I love glass and glassmaking. Glass is fire and imagination combined. Long have I loved watching craftsmen at historical sites blow air into a molten mass to form a useful bowl or bottle, or see the artisans of Murano twist and sculpt it into a decorative statue. When I was a child, I played with prisms and suncatchers – throwing rainbows around my room. Years later, I am still in awe of how three opaque substances: sand, soda ash, and limestone are combined at very high heat to form the brilliant rigid-liquid we call glass.
After my trip to Ithaca I drove over to Corning, New York and spent a several hours in the Museum of Glass. I could have spent a week. While touring the Origins of Glassmaking and the Ancient Glassmaking galleries, I found a few glass mementos from the Silk Road. There were pieces there from the dawn of glassmaking: a glass pendant from ancient Mesopotamia dated to 1450 BCE, along with slightly younger core-formed cosmetic bottles and vases from Egypt. The collection is stunning, but the pieces that caught my eye were two small seals made in Egypt in the 8th Century ACE that were used in the spice trade along the Silk Road. They are glass seals – of no more than 4 to 6 centimeters a piece – for orders of cumin stamped with with Arabic script to denote the owner of the shipment and the quantity ordered.
The inscription on the first translucent, dark-green glass seal reads: “Ordered [by] the Servant of Allāh, Abdullāh, the Commander of the Believers, a full measure of white cumin.”
The second seal has a bit more of the lip and body attached, is made of slightly lighter green glass, and is a seal for a shipment of black cumin. The inscription on this one is more generic and simply reads: “A measure of black cumin.”
It is unclear whether this would have been true black cumin (kala jeera) from the Himalaya or Central Asia (Bunium bulbocastanum) or Nigella sativa used to give a pungent onion flavor to dishes (kalonji). Misuse of the name black cumin to denote nigella persists to the present day, so it is impossible to know.
Despite the confusion in spice names, these two glorious little glass seals have survived more than 1200 years to give us a glimpse of how at least some spices were packaged for shipment. Since the glass originated in Egypt, it is tempting to assume that the orders either originated in a large emporium in Alexandria, or were at least shipped through there from their points of origin. The Abbasids used Alexandria as a major center for trade with India and China, so this is not just simple conjecture. Based on large chunks of green glass found in medieval spice shipments (like those in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology), the spice vessels themselves may have been made from the same green glass as the seals.
Wrapped in burlap or cloth and packed tightly in the hold of a ship or dhow, these spices and their glass seals traveled hundreds or thousands of miles across the known world from origin to end-point. How far people were willing to go for flavor, and how much they were willing to pay for it a millenium ago.
And how much we take for granted today.
Likewise it is with glassware itself. Take another sip from that glass and consider the millions of microscopic sea creatures (foraminifera) from the sand that have been melted together to form that machine-made vessel in your hand. The calcium carbonate of their bodies has been combined with ash and limestone and remade into the glass. Less art perhaps than the seals or the early pendants and vessels in the Corning museum, but still no less of a miracle. (Words by Laura Kelley: Photos of Islamic Glass seals by Laura Kelley; Photo of Foraminifera from Wikimedia.)
Take a step back in time from the English (Hannah Glasse) and American (Mary Randolph) versions of Indian curry that we have examined and explore a 17th Century Portuguese version of a Goan fish curry. The recipe comes from Arte de Cozinha by Domingos Rodrigues and was first published in Lisbon in 1680.
Rodrigues was a cook for the royal household of Portugal who lived from 1637 to 1719, and Arte de Cozhina was the first important cookbook published in Portuguese and was reprinted many times since its initial publication. My copy is a facsimile of the 1732 edition, but I checked the curry recipe against versions on the internet from 1680 and there is no change between the editions.
The recipe was written a full hundred years before Glasse’s curry and it is indeed a very different dish. For starters, this curry is really just a robust sauce or relish to be spooned over poached fish or meat that sit atop salted rice. It is not fish or meat cooked in lots of sauce until tender that is then eaten with plain or flavored rice. It also calls for a large amount of rice. In short, the proportion of meat, sauce and rice in Rodrigues’ curry are different from many curries today. Certainly this is true for those eaten in the west or in those served in international restaurants. However, “curry” as a sauce for rice with only a bit of meat or vegetable is commonly eaten in modern home meals and also in food market stalls on the subcontinent and in the Indo Pacific.
The original recipe reads:
Caril para qualquer peixe
Afogadas duas cebolas bem picadas em uma quarta de manteiga de vaca, deitem-lhe uns poucos de camaroes, ou amêijoas, com o leite de uma quarta de amêndoas e, cozendo-se tudo até que fique um tanto grosso, tempere-se de adubos. Feito isto, coza-se meio arrátel de arroz em água e sal, ponha-se no prato e, sobre ele, algumas postas de peixe que quiserem, cozidas em água, e deite-se por cima o caril. Deste modo se faz também caril para carne, mas nao leva marisco.
A liberal and functional translation of this is:
Curry for any fish
Sauté two minced onions in one fourth of unsalted cow’s butter. Add a few shrimp or clams along with the milk from one fourth of almonds and cook until the sauce has reduced a bit. Season with spices. Cook a half pound of rice in salted water. When the rice is done put it on a plate. On top of the rice place some poached fish and spoon or pour the sauce over the fish and rice. Works well with meat, but not for seafood.
Written in a modern form, the recipe looks like this. (Please note that I made some changes to the original recipe, such as reducing the amount of butter and almond milk used. Other choices are discussed below.)
Domingos Rodrigues’ Fish Curry
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, minced
10 shrimp, peeled, deveined and diced
1 -1½ cups unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
2 green or finger-hot chilies, chopped
1-3 teaspoons malt vinegar
6-7 dry red chilis (Kashmiri are best)
3 tablespoons coriander seed
3 teaspoons cumin seed
2-inch piece of ginger, chopped
8-10 cloves of garlic
2-4 tablespoons finely ground coconut
2 ½ teaspoons tamarind concentrate
Water as needed to make a paste
2-3 mild fish: croaker, pomfret, or cod
Water in medium-to-large sauté pan to cover fish
½ teaspoon salt
½ onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
1-2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon whole, black peppercorns
Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. When butter is melted and warmed, add onion and sauté until they start to become translucent. Add the diced shrimp or clams and stir well. When the shrimp have colored and cooked, add the almond milk and stir well.
As the curry sauce warms, prepare the masala. You will need to stir the curry sauce from time to time as you prepare the masala. Individually dry roast the chili peppers, coriander seeds and cumin seeds and set aside. Put all of the ingredients of the masala into a blender (you can pound it if you really want to), and add about 1/4 cup of water to start. Grind until you have a smooth paste, adding water in small amounts as needed for consistency.
Prepare the rice (I used basmati) in salted water any way you wish. Pour enough water in a large sauté pan to cover the fish, but do not yet place the fish in the water. Season the water with salt, onions, white vinegar and peppercorns, cover, and bring water to a boil.
Add the masala paste to the curry sauce and stir well. Cook over medium-low heat for at least 15 minutes to integrate the spices into the sauce. When garlic and spices are cooked, finish the sauce with a bit of salt, peppercorns, diced green chili peppers and malt vinegar.
When the poaching water has boiled, uncover and reduce heat. Slide the fish steaks into the water, cover and reheat to a medium-to-high simmer. Do not boil. Cook fish for 5-8 minutes (less is better) and when done, remove from sauté pan to drain before setting atop the rice. When sauce is done, spoon over fish and rice in the amount desired. Tuck in for a delicious dish.
As you can see, there is a great deal of room for creativity on the part of the cook and variation in the dish with the direction from the original recipe which reads, “season with spices”. To determine which spices to use, I consulted some modern Goan recipes for fish curry and constructed a recipe based on these. Of course, by 1680, the Portuguese had extended their presence in India beyond the Malabar Coast to Sri Lanka and up to Bengal in the northeast, but I chose to construct the curry based on Goan recipes simply because that was the “capital” of the Portuguese trading empire on the subcontinent, and the cuisine still bears the mark of their colonization.
Another thing that figured into the choice of Goan spices was the description of Goan curried fish by 16th Century Dutch traveler Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. Huyghen, who was Secretary to the Archbishop of Goa from 1583 – 1589, wrote: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel, which is their daily meat.”
With this description, I felt good about using a lot of tamarind for sourness, and also decided to prepare the water that the fish is poached in slightly, as Huyghen calls it a “broth”. Many historical recipes do not mention doing this, but most cooks do it. It is one of those unspoken directions that can subtly change the flavor of a dish. My additions were simple. I just added a bit of white vinegar in the water to help maintain the consistency of the fish, some cracked peppercorns and a few slices of onion.
I felt justified in using lots of chili peppers, as these had been eagerly adopted from the Portuguese by the Goans and Kanarese in the very early 16th Century. By the time Rodrigues was writing, chilies had long been naturalized on the subcontinent. I did omit the tomatoes found in many modern Goan curries, because this fruit was not embraced by the Indians until the mid 19th-to-early 20th Century.
Coconut can be found in most modern Goan curries as part of the masala, but it is also mentioned in the 1563 edition of, Conversations on the Simples, Drugs and Medicinal Substances of India, by the Portuguese physician living in Goa, Garcia de Orta. Orta wrote, “With this Coquo pounded they make a sort of milk, and cook rice with it, and it is like rice boiled in goat’s milk. They make dishes with it of birds and meat, which they call Caril.”
The choice of fish was a bit challenging. I initially cooked this dish with mackerel, but found the strong flavor of the fish to pull against the spicy, sour flavor of the curry sauce. The second time I tried the dish, I went with a milder fish called an Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus). The fish were caught locally and were very fresh when cooked, which was a positive factor in my decision-making process. The croaker worked well with the curry, and I recommend it or any other mild fish with this recipe.
A word about measurement. The original recipe uses the measurement, “one fourth” for butter and the amount of almonds used to make almond milk. I based the amount I used for each on the quartillo – the measurement used in many contemporaneous Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican recipes. The quartillo is equal to one pint. I couldn’t bring myself to use 1 pound of butter and so reduced this by half. Its possible that the “one fourth” refers to one quarter of a pound instead of the quartillo. It is difficult to tell.
Lastly, I found the use of almond milk interesting, and wonder if that was not Rodrigues substitution in lieu of coconut milk, which Garcia de Orta noted was of, “poor quality” in the Portuguese homeland.
Other interpretations of this dish are clearly possible given the great latitude for seasoning that Rodrigues’ recipe offers. I made my choices and was clear about why I made them, but recognize that other permutations are possible. The recipe as written is a mixture of hot, spicy and sour which works well with fish. There are titles of other curries in Arte de Cozhina – a Flounder Curry and a Lamb Curry. Alas these are just titles without ANY ingredients or method and like ideal forms will remain just out of reach.
I hope you enjoy these “Through Foreign Eyes” historical curry recipes. I enjoy researching, cooking, and writing about them because they allow one to travel in both space AND time. For example, given Rodrigues’ position as royal cook, this dish could have been served at a royal banquet. Close your eyes and you can hear the light clink of the silver and quiet conversations as the lords and ladies enjoy their special meal. (Words, translation and interpretation of historical recipe, and photographs by Laura Kelley. Special thanks to Adam B. for pointing out this recipe to me. Thanks to Rachael L. for information about the quartillo.)
N.B. You can purchase almond milk in most supermarkets, but If you would like to make your own it is very simple to do. Place peeled almonds and water in a 1:2 ratio (i.e. 1 cup almonds, 2 cups water) in a bowl and soak at least overnight. The longer the almonds soak, the less gritty the resulting almond milk will be. When almonds are done soaking, strain them and discard the soaking water. Add new water in the same 1:2 nuts-to-water proportion and blend until smooth. For additional smoothness strain through a fine sieve or moist cheesecloth and refrigerate until needed.
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.
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.)
The booksigning at the Smithsonian went well. Actually it went very well – we sold and signed all but two of the books purchased for the event. I also really enjoyed meeting people and discussing the book with them. I was pleased to see that people were most interested in the book’s message that cuisines are interconnected, and how dishes we think of as cornerstones of national cuisines actually contain ingredients from all over the world.
To that end, I thought that a demonstration of how globally-sourced ingredients were combined for one of my favorite subcontinental dishes was in order. The recipe is for a delicious sweet, spicy, hot and sour shellfish that will amaze you. The recipe and description are followed by an analysis of ingredients and their origins. What seems like and Indian or subcontinental dish has connections to five continents and many more nations. It is truly global, and should be savored by all.
Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
1 pound shrimp, peeled, rinsed and deveined, or
1 pound sea or bay scallops
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon mustard or other seed oil
2 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4-5 hot, dried, red chili peppers, torn or chopped
1 large onion peeled, sliced, and separated into crescents
3-4 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup of water to moisten (more if needed)
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste dissolved into 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (20–30 sprigs)
¼ teaspoon Indian Garam Masala
1. Shuck and devein shrimp or prepare scallops and place into a bowl with the cayenne pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, cover, and set aside for at least 1 hour.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and when hot, sauté the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Remove from heat and let sit while shrimp or scallops marinate in the spices.
3. When almost ready to cook, reheat oil and add the mustard seeds and chili peppers and sauté for a minute. The mustard seeds may pop as the warm up, so you may wish to cover the pan, and shake to move contents. When done, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
4. Warm the sauté pan with the fennel and mustard seeds up again and add the onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions turn translucent and start to turn golden.
5. Add water to moisten. When water is warm, put in the cumin, coriander, and tomato and mix well. Cook 3–5 minutes to fully warm the spices.
6. Add tomato sauce, tamarind, lemon juice mixture, and salt. Cook to warm and add yogurt and cilantro leaves. Cover and gently cook for 15 minutes. Add garam masala and mix well. (The recipe can be paused here to allow other dishes to finish.)
7. If paused, reheat curry base and add shrimp and cook for 3–5 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice or bread.
Now, here comes the fun part. The map below depicts where the ingredients from this dish hail from. Lines terminate only in rough geographic areas, not on specific places:
The only ingredients that originate in India are black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and they are all in the garam masala used to finish the dish. Important certainly, but in this dish, almost an afterthought. Turmeric may also originate on the subcontinent, but no one is sure whether that is the case, or whether it arose in Southeast Asia and was adopted in antiquity by the Indians.
From South America there are chili peppers, and peanuts in the peanut oil, and from North America there is the tomato, and possibly the cayenne pepper. From North Africa (Southern Mediterranean) there is black mustard seed in the mustard oil, and from East Africa there is the lovely, sour tamarind pod. From Southern Europe there is fennel and yellow mustard seed and from Asia minor there is coriander or cilantro. Onions and garlic probably hail from Central Asia (Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan) because that is where most of the genetic diversity in Allium species is found, and cumin is Western Asia’s gem, which has been flavoring dishes from ancient Mesopotamia to today.
Cloves and nutmeg used to round out the garam masala of course come from Indonesia’s Moluccas, and the dish is usually served on rice which comes from China’s Pearl River valley, but it can also be enjoyed with bread, or potatoes from the New World.
All of these ingredients made their way to India through movement of people and ideas or through trade and conquest. Some ingredients arrived deep in prehistory, and some are relative newcomers which only arrived in the middle or late centuries in the last millennium. The Silk Road was an important part of the spread of these ingredients and in the forging of links between cuisines and cultures.
To some degree, we tend to think of the world’s borders and biodiversity much as we find them today, but a simple exercise like this shows us that this is not really the case at all, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of human history. With apologies to locally-sourced aficionados, eating-locally is a relatively modern concept when compared to the global nature of most dishes.
Cultures combine ingredients differently, but most cuisines include ingredients from places beyond their national borders. Each bite connects us with the past and with the people who often travelled great distances to bring variety home. Diversity is a wonderful concept, appreciate it the next time you enjoy a delicious curry or stew or koresh or bhaji or braise or . . . (Words and ingredient analysis by Laura Kelley; Photo of Shrimp or Scallops with Spicy Tomato Sauce by Celeste Heiter; Map of Ingredients drawn by Laura Kelley).