No Cuisine is an Island #1: An Indian Shellfish Curry

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

The booksigning at the Smithsonian went well. Actually it went very well – we sold and signed all but two of the books purchased for the event. I also really enjoyed meeting people and discussing the book with them. I was pleased to see that people were most interested in the book’s message that cuisines are interconnected, and how dishes we think of as cornerstones of national cuisines actually contain ingredients from all over the world.

To that end, I thought that a demonstration of how globally-sourced ingredients were combined for one of my favorite subcontinental dishes was in order. The recipe is for a delicious sweet, spicy, hot and sour shellfish that will amaze you. The recipe and description are followed by an analysis of ingredients and their origins. What seems like and Indian or subcontinental dish has connections to five continents and many more nations. It is truly global, and should be savored by all.

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

1 pound shrimp, peeled, rinsed and deveined, or
1 pound sea or bay scallops
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon mustard or other seed oil
2 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4-5 hot, dried, red chili peppers, torn or chopped
1 large onion peeled, sliced, and separated into crescents
3-4 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup of water to moisten (more if needed)
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste dissolved into 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (20–30 sprigs)
¼ teaspoon Indian Garam Masala

1. Shuck and devein shrimp or prepare scallops and place into a bowl with the cayenne pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, cover, and set aside for at least 1 hour.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and when hot, sauté the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Remove from heat and let sit while shrimp or scallops marinate in the spices.
3. When almost ready to cook, reheat oil and add the mustard seeds and chili peppers and sauté for a minute. The mustard seeds may pop as the warm up, so you may wish to cover the pan, and shake to move contents. When done, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
4. Warm the sauté pan with the fennel and mustard seeds up again and add the onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions turn translucent and start to turn golden.
5. Add water to moisten. When water is warm, put in the cumin, coriander, and tomato and mix well. Cook 3–5 minutes to fully warm the spices.
6. Add tomato sauce, tamarind, lemon juice mixture, and salt. Cook to warm and add yogurt and cilantro leaves. Cover and gently cook for 15 minutes. Add garam masala and mix well. (The recipe can be paused here to allow other dishes to finish.)
7. If paused, reheat curry base and add shrimp and cook for 3–5 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice or bread.

Now, here comes the fun part. The map below depicts where the ingredients from this dish hail from. Lines terminate only in rough geographic areas, not on specific places:

Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map of Ingredients Source
Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map

The only ingredients that originate in India are black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and they are all in the garam masala used to finish the dish. Important certainly, but in this dish, almost an afterthought. Turmeric may also originate on the subcontinent, but no one is sure whether that is the case, or whether it arose in Southeast Asia and was adopted in antiquity by the Indians.

From South America there are chili peppers, and peanuts in the peanut oil, and from North America there is the tomato, and possibly the cayenne pepper. From North Africa (Southern Mediterranean) there is black mustard seed in the mustard oil, and from East Africa there is the lovely, sour tamarind pod. From Southern Europe there is fennel and yellow mustard seed and from Asia minor there is coriander or cilantro. Onions and garlic probably hail from Central Asia (Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan) because that is where most of the genetic diversity in Allium species is found, and cumin is Western Asia’s gem, which has been flavoring dishes from ancient Mesopotamia to today.

Cloves and nutmeg used to round out the garam masala of course come from Indonesia’s Moluccas, and the dish is usually served on rice which comes from China’s Pearl River valley, but it can also be enjoyed with bread, or potatoes from the New World.

All of these ingredients made their way to India through movement of people and ideas or through trade and conquest. Some ingredients arrived deep in prehistory, and some are relative newcomers which only arrived in the middle or late centuries in the last millennium. The Silk Road was an important part of the spread of these ingredients and in the forging of links between cuisines and cultures.

To some degree, we tend to think of the world’s borders and biodiversity much as we find them today, but a simple exercise like this shows us that this is not really the case at all, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of human history. With apologies to locally-sourced aficionados, eating-locally is a relatively modern concept when compared to the global nature of most dishes.

Cultures combine ingredients differently, but most cuisines include ingredients from places beyond their national borders. Each bite connects us with the past and with the people who often travelled great distances to bring variety home. Diversity is a wonderful concept, appreciate it the next time you enjoy a delicious curry or stew or koresh or bhaji or braise or . . . (Words and ingredient analysis by Laura Kelley; Photo of Shrimp or Scallops with Spicy Tomato Sauce by Celeste Heiter; Map of Ingredients drawn by Laura Kelley).

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)

The Two Faces of Egypt

Egypt Then and Now
Egypt Then and Now

I remember being mesmerized by this scene as I walked through the maze of temples on the Eastern bank of the Nile. The harsh mid-morning light blazing down on the monument made the contrast of the centuries all the more obvious. Into the ancient rocks a record of the triumph of the Egypt over an Assyrian army was scored – the pharaoh holding his spear above his head to deliver a killing blow to his vanquished captives. And on the street below, a modern citizen of Luxor, patiently and methodically performed one of the most thankless tasks one can do in a desert – sweep sand off of the sidewalk.

Silently and with short regular strokes his broom fell across the stone avenue – his stooped shoulders displaying none of the grandeur of his royal ancestor, his mind focused on more mundane things than the expansion of empires, national security and keeping the treasury full of foreign tribute. A couple of times, he glanced up at me as my shutter clicked away and then he went back to his work, assuming I was photographing the monument and not giving any thought to him, the living man sweeping the street.

Egypt is in many ways a country suspended between several millennia. There is the ancient Egypt which is the polytheist engine of the modern economy that keeps tourists and their money flowing into the country coffers. Then there is the modern, secular, predominantly Muslim Egypt – which you have to work hard to experience on most tours because it is hidden in plain sight. If you plan to travel to Egypt, make sure you allow time to get out to the streets and markets or take an evening dinner cruise on the Nile to get a taste of modern Egypt and modern Egyptians who aren’t hawking their imperious, imperial past. Sure, the Solar Boat and Abu Simbel are miraculous relics that are wonderful to behold – but they lack a pulse just as much as the venerated royal mummies do and remain preserved relics of a bygone era. Try as well to see the glorious spiral, lantern chandelier that hangs like a celestial whirling dervish above Cairo’s Great Mosque, and rise to the call to prayer if only to hear the chorus and feel the power of voices echoing in the streets below your hotel balcony. That is Egypt – now.

Three Generations of Egyptian Women

Egypt now is a colorful and lively place. I used to love to just wander through the streets photographing and talking to interesting people who allowed me a temporary passport into their world. One of my favorite shots from Cairo is this one capturing the three generations of women. The old grandmother in her simple, devout widow’s milaya, her beautifully plump and pregnant daughter draped in purple and gold shari like a highly adorned seed ready to burst, and the little one in a modern frilly dress and leggings who will come to maturity in a city saturated with ideas and information that her only partially literate forbearers cannot even begin to comprehend.

Since a few centuries before the Common Era, Egypt has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Turks, French, and British – only to find liberation half-way through the 20th Century. Throughout the Pharonic period and into Greek, Roman and Early Turkish rule, Egypt was an important end-destination for Silk Road goods. In fact, it was the trade of cinnamon to Egypt that helped made Sri Lanka a fabulously wealthy country several millennia past.

Likewise, modern Egyptian cuisine bears the marks of these ruling nations and predecessor civilizations in a wonderfully unique way. In many ways, the Egyptian table is an umma of food from surrounding nations sharing some commonalities with Levant food, a few specialties with North Africa, and cherry-picking a few select dishes from Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula as well. For example, a meal might include some form of stuffed grapleaves and babaganoush now found from Armenia to Syria, some feta cheese and olives as appetizers and snacks, breads such as a flat and hard lavash or a softer pita, a main dish of meat and fruit cooked in a pyramidal-shaped tagine as they do in Morocco and other N. African countries, rice or a pilaf, and a dessert called basbrisa which for all intensive purposes is Egypt’s version of a western or central Asian ravane. Other desserts are dates and figs, rolled and stuffed with nuts and, my favorite beverage – spiced sumac tea. So the mark of the Silk Road’s globalization of cultures is to be found in Egypt as well.

Bringing the Cane to Market

I love Egypt, both the ancient and the modern, and hope to return someday. I love how people come in couples or with the family to have lunch and enjoy a view of the city from the Great Pyramids of Cairo. I love how some guides try to make an extra buck by trying to convince gullible tourists that they knew them in another lifetime. I love the chaotic markets and swirling streets of the metropolitan areas that give way to a world, with a quiet, gentler pulse just a few miles beyond the city limits. That’s where I took this photo of the boy bringing his family’s crop of sugar cane to the market – a few miles outside of Cairo. What I found difficult to tell when I took the picture was whether the wave of his hand is intended to urge the camels forward with their burden of cane, or whether it was intended to bid farewell to an ancient way of life that is a fading atavism in a world moving too far and too fast in the opposite direction. (All photographs and words by Laura Kelley).