Spring on the Silk Road Means: Black Locust Blossoms

Black Locust Blossoms
Black Locust Blossoms

Spring has finally come to the Central Atlantic and all the leaves have opened out into a sea of green. In our area, dairy cows graze and suckle their young in fields of buttercups and the first cascades of wild roses are blooming on the edge of the woods. This time of year also means that the fleeting blooming of tree flowers is also upon us. My favorites to be had in abundance here are the black locust flowers (Robinia pseudoacacia) that bloom in off-white grape-like clusters. Just pick, clean, prepare and enjoy a bit of nature’s sweet bounty.

I was introduced to eating locust flowers when I was a little girl. My Austrian grandfather would gather them from the trees around his house and make them into pancakes or fritters that he then dusted with a bit of confectioner’s sugar or a dash of honey. The flowers themselves have no taste, but the pea-like base of the flower is lightly sweet and crunchy. They are sweetest when the flowers are barely opened, so if you live in more northern climes than we do, keep your eyes peeled for the blooms and pick them as soon as you can.

Black Locust Leaf
Black Locust Leaf

The trees themselves have deeply crenulated light-grey bark that is easy to slip your hands into sideways. This gives even younger trees an aged appearance. The leaves are pennate, or arranged like feathers around a central stalk and sway gently in a fern-like manner with even a light breeze. If you are relatively confident that the flowers will be pesticide free, I recommend that you NOT wash the flowers before preparing as this will rinse away some of the fragrance and flavor. Instead, pick thru the blossoms by hand for insects or other impurities.

Most European recipes I have come across over the years emphasize the sweet nature of the flowers. Many different nationalities make fritters or pancakes, doughnuts, or if harvest is bountiful, they can be used to flavor custards, jams, and syrups, and other sweet foods. The Italians add a bit of cheese (usually ricotta) to the fritters for an added flavor.

On the other hand, many Silk Road countries prepare them in a savory or spicy manner, or use them to add sweet flavor to dishes that are otherwise not sweet. Some cultures in the Eastern Europe/Western Asia area also make flavored sodas with the syrup.

In India, people lightly saute the flowers with whole spices (a couple of cloves, black pepper, some cumin (not too much) and coriander, and serve the flowers over rice as a seasonal delicacy. In the north and in some areas of the Himalayas, star anise is used as a the dominant flavor. Since they are a wild food with a limited season, the spicing of the fritters or sauteed flowers is very variable. Because whole spices are used, the flavor is a bit milder than if the spices were ground. This allows for the natural sweetness of the flowers to shine through. In an Ayurvedic diet, the flowers are also useful as an antispasmodic and laxative, and poultices of them can be applied to speed the healing of some skin lesions – like chickenpox.

Eggs with Locust Blossoms
Eggs with Locust Blossoms

The black locust is a common tree in China, and is often called ( 洋槐 “yanghuai”), or Foreign Scholar Tree, as both the tree itself and the flowers can resemble the Scholar Tree (Japanese Pagoda Tree Sophora japonica that is native there. Two common ways of preparing them in China are as rice-flour fritters that are then served with a rich and savory brown sauce, or as an addition to chilli-pepper laden scrambled eggs. In the latter, the sweet flowers add both texture and a light flavor to the otherwise spicy eggs.

Further east in Japan and Korea, bunches of flowers are cooked in a tempura batter and eaten with a variety of dipping sauces, or in a “dry tempura,” flowers can be broken off the stem, rinsed, mixed with small chunks of tofu, sprinkled with tempura batter, and lightly fried. Likewise the individual flowers can be parboiled, and lightly pickled (1 week or less) in rice vinegar and sugar and eaten as a condiment or light snack. In Vietnam, locust blossoms are used with mint, chopped vegetables and shrimp to flavor summer rolls which are then dipped in a peanuty chilli-garlic sauce.

So, as you can see, there are many ways to enjoy locust blossoms beyond fritters and pancakes. I hope this inspires you to get out there and pick them during their fleeting season. Since my post only listed a few Asian recipes for locust blossoms, if you would like to share some of your own recipes, please do so in the comments.

Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photograph of Black Locust Blossoms by Fotodietrich @ Dreamstime.com; photograph of Black Locust Leaf from Wikimedia; photograph of Eggs with Locust Blossoms by Laura Kelley.

The Silk Road at the The Corning Museum of Glass

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.

Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE
Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE

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.”

Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE
Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE

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.)

Foraminifera
Foraminifera

Spicy Asian – Authentic Szechuan in Ithaca

Wherever I go, for work or for personal travel, I like to hit a good restaurant during my trip.  If that restaurant can be a Silk Road restaurant, all the better.  I had the chance this past weekend to find a little gem of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York.  Spicy Asian restaurant is a small place on Elmira Road, that delivers a knockout of a great dinner.

The restaurant has two menus.  the first is packed with Chinese-American standards like General Tso’s Chicken and Orange Chicken as well as Egg Rolls and Wonton Soup.  The second menu, and the reason I chose to dine there, is a menu filled with authentic Szechuan specialities featuring sour cabbage, tripe, frog, pig trotters, and fish prepared in a myriad of different ways.

Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY
Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY

I started with a couple of appetizers I just couldn’t resist: peanuts in black vinegar and a tea egg. The peanuts were boiled to perfection and mixed with black vinegar, Asian cucumbers and spring onions, and the tea egg was fragrant with star anise and cinnamon with a gentle flavor of strong black tea.

For the main course, I chose the Sliced Fish with Sour Cabbage. The fish was tender but firm, and easy to eat with chopsticks, in a savory and lightly sour brown sauce. The cabbage was sliced into long ribbons that provided a strongly sour accent to the mild white fish.

I sipped green tea throughout the meal and afterwards got to chat with the owner’s mother and beautiful young daughter. I wish I had more time to spend with them and their little gem of a restaurant, and I have only one regret – that I wasn’t dining with a group of people to sample more of their wonderful food.

If you are in Ithaca and looking for some really good Szechuan specialities, Spicy Asian is highly recommended.

(Words and photo by Laura Kelley.)

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.

Ingredients
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

Directions
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.