A Mosque of One’s Own

Muslim Communities in Central China have female religious leaders as well as their own unique food culture.

Chinese Muslim Women

Despite a deep historical tradition of female religious leadership beginning with Ayesha, the wife of the Prophet Mohammed, modern China is one of the only countries in which Muslim women are widely accepted as heads of their religious communities. These female religious leaders also fulfill most of the duties of imams – except they don’t perform weddings and funeral ceremonies. These female imams lead women in prayer at the women-only mosques, make passionate sermons, impart the knowledge of the Koran and even teach women to read and write in Arabic. They wash and purify the bodies of Muslim women who die, and function as advisors in religious matters for both men and women.

Many communities in Central China even have women-only mosques for female prayer and study. In other countries where women are allowed to enter mosques, their prayer is limited to separate rooms or behind screens, separated from the main area of the mosque and hidden from the eyes of the praying men.

Not so for the Hui – a Chinese ethnic group who are descended from some of the original Muslim merchants and statesmen who came to China mostly during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The original settlers were an ethnic mixture of Persians, Arabs, and Central Asian Muslims, who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Uyghurs and Turkic-speaking Muslims in China’s west and northwest. These settlers intermarried with Han Chinese and other ethnic groups and became known by their modern moniker – the Hui. Making up about half of China’s more than 20 million Muslims, the tradition of strong female religious leadership is a living atavism or founder-effect of the customs of the original Muslim settlers in Central China.

Chinese Female Muslim Leader

Gao Baogong, the male head of the Islamic Association of Kaifeng says, “Muslims in other countries feel that we go too far. It seems very strange to them that a woman acts as imam. They are mistaken, of course. Women and men should have total equality. I’m not the only one saying it. The prophet Mohammed said it in his own words.”Why then have Muslim women attempting to take religious leadership faced discrimination and condemnation in many other Muslim communities and countries? Sure women in Morocco and in Shia Iran have some counseling and leadership authority – but it cannot even be compared to that of an imam. Were the ancestors of the Hui uniquely liberal or has the Sunni world become more conservative over the centuries? So many questions. . .One thing for certain is that female religious leadership has not been a threat to the Hui’s faith which has persisted for over a thousand years. The Hui’s faith and customs survived even the blight of the Cultural Revolution and they remain a living remnant of the ancient Silk Road that brought their ancestors to China.Other aspects of Chinese Muslim culture have not only survived, but thrived over the centuries as well. One such example is the unique food-culture that exists amongst China’s Muslims that blends Uyghur and other Turkic-speaking Muslim food traditions with those of the amalgam Hui peoples. Muslims in China do not eat pork, keep to halal dietary practices, and in some cases will eat only fish with scales, eschewing shellfish. Quite a few dishes now enjoyed widely in China were also introduced by China’s Muslim citizens.

Hui Beef-Noodle Soup

For example, the Hui are credited with creating beef noodle soup, now widely enjoyed around China made of stewed beef, beef broth, vegetables and Chinese wheat noodles. The soup is flavored with salt, red chili peppers, white peppercorns, and green onions, and one glance is all you need to see the link to Central Asian lagman soups. Muslims use halal meat and generally refrain from the use of soy sauce when mixing the soup.

Another dish credited to Chinese Muslims is the salt-fermented cabbage Suan Cai which is related to the northern sweet and sour cabbage Pao cai except that it has a strong pickled flavor. It is enjoyed with soups and stews as a vegetable or topping and in the south often eaten with a congee as a meal.

The Uyghurs and other Central Asian Muslims are also said to have introduced the kebab meats (especially lamb) now popular all over China as street-food and seasoned with cumin, red chili peppers, salt and sesame oil or sesame seed. The Chinese like “dry” or shish kebabs of chunks of meat, but also fried kebabs of ground meats as well. An interesting and uniquely Chinese kebab is the steamed kebab brushed with sweet bean paste.

Fentiaozi or Emperor Salad is a complex salad of noodles, cabbage, limejuice, eggs, and soy sauce is also a dish of Muslim origin. Flatbreads called Nang clearly related to Western, Central Asian and Southern Asian naan are also enjoyed as are stuffed breads such as the Jui cai he that are stuffed with garlic chives or leeks.

In addition to female leadership in their Muslim communities, China’s more than 20 million Muslims (more than in all the Arab Muslim Gulf states combined) also have been great innovators of food in China – bringing with them dishes and food traditions from their homes in Western and Central Asia as they travelled the ancient world along the along the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Chinese Muslim Women, Female Chinese Religious Leader and Hui Beef-Noodle Soup from Google Images.)

Ibn Battuta in IMAX

“. . . If I am to die, then what better place to do so than on the road to Mecca,” declares a very young and confident Ibn Battuta to his family and friends who saw him off on his first great journey. Time and the realities of travel in the fourteenth century soon tempered his youthful bluster as Battuta made his way across the Sahara from his native Tangier towards Cairo and Mecca.

Ibn Battuta Sets Out

I’ve written about Battuta’s journeys before on this blog, but his story warrants attention again because of a wonderful new film: Ibn Battuta – Journey to Mecca. Last weekend we took the kids down to the Smithsonian’s Johnson IMAX theatre to see the film and were happy we did. The film chronicles Battuta’s first journey, the Hajj pilgrimage, and the trip across North Africa to the great cities of Cairo, Damascus, and Medina that led to Mecca.

The journey begins with Battuta saying farewell to his family and friends and receiving their simple gifts of a good horse and ihram a white, seamless length of cloth to wear during the pilgrimage. He is soon humbled by the hardships of the desert and an encounter with thieves. But his wanderings also lead him to find charity, friendship and protection from a Bedouin who escorts him to safety in Cairo, where he is received warmly by family friends. Determined to set out alone, he leaves his Bedu friend in Cairo and heads towards the Red Sea where he hopes to find short passage to Jeddah and then make his way overland to Mecca. As his friend warned he finds war along the seacoast has disrupted travel and is rescued from his despair by his Bedu friend who leads him to Damascus where he meets up with a fellow band of pilgrims.


The IMAX format is well suited for the sweeping beauty of North Africa’s landscapes and to their credit, the writers keep the story suitably intimate for such a personal story. My favorite part of the film comes about three-quarters through when the fimmakers start to intersperse footage from the present day of real Hajj pilgrimages with those shot depicting the 14th Century. For me, this was a powerful to visually communicate the continuity and power of the Hajj tradition and its ceremonies and a reminder of the numerous connections we all have with the past.

The film is about a great man and a great explorer, but it is also about faith, piety, determination, tolerance and charity. Battuta reaches Mecca a different, more tempered man than he was when he left his home. He fulfills his religious duty with passion and goes on to travel the world all the way to China as he did in a dream on the back of a great bird. His fortunes rise and fall as he travels and only decades later he returns to Morocco before setting out to Spain and other nearby ports.

Ibn Battuta and Pilgrims to Mecca

The Muslim World is in great part synonymous with the Silk Road, and Muslim traders were important in moving, goods, ideas and ideals around the old world for millenia. In many ways the world of the Silk Road was more multicultural than our own – with Muslims from abroad serving as ministers in Chinese courts and Persian Muslim rulers showing cultural and religious forbearance to non-Muslim states in their empires.

If Ibn Battuta: Journey to Mecca is showing in your area, I urge you to see it, it is a strange combination of sweeping and intimate and teaches history, respect and understanding in each frame. (Words by Laura Kelley; All photos from the film borrowed from the “Journey to Mecca” website)

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan Lantern

The time of Ramadan is almost upon us once again. Since so many of the land and maritime routes of the Silk Road ran through predominantly Muslim countries, and since Muslim traders played such an important role in moving the goods and ideas around that led to a globalization of the ancient world, I wanted to take a moment to explain the holiday to non-Muslims and to offer some recipes to our Muslim brothers and sisters from The Silk Road Gourmet cookbooks that may help to brighten your Iftar and Eid celebrations.

During the month of Ramadan, the more than 1 billion people around the world who call themselves Muslim and practice some form of Islam give thanks for and contemplate the communication of the holy Qur’an from the Angel Gabriel to God’s prophet Mohammed. The night of commemoration of this revelation is called Laylat al-Qadr or the Night of Power and usually falls about 2/3rds of the way through the month. This night may be the most important in the month-long holiday, but during this time, everyday is a time of prayer and worship, self reflection, charity, sacrifice, self control and sympathy towards others.

One of the ways that Muslims practice these qualities is by fasting during daylight hours. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the inner soul and free it from harm. Properly observing the fast is supposed to induce a comfortable feeling of peace and calm. The daily daytime fast is punctuated by an early morning meal called Sahur that is taken before the morning call to prayer and Iftar which takes place after sundown each day and at its conclusion, opens the fast for the next day.

In addition to Ramadan being an important religious observance, it is also an important holiday and as such, it is a time of visiting family and friends, giving presents and general celebration often lasting late into the evening. Since it is a festival of giving and sharing, Muslims prepare special foods and preparation of the Iftar meal is often a time of heightened socialization with family and friends in the kitchen.

Father and Daughter in Devotions

The Islamic holiday of Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of the fasting period of Ramadan and the first day of the following month, after another new moon has been sighted. Eid ul-Fitr means the Festival of Breaking the Fast; a special celebration is made. Food is donated to the poor, everyone puts on their best, usually new, clothes, and communal prayers are held in the early morning, followed by feasting and visiting relatives and friends.

Since the Muslim world extends from Europe through Africa and the Middle East to the farthest reaches of the Pacific, I’ve selected a variety of recipes from The Silk Road Gourmet that could be cooked as part of your Iftar or Eid meals. If you are Saudi, cooking an Afghani dish or a Malaysian one may seem a bit unusual, but experimenting with the foods of other predominantly Muslim nations might add some cross-cultural interest to your holiday meals. (Words by Laura Kelley; photo of Ramadan Lantern by Paul Cowan and the photo of Worship by Distinctiveimages, photo of Iftar Feast in Zanzibar by Gumpa and the photo of Dancing at the End of Ramadan by Pniesen, all from Dreamstime.com)


Afghan Pastries Filled with Savory Potatoes and Lamb
These delicious pastries are reminiscent of India’s samosas but are easier to wrap! The flavors of spring onions, cayenne, cumin, and coriander mix with the potatoes and lamb for a spicy, delicious treat, any time. Can also be enjoyed as a snack or even a light meal.

1 ½ cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 package dry, active yeast
3 ½ cups flour
3 tablespoons corn or other vegetable oil

2 large potatoes
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 medium bunch chopped cilantro (20–25 sprigs)
4 green onions, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
½ pound ground lamb or beef
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 egg, beaten

Corn or other vegetable oil for frying pastries

Combine the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a medium bowl and mix well. Set aside and let activate for 10 minutes or until it begins to froth.

In a large mixing bowl, place the fl our, indent the surface, add the corn oil and yeast mixture, and mix well. When the dough is mixed well enough to handle with your hands, knead it for 5 minutes. Set aside in a warm, quiet place for 1 hour or so until it has doubled in bulk.

Boil potatoes in their skin until soft. Peel and mash. Add salt, coriander, cayenne pepper, cilantro, and green onions and mix. Brown ground beef with pepper, salt, and cumin. Mix ground beef with mashed potatoes and beaten egg. Let cool.

Punch down the dough and divide into four equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball, and on a floured surface roll the dough out until it is about ¼ inch thick. Cut into 4–5-inch squares.

Place a few spoonfuls of filling along the middle of the wrapper and fold over into a triangle. Seal edges with your fingers and then crimp with the tines of a fork.

Heat oil and fry the pastries until golden on both sides, about 4–5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve.

Afghan Cilantro Sauce
This is Afghanistan’s version of Georgia’s Garlic and Walnut Sauce (Garo). It has several of the same ingredients, but it is the differences that matter most to the taste. Substituting cumin for the trio of coriander, fenugreek, and turmeric dramatically changes the sauce’s flavor. As usual, several different versions of the sauce exist and, as you can imagine, using vinegar instead of lemon juice produces a sauce more bitter than sour. However you prepare it, the sauce is a standard on the Afghan table and is found at almost every kebab meal. Also delicious on stuffed pastries.

1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves (20–25 sprigs)
¼ cup white vinegar or lemon juice
½ cup walnuts, diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1 teaspoon garlic, peeled
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt

In a blender, combine the cilantro and vinegar or lemon juice. When the cilantro and vinegar or lemon juice has become a smooth paste, add walnuts, cumin, chili peppers, and garlic and blend again until the walnuts are integrated. (If necessary, add a bit more water or lemon juice to blend the walnuts.)

Then add pepper and salt and blend well so that spices are well distributed throughout the puree. Pour the puree from the blender into a saucepan and heat. Cook over low to medium heat for 3–5 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Turkmen Stuffed Grape Leaves
As noted in volume one of the Silk Road Gourmet, dolmas or dolmades are eaten from Greece through Central Asia and are not unique to any of the cuisines that enjoy them. In Central Asia, however, they tend to be stuffed with rice, nuts and fruits and vegetables instead of rice and meat as is favored in Western Asia and the Mediterranean.

1 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)

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.

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.

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.


Ramadan Evening Feast

Meat Dish

Azeri Lamb Chops with Sour Cherry Sauce
It wasn’t an apple that Eve offered to Adam, it was a bowl of sour cherries—I’m sure of it! Either that or God must have created sour cherries for himself and accidentally let their secret slip out some other way. However this wonderful fruit came to be, it is simply delicious when paired with meat or fish! This recipe is a wonderfully simple way to prepare lamb or pork chops, which—in larger quantities—can also be used to make a wonderful roast as well. This recipe accents the natural, slightly sour flavor of the cherries with the addition of salt and cinnamon, while recipes from central Asia tend to offset the sourness of the cherries with sugar, as in the Uzbek Meatballs with Sweet and Sour Cherries. Widely used throughout western and central Asia, sour cherries are a taste sensation you’ll not want to miss!

4 lamb or pork chops, the thicker the better
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or more to taste)
½–1 corm nutmeg, grated
¼ cup beef broth (more or less as needed)
1 serving Sour Cherry Sauce (see Azeri Sauces and Spice Mixtures)

Preheat oven to 375°. Season the meat on both sides with salt, pepper, and nutmeg and place in a baking pan. Pour a small amount of beef broth to just cover the bottom of the dish and place in the oven.

Cooking times will vary according to whether the chops have been boned or not. For chops with the bone in them, cook about twenty minutes on each side. For chops without the bone, cooking times are approximately halved.

Make the sauce while the lamb is cooking. Just before serving, pour a bit of warm or hot sauce on the chops, offering the rest of the sauce as a side.

Azeri Sour Cherry Sauce
Here is a delicious sauce that you will want to use again and again on roasted meats, chops, and kebabs. Works wonderfully with roasted vegetables as well. The sweet and sour flavor of the cherries is offset by the cinnamon, pepper, and lemon juice and mellowed just a bit by the butter. A really amazing and simple sauce to accent a wide variety of dishes.

2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 small pinch ground cloves (no more than ⅛ teaspoon)
1 cup sour cherries, chopped

To make the sauce, melt butter in a saucepan and dissolve salt in it. Stir in pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon juice and add chopped cherries. Stir until cherries start to break down, about 5–7 minutes.


Salad and Vegetable

Turkmen Tomato Salad with Cheese
This is a deliciously tart salad that is simple to make and will brighten up any kebab or roasted meat meal – or perk up a vegetable casserole. I even enjoy it all by itself with a piece of Afghani bread or naan. The apple cider vinegar lends a sweet and sour flavor to the tomatoes and the feta which is a close stand in for the cheese that the Turkmen use makes this a salad not to be missed. Best served right after preparation.

4 medium, vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced into thick crescents
1 block feta cheese (3×2×1 inches), crumbled (I use Turkish, whole milk feta)
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (25-30 sprigs)
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, combine the sliced tomatoes with the crumbled cheese and cilantro leaves and set aside. In a small bowl, mix the apple cider vinegar with the ground coriander and the salt and pour over the tomatoes and cheese. Mix – lifting instead of stirring to not smash the cheese – and let sit for 15-30 minutes and serve.

Indonesian Eggplant Topped with Sweet and Spicy Tomato Sauce
A little touch of ginger, some chili peppers, sugar and ground coriander make this a delightful way to prepare eggplant that is undeniably Pacific rim! I will sometimes have a portion of this for a quick lunch or it will also go well with eggs and other grilled vegetables in a hearty Western-style breakfast

1 medium western eggplant
1 small onion, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
4 Thai chili peppers, diced
3 tomatoes, diced
3 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ cup water
¼ cup tomato sauce
½ teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon roasted peanut oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice the eggplant crosswise into roundels about ½-inch thick. Place on an oiled or sprayed baking sheet and bake them at 375 for 20-30 minutes, or until they are dry to the touch. Remove from oven and set aside but leave on the baking sheet. Do not turn off oven.

In a food processor, combine the onion, garlic, tomatoes, salt, sugar, peppers and water and blend lightly until it forms a chunky paste reminiscent of salsa. Onions should still have form and tomatoes should still be chunky.

Heat the oil in a sauté pan and sauté the tomato mixture for about 10 minutes or until the liquid is reduced and the sauce is very chunky. Spoon the sauce evenly over the eggplant slices and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes – just enough to warm the eggplant. Serve hot. Note: the roundels should be well cooked so, you will need to serve with a spatula.


Men Dancing at Ramadan's End

Rice and Bread

Kazakh Rice Pilaf with Dates and Apricots
This is a sweet and sour pilaf with the fruits lending a bit of sweetness to the garlic rice and the nuts adding crunch and texture as well as the gentle, moderating flavor of almonds. It is delicious with kebabs or grilled or baked meat dishes. The garlic in the rice is an Arab influence as in Pakistan’s Rice with Pine Nuts and Garlic in volume 1, while the fruits are a Persian addition.

1 cup uncooked basmati rice
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium onion, peeled, and diced
1 teaspoon garlic, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups water
1/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup dates, pitted and chopped
6 dried apricots, chopped

In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil and when hot add the onion and sauté until it softens and colors. Then add the garlic and continue until it starts to swell and color as well. Add salt and pepper and about ½ cup of the water to moisten.

Mix in the almonds, dates, plums and apricots and stir well. Cook for 3-5 minutes until slightly softened. Add the rice and stir well. Cook for another 3-5 minutes to warm the rice. Then add the remaining water and bring to a boil. When boiling, reduce heat and cook covered on low heat for 30 minutes or until rice is tender. When done, let sit covered on stovetop for another ten minutes before serving.

To serve, one can either spoon out the rice and the spoon out the fruit and nuts on top of it, or place a large plate over the mouth of the pot and invert the pot onto the plate which will allow the fruit and nuts to fall onto the bed of rice.

Pakistani Naan
This flatbread differs from the ones encountered in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan by the addition of yogurt and baking soda into the dough. This gives the dough a puffy consistency that resists crusting and crackling, and a slight sour tang that is missing from the other flatbreads. Another difference is the use of poppy seeds or caraway seeds instead of sesame seeds to coat the surface of the bread, as is favored in some of the other recipes.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
½ cup plain yogurt, lightly drained
3 tablespoons butter or ghee melted
1 cup warm milk
1 tablespoon poppy seeds or caraway seeds

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Stir in egg, yogurt, and 2 tablespoons of the butter. Gradually stir in enough milk to make a smooth dough. If dough reaches a good consistency before all of the milk is used, that’s okay; there is no need to use all of the milk. Knead for 3–5 minutes, cover, and allow to rest in a warm place for 1 ½–2 hours.

Preheat oven to 400°. Punch down dough and knead for another 2–3 minutes. Then divide the dough into about 8 evenly sized pieces and roll them out on a floured surface until they are ovals about 6–8 inches long

Place on a greased or oiled baking sheet, brush lightly with butter, and then sprinkle with poppy seeds or caraway seeds. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the bread starts to color a light golden brown, especially around the edges. Let cool for about five minutes and serve.



Afghan Cardamom Cookies
These little cookies deliver a blast of sweet cardamom flavor as they melt in your mouth. A delicious taste of Afghanistan that brings a new flavor to the dessert table

1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
½ cup melted butter, slightly cooled
¼ cup milk, warm
¼ cup ground pistachio nuts

Preheat the oven to 350°. Mix the white flour with the sugar and ground cardamom. Add the butter and milk and mix well. Make the dough into 2-inch round balls and put them on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Sprinkle finely ground pistachios on top of the cookies while they are still hot.

Bangladeshi Mango Lassi
For me, this is the ultimate dessert or cool-me-down on a hot day. Mangoes mixed with milk, yogurt, and sugar combine to make the ultimate subcontinental mango smoothie. For a delicious option, sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon or ground cardamom for a wonderful sweet treat.

3 cups milk
2 cups water
1 cup yogurt
1 cup mango pulp
¼–½ cup sugar

In a blender, mix milk, water, and yogurt together and blend. Then add mango pulp and blend until smooth. Lastly add sugar to taste, chill, and serve. Perfect every time!  (Words by Laura Kelley; Recipes from the Silk Road Gourmet.)