Category Archives: The Silk Road

Food and Wine Frescoes from the Wei and Jin Tombs

Desert Near Wein-and-Jin Tombs, 2012

Desert Near Wei-and-Jin Tombs, 2012

In an inhospitable area between the Gobi and the Taklamakan Deserts northeast of Jaiyuguan, China a time capsule was buried almost 2000 years ago. Underneath the treeless, grey sand that blankets the region today are a series of over 1000 tombs from the Wei-and Jin period (265-420 ACE). The walls of the tombs are decorated with frescoes that depict details from everyday life in a land that was temperate, fertile and teaming with life. Images of farming, hunting, animal husbandry, cooking, feasting, and playing musical instruments adorn the walls; there is even an image of China’s early pony-express mail delivery that shows a galloping horse and a man carrying a letter in his hand with an urgent look on his face. Paintings filled with the nuances from the everyday lives of the people who lived near one of China’s main Silk Road corridors in the remote hinterlands of the dynasty.

Many of the frescoes have to do with gathering or preparing food. The one depicted below shows a woman and a girl picking mulberries or mulberry leaves. The fruits could have been used to make jams, juice, sauces, desserts or wine; or they could be dried and eaten like raisins. The leaves could have been used to give a sour flavor to food and salads, used to make tea, used as anti-inflammatory medicine, or if of the correct species to feed hungry silk-worms and provide a place for the metamorphosis of next season’s egg-laying moths.

Mulberry Picking

Mulberry Picking

The girl is wearing wearing ribbons and both she and the adult female have short hair which identify them as from the Qiuci ethnic group. The Qiuci were Indo-European settlers in ancient China who spoke an Indo-Iranian dialect, traded on the Silk Road, and eventually became part of the early Uyghur empire. Many historians believe that they arose from the people who first brought Buddhism into China from India and Pakistan. Given the Indo-European roots of the Qiuci, the mulberry leaves could have been used as a flavoring for bread, as is done in some Indian parathas today.



The second fresco presented here show servants preparing a meal. The head cook is picking meat from bones on a board to the right. Possibly recycling meat for another meal from uneaten parts of a roast, or preparing bones for soup. Mutton is hanging from hooks on the ceiling to age, and another cook is stirring a pot to the left. In the foreground and background there appear to be steamer trays lined with dumplings or buns.

Warming Wine

Warming Wine

The third fresco shows a maid warming wine. She holds a tray with cups in her right hand and with her left she reaches for a ladle to fill the cups with wine from the warmer. Grape and raisin production and wine-making is an ancient industry in Xinjiang and Gansu and this painting shows the popularity of wine in the Wei and Jin Dynasty.

Dining on Kebaba

Dining on Kebabs

The last painting shows two men having dinner together. The man to the left is the host of the meal and perhaps a noble because he is sitting on a low-bed or a couch. His guest is someone of relatively equal importance because he is depicted at the side of the host and more or less the same size as the host (other frescos denote a marked difference in the size between master or mistress and their servants). The guest proffers a large trident-like skewer with bite-size bits of meat on it – kebabs. Although evidence for kebab eating goes back to Akrotiri, Greece in the 17th Century BCE, and possibly earlier to Ancient Mesopotamia, this fresco gives a solid date range to the food in western China at almost 2000 years ago. Introduced to China by Indo-Europeans coming across the main track of the Northern Silk Road (the Uyghur word is kewap), kebabs are now enjoyed all across China.

Many other images are captured in the tomb paintings: dancing, raising chickens, a Bactrian camel on a lead, and herding horses. To preserve the paintings, only one or two tombs are open to the public at a time and different tombs are open on a rotating basis to allow for repeat visits. One has to descend almost 30 meters beneath the arid surface to enter the cool, damp rooms of the tombs to view the frescoes, but it is a unique way to experience life in ancient China. Where there is now barren desert, there were rich farms, pastureland, and trading posts teaming with travelers and traders, moving goods, ideas and culture around on the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos from postcards of the Wei and Jin Tombs by Laura Kelley (photography is not allowed in the tombs)).

The Origins of Curry

The origins of curry – both the word and the food – are clouded in assumption, misinformation and cherry-picking of language to suit one’s purposes.  From my recent research on curry for the Curry Through Foreign Eyes series, I have found that a great deal of the misinformation written in English can be traced to The Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary, first published in 1886.  In this edition and many subsequent editions of the H-J  it states that the root word for curry is the Tamil word kari that means “sauce”. An alternate possibility for the root word is given as the Kanarese word, karil.

Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary

Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary

This is incorrect on several accounts.  First off, the meaning of Tamil word kari varies a great deal depending upon location, class and caste with meanings ranging from “blackened” to “chewing”, “vegetables”, “meat”, “pepper or pea”, and “side dish”. (Please note, that the linguistic studies consulted did not note a meaning for Tamil word kari as “sauce” at all.)

A few examples of this variance include, how Brahmins use the word kari in Chingleput, Tamilnadu to refer to meat in general or to a particular kind of meat, or certain meat dishes. When speaking to vegetarians, these same speakers use the word to refer to vegetables or vegetable dishes. The meaning, “side dish” is only used in the extreme south (Kanyakumari), where the word kari is also used in conjunction with other words to denote vegetables and vegetable dishes. Some speakers in this area also use the word to denote certain liquid dishes – broths and soups.  So the meaning in Tamil depends on who you are, where you live, and with whom you are speaking.   As a point of note, a common word used to mean “sauce” in Tamil, and this particularly means a vegetable or pulse sauce, such as one made from lentils is sambhar; another is kuz, with kuzumbu denoting a tamarind-yogurt sauce and its variants. Neither word, you will notice, even remotely sounds like the English word, “curry”.

Pan-Roasting Spices

Pan-Roasting Spices

Later editions of the Hobson-Jobson omit the Tamil kari as the root of the word curry and cite the Kanarese word karil as the ancestral root for curry, and the word adopted by the Portuguese in Goa. This is problematic, because to the best of my ability, I can not find any word, karil in Kanarese.  The closest I can find is the word kari, which means to cook or particularly to fry.  Another set of meanings for the Kanarese term is “blackened, scorched or roasted”.  This, you will note, is the same as one of the meanings for the Tamil kari (because both terms spring from the same Proto-Dravidian root).

Taking these two meanings together, the Kanarese term kari could have been associated with the cooking of curry in the preparation of masalas.  One possibility is in reference to the way in which whole spices are dry-fried or pan-roasted before grinding. Another possibility could refer to the way in which the masala paste is often fried before being added to the rest of the ingredients of the curry. Thus, the Kanarese word kari may have been transliterated by the Portuguese to become their word for “curry” –  karil or caril.

Red Lentil Dal

Red Lentil Dal

Another error in the H-J concerns the antiquity of curry.  The H-J states that the earliest precise mention of curry is in the Mahavanso (ca. 477 ACE).  The passage states, “He partook of rice dressed in butter with its full accompaniment of curries.”  The original Pali word taken to mean curry by the translator is sûpa.  Other translations of sûpa are broth, soup or liquid preparations of vegetables.  While not out of the question that this could refer to a curry it could also refer to something more like a soup, broth or a pulse-based condiment like a lentil dal.  Its another example of the possible variation or lack of definition being taken out of a potential data point in the quest for the roots of curry.

My own research has identified a much earlier use of the term sûpa in another ancient Pali manuscript.  The 26th canto of the S’rîmad Bhâgavatamm, which is also known as the Bhâgavata Purâna has an instance of sûpa that is translated as, “liquid vegetable preparations”.

Let the people cook many varieties of cooked foods ending with liquid vegetable preparations, and beginning with sweet rice, fried and baked cakes, large, round cakes made from rice flour, and all that is obtained by milking the cows. 

The oral tradition of the Puranas along with many other ancient Hindu texts date back many thousands of years.  However, the Puranas, Vedas and the Mahabharata are said to have been compiled by Dvaipâyana Vyâsadeva, often known simply as Vyâsa.  Vyâsa is said to have lived in the early Kuru Dynasty (1200 – 800 BCE) and is listed in the family tree as the grandson of Kuru himself. This would place Vyâsa’s life sometime in the 11th or 12th Century BCE.  Whatever the “liquid vegetable preparation” that the term sûpa referred to, it is mentioned in text that is at least 3000 years old.

Apologies to all who found this to be a long, boring, or overly-academic post. I just felt that to all of the misinformation out there in the ether, it would be nice to add something with some reasonable research (as opposed to blind repetition) behind it. As usual, I may not be right, but at least I am well-referenced.

(Research and Words by Laura Kelley; Photos borrowed from Google Images)

Uzbek Homestay in Paradise

I’ve just returned from a homestay in a small mountain village in Uzbekistan’s Nurata mountains.  For a couple of days, I was welcomed into the life of a family in a small house perched amongst steep rocky hills.  Sitting on the porch of the house, one can hear a symphony of birds with occasional accompaniment from barking dogs, lambs calling for their mothers and donkeys braying in the valley below.

View from the House to the Southwest

View from the House to the Southwest

When our car pulled into the village the eldest son of our host greeted us and led us to the house up a narrow and sometimes steep unpaved road.  When the road became too difficult to drive, we walked the rest of the way up to the house.  Trees dripping with mulberries and young walnuts – the cash crop of the village – hung over a swift running stream fed by a mountain spring.

Our Host

Our Host

The entire village is made up of a few Tajik families who emigrated together from Bukhara a few hundred years ago to the Nurata mountains. Since then the village has pretty much kept to itself. People are born and die within the confine of these peaceful hills, they marry people they grew up with and expect their children to do the same. Now added to their centuries-old culture are mobile phones, sometimes electricity, wealth from local gold extraction, and thanks to the UNDP, homestay tourism.

Our host met us and ushered us across a planked bridge and up some steep steps to his home. When we arrived, his wife was busy already preparing dinner and met us later.

Most of the meal was cooked on an outdoor wood-fired stove with a pot inset into the stove. The pot was generally shaped like a wok, with steeper sides. In the photo below you can also see an Uzbek tandyr oven used for baking bread and roasting meat. Like the cylindrical, vertical tandoori ovens, it gets blazingly hot. There was also a smaller indoor stove – also wood fired – used for heating water, steaming and boiling foods.

Cooking Dinner

Cooking Dinner

As with all Uzbek meals, it began and ended with an endless pot of green tea. Accompanying the tea were small dishes of red-skinned peanuts mixed with local walnuts and raisins; and a selection of cookies and candy. We ate outside, which is done whenever weather allows. Breakfasts tend to be eaten inside because of the chill in the air, but lunch and dinner are taken au plein air.

Just before dinner, our host pulled out a small bottle of medicinal vodka and poured us all a glass – for our health. Bread and salads came first. The naan was different from city bread and made from a coarsely ground flour with no yeast. Hot and delicious, no meal is complete in this country without it. One of the salads was the usual chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with dill, salt and just a hint of dilute white vinegar. Another salad had rice noodles and with just a few diced tomatoes and onions and similar seasoning. Uzbek tomatoes are large, flavorful and meaty and lack the acidity often found in tomatoes in the west. They are also very juicy, but it is contained by the flesh of the fruit and it is easy (and not messy at all) to eat them on the fly like an apple as I love to do.

Cooking Dinner - Closeup

Cooking Dinner – Closeup

Uzbeks do love their yogurt and it is served with every meal. This being no exception, there was a medium size bowl of watery yogurt flavored with green onions, garlic and salt. This can be a community bowl for dipping naan or one can pour it into a tea bowl and sip it along with the meal. Another type of yogurt on the table was a yogurt cream with lots of dill, garlic and salt in it for a great blast of flavor. The yogurt was homemade and although wonderfully sour was also creamy and many degrees more gentle than the now popular-in-the-west Greek yogurt. The center of dinner was a type of Dimlama – large hunks of beef on the bone, stewed with chunks of potatoes and sliced carrots and onions. Seasoning was mild: a little fresh dill, a little pepper, a little ground cumin and coriander and salt. This dish had a thin, brothy, sauce that was delicious with the naan.

When we were nearly stuffed to the brim, our host’s brother sent his daughter up with a large plate of pilaf – or plov – rice with lots of carrots and onions topped with a bit of beef dripping off the bone. We tucked into it and finished about half before settling back in our chairs to watch the stars come out overhead.

We were treated to some sweet, sad songs on one of Central Asia’s stringed instruments the rawap* by our host. He sang an old Tajik song to remind us to appreciate what we have in life – when we have it. In a repetitive verse, he sang that when you have children, you don’t appreciate them. It is only when they are grown and gone that you realize what a wonder they were. In turn, we were also reminded to savor love, health, and life. Something that is easy to do under the stars in paradise.

(All words and photos by Laura Kelley)

* If you’d like to know more about the rawap and other Central Asian instruments, click here for my post on my trip to the Uyghur instrument maker’s shop in Kashgar last year.

A new company called, “Responsible Travel Along the Silk Road,” can arrange Nurata homestays, Yurt-camp experiences, as well as a variety of other eco-tour excursions.

An Evening in Tashkent

If you ever find yourself hungry in Tashkent and want a wonderful sit-down dining experience, go to The Caravan.  The food is classic Uzbek: Lagman, Norin, Beshbarmak, and Manti, and it is very good.  But the dining experience at Caravan goes beyond the food, the restaurant is a work of art, and its beauty enhances the enjoyment of the food. The garden is draped with grape arbors and colorful ikat fabrics as well as beautiful handicrafts.

The Caravan

The Caravan

Traditional Uzbek music plays softly and water gently flows and turns an old-fashioned water wheel. Broad, shallow threshing baskets adorn the roughly plastered walls, and chili peppers are everywhere to warn off the evil eye. Kitchen utensils of heavy cast iron – pans, spatulas and ladles are also add to the authentic look and feel of the place. In addition to western table-and-chair eating arrangements, there are traditional Uzbek platforms with low tables on them around which people curl up, sip tea and enjoy the light Spring breeze.

Caravan Restaurant, Traditional Uzbek Table

The Caravan, Traditional Uzbek Table

In case you missed it the first time, go back to the first picture and take a look at the antique Suzani that hangs on the back wall. I love how the embroidered circles in the cloth work with the baskets hung on the wall, and I love the personal touch that it brings to the table. It was once part of a girl’s dowry and her temperament and patience was judged by how finely and consistently she perfected her stiches. Every stich tells a story.

Chili Peppers and Water Wheel

Chili Peppers and Water Wheel

Our meal started with a pot of green tea with lemon. I got re-acquainted with the Uzbek tea ritual in which the host pours the tea into his or her own cup and back into the pot three times – this mixes the tea with the water and makes it more flavorful. Then the host drinks a few sips from his own cup to show that the tea isn’t poison. Then he offers tea to his guests in a pecking order based on age with the oldest or most senior person first. Another wonderful tea ritual is that if bubbles form in the middle of the cup when poured, you quickly touch them with your fingers and then touch your head and pocket. This symbolizes money and that money will come to you.

Basket Decoration, Detail

Basket Decoration, Detail

With the tea we had a plain lepyoshka with a few sesame seeds on top. It was very puffy and airy which means that yeast was used in the baking. Lepyoshka with yeast is a variation that has become very popular as an alternative to the more traditional, dense, unleavened constructions. With the lepyoshka we had katik yogurt with lots of cream on the top of the glass.

I had the lagman. Simple, I know, but I do love it, and this bowl was by far the best I have ever had. The bowl was filled with different types of noodles, greens, meat and bathed in a light but flavorful broth. There were wheat-based noodles, rice noodles and an egg-based angel-hair noodle that had different textures and flavors. Onions, spring onions and slices of garlic made up the vegetable base, along with red and green bell peppers and bits of tomato. There were also minced greens, with cilantro and dill leading the way for added flavor. The bits of mutton provided its usual earthy flavor blast but was wonderfully tender. What really made the dish stunning was the broth. A lamb or mutton-base with a distinct tomato overtone formed the soup-base. Above that were subtle but definite flavors of star anise and cinnamon. I shared a bit with one of my dining companions and she agreed that it was fabulous.

The Best Lagman Ever

The Best Lagman Ever

The lagman was served with a carafe of diluted pomegranate vinegar flavored with dill, daikon radish and a red pepper. Condiments were a minced combination of green chili peppers, scallions, red chili peppers, onions, tomato and garlic with a light, dilute white vinegar on them, and some chili peppers pounded with lots of sumac. Simply heavenly!

Also on the table were pumpkin manti with a mild garlic yogurt cream dressing, lamb dolma with a gentle yogurt and dill dressing and chuchvara – a wonderful dumpling swimming in a flavorful broth. The selection of drinks on the table included tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice and the ubiquitous carbonated cola. All in all it was a great meal to begin a wonderful adventure. Tomorrow, I go in search of norin. Stay tuned!

(All Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #1: Hannah Glasse

I have long been fascinated by concepts of “I and other”, or the many ways we separate what is familiar (self) from what is not familiar (non-self). By defining what is not self, we are in fact defining self. One can hear small children do this when misclassified by gender; most adamantly declare that they are not members of the opposite sex. “I and other” are also evident in beautiful symbolic ways when considering the movement of ideas and beliefs through societies. The newly introduced idea is at first foreign, complete with unfamiliar trappings. As the idea flows through society and is adopted, the foreign elements are shed and replaced by the familiar.

Depictions of Buddha: Caucasian and Asian

Depictions of Buddha: Caucasian and Asian

One place to see this is operation is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which houses an expansive collection of Asian art. As Buddhism moves out of India and across Asia, first to the west and then the east, early iconography clearly depicts Buddha as Caucasian (Gandahara style), even if the work is from the Himalayas, Burma or Western China. As time passes, and Buddhist ideas are adopted across the east, however, religious iconography begins to depict a wide variety of races and ethnicities. Noses become smaller, epicanthic lids are added as the face changes from Caucasian to Asian. Expressions usually remain contemplative and serene, but the varying shapes of the faces are evidence of the triumph of the ideas across space and time.

The “I and other” concept is also of interest in historical cookery, especially when one group is attempting to recreate the cuisine of another. I’ve been looking at early recipes for Indian curry written by non-Indians. So far, I have a small collection of English and American recipes from the 18th and 19th centuries that show curry powders and recipes developing from recipes that merely reminiscent as Indian in the eighteenth century to those that are nearly indistinguishable from modern recipes broken out by geographical region by the end of the nineteenth. The earliest amongst them (so far), is a recipe from Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747.

The Art of Cookery, 1774

The Art of Cookery, 1774 edition

Glasse’s book was an important book for its time and was a major reference for home cooks in England and its colonies for more than 50 years after its publication. If you think of it as an early Joy of Cooking, you are just about spot on. It was revised several times during her lifetime, but to avoid bankruptcy she had to sell the copyright and didn’t profit off of most of the sales.  The recipe for the chicken curry that I made below was added in a later edition of the book published in 1774.

The 1774 recipe reads:

To make a currey the Indian way.
TAKE two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricassee, wash them
clean, and stew them in about a quart of water for about five minutes, then strain
off the liquor and put the chickens in a clean dish; take three large onions, chop
them small, and fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens and
fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens and fry them together
till they are brown, take a quarter of an ounce of turmerick, and a large spoonful of
ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate and strew all these
ingredients over the chickens whilst it is frying, then pour in the liquor, and let it
stew about half an hour, then put in a quarter of a pint of cream and the juice of two
lemons, and serve it up. The ginger, pepper, and turmerick must be beat very fine.

My interpretation of the recipe follows:

Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken (1774)

1 pound chicken breast meat, cut into bite-size pieces
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large or two medium onions, peeled, sliced and separated
2-3 heaping teaspoons turmeric (the fresher the better)
2 heaping tablespoons ginger, grated or finely minced
2-3 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups low-salt or homemade chicken stock
½ cup heavy cream
¼ -1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter and when warm, add the chicken and sauté until the meat is opaque and starting to color. Remove chicken and set aside. If desired, add the remainder of the butter and then sauté the onions for 5-8 minutes, stirring frequently until they start to soften.

Add the ginger and if dry, add a small amount of the stock to moisten the pan. Sauté for 2-3 minutes and then add the pepper, turmeric, and salt and stir well. Cook for 5 minutes to allow flavors to blend, and then add the chicken and any accumulated juices back into the pan and stir well. Add stock to almost cover the meat and stir again. Cook to warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally. When warm, cover and reduce heat to so covered chicken cooks steadily at a medium simmer for 20-30 minutes or until chicken softens. Stir occasionally while chicken cooks.

When the chicken is tender, uncover and if necessary let sauce reduce a bit. When nearly done, reduce heat to lowest and add the cream and lemon juice and stir in well. Cook to heat and serve with rice or bread.

I used breast meat, because my family doesn’t like to deal with bones unless necessary. Feel free to use chicken on the bone if you prefer, just adapt the cooking time so that the joints move easily and the meat is tender. I’ve also deliberately used a range of ingredients to allow people to adapt the recipe to their desired taste and consistency – that is a wetter or drier curry. Also, to get the most juice out of lemons, roll them well before cutting to break down the internal substance of the fruit before squeezing.

Hannah Glasse Curry, 1774

Hannah Glasse Curry, 1774

The dish is very good, but not quite a modern curry. As you can see from the title of my interpreted recipe, the modern dish most like it is an eastern (Kolkata) butter chicken. However, the Hannah Glasse curry recipe lacks a full complement of spices and the varying amounts of tomato sauce now so often used in the dish. The turmeric and lemon juice are the dominant flavors, with the “heat” coming from the large amount of black pepper used. The heavy cream lends a nice touch that blankets the stronger flavors and tones them down a bit. I served the dish over a plain basmati spiced with a bit of black pepper and cardamom. All in all a delicious meal – and one of historical significance – good for both the body and the mind.

Other early recipes I’ve been working with include Mary Randolph’s 1824 recipes for a nutmeg and mace laden curry powder and her recipes for catfish and chicken curries. Another curry powder we’ve been sampling has been Mrs. Beeton’s 1861 recipe with cinnamon, fenugreek and mustard, which is more like a panchforan than a curry powder. I’ll be writing about these dishes in future posts, so stay tuned. Also, thanks to friend of the Silk Road Gourmet, the beautiful and talented Deana Sidney of Lost Past Remembered, I now have some early Dutch and Portuguese references to plow through looking for early curry recipes.

I will also be scouring earlier books for recipes that claim to be early Indian curries. If you know of any non-Indian recipes earlier than the mid-18th Century, please drop me a line or leave a comment with the reference.

Lastly, I will be on the road in May and may find it difficult to update the site, but please stay tuned for more curries and tales from Central and Western Asia when I return. (Words and adapted recipe by Laura Kelley; Photo of Hannah Glasse Curry, 1774 by Laura Kelley; other images in the public domain).

A New Look at Bhutanese Cuisine

A few years back, Ruth Reichl was quoted as saying that the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan had, “the world’s worst cuisine”. That quote angered me when I read it and has haunted me ever since. First of all, it isn’t true. Second of all, the statement is in itself nonsensical. How can someone proclaim something the “worst” without qualifying which characteristics earned it such a dubious honor? Is it the frequent use of yak dairy that offends? Is it the chili peppers? Ms. Reichl, please elaborate. Her comment reminded me of the scene in the movie Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II declared that there were simply, “too many notes” in Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio.

Tiger’s Nest Monestary, Paro

Reichl’s proclamation is born of ignorance of the full depth and breadth of Bhutan’s cuisine. That said, however, it is a very difficult cuisine to experience and understand. I have never encountered a Bhutanese cookbook – at least not one in English or any one of the other languages I read, and the internet has only three or four recipes that are copied endlessly. In the recipes available, cooks have all too often subtracted indigenous Bhutanese ingredients – like Perilla (Shiso) seeds, and copious Szechuan pepper and razor-sharp chili peppers – and inserted western ingredients in their place. Most of these substitutions change the flavor of a dish completely so that the food sampled is no longer Bhutanese. Often times, the food is not even a hybrid of Bhutanese and European or American cuisine – it is simply a shoddy imitation, like ‘pasteurized, processed cheese food’ in comparison with a luscious, creamy Mont d’Or cheese.

Restaurants in the U.S. and Europe purporting to serve Bhutanese food usually serve Nepali or Tibetan food with only one or two Bhutanese dishes peppering the menu. Sometimes, even these dishes are Bhutanese in name only and have little in common with the dish as one would experience from the hands of a skilled Bhutanese cook. I have seen one blog rave of Ema Datsi, Bhutan’s famous chili and cheese dish when in fact, he was served mixed vegetables and rice.

Bhutanese Dishes, Hand-Pulled Noodles (Foreground)

There are few authentic Bhutanese recipes in paper or e-print, restaurants in the west are not serving Bhutanese food, and unfortunately, it has also been difficult to experience the cuisine when travelling in country. Tourism is a new industry in Bhutan. Just forty years ago, the country opened its borders to tourists. As a new industry, tourism is still tightly controlled by the state. All foreigners must be on escorted tours and some attractions are closed to outsiders completely. Even in country, whether as a tourist or an expat, it has been difficult to eat a lot of Bhutanese food beyond that cooked for you by acquaintances and friends. Many restaurants in Thimphu and Paro offer Indian, Chinese and Nepali food that is misunderstood as Bhutanese. One Singaporean blog recently declared Bhutanese food to be delicious and just like that served at home in Singapore. Also, many of the Bhutanese dishes available in restaurants have often been overly toned down for westerners, with beans taking the place of chili peppers and cow’s milk products substituted for yak dairy. Lastly, recent years have seen a creep of western food appear on menus and shops have opened up in tourist areas that serve pizza, wraps and “hambuggers”.

Years of travel and relentless research have helped me build a more complete view of Bhutanese food than is usually found, and I surely do not think that it is the worst food in the world. In fact, I think that Bhutan has a cuisine that is as varied and delicious as that or Korea or Japan. You may wonder at my choice of comparison, but the inclusion of a high amount of wild and native ingredients – like mustard, turnip and radish greens, wild berries and flowers, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms (for instance, Chanterelles) and red rice – and the enduring ceremonial use of food, form the basis of my association.

Buckwheat Dumplings (Hapai Hantue)

Although many people keep vegetarian, a selection of meat abounds from the commonly enjoyed pork and chicken to beef, water buffalo and yummy yak. Fish is also eaten, but is usually smoked or dried before cooking – at least traditionally. Delicious vegetables are everywhere if you look for them. From broccoli, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers and cabbage to potatoes, radishes (daikon), carrots, to eggplant, string beans, onions and garlic, and of course peppers both hot and sweet. Pulses include several types of peas and beans as well as lentils. Commonly enjoyed fruits are apples, delicious pears, and also mandarin oranges, but quinces, a large selection of berries, tomatoes, pumpkins, peaches and plums, and cherries, persimmons and jackfruit are also eaten. Almost all dairy, except that for complementary feeding of infants and a few beverages is eaten as butter or cheese. Yak is probably the most common dairy, but milk from cows, goats and buffaloes is also used for milder-tasting products. Grains eaten include rice, barley, wheat, millet, and maize, and flour is also made from buckwheat and pulses. Sweeteners are cane sugars, honey and sap from local trees.

As to herbs and spices, the dual foci that many recipes use is Szechuan pepper and cilantro (green or seed), but a wide variety of greens offer flavor including the aforementioned mustard and turnip greens to kale, chard and beet greens. Other herbs include mint, fennel, Indian bay leaves, wild onion leaves (the flavor of which can be approximated by mixing spring onion greens and garlic chives or by planting Allium hookeri in your garden), as well as lemongrass and keora. Commonly enjoyed spices are cinnamon, green and black cardamom; ginger, long pepper (Piper mullesua), turmeric, sesame, nigella (onion seeds), cloves, saffron, and perilla. Juniper berries and Indian gooseberries are also potent flavoring agents. I have read numerous accounts on the internet about how the Bhutanese don’t use herbs and spices to flavor their foods; they instead use only salt and chilies. I honestly have no idea how that unfortunate rumor could have been started, because the Bhutanese have large armamentarium of flavorings ranging from sweet, sour, hot, astringent and bitter that they regularly add to dishes.

Aubergine Sauteed with Garlic and Chilies

How cooks put these varied ingredients together is also extremely varied by geographic location, family tradition and personal preference and individual taste. There are stir fries, curries and stews; roasts, braises and baked dishes. There are salted, smoked, boiled and dried foods, and there are also dishes with flexible preparations and presentations, such as those that can either be a soup or noodles with sauce. There are unique fermented foods and pickles that are delicious, sweet and sour at the same time.

The lists above are by no means intended to be exhaustive lists of available foods in Bhutan, but only a sampler of some of the most commonly eaten foods, ingredients and flavorings. However, even with the meager offering of food to be found in these lists, it should be clear that there is no lack of basic foods in Bhutan to somehow limit the cuisine. In fact, the range of its geography from sub-tropical to alpine and from lowland to highland allows for an extraordinary variety of foods to be cultivated or gathered and eaten.

Roots and Relationships

To begin to understand Bhutanese cuisine it is necessary to know the basic history of the people and the importance of Bhutan in regional and in Silk Road trade. Although archaeological evidence (stone tools, megaliths and building foundations) suggests that Bhutan was inhabited at least as far back as the second millennia BCE, most modern Bhutanese trace their ancestry back to the Tibetan migrations into Bhutan in the 7th Century ACE. The Tibetans brought with them their food culture, but that culture soon began to incorporate new ingredients that they found in Bhutan’s fertile valleys and hills. This adaptation continued until Bhutanese food developed its own unique character. Of course cuisines are always evolving and Bhutan’s cuisine is changing rapidly today.

Some dishes, however, still bear marked similarity between the two nations such as Shamdeh or Shamdrey a dish prepared with meat and potatoes and served over rice. Both dishes contain ginger, garlic, onion (of some sort), and tomato. The major differences are the choice of meats – the Bhutanese favor pork and beef and the Tibetans favor beef and lamb or mutton – and the spicing. The characteristic star anise flavor of the Tibetan dish is missing from the Bhutanese preparation that opts only for the use of cinnamon as the dominant flavor. The traditional presentation of the Bhutanese dish also includes slices of egg when available.

On the Silk Road, Bhutan served as an important link and trade partner between Assam and Bengal in the South and Tibet in the North. The Bhutanese traded ponies, sheep, and dogs, chilies, textiles and other spices and in return received rice, betel, dried fish, and all-important rock salt from its trade partners. Other items brought into India by Arab merchants and into Tibet by the Chinese and Central Asians were also traded. So, far from being isolated, the Bhutanese were part of the Old World’s global economy brought about by the Silk Road. Thus cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cloves from Indonesia were incorporated into the litany of Bhutanese foods.

The Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant

Since 2001, the Bhutanese Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu has been educating its citizens and visitors about traditional ways of life with displays of artifacts from the rural households. In addition to exhibits, there are also docent-led programs to teach skills – such as proper etiquette for eating with one’s fingers, extracting oil from seeds or brewing ara, the traditional moonshine – that are rapidly vanishing as international and modern lifestyles are adopted by its citizens.

Bhutanese Tasting at the Folk Heritage Museum

Just a few months ago, in February, a restaurant opened at the Folk Heritage Museum that intends to educate visitors about Bhutan’s rich and delicious food culture and cuisine. It already has over 160 dishes (60 vegetarian and 100 non-vegetarian) on its menu and has hosted tastings of Bhutanese dishes. Menus are seasonal and ingredients are sourced from local farmers.

The restaurant/café arose out of the patronage of the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck and is a welcome addition for those of us who would like to learn more about Bhutan’s traditional cuisine. Next week, from September 25 to the 27th, the restaurant is hosting two days of celebrations for the Tsechu Food Festival. Alas, I have no plans to be there, but I will raise a cup of mistletoe tea to those participating and wish that I was.

The Silk Road Gourmet

I am always developing one recipe or another, and recently I’ve been working on a few from Bhutan that will be included in the second volume of The Silk Road Gourmet. A couple of evenings ago the whole family dined on a delicious meal of Bhutanese Roast Pork Ribs (Tsipsha Pan). In this dish (pictured below, in preparation) pork ribs are seasoned with salt, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, and ground perilla and onion seeds. This is cooked briefly at high temperature on a bed of greens (I used mustard greens) and then the meat is covered with a sauté of caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, hot chilies, ginger and garlic and spices, along with some more greens and slow roasted at low temperature until the meat drips off the bone. In true Bhutanese fashion, another variation of this dish can be cooked as a braise.

Bhutanese Roast Pork Ribs (Tsipsha Pan)

I used finger-hot chilies, which are not as spicy as those used in Bhutan (only about 30,000 Scovilles), but I used a lot of them – 12 for the vegetable sauté for the roast and 20 for the ema huem da datsi preparation served as a side dish. I also left the seeds and the placenta in place after slicing the chilies lengthwise to leave the full heat intact. I served both dishes with Bhutan’s fantastic red rice.  As to cheese for the datsi, I used Turkish, whole milk feta mixed with gorgonzola to try to approximate the strong flavor and sour tang of Yak’s milk – it was wonderful (even if I do say so myself). I served the mustard greens that the meat was cooked in as an accompanying vegetable and they were delicious as well. Even our kids ate it, although my son, who has a heat-sensitive palate steered clear of the ema datsi.

You can look forward to these and other Bhutanese recipes, hopefully next year when the next volume comes out. Till then, keep traveling the world in your kitchens. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro by Wouter Tolenaar @; photo of Bhutanese Roast Pork Ribs (Tsipsha Pan) by Laura Kelley, and other photos borrowed from the Folk Heritage Museum’s Facebook Page).

Riding Down the Karakorum Highway

I arrived in Kashgar after a nearly three-day trip from DC with a layover and shower in Urumqi lasting only a few hours.  I was met at the airport by a couple of wonderful Uyghur guys from Kashgar Guide/Xinjiang Travel who whisked me straight out of the city and onto the Karakorum Highway for a bit of adventure.  Dust swirled as we sped southwest on the highway past blooming apricot trees and swaths of wheat sprouting bright green amid the sand and clay.  We stopped in Opal to buy food for a picnic and found fresh naan and lamb kebabs as well as a gorgeous seletion of fresh fruit.  We packed it all up for a lunch at Karakol Lake and started out again. We continued for a way on the dusty plain, but soon the mountains were looming up on the left. They rose higher and higher until they formed a massive snow-capped wall in front of us.

Karakorum Highway

As we began to make our way through the Karakorum Range through the Ghez River Valley, the mountains rose higher and higher until some of the peaks topped 8000 meters in height. The land around me was like a living geological textbook – with some of the best examples of uplift and water erosion I’ve ever seen. The strata in most cases can be read like a book. It is not a fertile place. It is dry and forbidding this time of the year. Many of the lakes and streams were low or dry, but I was told that was becasue the snows on the mountaintops hadn’t melted yet. Then water is plentiful and the plains flood and the rivers roar with clean water from on high. Everywhere, domesticated yaks and camels graze freely on the sparse dried vegetation they can find amongst the dry rocks and gravel.

Mighty Muztagh

We were told by some Tajik herdsmen that in this area they only make Yak dairy in September and October becasue the pasture is so poor before the melted snow comes. They leave the milk for the young at this difficult time until the young yak are fully able to graze on their own.

Herd of Grazing Yak

After we left the Ghez Valley the road turned south again and continued to rise in altitude. As we left the mountains we entered into a valley of some of the most splendidly desolate scenery I have ever seen. The Pamir foothills rose on the right. Great cloud banks moved over head casting deep shadows over the land below and my head was full of Steve Reich marimbas and the whistle of cool Spring wind.

Splendid Desolation in the Pamirs

We met a mixed group of Tajik and Kyrgyz traders camped by the roadside selling amber goods ranging from necklaces to scorpions embedded in the harded sap. The tall Kyrgyz trader haltingly told me in English that he would give me the hat off his head – so I bought it. I saw him on the return journey with a new hat, so apparently that is part of his sales routine. So many hats so few tourists.

Tajik and Kyrgyz Traders

We finally stopped for lunch at Karakol Lake and dined on the naan and kebabs as well as the most sweet small oranges I’ve ever had, and fantastic local pears. The fat from the lamb flavored the naan perfectly and the pears were crisp and sweet and juicy with firm texture and would, I think, make good cooking pears. We wanted to make Tashkorgan before dark and walked around only briefly. I was not yet adjusting well to the altitude – we were already approching 4,000 meters – so the briefest of walks was fine with me.

Yurts near Lake Karakol

Tashkorgan gets its name from the ancient Stone Fortress on the outskirts of the city. The ruined fort, which is the ancient capitol of the Tajik people, was inhabited more than 2000 years ago as part of the kingdom of Puli. The capital and surrounding encampments were at their most powerful between the 7th and the 10th Centuries ACE. Then began a period of war and decline that lasted form more than 100 years until the city was a shadow of its former self. When the Mongols conquered, the city was sacked and destroyed. Its odd though, the modern city of Tashkorgan still has a lot of Tajiks living permanently there as if standing guard over the ruins of their lost city. This population swells seasonally with the influx of other semi-nomadic Tajiks as well.

Kids in Tashkorgan

We walked around the modern city first and came upon a small market on a side street. They had the most delicious looking roasted chickens coated with chili peppers and sesame seeds – spicy and earthy at the same time. I bought several different types of chilis – each one more powerful than the next. The kids were everywhere and unlike in the States, they roamed freely through the streets. They are gorgeous and looked like they could be from anywhere in the northern hemisphere – other than China and Eastern Asia.

The Stone Fortress

My guide, Hasan, and I climbed up to the great fortress and sat on top overlooking the deserted plain below. The fort is surrounded on three sides by mountains and opens on the east to the Taklamakan desert. Turning away from the modern city which lay nearby, the rest of the landscape is today exactly as it was when the Stone Fortress was bustling with life and love and trade. Ancient ammunition still littered the ground. Now and again we spied a perfectly rounded stone a bit larger than the rest that was used with a slingshot in defense of the realm. We sat for a long time as the sun started to fade. The silence was broken only by the tittering of an eagle in the distance like an echo out of the past. (Words and photos by Laura Kelley)

Midday at the Oasis

Decorated Door in Turpan

Imagine yourself in a lush trellised garden of grape vines and mulberry trees. A brook babbles nearby and a light breeze filters through your leafy bower. Birds flit amongst the vines and provide music for your sojourn. You recline on a woven silk carpet of red and white that covers long wooden benches painted bright turquoise blue. Perhaps you sample the abundant local fruits and raisins while sipping locally produced wine. After a few hours of such pleasure, you have forgotten the harsh conditions that you travelled through to get here. After a few days you will once again be moving through the great sandy sea that surrounds this place. . . .

For some travelers along the Silk Road wanting to trade the unsurvivable Taklimakan desert for the inhospitable Gobi, this scene played out thousands of years ago. For me, it was last month during my visit to Turpan, China.

In April, the temperatures at nearby Flaming Mountain – the hottest place in China – topped 50 degrees centigrade. The extreme temperatures (which rise as high as 83°C) occur here because of the high iron content of the mountain and surrounding soil eroded from its great flanks, low elevation (500 feet below sea level) and in most places beyond Turpan, little to no ground cover. What is now desert was a little more fertile in the hey-day of the Silk Road, but still, the area beyond the Turpan oasis was a harsh place.

Flaming Mountain

The incredible fertility of the oases is made possible by a series of underground canals and surface wells called a Karez. Karez is a Persian irrigation system that was invented in the 1st millennium BCE and spread throughout desert countries or regions in the following centuries. Turpan’s Karez was constructed during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24 CE), and is still in partial use today. In Turpan, it is fed by groundwater and by melting snow from Tian Shan mountains. According to a UNESCO study of Iraqi Karez, a single Karez can sustain 9000 people and provide water for 200 hectares of cropland.

Vines and Benches in Turpan’s Grape Valley

In Turpan and surrounding areas this means two things: grapes and corn. Other crops produced from irrigated lands in the region include melons, pears, and apricots, but grapes and corn are by far the most important agricultural products. Translating this to the table, Turpan is awash in a wide variety of sweet raisins and wine. As a Uyghur city, the raisins are enjoyed by everyone and the wine is for tourists and for the burgeoning Han population that is increasing in leaps and bounds as Xingjian province develops.

Interestingly, grapeleaves and cornstalks (supplemented with salt and sugar) also form the basis for much of the animal fodder in Turpan, and yes, the taste of the grapeleaves comes through in the tender, sweet mutton enjoyed in the area – the best pastorally derived meat I have ever tasted. Also, according to Muslim and Uyghur practice, lambs are not slaughtered too young, so by far, most of the meat eaten is from adult animals.

Grapes and Raisins

Turpan Grapes by Don Croner

I visited Turpan in the Spring, so the vines were just leafing out and climbing their frames from their long winter rest. Still they provided rare shade from the onslaught of the midday sun. The winter climate is so severe in Xinjiang that the vines are dug under and covered each autumn to protect them from the temperatures which can fall as low as -20°C and are accompanied by biting winds. The hot dry climate in the summer, however, provides a taste advantage when towards the end of the growing season irrigation is decreased and the sugars are allowed to set in the grapes.

There are over 50 kinds of grapes native to Xinjiang and several hundred more that have been introduced in recent decades. Of the native varieties, Turpan Seedless White is prized for its sweet flavor, color and fragrance. The Mare’s Teat is another variety that is large, sweet and succulent, and the sweet yet slightly tart Suosuo variety are small purple, seedless grapes – that resemble champagne grapes – between the size of a large peppercorn and a caper. These last raisins are an important ingredient in Uyghur medicines and are said to be good treatment for everything from measles in children to intestinal upsets in adults, blood disorders and qi problems. Because of these myriad medicinal uses, they are much more expensive than ordinary grapes or raisins.

Drying Raisins in a Qunje

Some grapes are harvested as early as July and some last on the vine until autumn. Grape growers store some of their grapes in cellars or storehouses so as to have fresh fruit during the winter and spring months, but even more grapes are dried for raisins. Grapes are dried in mud-brick buildings – checkered with holes to allow circulation of air – called qunje in Uyghur. The grapes are left in the qunje for thirty or forty days, by which time they have turned into full, succulent sweet raisins which still retain the color and luster of fresh grapes. Sometimes, the grapes are allowed to dry for a few days in the sun before being hung in the qunje to make a sweeter variety of raisin.

I sampled seven different types of raisins while I was in Turpan. In general, the lighter colored raisins – white and green were more sweet than the darker reddish varieties. Most were seedless, but a few had noticeable seeds. They were all sweet and delicious, but the seeded varieties seemed to have the most complex flavors – being tart and sweet at the same time.


Xinjiang Wines

After sampling several wines from Xinjiang and Gansu, I found all of the wines were clean and fresh. They are light to medium-bodied, and have a short to medium length finish. On the downside, they are thin on the palate with very little concentration or intensity, and next to no complexity. They are good, but at this point, by western standards, they are not great. However, they please the domestic market and have done so for the better part of two millennia so far. Whether they will ever become wines that sell on the international market remains to be seen. The Chinese are interested in developing wine tourism and an internationally marketable wine industry, and are taking steps to do so. When I was in Turpan, they had just had a consortium of Napa Valley winemakers visiting for consultation.

As we were leaving Grape Valley a spring Sandstorm sprung up and blew down several fully grown poplar trees lining the avenue to the oasis.  Despite the storm we kept on travelling south and west to make my train.  As the storm stopped we were far away from the lush valley and as I looked back I could see no trace of the green vines promising an abundant harvest that I had enjoyed only a few hours ago.  Was it perhaps just a mirage? (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photos of Decorated Door in Turpan, Flaming Mountain, and Vines and Benches in Turfan by Laura Kelley. Photo of Turpan Grapes by DonCroner, Photo of Drying Raisins in a Qunje and Xinjiang Wines from Wikimedia.)

The Real Sinbad the Sailor

A post about the real Sibad the Sailor – A Persian named Soleiman Siraf

The Voyages of Sinbad tell of giant, magical creatures: whales the size of islands, snakes so large that they could swallow elephants, and rukh (roc) birds so large that they could carry a caravan of men on their backs. Tales of these creatures repeated across cultures and through the ages have made most readers assume that they were simply pigments of a colorful imagination – works of fiction. But what if these creatures were real? What if the fictionalized accounts were based on the observations of early travelers that were tainted by mysticism and embellished over time by the repetition of stories in an oral tradition? Remember, maps in the medieval world portrayed demons and the edge of the world was thought to be a very real place.

Soleiman Siraf – Production Still from Film

In part at least, the Voyages of Sinbad are based on the voyages of Soleiman Siraf – the first western Asian man to navigate the seas from his home in Siraf, Persia, to Western India, around the Malabar coast and across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, Thailand and eventually to Southern China through the Straits of Mallaca. He sailed around 775 and his voyages were recorded almost 70 years later by Abu Zaid al Hassan in his Siraf & Soleiman the Merchant in 851 ACE.

Siraf sought to open a route to China for western trade so that Persia was not simply the recipient of goods from the east and subject to the inflationary markup of the many merchants the goods had to pass through. Great Chinese ships carrying goods to Indonesia, India and beyond to Arabia and the Persian Gulf were already seen at the larger, deeper ports capable of hosting large ships. These ships carried, silks, pearls and other precious stones, porcelain, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon indicating that Chinese merchants made many stops along their way to the western seas. But until Siraf, no western trader had ever navigated his way back to China to trade directly with the Chinese and the other countries along the way. In sailing and travelling all the way to China and back, Siraf was opening the doors to two-way trade on the Maritime Silk Road.

Sinbad by Paul Klee

Sailing almost 500 years before Marco Polo and his family departed Italy for China, Siraf’s voyages have gained little attention in the west outside of academic circles – until now. An Iranian film by director Mohammad Bozorgnia that just opened at the Kish film festival celebrates the life and travels of Siraf and his companions. The film is told through the eyes of a fictionalized young man who participates in the voyage and records its details in a Watson to Holmes sort of relationship. Since the film is racking up awards in Iran, I hope that it will released internationally, at least on DVD – I would love to see it.

Building on the extensive knowledge of Arab and Persian geographers of the time – who had already described Southern Europe and Asia, Northwest and eastern Africa to Madagascar, and the Malabar coast – Siraf first navigated across the northern Arabian Sea to around the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat) and then down to Kollam. Given the importance of trade to the merchants of the Tang Dynasty, the presence of Chinese traders in Kollam was fairly common, but sizeable permanent settlements of Chinese on India’s western coast didn’t begin until the Yuan Dynasty several hundred years later – and indication of how trade grew with the opening of a two-way maritime route.

Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks

As to the stories themselves, the origins of the Voyages of Sinbad are more or less contemporaneous with the publication of the account of Soleiman Siraf’s travels in the middle of the 9th Century ACE. Early Arabic manuscripts of One Thousand and One Nights do not include the Sinbad stories as part of Scheherazade’s tales. Rather, the Sinbad stories, which are legitimate regional folktales were added in the 18th Century by French traveller and translator Antoine Galland. Still, the stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries.

Whether as early accounts of a fantastic and dangerous world that can provide riches for those who dare depart familiar shores, or in the painting of Sinbad as a romantic a swashbuckling adventurer, or as stories for children to fuel their imaginations, the tales continue to be told. From Galland to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks, Voyages of Sinbad have endured for more than 1000 years. And, in part, at least, they were inspired by a very real Persian man – Soleiman Siraf – who changed the face of maritime trade on the early Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of The Maritime Silk Road Production Still, Sinbad by Paul Klee and Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks to Dreamworks from Google images.)