Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Autumn Means . . . A Bounty of Pumpkins and Squash!

I love this time of year! I love the blustery days and the chilly evenings and snuggling under blankets to keep warm. I love the cacophony of colors offered up by the deciduous trees, and of course, I love the panoply of fall produce – my favorite of which are pumpkins and squash.

They are just so beautiful – all the shapes: round, oval, flattened, tubular, and fluted like an amber bead, or goose-necked, with bumps and warts and all. And the colors – warm shades of orange, ochre, yellow and deep earthy green – some striped, some with a gradation of color fading from one into the next. Such variation in color and shape – and flavor! There are so many ways to prepare pumpkins and squash, that it seems unfortunate that we generally relegate these vegetables to pies or soup. All too often with the familiar triumvirate of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and more often than not – too much sugar.

Autumn Pumpkins

By themselves, many pumpkins and squash are already quite sweet and don’t need much sugar to make their flavors really shine. My two favorites – the Butternut and the Kabocha – are amongst the sweetest. I often use them to temper dishes with sour flavors offered by pomegranates, sour grapes, lemons, or limes.

Across the Asian continent there are a myriad of ways to prepare pumpkin and squash. As main dishes, many cultures stuff them – with rice, or a combination of meat and grains. They appear mixed with curries, stews and braised meat dishes. They are layered in casseroles, topped with sauces, curried, stir-fried and coated with spices and baked. However they are prepared, they are another gift of the New World to the Old and have been dearly embraced since their introduction only a few hundred years ago.

In Western Asia, they can be stuffed with marigold petals or pomegranate seeds in Georgia, layered in an Armenian casserole called Ailazan; baked with eggs in an omelet called a “kuku” (after the Persian work for egg) or braised with fowl or lamb in a delectable cardamom and pomegranate sauce in Iran, used as a stuffing for pastries or prepared with tomatoes and sour grapes in Afghanistan.

In South Asia, pumpkin and squash are curried in rich ginger and garlic-laden sauces, baked and pounded into dips with or without yogurt, used in rice pilafs, mixed with pulses for dals, mixed with seed spices (such as fenugreek, onion, mustard and poppy), cumin, a handful of chili peppers and lemon juice in sweet and spicy dish, and sweetened with coconut cream.

The Central Asians use squash in casseroles like Damlyama flavored with copious amounts of cumin and black pepper, stuff them with their own pulp flavored with tarragon and lemon or nuts, sour cherries and nutmeg and pepper or baked with cinnamon and black pepper, or cooked with tamarind, fenugreek leaves and garlic.

In the Himalayas, the Bhutanese have delectable pumpkin fritters spiced with cumin and use squash or pumpkin layered in their biryani, the Nepali have their Tarkari curries with garlic, ginger and lots of cilantro, the Tibetans coat squash slices in chickpea or lentil flour spiced with chili peppers, star anise, lots of black pepper and some cinnamon and fry the slices until golden, and the Burmese have make a stew of them with shrimp and soy sauce, lime juice, ginger and garlic and lots of pungent peppers. And in the Indo Pacific, one of the most common ways to prepare them are using a tomato-based sauce flavored with sweet soy, vinegar, nutmeg and pepper.

Pumpkin Curry

In the far-east, the Korean’s have their black-peppered squash cooked with soy, ginger and garlic and garnished with sesame seeds. The Japanese cook them similarly using sweet soy or a soy-ginger sauce, and in Southern China there is fish-flavored eggplant named after the method of preparation with brown bean paste, fish sauce and rice vinegar, often used to cook fish. In Thailand, pumpkins or squash are used to flavor the rich spicy curries and are used with a variety of meats or cooked rapidly in a stir-fry with lots of spicy Thai basil, or cooked with crushed black peppercorns, lemon juice and fish sauce to form a rich sour sauce around a sweet kabocha squash. The Cambodians use squash in mixed vegetable stews and stir fries, and use them with in stews with beef, coconut milk, and their ginger-spice paste called Kroeung, the thick fish sauce tuk prahok and lots of Kaffir lime leaves. And lastly in Vietnam, squash and pumpkin are sometimes enjoyed with stir-fried with lemongrass and peanuts, and roasted and pounded into a dip with lime juice, fish sauce and basil.

Certainly not an exhaustive list of Asian pumpkin and squash recipes, but ones that reach far beyond the familiar flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and too much sugar, and all of which are available in the Silk Road Gourmet volumes already published or yet to come.

So enjoy our seasonal bounty of pumpkins and squash, but think outside the box and try an unfamiliar recipe or two. You may discover a favorite vegetable you’ve never tried before – like the Sri Lankan curry posted below. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Autumn Pumpkins by Haywiremedia @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of Pumpkin Curry by Sarsmis @ Dreamstime.com. Recipe in Silk Road Gourmet Volume 2).

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Curried Pumpkin in a Ginger-Garlic Sauce

This curry is sour, sweet, and hot due to its curry leaves, vinegar, coconut milk, sugar, and ground chili peppers. Blended together, these flavors make this dish quintessentially Sri Lankan, but it also complements a wide variety of other cuisines as well.

Ingredients
1 medium butternut squash or small kabocha pumpkin, peeled, sliced and seeded
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds, ground
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
½ cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon chopped chili peppers
10 curry leaves, crushed
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar

Method
Preheat oven to 375°. Place sliced squash or pumpkin on an oiled or sprayed baking sheet and when the oven is hot, bake for 20–25 minutes. Remove from oven, cool, and slice into quarters or eighths, depending on the size of the slice.

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan and sauté onion until it softens and starts to color. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, and mustard and stir for a couple of seconds. Add the garlic, ginger, coconut milk,
chilies, and curry leaves.

Add the vinegar, salt, and sugar and bring slowly to a boil. Add the squash or pumpkin pieces, stir, and simmer on a low heat for 5 minutes until the pumpkin is warmed.

Patterns, Patterns Everywhere: Spice Mixtures

Many chefs and cookbook authors spend their careers touting the unique aspects of the cuisines they cook and write about.  I’m different from most.  I look around and see nothing but commonalities and connections between the major Asian cuisines and spice mixtures.  In The Silk Road Gourmet Cookbook, I write a lot about how ingredients and dishes swirl in patterns across Asia and tell us a lot about relationships between countries whether through trade, diplomatic relations, cultural or religious connections.

A Masala

One of these patterns in ingredients is found in the makeup of the major spice powders. Whether used as a pickling spice, an advieh, a masala, a curry powder, a spice paste or a five-spice powder, the same spices, with some variations in amount, preparation, use, or local addition of ingredients swirl across the continent from Armenia to Indonesia.

Take for example a relatively familiar Northern Indian garam masala: 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cloves, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 2-inch cinnamon sticks, ½ nutmeg corm, grated, 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds.  Moving west of India, the first three ingredients are also found in most Pakistani garam masalas, which tend to omit cinnamon and nutmeg, and substitute black cardamom for the green cardamom found in the Indian masala.  The same ingredients as those in the Indian masala can be found in an Afghani char masala – minus the nutmeg and also replacing the cardamom with black cardamom as in Pakistan; and in Iranian advieh  - this time with the addition of coriander seeds and Persian lime powder.  A commonly used modern Armenian pickling spice share four ingredients with the Iranian advieh but adds bay leave and the New World allspice to the mix.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Pakistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground cloves
4 tablespoons cumin seeds
Seeds from 6 black cardamom pods
Afghanistan1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon seeds from black cardamom pods
Iran½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon dried Persian lime powder
Armenia2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons whole allspice

East of India, many Nepalese masalas have the same ingredients as the Indian masala mentioned here – only they tend to add black cardamom to the mix.  One important difference between Indian and Nepali masalas is that Nepali masalas are often roasted, whereas this is an option in Indian cuisine.  Sri Lankan curry powder has the same ingredients as the Indian garam masala except that it adds coriander and fennel seeds and omits nutmeg.  Several additional spices and herbs (pandanus) are also added that are not related to the five or six spice base in most of the other mixes.  Like Northern Indian spice preps, the spices in the Sri Lankan curry powders are sometimes roasted and sometimes not.

India2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
½ average nutmeg corm, grated
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
Nepal2 teaspoons black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole cloves
1 ½ tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black cardamom seeds
Sri Lanka1 teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon whole cloves
⅛ cup cumin seeds
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Tibet2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cloves
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 Tablespoons cinnamon stick
¼ cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 Tablespoons bay leaves
Khirgizstan1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cardamom

Masala Ingredients

Tibet’s masala adds coriander seed and bay leaves to the Northern Indian base and Khirgistan’s five-spice mix omits black peppercorns from the Indian recipe all together.  Sichuan peppercorns replace black peppercorns along with the addition of star anise and fennel in varying degrees in Mongolia, China and Vietnam.  Like Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s curry paste uses many ingredients not related to other spice mixes around Asia (candlenuts, laos etc), but still it shares the core of spices (black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and coriander seeds) with several of the other powders mentioned.

Mongolia2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole cloves
2 tablespoons broken cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons fennel seed
6 whole star anise corms
Southern China2 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
36 whole cloves
5, 2-inch sticks of cinnamon, crushed
2 tablespoons fennel seed
12 star anise corms
Vietnam2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
8 star anise corms
Indonesia1½ tablespoons black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
2½ tablespoons coriander seeds

A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there and the proportions of the spice mixtures change – but the ingredients remain the same – to some degree across the entire continent.  Likewise, we may be different ethnicities or different religions, but to some extent, the foods we eat are part of the cultures we share – all of which have been shaped by the Silk Road (Words and pattern analysis by Laura Kelley).

Afghanistan Akbar!

Afghan Man

From the time of the Persian emperor, Darius the Great in 500 BCE, the Afghan people have, at least from time to time, been engaged in resistance against foreign powers bent on conquering them. Even when outsider tyrants succeeded in bringing down one or more of the most powerful tribes, revolution percolated in the mountains and countryside and fed rebellion against the foreign invaders. An uneasy history has plagued the proud peoples of Afghanistan: Persians, Alexander, Greeks, Buddhists, Huns, Arabs, and the Uzbek Tamerlane all seized the reins of Afghan power at one time or another. It wasn’t until 1747 and the foundation of modern Afghanistan that Afghans have held power for extended periods of time in their own country, and even then they continued to be plagued by usurping Persians, British, and Russians. This history of conflict and resistance means that over the millennia, Afghan culture has been influenced by a wide variety of foreign cultures.

The effect of all of this blending of cultures on Afghan cuisine has produced a merger of both western Asian, which is still heavily influenced by European food and the cuisines of the Levant states, with southern Asian cooking or cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. From the West, we still see a wide variety of familiar spices— fennel, bay leaf, mint, and saffron—but these are often used in concert with southern and eastern Asian spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger rather than as main flavors.

Once again the Persian influence is strongly felt in the combination of fresh and dried fruits with meat dishes, in the use of sour grapes as a “souring agent” in a wide variety of foods, and in sumac as a spicy garnish to sauces and skewered meats. Another much-generalized trend that Afghan food has in common with southern and eastern Asian cuisines is the eating of smaller portions of animal protein at most meals. Kebabs may seem like a lot of meat, but most of this is in fact in the presentation instead of on the portion scale. Part of this trend away from meat has to do with the cost of meat, but part of this is also due to simple cultural preference.

Afghan Kebab

The recipes offered in the Silk Road Gourmet give a good overview of the complex flavors that prevail in Afghan cuisine. In meats, they range from the gentle Afghan Chicken Kebab and Lamb Chops Afghan Style with dashes of cinnamon and black pepper working with the flavors of the meats to slightly accent them, to the sharp Lamb with Lemons and Pine Nuts with its spicy trio of cardamom, coriander, and cinnamon adding their pungent flavors to a lemon-pepper sauce. The vegetable recipes offered are not shy cousins to their meaty relatives; in fact, some of them—most notably, Tamarind- Ginger Potatoes and Spicy Eggplant with Mint—may be even more spicy than most of the meat dishes. Afghan vegetable dishes aren’t just about bold flavors, though; sometimes they gently coax diners into submission, as with Sautéed Quinces, where nutmeg and cinnamon work in concert with basil to bring a unique flavor to a fruit that is much underappreciated in the West, or Sweet and Spicy Squash where a sweet, baked butternut squash absorbs a sweet and spicy tomato sauce seasoned with ginger and garlic to magnificent results.

If you are curious about Afghan food – perhaps having dined in Afghan restaurants a few times – I suggest you check out the Silk Road Gourmet to try some of this delicious food at home. You will instantly recognize some of the flavor combinations from the Persian/Iranian portfolio, but other tastes will be brand new and closer to those of Indian subcontinental cuisines. (Words by Laura Kelley, photo of An Afghan Man from the U of Colorado at Boulder website and photo of Kebabs from the Afghan Embassy website)

The Jews of the Great Silk Road

Chinese Jews Reading a Torah Scroll

In previous posts I’ve extolled the virtues of Arab traders in keeping the engine of global commerce and subsequent cultural exchange alive along the Silk Road. Although the Arabs were indeed an important part of trade along the Silk Road, many other nationalities and ethnicities were as well. There were Chinese, of course, Greeks, especially along the maritime trade routes, Europeans, and Jewish merchants situated in strategic outposts of both the land and the maritime Silk Road lines.

Dating back almost three millennia, the Jewish community in Iran is the oldest in Asia. Originating as enslaved subjects in ancient Babylon (now, Iraq), Jews first settled within the territory of modern-day Iran after the Persian emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, freeing the Jewish slaves and making them an integral part of the Persian Empire. As Persian subjects, Jews traveled widely and did business in Persian dominated lands from Afghanistan, the Caucasus and Caspian through Central Asia.

In the Caucasus, the Jews traded with many of the displaced Turkic tribes that were wandering westward and southward, but they formed a special association with the Khazars. Evidence of great glassworks factories can be found in Orbeti, which dates to the 7th and 8th centuries. This factory were likely under Jewish control, because the designs of the glass produced in these factories and especially the shape and the coloration of the beads can be traced to Near-Eastern Jewish glass designs. Around this time the Khazar king “converted” to Judaism and by the 8th and the 9th Centuries, most Khazars followed Judaism as they continued west and south into the Danube basin.

The largest settlements of Persian Jews in Central Asia was to be found in Uzbekistan, and Jewish merchants worked the important hubs of commerce along the Central Asian Silk Road in places like Bukhara and Samarkand, helping to establish them as major trading posts.

Kaifeng Synagogue

Mediterranean Jews were great entrepreneurs who controlled a considerable part of the trade in that region and played an important role in developing the economies of those nations. In Alexandria, they monopolized shipping; in Syria they controlled many of the markets and as early as the first few centuries AD, they set up their own silk production industry based in Beirut. Other arts and crafts that were dominated by Jews in this region were textile dyeing and glassworks – with glass beads often being used to pay for incoming shipments of foreign goods.

Possibly as early as the first few centuries of the Common Era, large merchant settlements of Jews could be found along the Eastern Silk Road, reaching even into Kaifeng, China. Early trade documents in a unique form of Hebrew from the area dating from around 400 CE have been found in China that suggest the community was not only in existence, but thriving by that time. Remains of a great synagogue have also been found in Kaifeng and have been dated to the 11th and 12th Century CE.

So the mixing and blending of goods, foods and cultures in countries touched by the great Asian trade routes was accomplished by a wide variety of different types of people – most of whom were merchants – out to make a buck along the Silk Road. For thousands of years, Arabs, traded with Africans and Greeks and Jews, and Jews traded with Persians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Chinese, and Chinese traded with Indonesians and Thais and Sri Lankans and Arabs who traded with . . . As bloodlines merged, imported cultural practices became integrated into those held dearly for millennia and modern cuisines emerged from the crucible of history – all blended and formed along the Great Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)

A Silk Road Thanksgiving

With the US’s Thanksgiving Day rapidly approaching, I thought I’d offer a few recipes from the first volume of The Silk Road Gourmet to help you blend Silk Road cookery with traditional fare for the holiday feast. The first recipe is a side vegetable dish from Armenia called Green Beans with Walnuts. This dish blends the flavors of string beans with tomato sauce, cinnamon and walnuts – to delicious results. Its not too dissimilar to Azerbaijan’s Karabakh Loby. Its spiciness comes from freshly ground black pepper accenting the cinnamon instead of from some form of red pepper and the turmeric only adds to the warm blanket of flavor surrounding the beans. Serve hot with a roast meat or kebab dish or enjoy it all by itself for a quick lunch.

Green Beans with Walnuts

1 pound green beans, stemmed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup water
1 cup tomato sauce

1. Heat butter in a sauté pan and sauté onions until they start to soften and take on some color. Add tomatoes and sauté until the tomatoes start to break up. Then add salt and pepper, turmeric and cinnamon and stir again.

2. Mix the water and the tomato sauce together and add to the onions and tomatoes. Cook to warm then add the green beans and cook covered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the green beans start to soften. Then cook uncovered until the beans are tender but still firm.

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A salad that will be sure to please from Pakistan is their Mixed Bean Salad which is a mild salad to begin or end a flavorful or spicy meal with. In this dish, the grapeseed oil and white vinegar combine with the sugar and black pepper to accent the beans and other vegetables with a light sweet and sour dressing. It’s moderately spicy when first made and mellows a lot after marinating for a while. I like to prepare it in the morning or by noon before an evening meal and let it rest in the refrigerator for several hours. I recommend taking it out at least one hour before serving as it is best served only slightly chilled and not really cold.

Mixed Bean Salad

1 cup northern white beans or butter beans, drained
1 cup of chick peas, drained
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 medium red pepper, cored and finely chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 green chili peppers, diced
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup of grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 small bunch fresh coriander leaves, chopped (15 – 20 sprigs)

1. Combine beans, onion, red pepper, tomato and chili peppers into a large bowl. Then whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper and when well blended, pour over the bean mixture. Mix well.

2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Just before serving, fold in fresh chopped cilantro leaves and stir gently.

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A legion of appetizers can start this special meal and include Azeri Oven Bread and Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce from Azerbaijan. The bread is a standard on the Azeri table and in the markets, baskets of golden bread with poppy seeds and sesame are available fresh everyday. The sauce is found throughout the Caucasus, Caspian and Southwest Asia and combines cooling cucumber and yogurt with garlic, pepper herbs and ground sumac.

Azeri Oven Bread

1 package dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 egg yolk, for garnish
1 teaspoon poppy or sesame seeds

1. In a small bowl, mix yeast with water until the yeast is dissolved, set aside until the yeast activates. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Sift flour into a large bowl. Add salt and mix well. Gradually add the yeast-water mixture and stir in using your hand until a rough ball forms. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough, folding it over and turning for about 5-8 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball and put it back into the large bowl. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for about 1-11/2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in bulk.

3. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and punch it down. Knead for about another 2-3 minutes and shape the dough into a ball. Then using a rolling pin, start rolling the dough that is about 1 foot long, 8 inches wide and about ½ and inch thick.

4. Transfer the bread onto a greased and floured baking sheet and using a knife, make shallow crosshatching slashes on the bread and let rest for about 20 minutes before baking. Just before popping the bread in the oven, brush it with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with the sesame or poppy seeds.

5. On the middle rack of a well preheated oven bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until it is golden in color.

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Cucumber and Yogurt Sauce

11/2 cups whole-milk plain yogurt
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and grated
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 teaspoon sumac

Combine in a bowl the yogurt, garlic, cucumbers mint and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to allow the flavors to blend. Before serving, stir in some sumac and garnish with mint leaves.

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Another wonderful and very flavorful accompaniment to a Silk Road feast are the Sweet and Sour Garlic Pickles eaten throughout Western Asia. It has to be prepared well in advance – so start now to enjoy it by Thanksgiving.

Sweet and Sour Garlic Pickles

2 large heads of garlic (about 60 cloves), peeled
3 tablespoon of salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1 cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice
1/4 cup of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked or lightly crushed
3 hot dried red, chili peppers
1 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

1. Place the peeled garlic in a sterile glass jar and add the salt and sugar. Cover and shake to mix. Let stand on the counter for 1-2 hours shaking every now and then to get the garlic to start to break down and give off its liquid.

2. Heat the pomegranate juice and the vinegar in a small saucepan to bring to a boil. Add the peppercorns, the sliced or torn chili peppers and the dill to the garlic and then top off with the pomegranate juice and vinegar mixture. Cover and shake well. Store refrigerated for at least 2 weeks before eating.

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Dolmas or Stuffed Grape Leaves are also widely enjoyed in Western and Central Asia and make a great addition to the holiday table.

Dolmas or Stuffed Grape Leaves

½ pound ground lamb or beef
½ 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)
1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

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For a delicious plain pilaf with a touch of nutty flavor that really complements the roasted meat dishes, try the Pine Nut and Sesame Pilaf offered in volume 1 of the Silk Road Gourmet. It probably came to Armenia from Arabia during one of the periods of Islamic conquest of the region and is still eaten in Arabia and in several Muslim countries around Asia.

Pine Nut and Sesame Pilaf

3 tablespoons butter
1 cup rice
1 cup chicken or beef broth
1 cup water
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly roasted
1/4 cup sesame seeds, lightly roasted
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon fenugreek leaves

1. Melt butter in a large sauté pan and sauté the onion until it softens and starts to color, then add the fenugreek and the roasted seeds and nuts and mix well. Cook over medium until the onions have wilted completely.

2. Add salt and pepper to the onions along with the stock and water and bring the mixture to a boil. When the water is hot, add the rice and return to a boil. Then lower heat and cook covered 15-20 minutes or until the rice is done.

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For dessert – if you have any room for some – I recommend the delicate Rose and Cardamom Pudding that is eaten throughout Western and Southwestern Asia and is an Afghani favorite. If you have room for something more substantial, try the honey and citrus-laced nut-cake Ravane that is also enjoyed from Greece and southern Russia in Europe through Central Asia and the Levant States. Both can be enjoyed with a robust, flavorful coffee or a milk-laced sweet tea that is enjoyed in one form or another thoughout Asia.

Rose and Cardamom Pudding

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons corn starch
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
½ teaspoon rose water
1 teaspoon ground pistachio nuts

Mix whole milk with cornstarch and cardamom and rose water in a sauce pan. Bring it to a boil – stirring constantly. When the mix comes to a boil, remove from the stove, and put into a shallow serving dish. Refrigerate and serve with finely chopped pistachios sprinkled on top.

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Ravane

CAKE
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup ground walnuts
1 cup ground almonds, blanched and brown skins removed
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter, melted and cooled
Zest from 1 lemon, finely diced
Zest from 1 orange, finely diced
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup cream or half and half

SYRUP
3 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 large cinnamon stick
½ lemon, sliced
½ orange sliced

1. In a large mixing bowl combine dry ingredients and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk or beat eggs until frothy, then slowly add sugar a bit at a time until well mixed with the eggs. Add melted butter, diced lemon and orange zest and mix again. Lastly add the ground cinnamon and the cream or half and half. Combine wet and dry ingredients and mix well. The mixture is very dense and difficult to mix and you will probably have to stir by hand until well integrated.

2. Oil or spray a 9 by 12 inch baking pan and pour or spoon batter into the pan, spreading it evenly across the pan surface. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake. When cake is done remove from the oven to cool.

3. While cake is baking or at some time before baking, you can make the syrup. In a medium saucepan, heat water until boiling and then lower heat to a steady simmer and add sugar about a ¼ to ½ cup at a time. Stir constantly until sugar is dissolved and add cinnamon stick and citrus slices. Cook for 20-30 minutes to impart the flavors of the lemon and orange and cinnamon stick to the syrup and stirring often to make sure that the syrup is thickening nicely. Remove from heat and let cool about 15 minutes before removing cinnamon and fruit slices.

4. When syrup has cooled, prick the top of the cake with a fork or toothpick, but only go about halfway down, don’t penetrate the cake completely. Little by little pour the syrup in an even layer over the cake and wait for it to be absorbed. At first the cake will greedily take in the syrup and later it will absorb it more slowly. The point is not to make the cake swim in the syrup, but to provide enough syrup to moisten the cake and lend its fruity, cinnamon flavor. Cover tightly and let sit overnight before serving. Serve by cutting into diamonds or squares and placing onto individual serving plates. Garnish with chopped almonds or pistachios and a pinch of cardamom.

Now, if that’s not a Silk Road feast fit for a King or a Shah or a Rajah – I don’t know what is. I hope you try a couple of these recipes – for Thanksgiving or for some other meal – and post about them if you enjoyed them. (Words by Laura Kelley)