Chef Miles Collins Cooks from The Silk Road

Chef Miles Collins has just cooked and reviewed one of the recipes – Lamb and Rhubarb Stew – from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One over on his site. Miles is a talented professional chef, and a brilliant photographer who focuses on subjects from life and work in gourmet kitchens to the nature and wildlife of his native Lincolnshire, England. All in all – a polymath, and a very nice guy. Check out his site for a beautiful and informative look at Beyond the Kitchen: A Fresh Look at Food, Photography, Nature and Culture. (Click here for the recipe).

The Real Sinbad the Sailor

A post about the real Sibad the Sailor – A Persian named Soleiman Siraf

The Voyages of Sinbad tell of giant, magical creatures: whales the size of islands, snakes so large that they could swallow elephants, and rukh (roc) birds so large that they could carry a caravan of men on their backs. Tales of these creatures repeated across cultures and through the ages have made most readers assume that they were simply pigments of a colorful imagination – works of fiction. But what if these creatures were real? What if the fictionalized accounts were based on the observations of early travelers that were tainted by mysticism and embellished over time by the repetition of stories in an oral tradition? Remember, maps in the medieval world portrayed demons and the edge of the world was thought to be a very real place.

Soleiman Siraf – Production Still from Film

In part at least, the Voyages of Sinbad are based on the voyages of Soleiman Siraf – the first western Asian man to navigate the seas from his home in Siraf, Persia, to Western India, around the Malabar coast and across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, Thailand and eventually to Southern China through the Straits of Mallaca. He sailed around 775 and his voyages were recorded almost 70 years later by Abu Zaid al Hassan in his Siraf & Soleiman the Merchant in 851 ACE.

Siraf sought to open a route to China for western trade so that Persia was not simply the recipient of goods from the east and subject to the inflationary markup of the many merchants the goods had to pass through. Great Chinese ships carrying goods to Indonesia, India and beyond to Arabia and the Persian Gulf were already seen at the larger, deeper ports capable of hosting large ships. These ships carried, silks, pearls and other precious stones, porcelain, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon indicating that Chinese merchants made many stops along their way to the western seas. But until Siraf, no western trader had ever navigated his way back to China to trade directly with the Chinese and the other countries along the way. In sailing and travelling all the way to China and back, Siraf was opening the doors to two-way trade on the Maritime Silk Road.

Sinbad by Paul Klee

Sailing almost 500 years before Marco Polo and his family departed Italy for China, Siraf’s voyages have gained little attention in the west outside of academic circles – until now. An Iranian film by director Mohammad Bozorgnia that just opened at the Kish film festival celebrates the life and travels of Siraf and his companions. The film is told through the eyes of a fictionalized young man who participates in the voyage and records its details in a Watson to Holmes sort of relationship. Since the film is racking up awards in Iran, I hope that it will released internationally, at least on DVD – I would love to see it.

Building on the extensive knowledge of Arab and Persian geographers of the time – who had already described Southern Europe and Asia, Northwest and eastern Africa to Madagascar, and the Malabar coast – Siraf first navigated across the northern Arabian Sea to around the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat) and then down to Kollam. Given the importance of trade to the merchants of the Tang Dynasty, the presence of Chinese traders in Kollam was fairly common, but sizeable permanent settlements of Chinese on India’s western coast didn’t begin until the Yuan Dynasty several hundred years later – and indication of how trade grew with the opening of a two-way maritime route.

Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks

As to the stories themselves, the origins of the Voyages of Sinbad are more or less contemporaneous with the publication of the account of Soleiman Siraf’s travels in the middle of the 9th Century ACE. Early Arabic manuscripts of One Thousand and One Nights do not include the Sinbad stories as part of Scheherazade’s tales. Rather, the Sinbad stories, which are legitimate regional folktales were added in the 18th Century by French traveller and translator Antoine Galland. Still, the stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries.

Whether as early accounts of a fantastic and dangerous world that can provide riches for those who dare depart familiar shores, or in the painting of Sinbad as a romantic a swashbuckling adventurer, or as stories for children to fuel their imaginations, the tales continue to be told. From Galland to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks, Voyages of Sinbad have endured for more than 1000 years. And, in part, at least, they were inspired by a very real Persian man – Soleiman Siraf – who changed the face of maritime trade on the early Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of The Maritime Silk Road Production Still, Sinbad by Paul Klee and Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks to Dreamworks from Google images.)

Global Table Adventure: Georgia

Sasha Martin has just completed a week of cooking some of my favorite dishes from Georgia adapted from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One. For a look at her meal review, beautiful photos of the preparation and recipies check out her Global Table Adventure Website. Its a great project: 195 countries, 195 meals, 195 weeks. The site is informative, interesting and full of personal insight and great food!

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)