottom, washing the drapes, changing the upholstery of old chairs, cleaning our Persian rugs and some years we would apply a new coat of paint to our living room and dinning room.

My mother would take my sister and I to pick out our favorite floral fabrics for our New Year dresses. The next stop would be going to the seamstress for fittings. On the other hand, my father would take my four brothers to the tailor for their Nowruz suits.

The change of the season along, with all the preparation, would bring about such excitement and joy especially knowing that we would have 13 days off from school. During the day of the Nowruz celebration, we’d wear our new clothes and shoes and take our seats around the haft-seen table and wait for the countdown to the exact moment of the spring equinox (tahvil-e sal). My mom would light the candles, one for each of us, including my parents. In the last few minutes we’d remain quiet and would hold some grains of uncooked rice in the palms of our hands, representing blessings, while praying for health, happiness and everything else that we wished for.

My father would always remind us to pray for others before wanting and wishing anything for ourselves. Nowruz gifts (eidi) were usually money given to us by my parents and elders of the family. Traditionally, the eldest always give eidi to the youngest. The following days after the New Year would be spent by paying visits (did-o-bazdiz) to family members, relatives and friends of the family.

Lentil Sprouts

This year, March 20th marks the beginning of the Persian New Year (Nowruz) celebration for year 1389. Nowruz always begins on the first day of spring/vernal equinox, when days and nights are of equal length. Nowruz holiday lasts for 13 days and it literally means “new day” in Persian. It symbolizes a new beginning and the victory of light over dark and the harshness of winter. The history of Nowruz celebration is rooted in the 3000 year old Zoroastrian belief system and goes back to the great Persian Empire.

Today, Nowruz is celebrated as greatly as ever and is a major national holiday in Iran. In preparation for the New Year festivities a thorough spring-cleaning (khaneh-tekani) is carried out weeks before the New Year celebration. Growing sabzeh (wheat, barley, lentils) is an essential part of getting ready for New Year. Setting the Nowruz table (sofreh-e haft seen) and sitting around it during the turn of the year and wearing new clothes are practiced by Iranians all over. According to Zoroastrian beliefs, the souls of the departed come down and join in the festivities and celebrations. Even though the history of Nowruz and the Haft Seen spread may be somewhat obscure, it has been written about by the great Persian poet Ferdowsy (935–1020) in the book of “Shanameh”. During the Nowruz celebrations we are reminded once again by the ancient Zoroastrian teachings of “Good Thoughts” (goftar-e nik), “Good Words” (pendar-e nik), and “Good Deeds” (kerdar-e nik).

Haft Seen

The Haft-seen is traditionally set up with seven items beginning with the letter “seen” (S) that symbolically represent, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, beauty, patience and re-birth. The “seens” are as follows:

Sabzeh (wheat sprouts) representing rebirth, new life and fertility
Sumac representing the spice of life
Senjed (dry fruit of the lotus tree) representing love
Sonbol (hyacinth flower) representing spring
Samanoo (sweet wheat pudding) representing the reward of patience and sweet life
Sekeh (coin) representing wealth and prosperity
Seer (garlic) to ward off bad omens

The haft-seen table would also include a mirror at the top, candles representing light, seeb (apple) representing beauty and health, serkeh (vinegar) representing age, colored eggs representing fertility, gold fish the symbol of life, and rose water, a symbol of its cleansing power and an orange in a bowl of water representing the world. Many people would also place their holy book or a book of poetry by Hafez on the table.

Kuku Sabzi

One of the most popular and traditional dishes served on the day of Nowruz celebration is a fried or baked vegetable and egg dish called Kookoo Sabzi. Another traditional Nowruz dish is Sabzi Polow (herb rice) which is usually served with smoked or fried/baked white fish (mahi).

Kookoo Sabzi

Ingredients
2 cups chopped parsley
2 cups chopped scallions (green parts only) or (leeks, chives)
2 cups chopped spinach
1 cup chopped dill
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons barberries (zereshk), optional
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, optional
5 large eggs
1/3 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon flour
4-5 tablespoons vegetable oil

 

Directions
Clean and wash the vegetables. Chopping them by hand is the preferred and the traditional way. However, the convenient and the less time consuming way is to use the food processor. You may chop them finely but I only pulse it a few times and not to have it mushy at the end. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs well with a whisk. Then add all the above ingredients except the oil and mix thoroughly until well blended. To this mixture add one tablespoon of oil and stir well.

In an oven proof baking dish place the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil. Gently pour the herb mixture into the dish evenly, cover lightly with an aluminum foil and place in a 350 degrees pre-heated oven for 40 minutes. Remove the foil half way through the cooking. Once cooked, remove from oven and let it cool for a few minutes before cutting it into small pieces. Place on a serving platter. It could be served hot or cold with warm bread and yogurt or mixed-vegetable pickles (torshi).

Sounds delicious Azita! Again, many thanks for sharing your memories and knowledge of Nowruz with us. Happy Nowruz, Happy Spring to you all. (Words and Photos by Azita M.)

(Additional: Laura would like to dedicate this post to colleagues Arash and Kamiar Alaei who are celebrating this Nowruz in prison.)