Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend
Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

This five-spice mix forms the backbone of Uyghur cuisine – at least that part of it that deals with roast meats.  Variations of this mix are used to flavor many Uyghur dishes, with other ingredients – salt, garlic, onions, etc., added to the mix as needed.

The flavor of the Uyghur five-spice blend is robust and smoky with light spicy bites from the Sichuan peppercorns, and the effect it has on roast meats is phenomenal.  Feel free to use it on kebabs and roasts like the Uyghurs do, or just on regular old steaks like I do.  My kids love when I use it on beef and lamb, and miss it when I don’t.

It has a great deal in common with other five-spice mixes from East Asia, and also with some of the masalas from the Himalayas – especially those from Tibet and Nepal.   (To read a post about the variations in these spice mixes, follow this link.)  In fact it is sort of a combination of both sets of spices.  With the east, it shares Sichuan pepper and star anise, and with the Himalayan masalas it shares black peppercorns and black cardamom.  Interestingly, the base of the Uyghur five-spice blend is made up of roasted cumin, which is found in abundance with Western and Southern Asian spice mixes.  So once again, the Uyghur recipe blends ingredients from across the Silk Road with unique results.

As to chili peppers, there are a number of them used in Uyghur cooking that range from mild to blazing hot.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any of these in the US, and thus turned to the familiar and widely available Japone. If you can find Sichuan chilis, these are a good moderately-hot substitute for Uyghur chilis.

I need to stress that there is no set recipe for these mixes.  They vary by region, city or even by household, depending upon individual and familial tastes.  That said, however, the roasted cumin is always there as are the Sichuan peppercorns to some degree or another.  The smokiness, however, can sometimes come from black cumin instead of black cardamom, and sometimes I have had versions that distinctly had cinnamon as part of the mix.  Here’s my favorite blend:

1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
10 dried red chilies (Japones will work but Sichuan is best)
Seeds from 4-5 black cardamom pods
3-4 star anise pods (pieces are fine)

Dry roast spices separately until fragrant (do not scorch or burn)
Grind together

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)).

The Flavors of Uzbekistan

Bкусный Oбедающий Uzbek!

[mp3-jplayer tracks=”ozbekvalsi.mp3″]

Uzbekistan is a place to dream about: a far-away land of palaces, emperors, mosques and some of the world’s most beautiful stark and stunning scenery. A sigh, a sip of tea, and no matter where you are, you imagine yourself perusing the exotic goods in crowded market, or on a caravan heading east towards the Fergana, with its dangers, mysteries and potential treasures.

Interior in Samarkand

You could go to Uzbekistan and have adventures, true, but an easier way to get there is by feasting on good Uzbek food. A few weeks ago I discovered a restaurant just outside of Baltimore that offers the ability to imagine Uzbekistan while sampling some of the many great dishes the cuisine has to offer.

As soon as we entered Choyhona’s unassuming storefront I knew this was going to be a good place to try Uzbek food. There were two tables of men talking loudly, eating kebabs and drinking out of BYO-bottles of vodka and a table of women gathered to celebrate a baby shower, drinking tea and enjoying Uzbek naan and salads.

Colorful Uzbek needlework adorned the light-colored walls which were decorated with areas of mud and straw around which wooden beams were set to give the restaurant the feel of a traditional country dwelling. Yes, Choyhona felt like the real deal, and it had a roomful of Russian and former-Soviet émigrés who all looked like regulars to prove it. Even before I took my seat, I realized that the people here came for the food, for the camaraderie, and for the authentic ambience of a Central Asian cafe.

The menu is in both Russian and English and has a nice selection of Uzbek and Central Asian food. Most of the traditional dishes are found under salads and soups – several meat and vegetable salads dressed with mayonnaise, or several with the sour yogurt called suzma. There are also a few salads based on fried vegetables (eggplants) and on grated or shredded vegetables, such as the Markovcha salad of matchsticked carrots.


My husband and I started with a lagman and a shurpa, two of the great Central Asian soups, and they were both delicious, if a bit on the mild side. I smelled the dill from the shurpa before the bowl even hit the table. Its translucent broth harboring bits of meat and vegetable with a bit of fat glistening on the surface was a wonderful way to warm up on a cold day. The not-quite even edge of the lagman noodles told us that they were indeed homemade and they were both flavorful and cooked to perfection.

While waiting for the soups we had a glass of ayran – lightly drained yogurt and soda water – to get in the Western and Central Asian groove. The one we had that day was plain, but it can also be flavored with black pepper or mint. The kids, stayed far away from the ayran and the soups and contented themselves by sucking down sodas as they waited for their food.

Next up were a plate of pumpkin manti – stuffed steamed dumplings – served with a lightly spicy and sour tomato-based sauce. The pumpkin was seasoned with a combination of cumin, coriander and a bit of dill along with salt and black pepper, and was absolutely delicious – especially with a dollop of sauce. FYI, for those with children, this dish was also kid tested and approved.

The center of the meal was a plate of kebabs that provided a nice sampling of the menu. We tried chicken, lamb, beef lulya, and the delicatessen kebab. We enjoyed these with a plate of marinated vegetables and a lightly-spiced yogurt dressing as well as more of the manti sauce. The chicken and lamb were good, but the most fabulous was by far the kebab made from strongly spiced minced beef – the lulya kebab.

Uzbek Manti

I can’t review Choyhona without discussing the very classy way they slipped lamb testicles onto the menu – they are the “delicatessen” kebabs. I’ve never really been a fan of eating genitals for dinner. I don’t like the smooth, dense texture, and I don’t really care for the strong flavor – which I call “crotchy”. That said, these little kebabs were the best testicles I’ve ever had. Still, I’d rather have a second lulya kebab than a delicatessen kebab, so there will be plenty around for those of you who like them.

My son had the lamb chop kebab with fries had he absolutely loved it!! I tasted it and the lamb was quite good – well cooked, but still soft and delicious. My daughter had the chicken tabaka the flattened and spiced fowl dish eaten from Western through Central Asia which she liked a lot. Our kids usually travel with us and eat a lot of unusual food when we are on the road. However, when they return home, their dietary habits tend to take a turn for the pedestrian. So, it’s great to find an ethnic restaurant here in the States that the kids like.

We ended the meal with a nice pot of green tea and some good conversation, before leisurely trundling back out into the cold. If you are in the area – run don’t walk to Choyhona. But don’t eat and run. Rather come to spend part of an afternoon or evening, enjoy the food and flavors, and “travel” to Uzbekistan. If you can get out to Uzbekistan or some of the world’s far places – do.

Something that we in the west all too easily forget is that there are still lots of wild places in the world and there are many adventures to be had. That’s why I love traveling. I like to get outside of my comfort zone to, for example, wait for a bus which may or may not ever show up. Sure, I love the fantastic sites – I’m not too jaded or ironic to admit that I was blown away by the still-sapphire, celestial ceilings of Hatshepsut’s Tomb – but I also simply like to appreciate the rhythm of life that is different from the one I am accustomed to. Appreciating a sunset or finding beauty in a cardgame brought on by boredom provides a moment to hold in memory and provides a welcome return in the swirl of a more complex life.

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Interior in Samarkand by Ozbek Valsi performed by Mashriq and borrowed from Uzbek Classical Music.)

Choyhona Silk Road Bistro on Urbanspoon

Afghanistan Akbar!

Afghan Man

From the time of the Persian emperor, Darius the Great in 500 BCE, the Afghan people have, at least from time to time, been engaged in resistance against foreign powers bent on conquering them. Even when outsider tyrants succeeded in bringing down one or more of the most powerful tribes, revolution percolated in the mountains and countryside and fed rebellion against the foreign invaders. An uneasy history has plagued the proud peoples of Afghanistan: Persians, Alexander, Greeks, Buddhists, Huns, Arabs, and the Uzbek Tamerlane all seized the reins of Afghan power at one time or another. It wasn’t until 1747 and the foundation of modern Afghanistan that Afghans have held power for extended periods of time in their own country, and even then they continued to be plagued by usurping Persians, British, and Russians. This history of conflict and resistance means that over the millennia, Afghan culture has been influenced by a wide variety of foreign cultures.

The effect of all of this blending of cultures on Afghan cuisine has produced a merger of both western Asian, which is still heavily influenced by European food and the cuisines of the Levant states, with southern Asian cooking or cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. From the West, we still see a wide variety of familiar spices— fennel, bay leaf, mint, and saffron—but these are often used in concert with southern and eastern Asian spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger rather than as main flavors.

Once again the Persian influence is strongly felt in the combination of fresh and dried fruits with meat dishes, in the use of sour grapes as a “souring agent” in a wide variety of foods, and in sumac as a spicy garnish to sauces and skewered meats. Another much-generalized trend that Afghan food has in common with southern and eastern Asian cuisines is the eating of smaller portions of animal protein at most meals. Kebabs may seem like a lot of meat, but most of this is in fact in the presentation instead of on the portion scale. Part of this trend away from meat has to do with the cost of meat, but part of this is also due to simple cultural preference.

Afghan Kebab

The recipes offered in the Silk Road Gourmet give a good overview of the complex flavors that prevail in Afghan cuisine. In meats, they range from the gentle Afghan Chicken Kebab and Lamb Chops Afghan Style with dashes of cinnamon and black pepper working with the flavors of the meats to slightly accent them, to the sharp Lamb with Lemons and Pine Nuts with its spicy trio of cardamom, coriander, and cinnamon adding their pungent flavors to a lemon-pepper sauce. The vegetable recipes offered are not shy cousins to their meaty relatives; in fact, some of them—most notably, Tamarind- Ginger Potatoes and Spicy Eggplant with Mint—may be even more spicy than most of the meat dishes. Afghan vegetable dishes aren’t just about bold flavors, though; sometimes they gently coax diners into submission, as with Sautéed Quinces, where nutmeg and cinnamon work in concert with basil to bring a unique flavor to a fruit that is much underappreciated in the West, or Sweet and Spicy Squash where a sweet, baked butternut squash absorbs a sweet and spicy tomato sauce seasoned with ginger and garlic to magnificent results.

If you are curious about Afghan food – perhaps having dined in Afghan restaurants a few times – I suggest you check out the Silk Road Gourmet to try some of this delicious food at home. You will instantly recognize some of the flavor combinations from the Persian/Iranian portfolio, but other tastes will be brand new and closer to those of Indian subcontinental cuisines. (Words by Laura Kelley, photo of An Afghan Man from the U of Colorado at Boulder website and photo of Kebabs from the Afghan Embassy website)