Traveling the Roads of Arabia

Ha’il Stelae, ca.3500 BCE

For the past forty years, archaeologists on the Saudi peninsula have been piecing together a pre-Islamic past featuring great city-states that had cultural and commercial connections with the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. These ancient trade cities are one of the foci of a new exhibit at the Sackler in Washington, DC, called Roads of Arabia. The other set of “roads” treated in the exhibit are the later Islamic-era pilgrimage roads to Mecca and the influence of the people traveling those roads on the Arab world. With 320 objects spanning more than one-million years, from Paleolithic petroglyphs to the rise of the modern Saudi state, the exhibit is a showcase of treasures never seen in the United States until now.

The exhibit is laid out chronologically and begins with three rock stelae with individual faces carved on them recovered from Found near Ha’il in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia. They date to around 3500 BCE, and starkly lit, the stelae glow against a black background, and invite you to approach and ponder the people who made them. Other early objects are those from Tarut, an island on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast that was the center of the Dilmun civilization that was later to move to the island now known as Bahrain.

Singing Man, ca. 2500 BCE

Objects from this era include black, gray and white stone jars, cups, and bowls that may have originated in SE Iran or may have been made on Tarut. Items of similar design and manufacture have been found in Syria, Mesopotamia, and as far east as the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan, indicating the extent of the trade network that the people of Tarut were part of in antiquity.

Another statue of definitive Tarut manufacture is of a man singing a prayer that shows evidence of Near Eastern influence. It is a large, limestone piece, slightly over 3-feet in length. His rounded head, right hand clasping his left to his chest, as well as his triple-banded belt are all found in Mesopotamian statuary from a similar period around 2500 BCE.

Gold Death Mask

Although I preferred the earlier items on display because of the evidence they provided of connections with other ancient cultures, there are some stunning things to see in the later part of the exhibit as well. One such item is a gold funerary mask from the tomb of a young girl from Thaj that is around 2000 years old. The mask is serene and beautiful and reminds me of the “Mask of Agamemnon” found at Troy that dates to 1500 BCE. Also in the tomb was a large amount of gold jewelry with semiprecious stones such as amethysts, carnelian and pearls that would have adorned the girl in the afterlife. The design of the mask and the jewelry both show contact with Greco-Roman civilization, and are evidence of the wealth that trading brought to ancient Arabia.

From the period of about the 4th Century BCE to the 16th century, there are fine examples of molded and blown glass that have somehow survived the passage of time. Some of these are locally made, and others are of foreign manufacture – all are beautiful and of a variety of colors and iridesence. One of my favorites was a small medicine bottle shaped and colored like a date.

From the second part of the exhibit depicting the roads to Mecca, there is a breathtaking display of tombstones of pilgrims who died at Mecca or on the way and were laid to rest there. The stones are carved from local basalt that often has its natural shape. The Arabic calligraphy that adorns the stones is highly designed to fit the shape of the stones and the space allowed for the epitaths. This section of the exhibit is both beautiful, sad and very human and reminds us that people and their stories lay behind each and every object.

Tombstones of the Faithful

There is also an unspoken message of the exhibition to western ears that I “can’t not” mention, and that is that the Saudis and other Muslims embrace their pre-Islamic history. The deplorable crimes against history and humanity that have been committed in Bamiyan and in many other places are not based in Islam or the Koran and are product of unfortunate, closed minds.

So, in closing, the exhibit does a good job telling us how ancient Arabs traded indigenous goods such as incense and aromatic spices, but it doesn’t show us how Arabs were global dealers in goods from many shores. Arabs dealt in timbers from Africa and South Asia and spices from India and Indonesia and brought these items to the far reaches of the world. Without Arab merchants, the Silk Road might not have been the engine of globalization that it was. I hope that future archaeological finds help tell this missing part of the story and further fill in the past of these great peoples.

The exhibit runs through February 24th in Washington and then travels to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and venues in Chicago and Boston through early 2015. If you are near any of these venues or will be passing through, make time to see this exhibit. You will learn a lot and see many, “wondrous things.” (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ha’il Stelae, Gold Death Mask and Gravestones of the Faithful from exhibition website; photo of Singing Man from Tarut from pamphlet, Tarut Island by Murtadha Al-Ruwaie.)

Click on the YouTube video below for the official teaser-trailer of the exhibition (its great)!

A Mosque of One’s Own

Muslim Communities in Central China have female religious leaders as well as their own unique food culture.

Chinese Muslim Women

Despite a deep historical tradition of female religious leadership beginning with Ayesha, the wife of the Prophet Mohammed, modern China is one of the only countries in which Muslim women are widely accepted as heads of their religious communities. These female religious leaders also fulfill most of the duties of imams – except they don’t perform weddings and funeral ceremonies. These female imams lead women in prayer at the women-only mosques, make passionate sermons, impart the knowledge of the Koran and even teach women to read and write in Arabic. They wash and purify the bodies of Muslim women who die, and function as advisors in religious matters for both men and women.

Many communities in Central China even have women-only mosques for female prayer and study. In other countries where women are allowed to enter mosques, their prayer is limited to separate rooms or behind screens, separated from the main area of the mosque and hidden from the eyes of the praying men.

Not so for the Hui – a Chinese ethnic group who are descended from some of the original Muslim merchants and statesmen who came to China mostly during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The original settlers were an ethnic mixture of Persians, Arabs, and Central Asian Muslims, who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Uyghurs and Turkic-speaking Muslims in China’s west and northwest. These settlers intermarried with Han Chinese and other ethnic groups and became known by their modern moniker – the Hui. Making up about half of China’s more than 20 million Muslims, the tradition of strong female religious leadership is a living atavism or founder-effect of the customs of the original Muslim settlers in Central China.

Chinese Female Muslim Leader

Gao Baogong, the male head of the Islamic Association of Kaifeng says, “Muslims in other countries feel that we go too far. It seems very strange to them that a woman acts as imam. They are mistaken, of course. Women and men should have total equality. I’m not the only one saying it. The prophet Mohammed said it in his own words.”Why then have Muslim women attempting to take religious leadership faced discrimination and condemnation in many other Muslim communities and countries? Sure women in Morocco and in Shia Iran have some counseling and leadership authority – but it cannot even be compared to that of an imam. Were the ancestors of the Hui uniquely liberal or has the Sunni world become more conservative over the centuries? So many questions. . .One thing for certain is that female religious leadership has not been a threat to the Hui’s faith which has persisted for over a thousand years. The Hui’s faith and customs survived even the blight of the Cultural Revolution and they remain a living remnant of the ancient Silk Road that brought their ancestors to China.Other aspects of Chinese Muslim culture have not only survived, but thrived over the centuries as well. One such example is the unique food-culture that exists amongst China’s Muslims that blends Uyghur and other Turkic-speaking Muslim food traditions with those of the amalgam Hui peoples. Muslims in China do not eat pork, keep to halal dietary practices, and in some cases will eat only fish with scales, eschewing shellfish. Quite a few dishes now enjoyed widely in China were also introduced by China’s Muslim citizens.

Hui Beef-Noodle Soup

For example, the Hui are credited with creating beef noodle soup, now widely enjoyed around China made of stewed beef, beef broth, vegetables and Chinese wheat noodles. The soup is flavored with salt, red chili peppers, white peppercorns, and green onions, and one glance is all you need to see the link to Central Asian lagman soups. Muslims use halal meat and generally refrain from the use of soy sauce when mixing the soup.

Another dish credited to Chinese Muslims is the salt-fermented cabbage Suan Cai which is related to the northern sweet and sour cabbage Pao cai except that it has a strong pickled flavor. It is enjoyed with soups and stews as a vegetable or topping and in the south often eaten with a congee as a meal.

The Uyghurs and other Central Asian Muslims are also said to have introduced the kebab meats (especially lamb) now popular all over China as street-food and seasoned with cumin, red chili peppers, salt and sesame oil or sesame seed. The Chinese like “dry” or shish kebabs of chunks of meat, but also fried kebabs of ground meats as well. An interesting and uniquely Chinese kebab is the steamed kebab brushed with sweet bean paste.

Fentiaozi or Emperor Salad is a complex salad of noodles, cabbage, limejuice, eggs, and soy sauce is also a dish of Muslim origin. Flatbreads called Nang clearly related to Western, Central Asian and Southern Asian naan are also enjoyed as are stuffed breads such as the Jui cai he that are stuffed with garlic chives or leeks.

In addition to female leadership in their Muslim communities, China’s more than 20 million Muslims (more than in all the Arab Muslim Gulf states combined) also have been great innovators of food in China – bringing with them dishes and food traditions from their homes in Western and Central Asia as they travelled the ancient world along the along the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Chinese Muslim Women, Female Chinese Religious Leader and Hui Beef-Noodle Soup from Google Images.)

Venice and the Silk Road: The Muslim World

Villa with “Islamic” Windows

Sea gulls calling, businessmen sweeping the sidewalks in front of their shops and restaurants and of course the incessant lap of the waves on the stone foundations of La Serenissima – the serene place. These are the sounds of Venice at dawn – the same sounds to which the city has woken to for countless generations. More than a powerful city-state that became an Italian province in the 19th Century, Venice was a major European player on the Silk Road that was often the end stop for goods and ideas coming across the Black Sea and Mediterranean.

Coming to power from the 9th to the 12th Centuries, Venice first rose to prominence by defeating Dalmatian pirates that often seized or demanded payment from the merchant vessels coming to trade in the city’s lucrative markets. With defeat of the pirates and control of the eastern Adriatic, Venice’s sphere of influence spread westward onto the mainland to secure the flow of agricultural products for the city and then into the Aegean all the way to Cyprus and Crete. From the 9th Century on, trading relationships with merchants from North Africa, the Levant and Arabian peninsula also helped feed Venice’s growing prominence among European cities. A large portion of the city’s growing wealth also came from its dominance of the salt trade in the Mediterranean.

At first a defender of the Eastern Roman Empire against Norman and Turkish incursions, the Venetian conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204 made Venice a major imperial power that also helped to bring about the fall of Byzantium. At the height of its maritime power in the late 13th Century, Venice had more than 3,000 ships dominating commerce from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Remnants of this age of empire can be seen in design elements around the city today in the use of spiraling sets of glass lanterns and Persian carpets to adorn the interior of churches and in the pointed, domed windows and doorways on the buildings that line the canals. Insidiously perhaps, the graceful curve of these Islamic-inspired windows and doors are often topped with a Coptic cross or a Fleur de Lys reminiscent of the triumph of Christianity that the crusaders would have espoused.

War spoils seized from Constantinople can still be seen in the San Marco treasury today, gold, precious gems, jewelry, scepters, goblets and statues of almost incalculable value are on display for the payment of a few Euros as are the famed quadriga of bronze horses that once pulled a chariot on a monument to second century Roman emperor Septimus Severus.

San Marco – Quadriga

Even after the recapture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in the 15th Century, and the loss of many of Venice’s territories in the eastern Mediterranean, links from the city state to the Muslim world remained strong as evidence in the portraits of Ottoman and Turkmen rulers that still line the Ufizzi. Friezes of palm trees, camels and gazelles decorate the ancestral home of the Zen family who were merchants trading with the Arabs, geographers and explorers, and ambassadors to Muslim Persia and Damascus.

When moveable type reached Venice in the 15th Century, Venice became the printing capital of the world. The leading printer, Aldus Manutius, also invented portable books that could be carried in a saddlebag. Instantly popular, these books soon superseded the heavy, metalclad manuscripts and books and the dissemination of knowledge was brought beyond the bounds of the monastery, palace and private library. At this time Venetian printers also began to reprint Islamic treatises on medicine, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics thus allowing these disciplines to spread freely in Europe once again. Among the portable books printed were also cookbooks, with Apicus’ early text being printed in 1498.

With all of this cross-cultural contact, trade and exchange, the Silk Road also had a strong effect on Venetian cuisine that can be enjoyed to this very day. In addition to the spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper that came from Asian shores or agricultural products such as oranges, lemons and saffron, there are recipes that also bespeak Asian and/or Muslim influence.

Fish in Saor

One of the special Venetian dishes that display the maritime contact with the Muslim world is Pesce de Saor. Fish – often sardines, sometimes mackerel – is marinated for days in layers of onions, white wine vinegar, pinenuts and raisins. The fish is sautéed (dredged if desired), and set aside, then the onions are cooked over low heat until they begin to caramelize and the vinegar, pinenuts and raisins added. This is then placed in alternating layers of onions and fish in a large casserole and allowed to sit in a cool place for several days prior to eating. This dish is clearly related to Sayadia or Sayadieh enjoyed from the Levant through the Arabian Peninsula – but is not cooked after layering given the omission of rice. It is delicious and lightly sweet despite the large amount of vinegar and onions used. The dish is sometimes served with grilled polenta which takes on the flavor of the saor. Shellfish and other fish such as monkfish are also traditionally prepared in this manner in Venice but have variations on ingredients such as the use of oranges, bay leaves and mixed greens to flavor the saor.

Many dishes labeled “Italian” also have ties to the Silk Road as well. One such dish is the Salmon with Oranges. This flavorful dish, served as a carpaccio or in pieces often served on a bed of arugula owes two of its main ingredients – arugula and oranges to Western Asia. A peruse of The Silver Spoon shows a variety of baked Persian vegetable omelets known as “kuku” for their use of eggs. Almonds for use as ground nuts and sauces are another popular Muslim addition to Italian cuisine. Pomegranates were also brought into Italy and flourished in its many warm, dry temperate climates. Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook (Opera) in 1570 included treatises on Arab pastry making and “Moorish” couscous in addition to the many Bolognese recipes he recorded.

Roasted Coffee Beans

A discussion of the Islamic world’s influence on Venice and Italy’s cuisines wouldn’t be complete without a mention of coffee. Muslim traders first brought coffee to Venice where merchants and their customers would sample it in Piazza San Marco. At first, raw beans were boiled and then fermented and then cooked again – a time consuming process – that produced a bitter brew. Later, in the 16th Century, when the Muslims began roasting the beans prior to brewing them, the Venetians embraced coffee drinking and the fashion spread quickly to the rest of Europe.

We stopped recently at Venice’s Cafe Florian – which opened in 1720 – to enjoy a late night desert and listen to some great live music. The gianduiotto of hazelnut gelato with bits of peidmontese chocolate and whipped cream was wonderful. My husband had a melon gelato based dessert while the kids played in the square in front of the cafe. Later, an evening thunderstorm raged while we continued to enjoy the cafe – sheltered under the arcade of Procuratie Nuove and my daughter (successfully) videographed lightning.

The influence of the Silk Road and of the Muslim merchants who traversed its land and sea routes can be found all over Venice and more broadly in Italian art, architecture, cuisine and culture. This post is a toe-in-the water of a subject we shall revisit again and again in future explorations. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photographs of Palazzo with Islamic Windows by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pesce de Saor borrowed from Buttalapasta website.)

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.


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)

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan Lantern

The time of Ramadan is almost upon us once again. Since so many of the land and maritime routes of the Silk Road ran through predominantly Muslim countries, and since Muslim traders played such an important role in moving the goods and ideas around that led to a globalization of the ancient world, I wanted to take a moment to explain the holiday to non-Muslims and to offer some recipes to our Muslim brothers and sisters from The Silk Road Gourmet cookbooks that may help to brighten your Iftar and Eid celebrations.

During the month of Ramadan, the more than 1 billion people around the world who call themselves Muslim and practice some form of Islam give thanks for and contemplate the communication of the holy Qur’an from the Angel Gabriel to God’s prophet Mohammed. The night of commemoration of this revelation is called Laylat al-Qadr or the Night of Power and usually falls about 2/3rds of the way through the month. This night may be the most important in the month-long holiday, but during this time, everyday is a time of prayer and worship, self reflection, charity, sacrifice, self control and sympathy towards others.

One of the ways that Muslims practice these qualities is by fasting during daylight hours. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the inner soul and free it from harm. Properly observing the fast is supposed to induce a comfortable feeling of peace and calm. The daily daytime fast is punctuated by an early morning meal called Sahur that is taken before the morning call to prayer and Iftar which takes place after sundown each day and at its conclusion, opens the fast for the next day.

In addition to Ramadan being an important religious observance, it is also an important holiday and as such, it is a time of visiting family and friends, giving presents and general celebration often lasting late into the evening. Since it is a festival of giving and sharing, Muslims prepare special foods and preparation of the Iftar meal is often a time of heightened socialization with family and friends in the kitchen.

Father and Daughter in Devotions

The Islamic holiday of Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of the fasting period of Ramadan and the first day of the following month, after another new moon has been sighted. Eid ul-Fitr means the Festival of Breaking the Fast; a special celebration is made. Food is donated to the poor, everyone puts on their best, usually new, clothes, and communal prayers are held in the early morning, followed by feasting and visiting relatives and friends.

Since the Muslim world extends from Europe through Africa and the Middle East to the farthest reaches of the Pacific, I’ve selected a variety of recipes from The Silk Road Gourmet that could be cooked as part of your Iftar or Eid meals. If you are Saudi, cooking an Afghani dish or a Malaysian one may seem a bit unusual, but experimenting with the foods of other predominantly Muslim nations might add some cross-cultural interest to your holiday meals. (Words by Laura Kelley; photo of Ramadan Lantern by Paul Cowan and the photo of Worship by Distinctiveimages, photo of Iftar Feast in Zanzibar by Gumpa and the photo of Dancing at the End of Ramadan by Pniesen, all from


Afghan Pastries Filled with Savory Potatoes and Lamb
These delicious pastries are reminiscent of India’s samosas but are easier to wrap! The flavors of spring onions, cayenne, cumin, and coriander mix with the potatoes and lamb for a spicy, delicious treat, any time. Can also be enjoyed as a snack or even a light meal.

1 ½ cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 package dry, active yeast
3 ½ cups flour
3 tablespoons corn or other vegetable oil

2 large potatoes
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 medium bunch chopped cilantro (20–25 sprigs)
4 green onions, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
½ pound ground lamb or beef
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 egg, beaten

Corn or other vegetable oil for frying pastries

Combine the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a medium bowl and mix well. Set aside and let activate for 10 minutes or until it begins to froth.

In a large mixing bowl, place the fl our, indent the surface, add the corn oil and yeast mixture, and mix well. When the dough is mixed well enough to handle with your hands, knead it for 5 minutes. Set aside in a warm, quiet place for 1 hour or so until it has doubled in bulk.

Boil potatoes in their skin until soft. Peel and mash. Add salt, coriander, cayenne pepper, cilantro, and green onions and mix. Brown ground beef with pepper, salt, and cumin. Mix ground beef with mashed potatoes and beaten egg. Let cool.

Punch down the dough and divide into four equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball, and on a floured surface roll the dough out until it is about ¼ inch thick. Cut into 4–5-inch squares.

Place a few spoonfuls of filling along the middle of the wrapper and fold over into a triangle. Seal edges with your fingers and then crimp with the tines of a fork.

Heat oil and fry the pastries until golden on both sides, about 4–5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve.

Afghan Cilantro Sauce
This is Afghanistan’s version of Georgia’s Garlic and Walnut Sauce (Garo). It has several of the same ingredients, but it is the differences that matter most to the taste. Substituting cumin for the trio of coriander, fenugreek, and turmeric dramatically changes the sauce’s flavor. As usual, several different versions of the sauce exist and, as you can imagine, using vinegar instead of lemon juice produces a sauce more bitter than sour. However you prepare it, the sauce is a standard on the Afghan table and is found at almost every kebab meal. Also delicious on stuffed pastries.

1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves (20–25 sprigs)
¼ cup white vinegar or lemon juice
½ cup walnuts, diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1 teaspoon garlic, peeled
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt

In a blender, combine the cilantro and vinegar or lemon juice. When the cilantro and vinegar or lemon juice has become a smooth paste, add walnuts, cumin, chili peppers, and garlic and blend again until the walnuts are integrated. (If necessary, add a bit more water or lemon juice to blend the walnuts.)

Then add pepper and salt and blend well so that spices are well distributed throughout the puree. Pour the puree from the blender into a saucepan and heat. Cook over low to medium heat for 3–5 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Turkmen Stuffed Grape Leaves
As noted in volume one of the Silk Road Gourmet, dolmas or dolmades are eaten from Greece through Central Asia and are not unique to any of the cuisines that enjoy them. In Central Asia, however, they tend to be stuffed with rice, nuts and fruits and vegetables instead of rice and meat as is favored in Western Asia and the Mediterranean.

1 cup rice, cooked and cooled
1 medium onion, peeled and very finely diced
1/3 cup freshly chopped dill
Zest of 1 lemon, finely diced
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 dozen grape leaves, unrolled, rinsed and patted dry
2 tablespoons butter
11/2 cups beef stock (plus enough to top off the grape leaves as they cook)

In a mixing bowl combine meat, rice, onion, dill and salt and pepper and mix well until spices and other ingredients are evenly integrated into the meat. Trim the hard stems from the grape leaves and lay out flat on a cutting board.

Depending on the size of the leaf, place a tablespoon or two of filling in the center of the leaf and first fold in the left and right edges of the leaf to enclose the meat. Then, fold up the bottom edges, and roll the leaf, from the bottom up, tucking the edges in as you roll to fully jacket the meat.

When all dolmas are rolled, place each one seam side down in a sauté pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. In a small saucepan, combine the beef stock and the butter and when hot pour it over the dolmas. Simmer covered over very low heat for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, topping off the broth as needed. The dolmas shouldn’t be swimming in the broth, but they do need to be moist or they won’t cook evenly. When they’re done, there should be very little liquid left in the pan. Remove to dry and serve on a platter with sour cream or yogurt spiced with garlic and salt.


Ramadan Evening Feast

Meat Dish

Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce
It wasn’t an apple that Eve offered to Adam, it was a bowl of sour cherries—I’m sure of it! Either that or God must have created sour cherries for himself and accidentally let their secret slip out some other way. However this wonderful fruit came to be, it is simply delicious when paired with meat or fish! This recipe is a wonderfully simple way to prepare lamb or pork chops, which—in larger quantities—can also be used to make a wonderful roast as well. This recipe accents the natural, slightly sour flavor of the cherries with the addition of salt and cinnamon, while recipes from central Asia tend to offset the sourness of the cherries with sugar, as in the Uzbek Meatballs with Sweet and Sour Cherries. Widely used throughout western and central Asia, sour cherries are a taste sensation you’ll not want to miss!

4 lamb or pork chops, the thicker the better
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or more to taste)
½–1 corm nutmeg, grated
¼ cup beef broth (more or less as needed)
1 serving Sour Cherry Sauce (see Azeri Sauces and Spice Mixtures)

Preheat oven to 375°. Season the meat on both sides with salt, pepper, and nutmeg and place in a baking pan. Pour a small amount of beef broth to just cover the bottom of the dish and place in the oven.

Cooking times will vary according to whether the chops have been boned or not. For chops with the bone in them, cook about twenty minutes on each side. For chops without the bone, cooking times are approximately halved.

Make the sauce while the lamb is cooking. Just before serving, pour a bit of warm or hot sauce on the chops, offering the rest of the sauce as a side.

Azeri Sour Cherry Sauce
Here is a delicious sauce that you will want to use again and again on roasted meats, chops, and kebabs. Works wonderfully with roasted vegetables as well. The sweet and sour flavor of the cherries is offset by the cinnamon, pepper, and lemon juice and mellowed just a bit by the butter. A really amazing and simple sauce to accent a wide variety of dishes.

2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 small pinch ground cloves (no more than ⅛ teaspoon)
1 cup sour cherries, chopped

To make the sauce, melt butter in a saucepan and dissolve salt in it. Stir in pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon juice and add chopped cherries. Stir until cherries start to break down, about 5–7 minutes.


Salad and Vegetable

Turkmen Tomato Salad with Cheese
This is a deliciously tart salad that is simple to make and will brighten up any kebab or roasted meat meal – or perk up a vegetable casserole. I even enjoy it all by itself with a piece of Afghani bread or naan. The apple cider vinegar lends a sweet and sour flavor to the tomatoes and the feta which is a close stand in for the cheese that the Turkmen use makes this a salad not to be missed. Best served right after preparation.

4 medium, vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced into thick crescents
1 block feta cheese (3×2×1 inches), crumbled (I use Turkish, whole milk feta)
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (25-30 sprigs)
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, combine the sliced tomatoes with the crumbled cheese and cilantro leaves and set aside. In a small bowl, mix the apple cider vinegar with the ground coriander and the salt and pour over the tomatoes and cheese. Mix – lifting instead of stirring to not smash the cheese – and let sit for 15-30 minutes and serve.

Indonesian Eggplant Topped with Sweet and Spicy Tomato Sauce
A little touch of ginger, some chili peppers, sugar and ground coriander make this a delightful way to prepare eggplant that is undeniably Pacific rim! I will sometimes have a portion of this for a quick lunch or it will also go well with eggs and other grilled vegetables in a hearty Western-style breakfast

1 medium western eggplant
1 small onion, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
4 Thai chili peppers, diced
3 tomatoes, diced
3 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ cup water
¼ cup tomato sauce
½ teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon roasted peanut oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice the eggplant crosswise into roundels about ½-inch thick. Place on an oiled or sprayed baking sheet and bake them at 375 for 20-30 minutes, or until they are dry to the touch. Remove from oven and set aside but leave on the baking sheet. Do not turn off oven.

In a food processor, combine the onion, garlic, tomatoes, salt, sugar, peppers and water and blend lightly until it forms a chunky paste reminiscent of salsa. Onions should still have form and tomatoes should still be chunky.

Heat the oil in a sauté pan and sauté the tomato mixture for about 10 minutes or until the liquid is reduced and the sauce is very chunky. Spoon the sauce evenly over the eggplant slices and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes – just enough to warm the eggplant. Serve hot. Note: the roundels should be well cooked so, you will need to serve with a spatula.


Men Dancing at Ramadan's End

Rice and Bread

Kazakh Rice Pilaf with Dates and Apricots
This is a sweet and sour pilaf with the fruits lending a bit of sweetness to the garlic rice and the nuts adding crunch and texture as well as the gentle, moderating flavor of almonds. It is delicious with kebabs or grilled or baked meat dishes. The garlic in the rice is an Arab influence as in Pakistan’s Rice with Pine Nuts and Garlic in volume 1, while the fruits are a Persian addition.

1 cup uncooked basmati rice
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium onion, peeled, and diced
1 teaspoon garlic, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups water
1/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup dates, pitted and chopped
6 dried apricots, chopped

In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil and when hot add the onion and sauté until it softens and colors. Then add the garlic and continue until it starts to swell and color as well. Add salt and pepper and about ½ cup of the water to moisten.

Mix in the almonds, dates, plums and apricots and stir well. Cook for 3-5 minutes until slightly softened. Add the rice and stir well. Cook for another 3-5 minutes to warm the rice. Then add the remaining water and bring to a boil. When boiling, reduce heat and cook covered on low heat for 30 minutes or until rice is tender. When done, let sit covered on stovetop for another ten minutes before serving.

To serve, one can either spoon out the rice and the spoon out the fruit and nuts on top of it, or place a large plate over the mouth of the pot and invert the pot onto the plate which will allow the fruit and nuts to fall onto the bed of rice.

Pakistani Naan
This flatbread differs from the ones encountered in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan by the addition of yogurt and baking soda into the dough. This gives the dough a puffy consistency that resists crusting and crackling, and a slight sour tang that is missing from the other flatbreads. Another difference is the use of poppy seeds or caraway seeds instead of sesame seeds to coat the surface of the bread, as is favored in some of the other recipes.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
½ cup plain yogurt, lightly drained
3 tablespoons butter or ghee melted
1 cup warm milk
1 tablespoon poppy seeds or caraway seeds

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Stir in egg, yogurt, and 2 tablespoons of the butter. Gradually stir in enough milk to make a smooth dough. If dough reaches a good consistency before all of the milk is used, that’s okay; there is no need to use all of the milk. Knead for 3–5 minutes, cover, and allow to rest in a warm place for 1 ½–2 hours.

Preheat oven to 400°. Punch down dough and knead for another 2–3 minutes. Then divide the dough into about 8 evenly sized pieces and roll them out on a floured surface until they are ovals about 6–8 inches long

Place on a greased or oiled baking sheet, brush lightly with butter, and then sprinkle with poppy seeds or caraway seeds. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the bread starts to color a light golden brown, especially around the edges. Let cool for about five minutes and serve.



Afghan Cardamom Cookies
These little cookies deliver a blast of sweet cardamom flavor as they melt in your mouth. A delicious taste of Afghanistan that brings a new flavor to the dessert table

1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
½ cup melted butter, slightly cooled
¼ cup milk, warm
¼ cup ground pistachio nuts

Preheat the oven to 350°. Mix the white flour with the sugar and ground cardamom. Add the butter and milk and mix well. Make the dough into 2-inch round balls and put them on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Sprinkle finely ground pistachios on top of the cookies while they are still hot.

Bangladeshi Mango Lassi
For me, this is the ultimate dessert or cool-me-down on a hot day. Mangoes mixed with milk, yogurt, and sugar combine to make the ultimate subcontinental mango smoothie. For a delicious option, sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon or ground cardamom for a wonderful sweet treat.

3 cups milk
2 cups water
1 cup yogurt
1 cup mango pulp
¼–½ cup sugar

In a blender, mix milk, water, and yogurt together and blend. Then add mango pulp and blend until smooth. Lastly add sugar to taste, chill, and serve. Perfect every time!  (Words by Laura Kelley; Recipes from the Silk Road Gourmet.)