Category Archives: Early Explorers

A Review of the Viking Cookbook, An Early Meal

An Early Meal by Serra and Tunberg

An Early Meal by Serra and Tunberg

Raiders… conquerors… fierce in battle and strong in family. These are the images that the world has of Vikings. We know where they lived, and to some degree how they made a living. We know which gods they worshipped and how. Yet the bulk of our knowledge consists of broad brush strokes that omit the nuances of everyday life. The Vikings recorded many things, from The Sagas to business transactions and personal letters. But beyond a brief and occasional mention, two of the many things they didn’t write about were what they ate and how they prepared their meals. The Vikings left no recipes.

Read the rest of my review of the Viking cookbook, An Early Meal on the EXARC (Experimental Archaeology) website.

The Origins of Curry Powder

Where did curry powder come from? There is no real equivalent in authentic subcontinental cuisines for a ready-made powder. The closest thing to a curry powder is a masala, and that is almost always more of a paste than a powder because of the addition of wet and dry ingredients to the mix. On the subcontinent, seeds and roots, etc. are roasted, ground and mixed in varying proportions according to the needs of the recipe. Although the origins of curry powder are unclear, the advertisement below gives us a firm data point of the mid 1780s for a commercial curry powder for sale in London.

First British Curry Advertisement

First British Curry Advertisement

The advertisement, which ran in the Morning Post (now incorporated into the Daily Telegraph) says that this curry powder was brought back from the East Indies by Solander. Now, Solander was the great Swedish naturalist who was botanist on Captain Cook’s Endeavour expedition to the Pacific. Despite the claim, this is probably just a marketing ploy – like Mrs. Pepperidge – because the closest the Endeavour ever got to India was actually Indonesia (Batavia/Jakarta) and it returned to Britain in 1771, some 13 years before the advertisement. Solander, on the other hand, did meet an untimely death in 1784, and was something of a celebrated figure at the time. So, it was good business sense by the maker of the curry powder to use Solander’s name to conjure images of exploration and the exotic cuisines of the east.

It isn’t completely clear which company manufactured this powder, but I have one data point that indicates that it was Crosse and Blackwell – S&B – still makers of chutneys, relishes, and sauces. The problem with this is that they weren’t incorporated until 1830 when the men behind the initials S&B bought the business from its proprietors West and Wyatt. West and Wyatt, on the other opened its doors for business in 1706, so it indeed could have been their curry powder for sale at Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse in 1784.

The advertisement claims that the curry powder will help you make sumptuous sauces for East-Indian dishes. It also says that the curry powder promotes good digestion, good circulation, a vigorous mind and . . . wait for it . . . a strong libido. Who doesn’t want more of all that? How could anyone resist?

Dean Mahomet

Sake Dean Mahomet

However, because our early data point shows commercial curry powder for sale in 18th Century England, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is an English invention. People from the subcontinent were already immigrating in the 17th Century, with the earliest baptism of an Indian-born Asian man in 1616, and by the 18th Century, Indian sailors were commonplace on East India Company ships, hired to replace men who had died on the voyage east. The passage for the Indian sailors was often one-way, from east to west, with the sailors attempting to start a life in a less-than-welcoming England. Usually, however, they wound up in transient, low-wage jobs or living by the good will of others. The cooks on the ships who fed these sailors, sometimes fared better than the sailors themselves, and wound up as tavern and pub cooks, slinging British food as well as the occasional curry to the hungry English populous.

In 1773 the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket started selling a prepared curry, and by 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened the first Indian-owned and operated Indian restaurant in Britain with the Hindustan Coffee House at 34 George Street, Portman Square. In Mahomet’s restaurant, British patrons could enjoy hookahs with ‘real Chilim tobacco’ as well as a wide selection of curries.

Fortunately, perhaps, or not, this article has no firm conclusions to offer about the definitive origins of curry powder, but it does place some good data on the table. Despite my wanting to keep the door open to the contributions of Anglo-Asians in the formulation of curry powders, my instinct tells me that commercial, prepared curry powder is probably not their contribution to world cuisine. If it were an Asian or an Anglo-Asian invention, I would think that the taste of curries made with curry powder would be a lot more authentically “Indian”. Still, I’ll keep digging to see there are further strands to pull, so stay tuned. (Words by Laura Kelley, Newspaper clipping of first British Curry Powder Ad from the British Library and Portrait of Sake Dean Mohamet from the Wellcome Archive.)

A 17th C. Frittata with Chili Peppers

Described by the Spanish in 1492 during the first Columbian voyage to the New World, chili peppers took the Old World by storm.  Brought by the Portuguese to their colonies in Africa and India by the end of the 15th Century, chilies were so eagerly adopted by the indigenous peoples of these regions that they became widespread naturalized crops within a couple of decades.

Habanero Chilies

Habanero Chilies

After that, chili peppers were embraced by the Indonesians by the late 1520s and 1530s and in China and Japan by the 1540s.

Interestingly, the adoption of chilies within Europe itself was somewhat slower, with the first real scientific description being made in the 1540s by Fuchs, and the earliest published recipes only appearing in the 17th Century.

While I was working with the early East Indian curry recipe in Domingos Rodrigues’ Arte de Cozhina (1680), I stumbled upon some of these early European chili recipes.  Although I am still translating and developing these recipes, I found a real gem of a dish that I’d like to share with you: a delicious 17th Century Portuguese “frittata” with lamb and spices that also packs a wallop of heat because of the chilies it contains.
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The original recipe reads:
Pasteis de perna de Carneiro

Metase em uma panela uno perna de Carneiro, meyo arratel de toucinho, duas onças de manteiga, duas cebolas, um golpe de vinagre, adubos inteiro, e uma capelle de todos os cheiro, e pan-se a cozer em agua pouca ; estando jà o Carneiro mais de meyo cozido, tirese fóra, e piquese a parte todo o Carneiro ; e logo em outra parte piquemse os cheiro, e em uma tigela baixa, untada de manteiga se vàpondo cama de Carneiro, cama de toucinho : deitemse logo por cima meya duzia de ovos batidos, e pan-se a córar em lume brando.

Feito isto, façable de fóra parte umas sopas da dita substancia, e depois que estiverem muy aboboradas, virese a tigella, em que se fizerem, sobre o prato, equebrese a tigela, para que a sopa fique inteira ; sobre ella se porà o pastel, e lançindolhe por cima çumo de limaõ, mandesa à mesa.

Tambem se faz de lombos, e vitela, ou da carne que quizerem.
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My liberal and functional translation of this is:

Frittata with Lamb

Place a leg of lamb in a pan with the lard from one pound of bacon, two ounces of butter, two onions, a stroke of vinegar, and whole spices.  Separately, place the chili peppers to cook in a little water.

When most of the fat has evaporated, take the lamb from the pan and remove the meat from the bone. Chop up the hot peppers and mix them with the meat.

In a shallow bowl, greased with butter, place the chopped lamb [and peppers]. Above this lay down a double layer of bacon.  Pour a dozen beaten eggs over this and place in the oven until golden brown but still soft.

This done, now it is time to turn the eggs out of the pan.  Place flatbread on top of the pan and cover this with a plate.  Turn the pan with the eggs over so that the eggs come out in one piece.  Pour lemon juice over the dish and send it to the table.

Also can be made with veal or beef tenderloin.

Lamb Frittata with Chili Peppers

Lamb Frittata with Chili Peppers

Written in modern form, the recipe looks like this:

Lamb Frittata with Chili Peppers

2 pounds of lamb cut from the leg, trimmed into bite-size pieces
fat from 1 pound of bacon
4 tablespoons sweet butter, plus a bit more to grease the pie dish
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1.5 tablespoons coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
1-2 tablespoons malt vinegar
3-4 dried Habanero peppers (more or less to taste)
6 eggs, whisked until frothy
juice of half a lemon
chopped cilantro for garnish

Dry roast or pan fry the whole spices until lightly colored and set aside to cool. Crack or coarsely grind the roasted spices. Melt the bacon fat and butter over high heat in a large sauté pan and add the lamb, stirring often as the meat colors and cooks. When the lamb starts to brown, remove it from the pan and set aside.

Lower the heat to medium and add the roasted spices. Add the cayenne (if using) and the turmeric, and stir well. Add the sliced onion, stir, lower heat again, and cover to cook for 5-8 minutes. Add the malt vinegar, stir well, and add the lamb back into the pan. Mix well and allow the lamb to cook over medium or medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes until it starts to become tender.

Heat some water to boil in a small sauté pan. Remove from heat and drop the chili peppers into the hot water. Let chilies soak for a minute or two and remove from the pan to drain. Mince chilies, but do not remove the seeds or placenta. Habaneros are powerful little gems and you may wish to wear gloves to handle them. When done, wash hands well with soap and water. Add the chilies to the lamb and onion mixture and mix well. When the lamb is tender, remove from the heat.

Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a deep-dish pie pan with butter (I used a ceramic pan) and add the lamb and onion mixture. Add the frothed eggs and make sure the eggs envelop the lamb. When oven is hot, place the egg pan into the oven and bake for about 8-10 minutes or until the eggs are firm and colored golden-brown. Remove pan from oven and rest for a few minutes.

Run a knife gently around the edge of the pan to loosen the eggs and place an 8-10 inch piece of flatbread (I used commercial, Indian naan) on top of the eggs. Place a serving plate on top of the flatbread and invert to remove the eggs from the pan. Sprinkle lemon juice over the eggs, garnish with cilantro and serve. Serve with slices of lemon on the table for diners to add if desired.
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The dish itself is more like an Apician patella or an Iranian kuku than like any other modern dish called a “pasteis” which range from codfish cakes to egg-custard desserts, so I feel that it is acceptable to call it a frittata.

About the chilies. The peppers in the recipe are called pimento de cheiro, or aromatic chilies, which Rodrigues abbreviates to chieros. The genus and species that this represents is Capiscum chinense. Generally speaking as a family, these chilies are known as the Chinese lantern chilies and they are the hottest chilies in the world. Varieties include, the Bhut Jolokia, the Hainan Yellow Lantern, the now infamous Trinidad Scorpion, and the easy to find Habenero chili. For this recipe I used the Habanero, for the ease in acquisition, the ability to control the heat in the recipe, and the assumption that chili peppers in the 17th Century were generally more like the Habanero and less like the Trinidad Scorpion with its 2.5 million Scovilles of heat.

As to how I dealt with the “whole spices” direction? This time I didn’t do original research as I did with the curry spices, I started by using a recipe from a modern edition of Arte de Cozhina that includes a few developed recipes that I found on the internet. It looked like an interesting spice mix, but it unfortunately had no context on how or why the spices were chosen. Nevertheless, I tried it, and it was delicious.

I adapted the recipe a bit by chopping the lamb off the bone before cooking, by reducing the number of eggs by half, and by omitting the bacon, because, although I like the flavor, I often find it overpowering. Even with the adaptations, this is still a rich and savory historical dish that may surprise your family and friends with its unusual combinations of flavors. These choices made may result in a spicier dish than the original, because the meat is taken off the bone before it is sautéed, but it really is quite good this way. I was a bit suspicious about the use of lemon juice on the eggs, but in the end, I found that it worked wonderfully.

There are several other recipes in Arte de Cozhina using different types of chili peppers, If those yield dishes as savory and delicious as this one, I will be sure to let you know. Till then, tuck into this great recipe and imagine what might have been like to be a Portuguese sailor or trader in the in the 17th Century . . . experiencing strange and wonderful foreign cultures along the remnants of the Maritime Silk Road. (Words, recipe translation and development by Laura Kelley, Photo of Habanero Chili Peppers from Wikimedia, and Photo of the Lamb Frittata with Chili Peppers by Laura Kelley).

Silk Road in the News #8: A Maritime Silk Road Stop in Australia?

Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE

Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE

African coins, some possibly minted as early as 900 ACE, have been found buried on the Wessel Islands of Northern Australia, and have thrown accepted notions of when non-Aboriginal peoples first visited the continent into question. The oldest of the coins were minted in Kilwa, an island off the coast of Tanzania that was once a luxurious stopover for merchants and travelers on the Maritime Silk Road.

For over 600 years, Kilwa was the most prominent port, trading post, and resort on the east African coast. It had a glittering mosque, decorated with coral and Chinese porcelain, and a palace with an octagonal swimming pool. It controlled the trade in gold, ivory and slaves out of Zimbabwe, up into Arabia, into Persia and across to India.

Originally discovered in 1944 by an Australian soldier, Maurice Isenberg, the coins were treated as personal curiosities for decades until Isenberg sent them for appraisal in 1979. At that time, Isenberg found that 5 of the coins were over 1,000 years of age and from Africa, while the others were minted by the Dutch East India Company.

The coins came to the attention of an Australian graduate student, Ian Mcintosh, before Isenberg died in 1991. In July of this year, Mcintosh, who is now a Professor from the Indiana University-Purdue University, will be leading a team of international researchers to the Wessel Islands to try to discover how the coins came to the island. They will be using a map, hand-drawn by Isenberg, to locate the site of the original discovery and to determine whether other artifacts could be buried nearby.

Great Mosque at Kilwa

Great Mosque at Kilwa

The Kilwan coins could have come to Australia as part of a horde from much later than 900 ACE, or they could be evidence that non-Aboriginal peoples stopped on the Wessel Islands when trading goods from Africa for those from the Indo-Pacific along the Maritime Silk Road over 1,000 years ago.

It is unlikely that African merchants brought the coins to Australia, unless as sailors on other vessels, because African ships weren’t equipped to go further to sea than Arabia and India. They could travel up to Arabia on small boats sewn together by coconut fibers. But once they got to Arabia and India, large vessels from these nations could travel all the way to Tang China and down into the Spice Islands.

Additionally, the famed Chinese-Muslim mariner, Zheng-He made many, celebrated trips from mainland China to Africa and back during his life time in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. He was also not the first Asian to trade for Africa’s rich bounty of animals, spices, ivory and gold.

Other finds from the Indo-Pacific, including the wreck of an Arab-style dhow off the Indonesian island of Belitung are evidence for an early, rich trade between China, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. One of the bowls found aboard that wreck had a manufacturing date of July 16th, 826 ACE – earlier even than the Kilwan coins.

I will be watching the progress of Mcintosh’s work closely and report significant findings here. So, stay tuned.

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Great Mosque at Kilwa from Wikimedia; Photo of the Kilwan coins from original news reports of the story.)

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

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

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

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

Cloves Dried and in Flower

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

Aromatic and Medicial Uses of Cloves

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

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

Ingredients for Baharat

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

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

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

Kyrgyz Bal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.)

Silk Road Sojourners

The University of Pennsylvania Museum displays the artifacts of some Silk Road Sojourners – ancient Caucasian travelers on the Silk Road.

The Beauty of Xiaohe

In a desolate, eastern world of salt and sand, where blinding windstorms were common and potable water was rare, the mummified remains of people from the west have been found. Why they died, where they came from and where they were traveling to is unclear, but for a short time, they were put on display in the United States – another Silk Road exhibit that I just couldn’t miss.

A couple of weekends ago, we bundled the kids into the car and drove to Philadelphia to see the exhibit, Secrets of the Silk Road, a collection of artifacts from Silk Road travelers that spans more than 2,500 years of the region’s history. One of the oldest objects on display was a female mummy with Caucasian features and long auburn hair dated to almost 2,000 years BCE. Dubbed the, ‘Beauty of Xiaohe’ she slumbered silently in her glass case dressed in plain, pale wool and cotton clothing and a felt hat with a few personal artifacts from her gravesite.

Infant mummy from 1000 BCE

Despite false claims that Silk Road trade began with Alexander or with the Romans, episodic trade between east and west – between China and Afghanistan or the Indus Valley – began around this time. Some of the first items to be traded were the semi-precious lapis lazuli from the west for all shades of Chinese jade. The Beauty of Xiaohe and her fellow travelers could well have been on an early trade mission to exchange precious goods such as these, make a buck, and open the doors of cultural exchange that became the Silk Road.

Conjecture? Yes, but these travelers could also been engaged in trade for early Chinese silk which was perfected around this time in the Yangtze’s late Longshan culture. Or, they could have been in search of domesticated horses and pigs which the Qinghai’s Qijia culture excelled in. They also could have been part of the Aryan migrations which began in earnest around this time as well.

Whatever goods, economic or living opportunities brought Caucasians into far eastern Central Asia and Western China, they kept on coming – despite the hardships of the Tarim – which took many lives. Also on display, was the mummy of an infant from about 1000 BCE. The baby was buried, swaddled in red woolen shawl with an azure blue bonnet covering its head. Stones covered the dead child’s eyes and next to it lay a tiny drinking horn and sheep udder – presumably so it could feed in the afterlife – another casualty of the Silk Road.

Yingpan Man’s Clothing

A later set of clothing from the 4th or 5th Century CE spoke volumes for the wealth to be had on the early Silk Road. The mummy of Yingpan Man was deemed too fragile to tour, but the Chinese Government generously sent his clothes. He must have been truly magnificent: A tall man from Samarkand – over six-feet – in a gorgeous, red belted caftan with a small army of little golden Greco-Roman putti and bulls or goats woven in gold brocade. His trousers were deep purple with gold brocade in scroll and cloud-like designs. The caftan is believed to have been woven in the Eastern Roman Empire and traded East. The trousers – or at least the fabric they were made from – may have been Levantine as well because of the distinct purple color – a shellfish derived color the Phoenicians were renowned for.

Food from Tarim Basin Sites

So presumably, given his attire, in life, this man was wealthy, perhaps a merchant. If so, his clothing was an advertisement for the services his trade network offered: China, Rome, the Levant, Samarkand and many places in between. The goods and ideas of the known world at your fingertips – for a price.

Of course I wondered what these early Silk Road travelers and traders ate, and this time, I was not disappointed. Grave goods are a fantastic source of information about what people ate, and form the backbone of what we know about the diets of several ancient cultures, including the Ancient Egyptians. But with so little known about the Tarim travelers, the elaborate food items found with them are a revelation! There are cookies and biscuits modeled after plum blossom and crysanthemums, there are wontons and spring rolls and several other types of snacks to be had on the long journey to either Xian or the afterlife.

For me the exhibt wasn’t about naturally-preserved corpses (I’ve seen a lot of corpses in my day – too many really), but it was about the birth and blossoming of the Silk Road. Goods and gold, of course, but more importantly, the Silk Road was about the flow of ideas and cultures that became and engine of change in the ancient world. Every step that the Beauty of Xiaohe or Yingpan Man took has influenced the world we live in today and will continue to echo long after we are gone. I wonder if our own lives will have such impact on the future? (Words by Laura Kelley, Photos from the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit from Museum sites.)

Ibn Battuta in IMAX

“. . . If I am to die, then what better place to do so than on the road to Mecca,” declares a very young and confident Ibn Battuta to his family and friends who saw him off on his first great journey. Time and the realities of travel in the fourteenth century soon tempered his youthful bluster as Battuta made his way across the Sahara from his native Tangier towards Cairo and Mecca.

Ibn Battuta Sets Out

I’ve written about Battuta’s journeys before on this blog, but his story warrants attention again because of a wonderful new film: Ibn Battuta – Journey to Mecca. Last weekend we took the kids down to the Smithsonian’s Johnson IMAX theatre to see the film and were happy we did. The film chronicles Battuta’s first journey, the Hajj pilgrimage, and the trip across North Africa to the great cities of Cairo, Damascus, and Medina that led to Mecca.

The journey begins with Battuta saying farewell to his family and friends and receiving their simple gifts of a good horse and ihram a white, seamless length of cloth to wear during the pilgrimage. He is soon humbled by the hardships of the desert and an encounter with thieves. But his wanderings also lead him to find charity, friendship and protection from a Bedouin who escorts him to safety in Cairo, where he is received warmly by family friends. Determined to set out alone, he leaves his Bedu friend in Cairo and heads towards the Red Sea where he hopes to find short passage to Jeddah and then make his way overland to Mecca. As his friend warned he finds war along the seacoast has disrupted travel and is rescued from his despair by his Bedu friend who leads him to Damascus where he meets up with a fellow band of pilgrims.

Bedu

The IMAX format is well suited for the sweeping beauty of North Africa’s landscapes and to their credit, the writers keep the story suitably intimate for such a personal story. My favorite part of the film comes about three-quarters through when the fimmakers start to intersperse footage from the present day of real Hajj pilgrimages with those shot depicting the 14th Century. For me, this was a powerful to visually communicate the continuity and power of the Hajj tradition and its ceremonies and a reminder of the numerous connections we all have with the past.

The film is about a great man and a great explorer, but it is also about faith, piety, determination, tolerance and charity. Battuta reaches Mecca a different, more tempered man than he was when he left his home. He fulfills his religious duty with passion and goes on to travel the world all the way to China as he did in a dream on the back of a great bird. His fortunes rise and fall as he travels and only decades later he returns to Morocco before setting out to Spain and other nearby ports.

Ibn Battuta and Pilgrims to Mecca

The Muslim World is in great part synonymous with the Silk Road, and Muslim traders were important in moving, goods, ideas and ideals around the old world for millenia. In many ways the world of the Silk Road was more multicultural than our own – with Muslims from abroad serving as ministers in Chinese courts and Persian Muslim rulers showing cultural and religious forbearance to non-Muslim states in their empires.

If Ibn Battuta: Journey to Mecca is showing in your area, I urge you to see it, it is a strange combination of sweeping and intimate and teaches history, respect and understanding in each frame. (Words by Laura Kelley; All photos from the film borrowed from the “Journey to Mecca” website)

The Silk Road Roots of the Age of Exploration

I’ve written a lot about the participation of Asian nations in Silk Road trade, but what I haven’t considered enough is the effect of the Silk Road on Europe. The Silk Road and its spice trade played important parts in shaping early modern Europe, and it was no less than the price of pepper, cinnamon and cloves in the mid-fifteenth century that forced the Portuguese and the Spanish to the seas to find a route to Asia – kicking off the European Age of Exploration. A route to Asia that didn’t involve the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, that is.

Beginning with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Muslim traders controlled both of the major sea ports that brought Silk Road goods into Europe – Cairo and Constantinople and were soon to wrench Kaffa away from the Genoese twenty-two years later. With the control of all three ports, the traders and their financiers started charging higher and higher overhead fees for the passage of goods, which drove up the cost of goods to European consumers. There may have been a bit more than profiteering going on as well, because the higher import fees were being levied on the Christians who had unsuccessfully defended the remains of Byzantium against the Ottomans – a sort of Silk Road tribute to the victors if you will.

So in the mid-to-late fifteenth century the Portuguese and the Spanish begin funding massively expensive ocean expeditions to try to avoid the Muslim taxes on spices and Silk Road goods. In 1492 Columbus winds up in the West Indies and in 1498 the Portuguese – sailing in the correct direction – landed in Kerala, India. Within a decade, Vasco de Gama, Almeida, Albuquerque and other Portuguese pioneers had negotiated treaties with local rulers and set up trading posts to buy and sell black pepper, cinnamon and other spices at four sites in Southern India. With ports at Malindi, Mombasa and Mozambique in Africa they ran a vast spice empire that moved Asian spices from India, Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific directly around Africa to Lisbon for further distribution into Europe.

Three Types of Peppercorns

The seafaring Dutch were at first the principal partners of the Portuguese in transporting spices and other trade goods from Lisbon to the rest of Europe. Although Charles V was born in Ghent, as Holy Roman Emperor, he increased pressure on the growing Protestant population in the Netherlands – in part a Spanish possession. This caused unrest in the region and helped lead to the Dutch Revolt. Eventually, the Dutch were excluded from their part in this trade, and took to the seas on their own – forming the Dutch East India Company. Within a few decades, this company came to dominate the seafaring spice route, and until its demise in the late 1700s moved two and a half million tons of Asian trade goods into Europe and sent almost one million Europeans to work in Asia.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europeans loved their spices and paid dearly for them. A pound of cinnamon cost 24 pence and a pound of ginger half that; black pepper was about 18 pence per pound. With the average wage of a master carpenter being about 8 pence per day, one would have had to work 3 days for a pound of cinnamon and a little more than 2 for pepper. With 96 teaspoons in a pound, these purchases would probably last for 2-3 months in an average sized family, but still one can see how expensive spices were at this time. Anyone who could afford them, even if it was a stretch for their household income, considered spices a necessity. This was not only because food tastes better with added flavoring, but also to show to others in the community that they were well-off enough to afford spices (conspicuous consumption) and to harness the medicinal benefits offered by spices that I’ve written about in other posts.

The culinary creations enjoyed by the people of late Medieval and early modern Europe with Silk Road spices were well worth it. I am lucky to be married to a man who loves to dabble in historical cookery and am treated to these dishes on a regular basis. Recently he cooked a lamb stew from 17th Century Europe that had culinary relatives in Persia, Uzbekistan and even Mongolia. More accurately stated perhaps, the Persian dish gave rise to the European, Uzbek and Mongolian dishes. He started with a wonderful stock from Hugh Platt’s Delightes for Ladies from 1602 that combined currants, dates and almonds with onions, white wine, mace, black pepper, parsley, mint, bay and rosemary on a chicken and lamb base. The Levantine fruits, parsley, mint and mace make this a sweet treat to build a stew on. The completed stew goes on to add more onions, chestnuts, nutmeg and cloves for a rich, deep, filling stew.

So changes in traditional Silk Road maritime routes in the Mediterranean and Black Seas in the fifteenth century sent the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and eventually the rest of Europe to sea. The Dutch Revolt was the first in a series of struggles for succession that shaped early modern Europe, and the dissolution of the remnants of Byzantium sent the Greeks into Europe and opened intellectual doors that had long been shut – paving the way for many of the innovation and rediscoveries of the Renaissance. A victory for the Ottomans was the first in a long line of changes in the global spice trade that eventually led to the end of the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)

Africa on the Silk Road

Spices in an African Market

The Dark Continent, the Birthplace of Humanity . . . Africa. All of the lands south and west of the Kingdom of Egypt have for far too long been lumped into one cultural unit by westerners, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Africa is not one mysterious, impenetrable land as the legacy of the nineteenth Century European explorers suggests, it is rather an immensely varied patchwork of peoples that can be change not only by region and country but by nature’s way of separating people – b y rivers and lakes and by mountain ranges and deserts. A river or other natural barrier may separate two groups of people who interact, but who rarely intermarry, because they perceive the people on the other side to be “different” from them.

Africa played an important part in Silk Road trade from antiquity through modern times when much of the Silk Road trade was supplanted by European corporate conglomerates like the Dutch and British East India Companies who created trade monopolies to move goods around the Old World instead. But in the heyday of the Silk Road, merchants travelled to Africa to trade for rare timbers, gold, ivory, exotic animals and spices. From ports along the Mediterranean and Red Seas to those as far south as Mogadishu and Kenya in the Indian Ocean, goods from all across the continent were gathered for the purposes of trade.

One of Africa’s contributions to world cuisine that is still widely used today is sesame seeds. Imagine East Asian food cooked in something other than its rich sesame oil, how about the quintessential American-loved Chinese dish, General Tso’s Chicken? How ‘bout the rich, thick tahini paste enjoyed from the Levant and Middle East through South and Central Asia and the Himalayas as a flavoring for foods (hummus, halva) and stir-fries, and all of the breads topped with sesame or poppy seeds? Then think about the use of black sesame seeds from South Asian through East Asian foods and desserts. None of these cuisines would have used sesame in these ways, if it hadn’t been for the trade of sesame seeds from Africa in antiquity.

Given the propensity of sesame plants to easily reseed themselves, the early African and Arab traders probably acquired seeds from native peoples who gathered wild seeds. The seeds reached Egypt, the Middle East and China by 4,000 – 5,000 years ago as evidenced from archaeological investigations, tomb paintings and scrolls. Given the eager adoption of the seeds by other cultures and the small supply, the cost per pound was probably quite high and merchants likely made fortunes off the trade.

Tamarind Pods

The earliest cultivation of sesame comes from India in the Harappan period of the Indus Valley by about 3500 years ago and from then on, India began to supplant Africa as a source of the seeds in global trade. By the time of the Romans, who used the seeds along with cumin to flavor bread, the Indian and Persian Empires were the main sources of the seeds.

Another ingredient still used widely today that originates in Africa is tamarind. Growing as seed pods on huge lace-leaf trees, the seeds are soaked and turned into tamarind pulp or water and used to flavor curries and chutneys in Southern and South Eastern Asia, as well as the more familiar Worcestershire and barbeque sauces in the West. Eastern Africans use Tamarind in their curries and sauces and also make a soup out of the fruits that is popular in Zimbabwe. Tamarind has been widely adopted in the New World as well as is usually blended with sugar for a sweet and sour treat wrapped in corn husk as a pulpy treat or also used as syrup to flavor sodas, sparkling waters and even ice cream.

Some spices of African origin that were traded along the Silk Road have become extinct. One such example can be found in wild silphion which was gathered in Northern Africa and traded along the Silk Road to create one of the foundations of the wealth of Carthage and Kyrene. Cooks valued the plant because of the resin they gathered from its roots and stalk that when dried became a powder that blended the flavors of onion and garlic. It was impossible for these ancient people to cultivate, however, and a combination of overharvesting, wars and habitat loss cause the plant to become extinct by the end of the first or second centuries of the Common Era. As supplies of the resin grew harder and harder to get, it was supplanted by asafetida from Central Asia.

Other spices traded along the Silk Road are used almost exclusively in African cuisines today – although their use was common until the middle of the first millennium in Europe and Asia. African pepper, Moor pepper or negro pepper is one such spice. Called kieng in the cuisines of Western Africa where it is still widely used, it has a sharp flavor that is bitter and flavorful at the same time – sort of like a combination of black pepper and nutmeg. It also adds a bit of heat to dishes for a pungent taste. Its use extends across central Africa and it is also found in Ethiopian cuisines. When smoked, as it often is in West Africa before use, this flavor deepens and becomes smoky and develops a black cardamom-like flavor. By the middle of the 16th Century, the use and trade of negro pepper in Europe, Western and Southern Asia had waned in favor of black pepper imports from India and chili peppers from the New World.

Traditional Chinese Ship

Grains of paradise, Melegueta pepper, or alligator pepper is another Silk Road Spice that has vanished from modern Asian and European food but is still used in Western and Northern Africa and is an important cash crop in some areas of Ethiopia. Native to Africa’s West Coast its use seems to have originated in or around modern Ghana and was shipped to Silk Road trade in Eastern Africa or to Mediterranean ports. Fashionable in the cuisines of early Renaissance Europe its use slowly waned until the 18th Century when it all but vanished from European markets and was supplanted by cardamom and other spices flowing out of Asia to the rest of the world.

The trade of spices from Africa to the rest of the world was generally accomplished by a complex network of merchants working the ports and cities of the Silk Road. Each man had a defined, relatively bounded territory that he traded in to allow for lots of traders to make a good living moving goods and ideas around the world along local or regional. But occasionally, great explorers accomplished the movement of goods across several continents and cultures.

Although not African, the Chinese Muslim explorer Zheng He deserves special mention as one of these great cultural diplomats and entrepreneurs.  In the early 15th Century he led seven major sea-faring expeditions from China across Indonesia and several Indian Ocean ports to Africa.  Surely, Chinese ships made regular visits to Silk Road ports from about the 12th Century on, but when Zheng came, he came leading huge armadas of ships that the world had never seen before and wouldn’t see again for several centuries. Zheng came in force, intending to display China’s greatness to the world and bring the best goods from the rest of the world back to China.  Zheng came eventually to Africa where he left laden with spices for cooking and medicine, wood and ivory and hordes of animals.  It may be hard for us who are now accustomed to the world coming on command to their desktops to imagine what a miracle it must have been for the citizens of Nanjing to see the parade of animals from Zheng’s cultural Ark.  But try we must to imagine the wonder brought by the parade of giraffes, zebra and ostriches marching down Chinese streets so long ago – because then we can begin to imagine the importance of the Silk Road in shaping the world.  (Words by Laura Kelley).