Games of the Great Silk Road – Mancala

Most parents will be quick to agree that they learn a lot from their kids. When you have kids, you cease to be the center of your own life and the lessons range from the mundane to the profound. When they are little, you realize how little they know when they come into the world and how much you, as an adult, have come to take for granted. When they are older, you begin to see fragments of yourself or of your spouse or partner who helped raise them. But these characteristics are not a direct reflection. Rather, they are more like a mosaic. From mother to daughter or father to son the tesserae can be the same, but the patterns that they are arranged in can be very different.

Ethiopian Mancala Board, 6th or 7th C.

I am beginning to pass into a new stage, with a teen and a tween in the house, they are beginning to introduce me to things I have never heard of before. By exploring their interests with them, I am learning things about the world that I never knew. This is quite humbling to someone like me who has always considered herself something of a well-traveled brainiac.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the National Geographic Society to see the latest treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings and religious items (The Staffordshire Horde) that have recently been uncovered in England. Rich, finely worked 24-carat gold with sparkling garnet inlay filled the display cases. Videos to explain the details of the craftsmanship accompanied the exhibition, along with recordings and quiz games of Old English helped to bring the exhibit alive and make it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Endodoi Board – Tanzania

On the way out, we did the obligatory pass through the gift shop on the way to the exit. While we were browsing, my daughter came flying at me – begging for a mancala set, telling me how fun it was and explaining how it was played. We got the set and later that evening she taught me how to play. That night, I learned that the game is played all over the world and has been for the better part of the last couple of millennia.

Pallankhuzi Board – Sri Lanka and S. India

What my further research has shown, is that the Silk Road trade of goods, ideas and cultural elements was probably responsible for its spread – at least across the Old World. From Vietnam and Mongolia, through Central and Western Asia, across Central and Northern Africa and into Europe through Andalusia, the Old World plays this game. It passed into the New World with the slave trade and is played from Louisiana and Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Toguz Kumalak Board – Kazakhstan

If you’ve never seen or played mancala, count and capture or any other variety of the game, it is often played on a board containing at least two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. The number of cups varies across cultures and over time, but the game remains the remarkably the same. The goal is to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent, and there are strategies, societies and in some nations, major competitions in which people play mancala. Our board is a nicely carved wooden set with small, irregularly shaped stones as pieces, but some mancala boards consist simply of holes dug in the ground or bored into stone into which other stones or objects are moved.

Girls Playing Oquan in Vietnam

There are 19th and 20th Century claims that the game is arose in ancient Egypt, Jordan or even Mesopotamia – but none of these are accepted by modern game scholars (did you know there was such a thing?) or archaeologists specializing in these areas. The oldest definitive set comes from Axum (Ethiopia) and date from the 6th or 7th century ACE, but an earlier set may come from a 4th Century Roman-era fort in Egypt along the banks Red Sea. The earliest European set is found in Spain’s the Museo de Burgos. It belonged to a daughter of Abd-al-Rahman III, the emir (912-929) and first caliph (929-961) of Cordoba. The scholar Murray, writing in the mid 20th Century, concluded that the game spread from east to west across Africa and from west to east across Asia – which again points to an Eastern African or Levantine origin.

Importantly, Arab and Muslim traders were probably an important force in moving the game around the Old World. The very name, “mancala” comes from the Arabic verb “naqala” meaning, “to move”. It is not mentioned in the Koran by this name, but must have been known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages, as it is referred to in the commentary to the Kitab al Aghani, the “Book of Songs,” which speaks of a “game like mancala.”

Ornate Congkak Board – Malaysia

Today, the game is played competitively in many Central Asian nations, with Kazakhstan having a national association for their version of the game, Toguz Kumalak, whereas in most of Africa, it is a game to be played while relaxing after the day’s work.  Interestingly, in the New World it is sometimes played as part of mortuary or funerary practices – to amuse the spirits of the dead.  This suggests that this might have been a practice among the Africans who carried the game with them to the New World, although this practice seems to have vanished in modern-day Africa.

I’ve played a few games with my daughter and can attest to the game being both fun and a great way to teach strategy and the consideration of future consequences when deciding current moves. Thanks to my daughter, to whom I dedicate this post, I’ve found an unexpected echo of the Silk Road found in an ordinary board game. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos from Mancala Wiki).

N.B. I will be in China for the next couple of weeks and will blog if I can. Hopefully, I will return with loads of tales and photos.

Savory Meat and Onion Pie from Turkmenistan

Gubadia - A Savory Meat and Onion Pie from Turkmenistan (rear)

We had something really wonderful for dinner last night that I had to share with you: a Savory Meat and Onion Pie from Turkmenistan. It is a dish of Tartar origin that is now eaten in different variations across Central Asia and into Southern Russia. Although Turkic in origin, it clearly has influences from mother Persia, because it can best be described as a biryani enclosed within two delicious crusts of bread baked into a pie. It is two or three alternating layers of differently flavored meat, rice, onions and eggs, finished with sweet chaka (drained yogurt) and raisins. Topping each set of layers is a healthy handful of fresh chopped cilantro.

I simply love the combination of meat and fruit that one encounters in Persian and Central Asian foods and this pie is no exception. The meat layer – which could be of either lamb or beef (I used lamb) has a healthy dose of diced, dried sour plums flavored with sweet paprika, coriander and cumin. The rice layer was a straight up saffron basmati and the onion and egg layer had lots of delicious dried fenugreek in it. With the sweet chaka I used golden raisins for a lighter sweeter raisiny taste.

It is a dish usually prepared for holidays or celebrations of some sort, so, be warned, it is a bit of work, but one that has tasty rewards.

A Savory Meat and Onion Pie from Turkmenistan

1 cup plain yogurt
3 teaspoons sugar

3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 package active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup lukewarm water
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (plus a tablespoon or two as needed)

Meat Filling
2-3 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 pound ground lamb or beef
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
¼ cup beef broth (optional – if needed to moisten meat)
1 teaspoon dried coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/3 cup dried, sour plums, pitted and chopped
1 small bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped (15-20 sprigs)

Onion Filling
2-3 large onions, peeled and chopped
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek

Rice Filling
1 cup uncooked long-grain rice mixed with
2 ½ cups water
½ teaspoon saffron

Chaka and Raisin Finish
1/3 cup raisins
Drained sweet chaka (from step 1)
1 medium bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
1 large egg yolk, beaten with 1 teaspoon milk
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Make the chaka first to ensure time for it to drain. Place 1 cup of plain yogurt into a clean coffee filter and set aside to drain for a few hours. When it is drained enough, mix it lightly with the sugar and raisins. Do not mix to much because this will tend to liquefy the chaka.

2. To make the dough, combine the milk and butter in medium saucepan and heat- stirring until butter is melted. Remove from the heat and cool. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir together the yeast, sugar, and water and let stand until yeast is activated. Add the beaten eggs to the milk mixture and then add the salt and mix again. Then combine all with the yeast mixture and mix well.

3. Stir in 4 cups of the flour 1 cup at a time, and mix well after each cup. If needed, add a bit more flour until the dough stops sticking to your hands when handled. Then, transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead, until smooth, about 5-8 minutes. Place the dough in a sprayed or greased bowl and set aside, covered in a warm, quiet place to rise for about an hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit while making the fillings. Combine the rice, water and saffron in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Bring to a boil, cover and cook over medium low heat for 30-40 minutes. When done, remove from heat and set aside, covered until needed.

5. Heat half the oil in a sauté pan and sauté the ground lamb or beef until it becomes opaque and firm and starts to color around the edges. Add salt, pepper and paprika and mix again. If needed to moisten the mixture (this will depend on in large part on the fat content of the meat) Add the ground coriander and cumin and stir again. Remove from heat, cover and set aside.

6. Heat the rest of the oil and sauté the onions until they become translucent and start to color. Add the salt and pepper and dried fenugreek and mix well. Add the chopped eggs, mix lightly and remove from the heat, cover and set aside.

7. Grease or spray a 9 to10-inch round baking pan and set aside. Then, punch the dough down and knead for about a minute before dividing into two pieces and rolling the first piece out so it is no more than ¼ inch in thickness. Line the prepared pan with the rolled dough, leaving the excess to hang over the edges of the pan for now.

8. Add the meat layer first; making sure the layer is even across the pan. Then add the saffron rice layer. Next add the onion and eggs – mounding the onions high in the center as you would apples in an apple pie. Layer the filling in the crust in the following order: Meat, rice, and egg and onion. Finish each layer with a bit of the chopped cilantro. I usually make 2 or three layers. Finish the whole pie with the raisins and sweet chaka.

9. Roll out the other half of the dough into a circle larger than you need (at least 12-inches around) and no more than ¼ inch thick. Place it on top of the layered fillings, cut excess and seal the crusts together with your fingers. Crimp with a fork to really seal the crusts and cut small vents in the top crust with a knife or fork.

10. Just before baking, brush the top of the pie with the egg-milk wash, and put a few pats of unsalted butter on the crust before baking for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let sit after baking for at least 15 minutes to rest before serving. Makes a wonderful meal on its own or serve with a light salad like the Turkmen Tomato Salad with Cheese. And remember, if you like the fillings, they are easily transferrable to small handheld pastries as well.

Hints and Issues: The elasticity of the dough makes it a bit tough to roll out – but keep at it, it needs to be thin (no thicker than 1/4 inch, and better if thinner). Also, I recommend going easy on the salt. Lastly, I recommend reading this and every recipe you cook from thoroughly so that you have all of the ingredients well before hand and that any pre-preparation that needs to be done is completed before you start. For example, in this recipe, the chaka usually takes several hours for it to get good and dry, and to pit the dried, sour plums is a onerous task that takes some time. Make sure that these tasks are done well beforehand.

Enjoy your savory pie and know that there is a wonderful world of food in Central Asia that is largely unknown in the west outside of immigrant communities. Many of these recipes will be available in the next volume of The Silk Road Gourmet. Other Central Asian recipes offered on this blog so far include: Turkmen Stuffed Grape Leaves, Turkmen Tomato Salad with Cheese, and Tajikistan’s Lamb Kebabs with Star Anise and Mint. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Gubadia borrowed from a Tartar food site).

Celebrating Central Asia

In addition to my day job, my duties as a wife and mother and holiday preparations, I’ve been busy writing the text for the second volume of Silk Road Gourmet. The volume covers what I call the “fusion” cuisines of Central Asia, the Himalayas and the Indo-Pacific. These are the countries that combine distinctly western Asian and Eastern Asian elements in unique ways to form the backbones of their national cuisines. The cuisines of Indonesia and Malaysia already have been celebrated for these sorts of combinations – but Central Asia?

A quick survey of the web seems to suggest that in the 21st Century, Central Asians survive on boiled and dried meats, horsemeat sausage and yogurt. Beautiful fruits and vegetables, bursting with flavor are never mentioned, fresh herbs and spices are rarely spoken of, and traveler’s dairies all bemoan the terrible food they encountered on their journeys. For the Central Asians that visit the blog, for those already in the know, and for the curious – I am happy to help dispel some of these myths.

Central Asian Shurpa

The varied cuisines of Central Asia are basically blends of the Arab, Persian, and sub-continental Indian cuisines from the west and Chinese traditions from the east. These great cuisines were combined with the native food preparations of the Turkic tribes that ruled these nations prior to the Mongolian conquest of the 13th Century. Uzbekistan had many added cultural influences that came from Tamerlane’s efforts to establish Samarkand as one of the world’s great centers of arts and letters. Because he wanted Samarkand to be as beautiful and majestic a place as the world’s artists, craftsmen and academicians could make it, he sent the greatest thinkers and artisans he could find during his conquests back to Samarkand. During his long reign, lasting most of the fourteenth century, this established neighborhoods of Persians, Syrians and Armenians and Turks within the city that complemented the communities of Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese already living there. Russian influence in Central Asia began in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and this brought European elements into already cosmopolitan cuisines.

The eastern love of the great Chinese meal-soup is part of every Central Asian cuisine from Kazakh shurpa to Uzbek lagman. All of the cuisines also enjoy the use of a wide variety of noodles in addition to rice and other grains as a foundation for stews and soups. Dumpling meals are also enjoyed as is tea – spiced, salty or buttered. On occasion, a method of quick sautéing is also used that is not too different from the East Asian stir fry. Distinctly eastern flavors are seen in the use of star anise, soy sauce, rice vinegar, Sichuan pepper and lime juice.

From the west, influences include the Persian love of layering casseroles and combining meat dishes with sweet fruits such as dried apricots, sour cherries and quinces. Indian elements include the use of large amounts of cinnamon and complex spice mixtures used to flavor rich stews. Native Turkic traditions are reflected in commonly eaten stuffed vegetables, such as peppers, onions and tomatoes. Arab or Levantine elements are seen in the love of blending olives with dishes, roasted pine nuts used to flavor pilafs and in a dish that features gently flavored yogurt-noodles used to offset spicy roasted meat and vegetables.

The cultures of Central Asia have cherry-picked some of the best that both Eastern Asian and Western Asian traditions have to offer – but they have also given a great deal back to the cuisines of the world. Central Asian produce which are now incorporated into cuisines around the world include onions, garlic, carrots, and the herbs dill and tarragon. (Words by Laura Kelley).