Afghan Cardamom Cookies

Afghan Cardamom Cookies
Afghan Cardamom Cookies

Today I’m cooking for a holiday get together with friends we’re having this evening, but wanted to share a delicious recipe with you that is just perfect for this time of year.

These Afghan cardamom cookies are spicy and savory, and deliver a blast of cardamom flavor as they melt in your mouth.

They are also really simple to make, and take no more than a half-an-hour from sifting, to cooling rack, to table. Try them to add a different kind of Silk Road spice to your holiday dessert spread.

1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
½ cup melted butter, slightly cooled
¼ cup whole milk, warm
¼ cup ground pistachio nuts, plus a few whole nuts to press into cookies

Preheat the oven to 350°. Sift together the white flour with the sugar and ground cardamom. Add the butter and milk and mix well. Roll the dough into 1-inch round balls and place them on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden around the edges.

Remove from the oven and press a whole pistachio into the center of the cookie as it cools. Sprinkle finely ground pistachios on top of the cookies while they are still hot.

(Makes about a dozen-and-a-half cookies.)

Variation: Substitute some lard or other animal fat for all or some of the butter for additional savory, umami flavor and mouthfulness.  Life is hard in Afghanistan, and in lean times women will even use corn-oil to make these cookies.  They turn out fine every time.

Sweet and Savory Eel – Feast of Seven Fishes

I grew up in a very closely knit Italian-American community in the suburbs of New York City. Nearly everyone I knew as a child was related to me by blood or marriage. It was a world of cousins. There was an Italian-American club where old men played bocce, crazy car-horns that played the tarantella, and there was the great, carnival-like Summer Festa, that seemed to bring the whole town out to Saint Anthony’s school to gamble, play games, and, of course, eat. Food was everywhere, and people loved eating – not just at the Festa but in everyday life. Sunday dinners were serious business, and you didn’t skip them without a really good excuse.

Serving Food at the Festa
Serving Food at the Festa

So, when Sasha Martin, of the Global Table Adventure, asked me to participate in her Feast of Seven Fishes event, I had to pause and wonder how I had missed out on this wonderful Christmas-Eve tradition growing up. A little research and I found out that it is specifically an Italian-American Christmas-Eve event that is practiced by people who came from southern Italy. (That would rule out my ancestors who were from an area between Bologna and Ravenna.) It also is a relatively new concept that has been quickly growing in popularity since Mario Batali and other Food Network stars started demonstrating recipes for special Christmas Eve fish-only dinners. There are even restaurants that now offer special menus for people wishing to celebrate the Feast.

The seven fishes that either stand for the seven sacraments or the number of days that it supposedly took God to create the universe. Sometimes, there are more than seven dishes – nine for three times the holy trinity, or 13 for the apostles plus Jesus. No matter the number of dishes, there always seems to be an effort to couple them with an element of religious symbolism. A Christmas Eve fish-themed dinner. It must be an American concept. Americans love theme dinners.

On to my own recipe for Sasha’s Feast: Sweet and Savory Eel – Chinese Style. What is a Chinese dish doing at an Italian-American feast? Well, Silk Road, Marco Polo . . . it fits, in a loosely-tight sort of way. Actually, Italians of all varieties love eel and eat it when they can, and there are loads of wonderful recipes for it from the Mediterranean and beyond. Its my job to focus on the beyond. So, Sweet and Savory Eel. This recipe is adapted from a Chinese homestyle recipe, generously shared with me by my friend Dimon. It is delicious, easy to prepare, and well worth the effort of handling the slimy beasts. Lots of ginger and garlic form the base of the savory brown sauce with tangerine peel, maple syrup, and a few chili peppers providing the grace notes.

Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel
Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel


Sweet and Savory Eel

1.5 – 2 pounds fresh eel, cut into 1.5 inch sections
Tapioca flour as needed (for dusting)
3-4 tablespoons of corn oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 small bunch (4-6) spring onions, chopped
2 -3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Peels from 2 tangerines, dried and thinly sliced, or minced
3-4 dried red chili peppers, diced (I use Japones)
2 cups of brown rice wine
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (or a mix of dark and light)
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup water or fish stock
1 sweet, red bell pepper, thinly sliced

Dust the eel slices with tapioca flour, and tap on the edge of a plate when done to remove excess flour. Heat corn oil in a large sauté pan until smoking hot. Add the coated eel slices and sauté until golden. Remove eel from the pan with a slotted spoon and let cool on a plate.

Drain off most of the corn oil and add sesame oil to sauté pan and warm it up. Add spring onions and sauté until they start to soften. Then add the garlic and ginger slices and cook on low-to-medium, stirring often, until the ginger colors or the garlic swells. Add the tangerine peel and chillies and cook well, adding part of the rice wine to moisten as needed.

Add the rest of the rice wine and heat to almost boiling. Reduce the heat, and immediately add the eel slices. Cook on a low-to-medium simmer for five minutes, then add the dark soy sauce and the maple syrup, cover, and lower the heat to a low simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Then add water or fish stock to moisten the sauce and bring back to a simmer. Add the sliced peppers, then cover and cook for another 15-20 minutes until the eel is beginning to soften. Stir well and cook for another 10 minutes or so until eel is soft, and peppers are cooked. Depending on the desired consistency of the sauce, you may cook uncovered if you want a thicker sauce.

Serve with rice, tangerine slices, more spring onions, or the condiments of your choice.


NB: To be authentically Chinese, the eel should be a river eel or swamp eel. The salt-water eels often used in other cuisines would offer a much sharper flavor and change the recipe significantly.  The right type of eel are usually sold live at larger Asian markets. You can ask the fish mongers to cut and clean the animals to order, to minimize handling them. This is an important bit of advice to consider, because when eels get stressed (like when a fish monger reaches into a bucket, grabs them), they get even more slimy than usual.  If you ever taken a graduate genetics lab, and know what its like to handle stessed hagfish – this is exactly the same.


The Feast of Seven Fishes undoubtedly has its roots in the traditional Italian vigil feast, which is celebrated all over Italy. However, unlike those feasts, the Feast of Seven Fishes is a fish-only extravaganza with the number of dishes symbolically tied to Catholic themes. At a traditional vigil feast, for example, one would be unlikely to find meat dishes (at least in a strictly Catholic home), but you would find meat-based soups (like a chicken broth with tortellini or “cap-lets” as we grew up calling them), sauces with meat stock or broth in them, butter, cheese and eggs – all meat products.

Also, how the Church has defined, “meat” over the years is really fascinating. Generally, the prohibition extends only to terrestrial mammals and birds; whereas aquatic animals of all types were allowed. At different times in history, the Church has also allowed Catholics to eat mammals that spend a lot of time in water during lent and other no-meat fast and vigil days. This means that Catholics in Quebec ate beaver and Latin Catholics ate (and still do eat) capybara on no-meat Fridays or in times of fasting. Likewise, reptiles and amphibians are on the Lenten or fasting menu in places where it is traditional for the secular populous to eat them.

What I suspect is the Feast of Seven Fishes was a tradition in a very local part of Southern Italy – probably somewhere deep in the foot of the boot – that immigrants brought with them. It spread within the neighborhoods they emigrated to and is now being projected back as broadly, “Italian,” by their descendants and others who have adopted the practice.

Although I am a stickler for detail, to me its wonderful and interesting that the Feast of Seven Fishes is taking on a life of its own in the New World of the 20th and 21st Centuries. It is the birth of a new food tradition, right before our eyes! And another example of how cuisines are constantly evolving. Whenever you try this recipe, whether for the Feast of Seven Fishes or at some other time, prepare it and share it with loved ones – now, that’s Italian!

Expand your Feast of the 7 Fishes menu with these delicious ideas:

Salt Cod Tomato Sauce with Linguine by Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure.
Sicilian Citrus Shark Filets by Amanda Mouttaki, MarocMama.
Whipped Salt cod | Baccalà Mantecato by Deana Sidney, Lost Past Remembered.

To read more about Italy on the Silk Road, check my earlier posts.

Lots of other great Silk Road fish recipes here on the site, including a Bhutanese curry of Fish and Oranges

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pete serving food at the Festa borrowed from a St. Anthony of Padua newsletter, photograph of Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel by Laura Kelley.)

Chinese Salted Eggs

Chinese Salted Eggs - Just Potted
Chinese Salted Eggs – Just Potted

I love to be of use. It turns me on to help people and to help them figure things out. To that end, this recipe is a request from a colleague who loves Chinese culture and cuisine and who is learning how to make some delicious and interesting dishes. Earlier today she asked me if I had a recipe for Chinese salted eggs. Wouldn’t you know, I put up a bunch only 6-8 weeks ago and the are about ready for harvest! I am happy to oblige the request, so here it goes. . .

Salted eggs are usually duck (tho’chicken eggs can be used as well) that are preserved in a flavored brine for 6-8 weeks. There are many ways to flavor the brine, but the most common way is to use Sichuan pepper and star anise along with some chilies (and of course lots of salt). A couple of months in brine firms the yolk and darkens it significantly. It also deepens and changes the flavor of the egg and makes it stand out in when used in congees, stir fries with shrimp or more often with pork, in dumplings or even occasionally in soup. As some of your may have noticed, salted eggs were used in several of the thousand-year egg recipes that I featured a couple of months back. Without further ado, the recipe:

6 cups water
1.5 cups coarse sea salt
2 Tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
4 Star anise corms
4 Red chili peppers
12 chicken or duck eggs

Five to six hours before you wish to make salted eggs, bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. As it heats, dissolve salt into the water in batches, taking care that all of the salt dissolves into the water (the water should clear as the salt dissolves). Bring to a full rolling boil and let cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and cover. Cool the salt-saturated water to room temperature.

Clean and sterilize a couple of pint size mason jars if salting chicken eggs. You may need a third jar if salting a dozen duck eggs or any larger egg. It’s fine to reuse lids and seals, because an airtight seal is not required. Just make sure that all parts of the container are clean.

Place 1 tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns in each jar. Then add 2 star anise corms and 2 chili peppers to each jar as well. Then take each jar in hand and tilt it horizontally. Slide the uncooked eggs gently into the jar. I can usually fit 6 chicken eggs into each jar. I leave at least 1 inch of space from the rim to ensure that the brine covers the eggs completely. There will be leftover brine.

Chang'e Flying to the Moon
Chang’e Flying to the Moon

When done fitting the eggs into the jars, place the jars on the counter and fill with brine and seal. Let sit for 15 minutes or so, as the brine begins to permeate the egg shells. Then place in a cold place – refrigerator or cellar/garage in cold weather and leave for at least 1 month.

After 4-6-weeks has elapsed, remove 1 egg from the brine and crack the shell over a bowl. If the eggs are properly brined, the yolk will be firm and oftentimes a bit darker in color from uncooked eggs. If the yolk is as runny as that in an uncooked egg, the eggs need more time to brine. Reseal the jars and leave them for another couple of weeks.

Once the eggs are done, they must be cooked before one eats them. They can be cooked as an ingredient of a dish (as in steamed three eggs) or hard boiled before using.

Variations: There are many ways to flavor the brine. Szechuan peppercorns and star anise are just the most commonly used traditional ingredients. Other ingredients to add include, a bit of peeled garlic or ginger, or a different spice mix. Some people also add a bit of rice wine to reduce the odor of the eggs and to keep bacterial growth to a minimum.

One of the important holiday uses of salted eggs in Southern China is as part of the filling for moon cakes along with red bean or lotus seed paste. These moon cakes are eaten as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival which is a harvest festival that in many cases honors the moon. There are myths told from ancient times of husbands and wives separated by magical elixirs and of women (like Chang’e pictured here) who become part of the moon that are part of this festival as well. But the salted egg with its dark, salty yolk is the archetypal symbol of the moon in Southern Chinese culture and in many of the cultures along the Mekong as well. When you eat a salted egg, you consume the moon and with it its powers of renewal and rejuvenation.

(Words, recipe and photo by Laura Kelley.)

Keeping Christmas Real

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

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

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

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

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

A Feast for the First Christmas

At this time of year when cuisine blogs are awash with recipes for cookies and roast beast for the Christmas feast, I thought it would be a nice idea to create a notional menu for what the first Christmas feast might actually be like. In truth, that concept was brough to me by a writer from Bon Appetit magazine who wrote a great short piece based on my input. This post will look at the First-Christmas menu in more depth and discuss the reasons behind some of the choices.  It will also examine some of the issues that influence our ideas regarding the birth of Jesus and hopefully dispel some myths about the event.

To start, we have to get Jesus’s birthdate right, which was probably during the  Feast of Sukkot in the first few years BCE.  The feast is celebrated today according to the lunar calendar, but it usually falls in the early autumn.  In 2012, it was celebrated from 30 September to 7 October, so Jesus was a Libra not a Capricorn.  The temperature at this time of the year in Bethlehem was between 70 and 80 degrees Farenheit in the day and down into the 50s and 60s at night – so it was a comfortable time of year.  Bethlehem was a fertile area at a good altitude and with more rainfall than in much of the rest of the country, so food would be plentiful.

September-October is a time for harvesting grapes, figs, pomegranates and olives in Israel, so these would have figured heavily into the meal, regardless of the social class of the family.  Which brings me to another point, we know that Joseph and Mary were poor, because Joseph brought two doves to the temple to sacrifice after the birth of Jesus instead of the more traditional  lamb.  By extension, his family would probably have been poor or working class, so there would be no royal feast for the Nazarene – at least not at home.  Also, keep in mind that Joseph and Mary were Jews and as such they probably would have observed Kosher dietary laws.  This would have been particularly true for Mary because she was with child.


There is a lot of information in the bible about the individual foods that people ate, but not a lot of information about how they put ingredients together.  With no recipe “tablets” to work from,  I have prepared a notional menu for a feast that is based on these lists of ingredients, other historical knowledge, and a lot of creativity on my part. It is rooted in Sephardic tradition and in that respect breaks us out of the European cultural mindset that dominates most Christmas celebrations in the west.

Mixed-grain Bread
–  Olive oil with za’atar or other herbs for dipping
–  Plate of fresh herbs
Lentil salad with cracked or sprouted grains
Plates of Dates and Figs
Mixed local olives, salted, cured and brine marinated
Wine served throughout the meal

Main Courses
Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey
Roasted Pigeon or Doves with Herbs and Pomegranate Syrup
– Fish sauce garum to use as a table condiment
– Small bowl of salt
– Citron or Rose-petal Jam to eat with meat
Roasted Barley or Millet Pilaf

Sweet Endings
Honey-Sweetened Herbal Tea or Raisin Wine
Date and Pistachio sweets
Dried apricots and raisins


Mixed Grain Sourdough
Mixed Grain Sourdough

Examining some of the menu choices in more detail, I chose a mixed-grain bread as written in Ezekiel 4:5: “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof.”  Fitches are black onion seeds (nigella sativa, or kalonji from Indian cuisine). It wouldn’t be necessary to use all of these ingredients at once, but the idea of mixed grain and spices (onion seeds) is important.  Bread could have been flat or sourdough.  For a celebratory feast in an extended family home, I would choose sourdough as pictured here.

Za’atar is a local herb (Origanum syriacum) that is mixed with other ingredients – notably sumac, and sesame or pine nuts and a litany of other choices. This would have been mixed in olive oil and used to flavor bread as a dip.  Plates of herbs, like dill or fennel, might have also offered flavor to the bread and would have been served as fresh as possible.

Mixed Local Olives
Mixed Local Olives

Lentils or fava were very common source of food and might be eaten with sprouted or cracked wheat or barley for flavor and texture.  Cumin and coriander would be likely flavorings as would leek or onion.

Plates of dates and figs would be set out and would be fresh from the harvest.  Olives might be from the current year’s harvest if enough time had elapsed between picked and curing or fermenting and brining, otherwise they would have been from last year’s crop.

Grape or mixed fruit wine would be served throughout the meal.  It would have the resiny overtones of a modern retsina and would be sweetened with figs in the amphorae or herbs like rosemary.  It might be diluted with water, especially for the women.

Roasted Pigeon or Dove
Roasted Pigeon or Dove

Looking at the main courses, we find the option of Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey that is based on Luke 24:41-43, in which Jesus as a grown man eats fish with honey.  The fish would probably be a mullet, or sea cod (cheap and easy to catch as surface-water fish), but it could also be a grouper, sea bass or sea
bream.  Depending on the fish, thyme and/or dill with cilantro could be used as herbs. If it was a large fish it could be cooked on a spit or open fire.  Smaller fish or fish slices or filets would be cooked in an oven if the family had one or if a communal oven was available for use.

After fish and eggs, pigeon or dove was the most commonly eaten meat in ancient Israel.  Lamb was for the wealthier or for holidays and cow/oxen/bull was for the feast of the wealthy.  I can see pigeons spitted and covered with herbs like mint and cilantro or spices like cinnamon and then roasted and basted with pomegranate syrup as a delicious entrée.

Citron Jam
Citron Jam

Since Augustus was still on the throne in Rome, the use of garum in Roman Palestine would be likely.  The archaeological record tells us that Jews had special garum made by the Phonecians using fish allowed by Kosher dietary laws.  This could be a table condiment and mixed with herbs (such as oregano) or mixed with water, honey or wine.  This would, of course have enhanced the flavor of food as regular readers of this blog well know.

Since it is the Feast of Sukkot, citrons would be available.  A common way to eat them is to make jam out of them and use that to flavor meat. Another option is rose-petal jam.

The meat would be served with (or on) a pilaf of roasted barley or millet with herbs and spices.  Of the two grains, millet would be fresher at this time of year as it was just harvested in August.

Barley Pilaf
Barley Pilaf

For a sweet ending to the meal, people in the ancient Levant drank all manner of sweet herbal teas and could have enjoyed some after the main meal. Alternatively, a sweet, raisin-based wine could be served to clear the palate and end the meal.  Tea would be sweetened with local honey made by imported Anatolian bees that were fed on citrus blossoms and wild desert flowers.

Any manner of sweets made from pounded and rolled dates covered with pistachios could be served or simply a plate of dried apricots and raisins.  A sweet spread of nuts and dates like modern charoset could have been enjoyed with bread or all by themselves.

Dried Apricots and Dates
Dried Apricots and Dates

A few more cultural points in closing: Bethlehem would have been bustling with lots of out-of-towners (like Joseph and Mary) because of the census. Forget what you have learned about,” no room at the inn”, there weren’t many inns (or even any) and Mary would not have stayed in one as a woman. The only women in “inns” were working there. They would have stayed with Joseph’s relatives and would have been greeted and treated as extended family. Because other visitors also sought the family’s hospitality at the time of the census, there was probably no room for Mary and Joseph in the family’s “guest room”.

Mary probably gave birth in a cellar off of a central courtyard that was used to store supplies for the family and prized animals in the evening or in times of bad weather. A private and isolated area was chosen because of the physical mess of childbirth and because of Jewish cultural practices separating men and women at this time. She was probably attended by a midwife or older women from the family.

If Jesus’s birth was celebrated at all, it would have been in with wine and a bit of noisiness by the men of the family as was custom after the birth of a child. If there was a celebratory meal, there were no tables or chairs, a floor cloth or mat (or both) would be laid down and communal dishes with food placed upon it. Guests would sit or recline around the “table” and converse as they ate and drank. There were no individual plates; food went from communal bowls or platters – to hand – to mouth.

It’s also possible that Mary would not have taken part in a feast because women are considered “unclean” for one week after the birth of a boy and for two weeks after the birth of a girl. She might have had food brought to her by birth attendants or female family members, at least in the hours or days after the birth.

I hope this post brings some fresh ideas to your Christmas table, I’ve got some other ideas up my sleeve for the kinds of foods the three kings might have brought to an epiphanal feast to share as well. Remember, however you chose to celebrate, enjoy the time with famiy and friends and reflect on why you come together at this time.

(Words by Laura Kelley. The major points of this post first appeared in an article on Bon Appetit online entitled, What Would Jesus Eat. Photo of Sourdough Bread by Djauregui@Dreamstime; Photo of Mixed Olives by N. Larina@Dreamstime; Photo of Roasted Pigeon by Zhiqian-Li@Dreamstime; Photo of Citron Jam by Reika7@dreamstime; Photo of Barley Pilaf by Richard-Semik@Dreamstime; and Photo of Dried Apricots and Dates by M.

Happy Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Traditional Diwali Lamps

Yesterday was the first day of – Diwali – The Festival of Lights for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world. This means that for the past few weeks, women have been working overtime in kitchens throughout the subcontinent and diaspora communities to prepare traditional foods for the five-day long celebration.
Many things are celebrated on Diwali, but the overarching reason for the holiday for Hindus is to commemorate the return of Lord Rama from his long exile and his triumph over the demon-king Ravana. To welcome Rama, people clean and decorate their homes and businesses, dress in new clothes, perform religious rituals (puja), and feast on sweet and savory snacks and light firecrackers to frighten evil spirits away.

Although traditions vary by geographic location and ethnicity, generally speaking, on the first day, Hindus celebrate the return of prosperity to the earth. In many places cows and calves are worshipped or given special consideration, and for many Indian businesses, this is also the first day of the new financial year. Today (the second day) commemorates the birth of Dhanvantari, the Physician God and is an auspicious day to make certain purchases. Tomorrow, the third day, celebrates Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura and in preparation for a Krishna/Vishnu puja, oil lamps are lit and elaborate ritual artworks called kolams or rangolis are prepared. These rangoli can either be simple decorations of powdered rice or grain or elaborate mandala-like geometric patterns made with multi-colored sand or flour or even flower petals. People often get up before sunrise to bathe under the stars and after worship, feasting, and visiting family and friends begins.

Simple and Complex Rangolis

On the fourth day, the Lakshmi puja celebrates the Goddess Lakshmi and the God Ganesh and renewed prosperity is once again celebrated. The fifth day is day is celebrated as Govardhan puja or Annakoot, and is celebrated as the day Krishna defeated Indra and by the lifting of Govardhana hill to save his kinsmen and cattle from rain and floods. In some places on this day, mountains of food are piled up and decorated symbolizing the earth lifted by Krishna. The day after Diwali is a special celebration for brothers and sisters, with the women and girls traditionally making and serving their brother’s favorite foods and receiving gifts from their brothers in return.

For Jains, Diwali has a very different meaning. It is celebrated as the day Lord Mahavira, the last of the Jain prophets of this era, attained nirvana. To the Jains, the name for the celebration, Dipalikaya roughly translates as “light leaving the body”. Hence the thousands of lamps lit during these holidays are seen as “souls” to the Jains. The Jain New Year begins after Diwali celebrations conclude.

For Sikhs, Diwali is particularly important because it celebrates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, and 52 other princes with him, in 1619. Having been imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir, the guru was to be released but begged for clemency for the 52 princes that had been imprisoned with him. The emperor declared that only those princes who could hold onto the gurus cloak could leave with him. In a brilliant ruse, the guru made a cloak with 52 pieces of string to allow all the princes to grab onto the cloak and exit with him. Today, the Sikhs celebrate the return of Guru Hargobind by lighting their Golden Temple and other Sikh places of worship around the world.

A Selection of Diwali Sweets

The many sweets enjoyed at this time of year are called mithai* and are made from a ground of chickpea flour, rice flour, semolina, various beans, lentils and grains, squashes, or carrots, thickened condensed milk or yoghurt. These ingredients are then pounded together or cooked and flavored with cashews, almonds, pistachios, or raisins. Other ingredients can include fragrant spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or cumin or kewra (pandan leaf essence). The most fancy of the sweets can contain silver or gold leaf design elements as well. Households cook and exchange elaborately decorated boxes of these sweets with family and friends as part of the Dewali celebrations.

Savory Snacks for Diwali

The savory snacks enjoyed at this time are made from chickpeas, rice, lentil and several other varieties of flours, sesame seeds, fresh fenugreek leaves or coconut, and pounded into assorted shapes and usually deep-fried or in these health-conscious days baked. Sometimes different snacks are combined with nuts and flavored in special ways to make special snack “mixes”. Small breads, such as puris and pakoras fried in ghee are also enjoyed as savory snacks at this time.

Recipes for Diwali snacks are available in the Silk Road Gourmet Volume One in the Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka chapters and include:  Pastry in Sweet Milk and Rosewater (Ras Malai), Sweet Milk Squares with Cardamom, Cinnamon and Almond Custard, Semolina Squares with Saffron and Cardamom, Sweet Split-Pea Pudding and Sweet Coconut-Cardamom Balls.  Additional recipes will be available in the next volume of the book as well.

(Words and Photo of A Selection of Diwali Snacks by Laura Kelley; photo of Tradtional Diwali Lamps by The Final, and photo of Savory Diwali Snacks by Ashwin Abhirama.  Individual images for the photo simple and complex rangolis are from Wikimedia Commons.)

*Please notice the root “mith” as in Mithras (or Mithrandir for fantasy fans) to denote the connection to fire and light as in zoroastrianism.

Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce

With the autumn holidays rapidly approaching many of us are starting to give thought to what to prepare. A delicious main-course for omnivores is my Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce pictured below.  It is an original recipe based on Azeri/Iranian Fesenjan that is the best one-pot meal in town.  Tender, juicy lamb is braised in a mouth-watering sweet and sour sauce that is served on  a ground of butternut squash and walnuts.

Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce

The recipe is available in a Thanksgiving Recipe collection published by Swoop and available here. There are many other delicious recipes in the e-book as well, and all proceeds go to the Feeding America charity that is more necessary than ever in the wake of Huricane Sandy.  Feed others and eat well yourself – who can beat that!  (Words and photo of Lamb in a Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce by Laura Kelley).

Click here for other Silk Road Thanksgiving Recipes

Ancient Roman Game Marinade

Venison Osso Bucco

Good taste never goes out of style.  That’s why I used this adapted Ancient Roman game marinade recipe from the ancient Roman book, “On the Subject of Cooking” that is often attributed to Apicius. The recipe made a marinade and gravy for a recent family dinner featuring venison osso bucco. It was a holiday crowd-pleaser and one of the best game dishes I ever prepared. The marinade allowed the affordable osso bucco cuts to be transformed into a tender, delectable main course.

First, a word about the meat. I got the meat shipped from D’Artangnan in NYC. Other great providers that I personally use include Marx Foods. Both are purveyors of great game, meat and other gourmet products. The venison was from New Zealand and it was meaty, beautifully red, moist and delicious. A great start for a great meal.

Portrait of Apicius

Now on to Apicius. Contrary to popular belief, Apicius was not the author of the book that bears his name. Nor was he a chef or a cook or involved with any profession involved with food. Rather, he was an extremely wealthy man who, instead of getting a “proper” profession, spent all of his money on food, the acquisition of ingredients and lavish feasts. According to Pliny, Marcus Gavius Apicius was renown for preparing pigs for the table by feeding them with dried figs and giving them honeyed wine to drink. Among his other favoured foods were flamingo’s tongue, camel heels, roasted ostrich, sow’s womb and nightingale’s tongue. He traveled far and wide to eat and to bring ingredients for meals back to Rome. The 4th Century cookbook bears his name only to invoke his love of food, the lengths he went for it, and the extraordinary amount of money tht he spent on it. Apicius himself had nothing to do with the writing of the book.

On the Subject of Cooking

The text is organized in ten books, most of which, despite their titles, cater largely to the diets and practices of the wealthiest classes, are arranged thus: 1.Epimeles — The Careful Housekeeper; 2.Sarcoptes — The Meat Mincer; 3.Cepuros — The Gardener; 4.Pandecter — Many Ingredients; 5.Ospreon — Pulse; 6.Aeropetes — Birds; 7.Polyteles — The Gourmet; 8.Tetrapus — The Quadruped; 9.Thalassa — The Sea; 10.Halieus — The Fisherman.

The recipe I adapted is from Book 8, Chapter 2 and is named, “Embamma in Cervinam Assam”. It consists of: Pepper, nard leaves, celery seed, onions, green rue, honey, vinegar, broth, dates, raisins and oil. My adaptation follows:

Ancient Roman Marinade for Venison (adapted)

1 cup game or beef stock
1 cup red wine to replace half of beef or game stock (marinade only)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
¼ preserved lemon peel – finely sliced
1 cup pomegranate juice
1/3 cup barberries
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons malt vinegar
6 dates, pitted and finely chopped
4 tablespoon raisins

3-4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon rosemary, finely minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme

The biggest changes are the substitution on souring agents. I replaced nard grass and green rue with a combination of preserved lemon, barberries and pomegranate juice. Additionally, I added a few ingredients that are usually associated with modern game marinades. Specifically, I added a few bay leaves, rosemary and a couple of sprigs of thyme.

Venison Osso Bucco – Prepared

To marinate 12 venison osso bucco with all of the meat submerged, I trebled the solids and quadrupled the liquids for a delicious marinade.  After browning the meat in grapeseed oil, I made a fresh batch of marinade (minus the red wine) to braise in.  After the browning and before the braise I cleaned the pot out and sautéed in unsalted butter a mixture of red onions, carrots and celery in a 2:1:1 ratio.

When the meat was done, I strained the cooking liquid and added a mixture of cornstarch and water to make sumptuous gravy.

I served these with a wild mushroom medley (oyster, chanterelles and porcini) lightly flavored with orange zest, fennel and a dash of red wine.  Other dishes – cooked by other family members – included a brown and wild rice pilaf, and carrots with butter and honey.

All in all it was a delicious meal to bring the family together with ties to our ancient, shared past. (Words and ancient recipe adaptation by Laura Kelley. Photo of Raw Venison Osso Bucco borrowed from Marx Foods; Venison Osso Bucco Prepared by Monkey Business Images @

For Losar: Beetroot Momos with Lamb

New Year’s Eve Night
Bright torches fly overhead
Sweeping evil far away

Losar, the Tibetan New Year begins in a couple of hours and living a very different life, I look back on my travels and remember what Losar celebrations are like.  Food and barley beer flow for days and even weeks and rituals of eschewing evil and beginning anew are performed across the Tibetan world.

If we were in Tibet, we’d be making the final preparations for a festival that mixes sacred and secular practices — prayers, ceremonies, hanging prayer flags, sacred and folk dancing, partying.

Lamas Play Tsam Mystery
Lamas Play Tsam Mystery


In the days before Losar, Tibetan households draw pictures of the sun and moon or the eight auspicious symbols on their walls with a paste made of flour and water.  In monasteries, several protector deities are honored with devotional rituals.  On the last day of the year, monasteries are elaborately decorated. In homes, cakes, candies, breads, fruits and beer are offered on family altars.

There is a wonderful and unique ritual that I love in the days preceding Losar that involves imbuing a dough effigy with the bad spirit that are afflicting family members, then carrying him out of the house to the nearest intersection – so the bad spirits leave the house and will be too confused by the intersection of streets to come back.  While this ritual is performed, guthuk noodle soup is prepared or served.  The interesting thing about the soup are the dumplings which contain often inedible objects meant to communicate a message about the person who draws them.  There are wool inclusions, those made of glass, or even coal.  You guessed it – coal is for someone who has a black heart.

To begin the new year, it is also traditional to offer sprouted barley seeds and buckets of tsampa (roasted barley flour with butter) and other grains on home altars to ensure a good harvest. Laypeople visit friends to wish them Tashi Delek or “auspicious greetings”.

The second day of Losar, called King’s” Losar, is for honoring community and national leaders. Long ago, it was a day for kings to hand out gifts at public festivals.

On the third day of Losar, laypeople make special offerings to the dharma protectors. They raise prayer flags from hills, mountains and rooftops and burn juniper leaves and incense as offerings. The dharmapalas are praised in chant and song and asked for blessings.

To celebrate Losar, I want to share one of my recipes for Tibetan momos with you. Momos are traditional dumplings stuffed with a flavorful mixture of meat or vegetables and spices that are enjoyed with sauces and condiments galore.  However, since I’ve recently joined the 5-Star Foodie Makeover Cooking Challenge group,  I, along with the other members was given the assignment of creating a dish with beets. So to combine the tow efforts, the dish I’m going to offer today is Tibetan Momos made with beetroot flavored dough!

I like the flavor of beets a lot and cook with them often. One of my favorite snacks is beet greens sautéed in butter with a bit of nutmeg and salt and pepper. However, I was a bit worried by the assignment, because many beet dishes are notoriously difficult to photograph – the problem is the color. As you know, beets share their dark purple to magenta color most eagerly with other ingredients, making a dish like a curry, or stew or even most salads too uniform in color to photograph nicely. In the Buddhist spirit, I decided to make the problem the solution and used beets to add color and a bit of flavor to dough for my Losar momos.


Tibetan Momos in Beetroot Pastry
Momos are tiny round or moon-shaped pastries filled with vegetables or meat and vegetable mixtures that are usually eaten as a main course dish in a multi-course meal in Tibet. In the west, they can be enjoyed this way or served as appetizers or snacks. They are best when served with plenty of sauces, pickles and other condiments.

Beetroot Momos in the Steamer

3 medium beets, roots only, washed
½ – 1 cup water

Wrap cleaned beetroots in aluminum foil, place on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 F oven for about 1 hour. When they are done, they will yield a bit if squeezed. When done, set aside until cool enough to handle.

Remove beet roots from foil and slip the skins off with your fingers. Wear clean gloves if you want to avoid stains on your fingers and nails. Chop the beets roughly and place in a food processor or heavy-duty blender. Add about ½ cup water and pulse until you have a puree. Add additional water and blend until smooth. Make sure solids are blended out or strain through cheesecloth to remove.

3 cups flour
1- 1½ cups of beet liquid.

Place flour in a bowl and add liquid a little bit at a time and mix with a fork or spoon until the dough comes together. The exact amount of liquid added will depend upon the thickness of the liquid, the fineness of the flour and the humidity etc. – so be careful not to add too much liquid all at once. Mix and add liquid until the dough is properly hydrated.

Mix the dough with your hands until it is uniformly mixed and colored. If necessary add a couple of tablespoons more flour so that the dough doesn’t stick to your hands. Knead for 5-10 minutes until flexible and then cover and set aside briefly to rest.

Place a handful or more of the dough on a flat floured surface. Flatten it somewhat with your hands and then begin rolling it out with a rolling pin. Roll it until you can begin to see the surface below the dough, but it shouldn’t be much thinner than that, or it may not hold the filling during the steaming process.

Use a saucer or a plastic lid from a can about 4-6 inches in diameter to cut the momo dough into circles. Place cut circles aside on a small plate. I like to roll and cut all the dough before proceeding to the filling stage. The consistency of the dough with beetroot liquid in them is different and more elastic than when the dough is made with water. You may have to work harder at rolling – but keep at it, it can be done.

Tibetan Garam Masala
This Tibetan version varies from the Indian version basically by the addition of the bay leaves and the coriander seeds. Variations of this around Tibet also use seeds from black cardamom pods and nutmeg.
¼ cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 Tablespoons bay leaves
2 Tablespoons cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons cloves

Grind items together as grouped by consistency – i.e. cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon stick can be ground together. When all items are ground or cracked – mix them together and grind briefly just to blend further. Most flavorful when used right after grinding. Store in a jar with a good seal.

¾ pound of ground beef or lamb*
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper
2 teaspoons Tibetan Garam Masala
2 large onions, peeled and finely diced
3 tablespoons ginger, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon garlic, peeled and diced
A large bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
2 cups king oyster mushrooms or daikon radish, sliced or shredded
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
2 teaspoon beef or vegetable broth

Melt butter in a medium sauté pan and sauté ground or finely diced meat, 1 teaspoon of salt and the black pepper until it becomes opaque and starts to firm. It should be only partially cooked when removed from the heat and set aside.

Combine diced onions, grated ginger and garlic and mix well. Add sautéed meat and mix again. Add ground Szechuan pepper and Tibetan Garam Masala as well as the cilantro and mushrooms and stir well. Add soy sauce and beef or vegetable broth and mix well. Set aside to cool if necessary.

*To make vegetarian replace meat with 3-4 cups of shredded bok choy or cabbage

Making Momos
Take the dough circles and place about a tablespoon to a tablespoon and a half of filling in the center of the circle. Draw filling out a bit so it is more like a line than a circle, but be sure not to bring too close to the edges.

Plated Beetroot Momo

There are many ways to gather momos. One way is simply fold one edge of the dough over to form a half moon shape, and another is to gather the dough up into a “top knot” on top of the filling as pictured here. Pick a way to enclose the filling inside the momo. If using the half-moon shape, use a fork to seal the edges tightly and shape into a slight curve. If using the “top knot” shape, this can be done with your fingers. If you mix and match shapes, steam them separately, because one shape may take a bit longer to cook than another.

In a wok bring about 2 cups of water to a boil. As the water is boiling, wet a bamboo steamer to prepare it for use. Let sit for a few minutes and then spray the surfaces lightly with cooking oil. Place momos in steamer compartments and set time for about 10 minutes. If using a multi-tier steamer, work from the bottom up creating multiple layers of momos. When the water is boiling place steamer with momos on top of the boiling water.

As they steam the momos will begin to glisten and some may become translucent – this is desired. Cook them for about 10 minutes and remove them from the steamer as soon as possible or they may begin to stick. Move to a rack to cool. Serve room temperature or reheated with a selection of sauces, pickles and other condiments. Can also be served with soup and bread for a light meal – momos are more filling than they seem.

They are delicious, especially with the sweet and sour Tibetan tomato sauce that often accompanies momos.  Interestingly, my husband found that the beetroot not only offers color, but also a bit of flavor – especially when one eats the “top knot” of the momos that I made.  With other shapes, it will likely modulate and dampen the spicy contents just a bit to add sweet to spicy as one eats the savory treats.

(Words, photo of Beetroot Momos in the Steamer, adaptation of traditional recipe and estatic Losar verse by Laura Kelley. Photo of Lamas Play Tsam Mystery by Zzvet@

New Year, New Day

Old Man Practicing Calligraphy

The large brush laden with water is drawn from the bucket by the old, steady hand and moved in deliberate strokes across the pavement.  One stroke, two, three or more until the complete character develops.  Luminous lines, black on grey stone he moves onto the next character.  The words from the ancient Tang poem begin to take shape.  Even in the afternoon sun it is bone cold, but he keeps on writing.  Before he reaches the end of the stanza, the first characters have begun to fade.  When he comes to the end, more than half the poem is gone – leaving no trace.

All across China, one finds elderly men practicing calligraphy in this way.  In parks, on sidewalks in big cities and small towns, men armed with a bucket and a long brush incessantly trace out words from times long past.  Old poems, classical tales, and bits of history they learned as young boys or men – words flowing out of their brushes and fading almost as quickly as they were born again.

They say they do this to keep their minds sharp and hands strong.  Lately, I have been contemplating the spiritual or cathartic value of producing such transient and beautiful art with personal subjects.  It could be so liberating!  Because it is a public expression, sharing and communicating the experience stops it from being bottled up inside.  As the words fade, so do one’s attachment to the events or people that formed the basis of your composition.  Calligraphy therapy.

At this time of the New Year when we often contemplate our lives and make adjustments to try to live better or healthier, be kinder, more patient, less greedy etc., I thought that this image and concept might be useful to some of you.

Years ago, in graduate school I employed a sort of food-based catharsis with alphabet soup.  I’d spell the name of the person or thing out on the rim of the bowl and eat it last after all the soup was gone, chewing each letter slowly to make sure it was gone completely and would trouble me no more.  Not the most tasty way to eat soup, but a satisfying one if someone or something is vexing you. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Old Man Practicing Calligraphy by Chen Po Chuan @