Tag Archives: China

Rhubarb’s Silk Road History in Zester Daily

Everything you wanted to know about rhubarb’s Silk Road history, from its origins in Tibet and early use as medicine to its adoption as a food, in Zester Daily. A great recipe for savory lamb and rhubarb stew included! Read all about it HERE.

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Culinary History Mystery #6: Tomato Eggs

Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes

Chinese Tomato Eggs

Tomato Eggs is a home-cooked Chinese dish that reminds students, travelers, and those living abroad of home.  Just a whiff of this cooking and folks will tell tales of sitting in or near the kitchen as a kid as a parent made this dish – and how good it tasted!  it is simple, elegant, and savory, and less than 10 – 15 minutes from wok to table.  Chopped green onions are almost always used. Sometimes garlic or onion is added, and often there is a blast of shaoxing, rice vinegar, or even oyster sauce to add flavor.  Some recipes also add sugar to counter the acidity of the tomatoes, but the memorable taste of the dish usually just comes from the combined flavors of the fresh ingredients.

The form of the dish can be dry, like in the picture above, or is can be moist with a thin tomato sauce, or even soupy. It is often served over or with rice or fresh noodles. My travels tend to make me think that presentation varies mostly by individual preference and not by geography, because I have had both dry and wet forms in a number of different places.

I’ve enjoyed this dish all over China, from Beijing and Xian to places much further west and south.  Although the Chinese regard this as a quintessential Chinese dish, my favorite thing about tomato eggs (蕃茄炒蛋/西红柿炒蛋) is that it is probably Arab in origin.

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshouka

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka

The Arab dish that Tomato Eggs most resembles is Shakshuka. This dish is eaten all over the Saudi Peninsula, North Africa, and the Levant. Turkey even has its own version called Menemen. Although the form varies a great deal, from the dry, Saudi version pictured here, to poached eggs over a spiced tomato sauce as in Egypt and Israel, to a complex ragout of vegetables (with lots of tomatoes) and sometimes bits of meat or sausage bound together by eggs.   It is almost always served with pita bread or naan.  Onions are almost always used and sometimes garlic is as well.  Spicing can be just salt and pepper with a little bit of chopped parsley or cilantro as in Oman to a dish flavored with cumin, or dishes with oregano and other herbs.  Chili peppers or ground chilies are often added, but I have never had a Shakshuka that I could call hot.  These days, cheese is sometimes added, but that is a modern addition and not found in traditional recipes for the dish in any of the cultures that now enjoy it.

A comparison of the Saudi and Chinese recipes show that the recipes are nearly identical, although the Chinese use a two-step cooking process:

Saudi Shakshuka
Chinese Tomato Eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small white onion, minced
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
4 eggs

Heat oil in a small-to-medium sauté pan. Add onions and garlic until tender. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and cumin and stir well. Cook 2-4 minutes until tomatoes soften.

Break eggs over mixture and cook for another 3-5 minutes or until done. Stir with a spatula to mix or slide onto a plate and serve.
3 tablespoons cooking oil
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon shaoxing wine (optional)
3 dashes white pepper powder
8 oz. fresh tomato (cut into thin wedges)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons water
Some chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (garnish, optional)

Break the eggs into a bowl and use chopsticks to beat the eggs until they break thoroughly. Add salt, sesame oil, shaoxing wine, white pepper powder, and lightly beat to blend well. Set aside.

Heat up a wok with 2 tablespoons cooking oil. Add the egg mixture into the wok, and use your spatula to spread the eggs. Keep stirring until the eggs form lumps. Gently break the lumps into smaller pieces. As soon as the eggs are cooked, dish out and set aside.

Clean the wok and heat it up again with 1 tablespoon cooking oil. Drop the tomato wedges into the wok and do a few quick stirs. Add sugar and water into the tomatoes. Cover it with the lid and let it cook for about 30 seconds. Transfer the eggs and chopped scallions into the tomatoes, stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, dish out and serve immediately.

The main reasons why this is probably another west-to-east spread of a recipe is the commonality and variations of the dish in the Muslim Mediterranean, Suez and Persian Gulf,and the unusual nature of the dish in China’s litany of egg recipes. Another reason why it is likely a dish with an “Arab” origin is that Muslim people took to the tomato very early on in its introduction in the Old World. While the Europeans were generally skittish about eating this member of the nightshade family, and raised them as curiosities or ornamental garden plants, the Muslims dove right in and cultivated them as food early on in their arrival in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Spanish were the only Europeans who generally took to eating the tomato in the 16th Century. This is probably because they saw them being cultivated and eaten in the New World and knew that they were not harmful.

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

The Spanish were said to particularly enjoy them with cooked with oil, salt, and pepper as a sort of stew, and also to make a sauce out of them with vinegar added to the ingredients above and to use that sauce on their meats (Gerarde, History of Plants, 1597). Gerarde also notes that tomatoes or “Love Apples” grow well in warm climates like Spain and italy. Of interest, perhaps, is that Gerarde describes both red and yellow tomatoes.

Although there is mention that the Italians also ate tomatoes in 17th Century botanicals, this is repetition of incorrect information. The original citation says that the Italians ate, “Eggplants”. This, even in historical documents became misreported as, “tomatoes”, and the error continues to proliferate today.

Evidence for the early Arab love of eating tomatoes can be found in John Parkinson’s 1629 Earthly Paradise, in which he reports that tomato plants grow well in hot climates like those in, “Barbary and Ethiopia”. Parkinson’s 1640 Theatrum Botanicum expands this range of growth in the Old World to, “easterly countries such as Egypt, Syria and Arabia.” His 1629 work notes that tomatoes are much eaten in the hot countries where they grow well.

Lancelot Addison’s 1671 work, An Account of West Barbary, notes that tomatoes are eaten raw with oil along with other, “salads.” In 1710, Dr. William Salmon’s Herbal notes that the Spanish ate tomatoes boiled in vinegar with pepper and salt, and served up with oil and lemon juice (possibly a poached tomato); and that they also eat tomatoes raw with oil, vinegar, and pepper.

Red Tomato

Red Tomato

By comparison, the earliest European mention of tomatoes growing in Asia (Malaysia) can be found in Georg Rumphius’s 1747 work Herbarium Amboinense. Rumphius notes that the natives cultivate two varieties and that both are used in cooking. In 1790, a brief mention of tomatoes growing well in the fields and gardens of Cochin, China is found in Louriero’s Flora Cochinchinensis.

So, from all this information, we can infer that the Arabs were eating tomatoes in the 16th century – at least the Morisco’s in Spain were – and possibly so were people across a broad swath of the Muslim World from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and into the Levant. More evidence for Tomato Eggs having Arab roots. Tomatoes may have been eaten in Ming China, but the earliest evidence I can find in a language I can read comes from well into the period of Qing rule. That said, however, we know that the Chinese were trading with the pre-Islamic Arabs and that trade between the peoples only flourished after the adoption of Islam, with the influence of foreign Muslim peoples in China reaching its peak probably in the Yuan Dynasty.

What I love most about Culinary History Mysteries like that is that hundreds of years later, the history of the interaction between the Chinese and the “Arabs” lives on in the foods people eat. Another enduring testament to the power of the Silk Road in the lives of the people.

(Words and recipe analysis by Laura Kelley. Photo of Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes by ppy2010ha@Dreamstime.com; Photo of Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka by Noor AlQahtani. Recipe for Saudi Shakshuka from Noor’s site, Ya Salam; Recipe for Chinese Tomato Eggs from Rasa Malaysia)

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)).

Kashgar Naan

Fresh-baked bread.  Three simple words that conjure up a host of wonderful sensations. The aroma of the bread. How it rises and turns first a golden, then a tawny color as it bakes.  The crackle of the crust and the feel of the warm bread on your hands as you tear off a piece.  The soft texture in your mouth . . . and the flavor!  It’s earthy, a bit sour and sweet at the same time, a little savory. . . Nothing beats it (well, almost nothing, anyway).

Now imagine you are in far-western China and you are experiencing all of these sensations, but you are in a small café on a dusty sideroad to the Karakorum Highway.  Welcome to my world.  But, it gets better.  On the table there is a small bowl of black tea brewed to perfection with fragrant rosepetals floating on the surface.  Plates are piled high with a pilaf of rice and lamb joints with julienned carrots or perhaps some lagman noodles with vegetables.  You sit on an ornate wool carpet of crimson and white design around a low, square table and chat with your dining companions or just silently enjoy the wonderful meal in front of you.

Milling with the sounds and sites of this dusty town (Opal, China) is the unmistakable aroma of freshly made bread.  Next to the café, a husband and wife team are busy making the next order of naan to sell at their stall and to sell to nearby restaurants.

Making naan: Rolling out the dough

The woman pounds and rolls out the balls of dough into plate-size flatbreads.  The dough is usually a plain naan like the recipe below, but it could also have lamb fat worked into the dough or minced onions or even ground seeds like fennel for mildly spiced bread.  Most of the time a durham wheat flour is used, but the Uzbekis sometimes use a chickpea flour as well.  After she has formed the naan, she stamps spiral designs on them with her chekish or stamper.  The stamper, although utilitarian, is a work of art unto itself.  It is handmade by the local craftsman of hardwood decorated with marquetry inlay.  The metal teeth are hand-sharpened and easily double as a defensive weapon in close combat.  When she is done, she hands the bread to her husband, or piles them nearby.

Making naan: Topping and Placing bread in the oven.

He puts sesame seeds and a bit of salt on the bread and tamps it down lightly.  The toppings for bread can be diverse, sesame and poppy are probably the most commonly seen, although on the most recent trip to China, I encountered naan with pounded peanuts on top at a vendor near the Turpan train station.  In Uzbekistan they like onions with fennel or anise seed, in Afghanistan the toppings are probably going to be caraway or black cumin or sesame – so the flavor can vary quite a bit.  The husband sizes and shapes the bread by placing it on the outside of a mold or clean pan and then slaps the bread onto the wall of the tandoor-style oven.  The natural moisture of the bread adheres it to the wall.

In a few minutes – given the high temperature of the oven – they are done, he stacks them to cool or sells them hot to eagerly waiting customers.

This is how much of the world eats.  Flatbread and tea with or without some sort of dairy in it (from a cow, sheep, horse or yak), or flatbread with bits of roasted fat-tailed mutton  or other meat or sweetbread wrapped inside.  Simple, delicious and nutritious.

Naan baking in the oven

The recipe below will help you get into the flatbread groove.  Others are available in The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1 and more will be included in the second volume of the book. (Words, photos and recipe by Laura Kelley).

Kashgar Naan

Similar to many Uzbek recipes, this flatbread is baked in a stone tandoor, the stove of the region, which is sometimes buried in the ground. As with naan and bread recipes from Volume 1 of The Silk Road Gourmet, it is possible to use an all-metal wok turned upside down in the oven as a surface to “slap” dough on. Likewise, one can use the recommended method of baking on ungreased baking sheets for a delicious taste of Kashgar.

1 ½ cups warm water
1 package dry, active yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame and poppy seeds (or other topping)

1. Mix warm water, yeast, and sugar together and set aside to activate for about 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of flour to the yeast mixture, mix well, and set aside for another 5 minutes.

2. Add remaining flour to a large mixing bowl, indent the center to form a well, and add the yeast mixture to the flour and mix well. When mixed enough to handle with your hands, knead the dough for about 5 minutes and then place it back in the bowl, cover, and let rest for 1–1 ½ hours. For softer bread, less prone to crackle, let rest an additional 20-25 minutes.

3. Punch down the dough, divide into 8 equal parts, and roll each part into a ball. Shape each ball into a circle about the size of a large dinner plate: about 8 inches in diameter and ½-inch thick. Take a fork and lightly trace lines or crisscrosses (or use a chekish (stamper) if you have one). Sprinkle with sesame and/or poppy seeds and press lightly onto surface. Place on ungreased cookie sheet or slap onto heated, all-metal wok inside a traditional oven preheated to 350°. Cook for 10 minutes and turn for even cooking. Total cooking time about 15 – 20 minutes.

Silk Road “Muslim-Grilled” Steak

This is a dish that is served all over China. In the east and southeast it is called “Muslim Grilled” and in the west and northwest it is just called “steak” or “beef”. Tender meat rubbed with onion and garlic or given a light coat of the ground vegetables mingles with crushed cumin and black cumin along with lots of black pepper, some Szechuan pepper and just a hint of ground chillies to push it over the edge. Voila – the center of a fantastic omnivore meal. It is also super simple and quick – fitting in with a long day of work and commuting and can be cooked on a inside broiler or outside over coals or on a gas grill. Since I’ve reconstructed it, it has become an instant family favorite – even with the kids. I get shouts of Yaaaay! when I tell them this is on the night’s menu.

Chinese “Muslim-Grilled” Steak

I usually crack or only coarsely grind the peppers and cumins for a more rustic coating that is just short of a crust.

If you are a bit “spice shy” you can only coat one side, but if you are a lover of robust, full flavors, coat both sides and the edges as well. The coating also works with pork or lamb, but I think that this particular spice mixture is best on beef. Favorite ways to serve it are either with the Indian Ginger Potatoes or the Pakistani Tamarind Potatoes from Volume One of the Silk Road Gourmet, but a hearty Roasted Pine Nut and Garlic Pilaf works really well too and offsets the spiced steak nicely.

Chinese “Muslim-Grilled” Steak

1.5 -2 pounds of Beef steaks (to serve 4)
Onion and garlic, peeled and chopped (for rubbing), or
½ teaspoon ground onion powder, and
½ teaspoon ground garlic powder
1 – 1½ teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2-3 teaspoons black cumin seeds
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 – 1½ teaspoons Szechuan peppercorns
¼ – ½ teaspoon ground red chili peppers

Salt both sides of the steaks and set aside as you grind the spices. In one mortar, combine the cumin and the black cumin and grind by hand until the seeds are coarsely ground. In a separate mortar, grind the black peppercorns until coarsely ground.

If rubbing the steak, rub both sides vigorously with the onion and garlic and set aside. If using the ground onion and garlic powders, coat one side with half of the powders and let sit for a few minutes. Then proceed to coat one side of the steak with half of the ground cumin mixture. Press lightly into the meat before proceeding to the pepper.

Next, press half of the peppercorns into the meat and set aside. Grind the Szechuan peppercorns until finely ground and coat the steaks with half of the powder. Lastly, add the ground chili powder to the steaks and let sit for at least 15 minutes for the spices to flavor the meat.

Flip the steaks carefully and if using the powdered onion and garlic coat this side with the remaining mixture and let sit for a few minutes. Then press in the cumin mixture, wait a few minutes before adding the crack black pepper and then the ground Szechuan pepper and chili powder.

Grill over high flame for no more than 5-6 minutes per side for medium-cooked meat. Flip gently or the cracked spices may fly off to the detriment of the flavor. When cooked to desired state, remove from flame, plate and let rest for 5-6 minutes before serving to let the meat’s juices well up as the meat cools.

Pairs well with a hearty Georgian Mukuzani or a mild Chinese red depending on your point of view. . .

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)

Teaism: A Chinese Tea Ceremony

We drink tea to relax, to socialize, to mark important events in our lives, to apologize, for an energy booster, for our health, and to honor a valued guest.  The Doctor even requires it to repair his beloved, malfunctioning TARDIS.  Tea is so ubiquitous a drink in our world that to NOT offer a cup in some places is considered very bad manners.  It is common, and yet tea ceremonies abound celebrating its properties and use.  It is Asian in origin, and yet it has been adopted and enjoyed by most of the world. It is a simple drink that has over the years become entwined with some complex philosophy.  Above all, for our purposes, the history of tea is entwined with the history of the Silk Road.

Chrysanthemum Tea in Bloom

On our recent trip to China, we had the opportunity to enjoy a tea ceremony and sample a wide variety of different teas. More of a learning experience than a formal ceremony, our tea guide explained the importance of fragrance, the many and varied ways that teas are processed and the qualities that Chinese medicine ascribes to different teas. Then we learned how the first few quick steepings of tea were poured out over the cups and pot to wash the tea and clean and warm the cups.  Different teas are best steeped in waters of different temperature and green tea needs only steep for 1-2 minutes while other teas require longer time to coax the full flavor out of them. Some teas like high quality oolongs cane be steeped multiple times and some feel that their flavor improves with age. Some of the teas sampled were:

1.   Yang Tea.  It comes from a mountain rich in selenium which is a powerful antioxidant and in Chinese medicine is believed to be good for the mind and liver function and for preventing diseases of the spleen and kidneys.  This tea contains 20 times more selenium than other teas.

2.  Pu’er Tea.  This tea has a distinctively earthy flavor which gets better and smoother as it ages.  This tea is thought to detoxify the liver and relieving constipation.  It is also said to be good for losing weight because of the microorganisms that help ferment the tea also help to speed digestion.

Tea Ceremony – Xian

3. Ku Ding Tea.  This tea is brewed with only one leaf per cup and still imparts one of the strongest flavors of all teas.  It is believed to lower blood pressure and reduce congestion in the blood vessels thereby reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease.  It is also thought to be beneficial in preventing or mitigating diabetes.

4. Jasmine Tea.  This is a mixture of high quality green tea and jasmine flowers.  It can relieve headaches and improve digestion and even improve complexions when the strained tea leaves are used as a facial mask.

5. Gingseng Oolong Tea.  This tea is mixed with powdered gingseng root and is said to enhance immunity and increase vitality.  Some also drink it for the sweet taste it leaves in the mouth and throat that is similar to licorice.

6. Lychee Black Tea.  Powdered lychee fruits from China’s tropical areas are mixed with tea to make a sweet and flavorful tea that is said to be good for the skin.

7. Dragon Well Tea. This tea tastes like roasted hazlenuts and is enjoyed all over China for its memory enhancing properties and the ability for it to lift one’s spirits. It is said to detoxify the blood, increase metabolism, and reduce the harm caused by free-radicals.

8. Da Hong Pao. Also called rock tea because of how it is planted in and near rocks to enhance the growth of the plant and the flavor of the tea. It has the aroma and flavor of smoked wood which is used during tea processing. It is said to relieve abdominal distention and quenches thirst.

Chrysanthemum Tea Pods

9. Chrysanthemum Tea.  This flower tea is good for the throat and is said to lower the body’s inner heat and improving balance.  It is believed to reduce oral cavities and gingivitis.

10. An Xi Ti Guan Yin Tea.  This tea has the gentle fragrance of fresh orchids and green grass and is good for relaxation and increasing calm.  It is rich in vitamins E and C and the is believed to improve vision, reduce body weight and promote longevity.

11.  White Tea.  Made from immature tea leaves picked just before the buds have fully opened, this tea takes its name from the silver fuzz covering the buds that turns white as it dries.  High in antioxidants and immunity-boosting phytochemicals, this tea is an excellent adaptogen.

My favorite teas from a flavor point-of-view are Pu’er and Dragon Well tea, although the aroma of the floral teas and the sight of them opening in the water is really lovely. In general, there is a lot of beauty in tea. For me, that is part of the pleasure and part of the problem. I can’t bring myself to break up the compressed Pu’er bricks with pictures of horses and tigers to brew and instead have them hanging around the house from red knotted cords.

When the chrysanthemum blooms in the water, I don’t want to drink the tea to have it become a soggy sponge at the bottom of the glass – I want to appreciate the bouyant bloom forever.  For millenia, chrysanthemums have been the last natural flowers to bloom each year in most of Eurasia before the chill of winter descends. At my age, it is no wonder I am hesitant for the flower to fade.

Of course, this reluctance to destroy beauty is but a limitation caused by my attachment to the object (beautiful tea bricks) and to the aesthetics of the beverage as a culinary creation.  Haven’t you ever seen a dish presented so beautifully that you found it difficult to take that first bite?  Drinking a cup of chrysanthemum tea is a bit like that for me.  Well, if attachment is the problem, then more tao . . . I mean more tea is the answer.

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of Chrysanthemum Tea in Bloom by © | Dreamstime.com; photo of Tea Ceremony – Xian by Laura Kelley; and the photo of the Chrysanthemum tea Pods by © | Dreamstime.com.)

(For tea-lovers who find themselves in Washington, DC, I recommend the tea house  – Teaism – originally in Penn Quarter and now also in Dupont Circle and Lafayette Park neighborhoods.)

(For post about the Burmese origins of tea – click here.)

China – People I

China - People

[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_01-tongli-three-generations-small.jpg]70Three Generations by the Canal
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_02-tongli-shopkeepers-by-the-canal-small.jpg]60Shopkeepers
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_03-tongli-workmen-by-the-canal-small.jpg]40Workmen
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_04-hutong-lunch-hosts-small.jpg]50Hutong Cook and Husband
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_05-summer-palace-old-woman-sitting-alone-small.jpg]60Old Woman Sitting Alone
I was touched by the quiet pathos of this scene. The old woman had her back turned to the beautiful Kunming Lake and was leaning against the pillar in the pavillion, focused inward. The twisted vines like tangled memories swirled around her.
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_06-tang-dynasty-stage-show-balancing-act-small.jpg]60Tang Dynasty Meets Busby Berkeley
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_07-terracotta-warriors-closeup-4-small.jpg]90Terracotta Warriors
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_08-summer-palace-old-men-playing-mahjong-sepia-small.jpg]80Old Men Playing Mahjong
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_09-tongli-bone-carver-sepia-small.jpg]60Comb Maker
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_10-terracotta-warriors-workshop-sepia2-small.jpg]70Artisan in Workshop
This artist sculpts copies of the warriors in a variety of sizes for the tourist trade. In their hubris, the tourists can get a stylized likeness of their own face put on the warrior. I wonder if they have ever filled an order for a horse with a man's head? If you could be a member of Chin's terracotta court, who would you choose to be? A warrior, archer, juggler, or an acrobat?

(I deliberately sepia-toned this photo to make it look like it could have come from a 19th or 20th Century archaeological or ethnographic monograph.)
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_11-yuyuan-flute-player-sepia-small.jpg]60Flute Player in the Market
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_12-silk-factory-soaking-cocoons-and-extracting-thread-small.jpg]60Silk Factory
[img src=http://www.silkroadgourmet.com/wp-content/flagallery/china-people/thumbs/thumbs_13-southern-garden-home-little-boy-byh-the-pond-small.jpg]70Boy by the Pond

New Year, New Day

Old Man Practicing Calligraphy

The large brush laden with water is drawn from the bucket by the old, steady hand and moved in deliberate strokes across the pavement.  One stroke, two, three or more until the complete character develops.  Luminous lines, black on grey stone he moves onto the next character.  The words from the ancient Tang poem begin to take shape.  Even in the afternoon sun it is bone cold, but he keeps on writing.  Before he reaches the end of the stanza, the first characters have begun to fade.  When he comes to the end, more than half the poem is gone – leaving no trace.

All across China, one finds elderly men practicing calligraphy in this way.  In parks, on sidewalks in big cities and small towns, men armed with a bucket and a long brush incessantly trace out words from times long past.  Old poems, classical tales, and bits of history they learned as young boys or men – words flowing out of their brushes and fading almost as quickly as they were born again.

They say they do this to keep their minds sharp and hands strong.  Lately, I have been contemplating the spiritual or cathartic value of producing such transient and beautiful art with personal subjects.  It could be so liberating!  Because it is a public expression, sharing and communicating the experience stops it from being bottled up inside.  As the words fade, so do one’s attachment to the events or people that formed the basis of your composition.  Calligraphy therapy.

At this time of the New Year when we often contemplate our lives and make adjustments to try to live better or healthier, be kinder, more patient, less greedy etc., I thought that this image and concept might be useful to some of you.

Years ago, in graduate school I employed a sort of food-based catharsis with alphabet soup.  I’d spell the name of the person or thing out on the rim of the bowl and eat it last after all the soup was gone, chewing each letter slowly to make sure it was gone completely and would trouble me no more.  Not the most tasty way to eat soup, but a satisfying one if someone or something is vexing you. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Old Man Practicing Calligraphy by Chen Po Chuan @ Dreamstime.com).