Interview in Ancient History Encyclopedia

A very cool thing happened a couple of days ago: I was interviewed by Ancient History Encyclopedia.  The focus of the interview was largely my work on ancient cuisines, but there is some discussion of the Silk Road cuisine and recipe reconstruction as well.  Take a peek!  

Reconstructing Cuisines and Recipes from the Ancient World


Oceans of Time

A Rider in Ramses Palace

As another year draws to an end on the Julian-Gregorian calendar, it is time to bid farewell to the old and ring in the new; to forget the failures and sins of the past (at least for a few hours); and to pray to or resolve in some way to do better in the future. I woke this morning to find the forest blanketed in a few inches of surprise snow and look forward to a quiet, contemplative passage amidst this crystalline, whitewashed landscape.

A couple of hundred years ago, these rolling hills were pastureland traversed by streams. Now, our woods are made up of tall, deciduous hardwoods, a few gnarly, old pines, and some large hollies, bejeweled at this time of year in rubies and garnets. Fallen giants lay strewn like burnt matchsticks in the snow forming the basis for a rich, new forest floor.

Taking a great leap back in time, the great desert that today stretches from North Africa through the Levant made up part of the bottom of the vast Tethys Sea. Today, this area is covered with sand that ranges from warm, silky Saharan sand that allows one to silently pass to hard, calcium, salt-rich sand that crackles underfoot.

The sand all around can be transformed into clear glass, and great cities and dynasties can fall to dust. Transience . . . impermanence . . . No matter how hard we try for immortality, time, more often than not, has other plans.

On the blazingly hot August afternoon that I took this photograph, I watched the donkey trod slowly and methodically across the ruins of the palace, crunching eons of history beneath his hooves. The palace was once unequaled for its splendor and beauty – occupied by one of Ramesses’ sons and his court. Lives, loves, and intrigues were all played out within these walls that had long-ago fallen away. The path that led now leads to the souk was once a colonnaded reception hall for a prince who later became a pharaoh – a God descended. An Egyptian mud brick here, a piece of Greek pottery or Roman vessel there, the donkey was indiscriminate in his destruction as he strode on.

Some of the great empires and metropolises of the Silk Road have met the same fate as Ramesses’ palace, others have had modern cities grow up around them and eventually devour them, leaving a tourist attraction or a museum in place of a living, breathing humanity.

Modern physics teaches us that time is not linear progression, but rather like space it folds over on itself. So it follows that if you listen or look carefully, that you can hear and see the fragmented echoes of history in the present. China’s Jews may have vanished, but the coarse hair and Caucasoid facial features of their descendants remain. Similarly, the modern merchants who profit off of the sales of shark’s fin and bird’s nests for expensive, Chinese delicacies have forgotten that the great explorer, Zheng He brought these foods back to China from Southeast Asia. Readers of the Silk Road Gourmet, however, can feel and taste the remnants of China’s first great age of globalization in every bite.

Like the artisan restoring a lost mural, first the outline becomes clear and then one-by-one the details become evident as we find the past constantly informs the present. In the act of restoring the past, the man from the future also effects the past – at the very least by changing the knowledge and appreciation of it in the present and future.

If asked, “Who was the most important person of the 20th Century?” Most people would probably answer with the name of a prominent politician – perhaps Franklin Roosevelt or Mikhail Gorbachev, or a scientist like Einstein or an inventor like Bill Gates. Few if any would utter the names of Frank Fenner or DA Henderson who prevented the deaths of uncounted billions of people by conceiving and implementing the ring-vaccination that eradicated smallpox.

History is decided and redecided by each generation as it passes and is intimately bound with their perceptions of the present. As we determine history, we are also altering the past, in part by figuring the relative importance of individuals and events. But the past, even if we are not aware of it, is altering the present – events having provided one eventuality and not another in today’s world. And the present also determines the future – so all points on what used to be considered a timeline are always influencing each other.

So as you cross a major timekeeping barrier – like New Year’s Eve – realize that everything you’ve done, indeed, to some degree, everything you are and everything you will do is only partially under your direct control – that the past and the future are also in play. Relax, have fun and have a Happy New Year! (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

Bangladesh, My Bangladesh!

Family Houseboat in Bangladesh

Those of you who have been reading The Silk Road Gourmet for a while know that Bangladesh has a special place in my heart. I have been there many times and am in love with the country and the people and their endless ingenuity in making the best of their home on a semi-hospitable flood plain. In slightly less than 40 years since independence, the country has gone from sweeping famine to a country of bustling cities with a rapidly growing middle class – and this development and rising prosperity is due principally to the industriousness and works of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens. The cities are permeated with a feeling that almost anything can happen – sort of what I imagine the American Wild West was like back in the mid-1800s. The countryside, on the other hand, is peaceful and moves to a slower rhythm that is all but gone from the west – women cooking and raising children and men fishing or farming in accord with daily and seasonal cycles.

Buriganga River

When visiting Bangladesh, I was often up before dawn – listening for that first human sound that separated night from day – the revving up of a gas-powered generator for the cleric’s microphone and morning prayers. Then across our camp on the Gangetic delta, his voice would echo – rising and falling and calling the faithful to their morning devotion. At more exciting times we would race with river dolphins in the Brahmaputra, trying to outrun an incoming cyclone or surreptitiously try to make our way through the streets during a general strike. Night time in Bangladesh is a wild time. The cities glow with incandescent light as people bustle from place to place. Even in the best neighborhoods, cats mewl, dogs bark and birds of all kinds take noisily to stands of trees to proclaim their territories.

The ancestors of modern Bangladeshis are a blend of the indigenous tribes that inhabited the area in prehistory, Tibetan and Burmese peoples who came over the Himalayas into the country, Dravidians from Southern India and the Indo-Aryans from Northwestern India. In addition, Iranians, Arabs and Turks also settled in the area in the late Middle Ages bringing Islam with them as they came. Long before that time, however, Bangladesh was first a Vedic Kingdom beginning in antiquity and later it came under Hindu stewardship which lasted until the mid 8th century. During these successive states Bangladeshi rulers were amongst some of the most powerful on the subcontinent and their empires extended well beyond the borders of the modern state and across the Delhi plateau and into what is now Pakistan. Some histories say that these kings even kept Alexander at bay with only the threat of reprisal by a strong, well-trained and prolific military.

The Buddhist Pala Empire ruled from the mid 8th century until the dawn of the 12th century and created a period of stability and prosperity with the building of major public works including temples and palaces at that time. The Palas were also responsible for spreading Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia as their traders and merchants bought and sold goods along the land and sea routes of the Great Silk Road.

Islam made its first appearance in Bangladesh rather late – with the arrival of Sufi Muslims in the 12th century. The Pala kingdom had all but disintegrated by this time and was replaced by a rapid series of sultans of Turkic, Bangladeshi or Afghan origin who remained independent from Delhi despite attempts to rein them in. It was during this time that the country began to be known as ‘the land of the rebels’ or Bulgapur. During the late 15th century, the Portuguese arrived and peacefully – at first – set up trading businesses and religious missions in coastal towns and cities. The Mughals of Delhi reasserted control in the late 16th century and their rule continued until the mid 18th century when the British East India Company gained control. Continued protest and rebellion from the Bangladeshis and brutal repression caused the British government to take control of the area in the mid 19th century and they held sway until Indian Independence and partition one-hundred years later.

Bangladeshi food bears the marks of all of these civilizations. Although it is superficially similar to Indian and some Pakistani food, generally speaking, it is much more delicate and subtle in flavor with a tendency towards sweet rather than sour. Bangladeshi cookery also tends to be less hot than other subcontinent cuisines – much of this is due to the addition of chili peppers or chili powder towards the end of cooking or just before serving – more as an afterthought instead of a main idea. Many recipes also often call for spices to be dissolved in water before cooking which has a tendency to dampen the flavor a bit as well.

Shared with the Persians, Afghans and the Mughals are the love of fruit and nuts in meat and rice dishes as in Lamb Rezala, Shrimp and Coconut Curry, Kebab with Raisins and Mint and Chicken and Pineapple Curry. Of these dishes, my current favorite is the Chicken and Pineapple Curry which is a great sweet, slightly hot and spicy dish that is mellow enough to serve to most diners. Serve with plain or slightly spiced long-grain rice.

A Bangladeshi Chicken Curry

Chicken and Pineapple Curry

3-4 chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 cup water or chicken broth
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Seeds from 3 cardamom pods, crushed
2 whole cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup finely chopped pineapple

1. Heat peanut oil in a sauté pan and over high heat sauté the chicken pieces until they become firm and opaque – 3-5 minutes or until done.

2. Add the onion slices and sauté onion until it softens and starts to color. Add grated ginger, turmeric and chili powder and stir well. Then add the water or chicken broth to moisten the spices and heat until the sauce is warmed.

3. Add coriander, cinnamon, cardamom seeds, whole cloves, bay leaf, salt and pepper and stir well. Add sugar and stir. Then add cooked chicken and cook to heat 5-8 minutes. Once heated, add pineapple and stir well. Cook to heat until pineapple is hot and then serve.

The great thing about this dish is just how much a product of the Silk Road it really is. Southern Bangladesh was an important link between the land routes coming down off the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and the maritime routes coming across from Indonesia and the Thai peninsula and those coming in from eastern and western Indian ports and Pakistan. These brought tropical fruits like pineapples and eastern and Pacific spices like ginger and cloves into Bangladesh.

During the heyday of the Silk Road, Bangladesh was a powerful kingdom and important trading post for goods as well as a melting pot of cultures. Today the Bangladeshi’s are working hard to break the back of the poverty that has afflicted them since the arrival of the Caucasians several centuries ago. If the incredible progress from famine to a growing middle class that they have made since independence are indicative of future, they should shake off that yoke by the end of the next century to become another important, democratic voice in Southern Asia. Till then, I hope to return at least a few more times to walk on the wild side of an ancient mix of Silk Road cultures at the heart of a fantastic and rapidly developing nation. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Bangladeshi Houseboat and A Crowd on the River by © Ryuivst |

The Great Silk Road

Several readers have commented that they have been surprised at all of the countries that I’ve included in the Silk Road Gourmet and in the blog. Being used to only considering the northern land route from Xi’an to the Caucasus as the Silk Road, some folks are amazed to learn of the many other land and sea routes that actually networked to move goods around the Old World. And of course with the goods came the exchange of religion, culture and food as well. Geographically, the Silk Road is an interconnected series of ancient trade routes between Xi’an, China with Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Caspian and Caucasian states as well as Europe and North Africa. The best representation of the major routes can be found in the picture below.

Silk Road Map

As you can see, the northern and westward route extends through Xinjiang and into Kazakhstan, the middle westward through the Fergana Valley on the border of Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan before splitting into two routes. The westward fork continued across Central Asia and Iran before ending at ports in Mediterranean Turkey, while the southward fork skirted down through Pakistan and met with ships near Karachi that continued across the Arabian Sea towards the Levant and Africa. The route leading south out of Xi’an made a beeline down the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, through Burma and into Bangladesh and Orissa to meet up with maritime routes in the ports of the Gangetic delta in the Bay of Bengal. Another easterly road travelled across north-central China before heading due south to ports in Hong Kong and Guangzhou where it joined ocean-going ships that skirted down the edge of the South China Sea and into the Indonesian archipelago and Malaysia before coursing up the Thai peninsula and meet the southern land route out of Xi’an.

With all of this ancient contact going on, it is easy to see how cultures and cuisines separated by many thousands of miles influenced each other. Fortunes were made and commercial empires built on the flow of goods along these routes. In many cases business dictated politics as we are seeing once again in our own time with the recently renegotiated relationship between Taiwan and mainland China.

One surprise to most people is the extent that Eastern Africa participated in trade with maritime routes stretching all the way down past Sudan and the horn of Ethiopia to Mogadishu, Somalia. The shape of the and political structure of the world today is not the same as it was in times past and the deserts of today with studded with herding villages and encampments of bandits were great kingdoms with important goods to contribute to sell on the globalized market that was the Great Silk Road.

Another thing that surprises a lot of readers is the great age of the Silk Road. They’ve only heard of the Silk Road in its heyday or have learned incorrectly that it was Alexander who started the Silk Road. In reality, the Silk Road had been in existence for almost two thousand years by the time Alexander started to network together the northern and southern land routes and unite the maritime routes with those over land. It began as episodic trade between China and Afghanistan exchanging Chinese jade for Afghan lapis lazuli and grew from there to include more regular trade, more countries and a wider variety of goods. Almost 1000 years before Alexander, special platoons of Chinese soldiers patrolled the northern route form Xi’an almost to the shores of the Caspian to help ensure the safe passage of goods.

Thinking about this swirl of history leads me to contemplate the beauty of impermanence. Mali’s now dusty Timbuktu was only a few hundred years ago, one of the great centers of learning in the Muslim world and would-be scholars flocked there to study and especially to read the law with learned clerics. So the fortunes of families rise and fall as well, and the family of hard working but uneducated laborers that I was born into has an ancestor who ruled part of Europe in the 15th century and his portrait still hangs in the Louvre.

We try, faultily of course, to hang on to things and enforce a false permanence on our lives, our families and our possessions – as if to prove to ourselves that we are in control – when we are not. One of my favorite story lines along the lines of this theme is mentioned off-handedly in the wonderful movie: On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever. Its about the wealthy businessman who is desperately trying to discover his future incarnation – so that he can bequeath his money and estate to himself. Ahh human fraility!

Kalachakra Sand Mandala

I remember watching a group of monks, painstakingly build an intricate and colorful mandala across a series of days. A few grains of sand here, another few grains in a different color there until a stunning geometric latticework lay before them in brilliant technicolor. Words, shading, mythological creatures all incorporated into a vision of an orderly cosmos. At the end of the creation and after many prayers and chants they carried the panel it rested on down a steep stone stairway carved in a slanted rockface. In my mind I can still see the wisps of colored sand flying off the surface to be carried by the wind into heaven. When they reached the base of the steps, they tilted the board and abruptly poured the remaining sand into the river below. Even though I knew the outcome and meaning of the ritual beforehand, I still felt a profound sense of loss and shock at seeing such beauty thrown away. Seeing the monk’s happiness at the completion of the ritual tempered my western negativity a bit and made me feel a bit more sanguine about the passage of time and how it shapes our lives.

So, when you travel or read about other lands, remember always that there is something that came before the present. Even if you don’t know what that something is, just know that it is there. The Great Silk Road is the unseen force that has shaped many of the cuisines of the Old World and is the reason why there are so many southeast Asian ingredients in Sri Lanka’s cuisine or why the Persian and Arab influences in Christian Armenias specialities sing a different cultural tune. So, as you cook and eat your way around the Silk Road, appreciate the history, breathe it in, because like a hidden hand, it has shaped everything you see today. (Words by Laura Kelley, Image from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1.)