A Roman Bowl from a Mongolian Tomb

Roman Bowl from a Mongolian Noble Tomb (5th C ACE)
Roman Bowl from a Mongolian Noble Tomb (5th C ACE)

This bowl is a fine example of pinched-glass craftmanship. It is of Roman (possibly Byzantine) origin and is believed to be dated to the 5th Century ACE (based on the age of the tomb which is from the Hunnu period.) It is also proof of the power of the Silk Road on both trade and politics, because it was found a few years back in the tomb of sildenafil online. In Tuv province, not too far from modern Ulaanbaatar, the tomb of a wealthy, noble family yielded two similar bowls that were unfortunately broken. Also found in the same tomb was a jade seal of the Xiongnu Emperor.

Scientists are undecided as to how the bowl came to Mongolia. Some believe that it could have come through trade routes, and other believe that it was such a special object that it was probably a present from a Roman noble family to a Mongolian family in the Far East. The style of ribbed glass work was all the rage in Rome from the 1st C BCE to around the 1st C BCE, so it may have been a precious object of the Mongolian family for several centuries before it became part of their grave goods. It is difficult to know. Treasures tell no easy tales.

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Roman Bowl from the Mongolian Tomb borrowed from Ulaanbaatar Post.)

Patterns, Patterns Everywhere: Five-Spice Mixtures

Many chefs and cookbook authors spend their careers touting the unique aspects of the cuisines they cook and write about.  I’m different from most.  I look around and see nothing but commonalities and connections between the major Asian cuisines and spice mixtures.  In The Silk Road Gourmet Cookbook, I write a lot about how ingredients and dishes swirl in patterns across Asia and tell us a lot about relationships between countries whether through trade, diplomatic relations, cultural or religious connections.

A Masala

One of these patterns in ingredients is found in the makeup of the major spice powders. Whether used as a pickling spice, an advieh, a masala, a curry powder, a spice paste or a five-spice powder, the same spices, with some variations in amount, preparation, use, or local addition of ingredients swirl across the continent from Armenia to Indonesia.

Take for example a relatively familiar Northern Indian garam masala: 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cloves, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 2-inch cinnamon sticks, ½ nutmeg corm, grated, 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds.  Moving west of India, the first three ingredients are also found in most Pakistani garam masalas, which tend to omit cinnamon and nutmeg, and substitute black cardamom for the green cardamom found in the Indian masala.  The same ingredients as those in the Indian masala can be found in an Afghani char masala – minus the nutmeg and also replacing the cardamom with black cardamom as in Pakistan; and in Iranian advieh  – this time with the addition of coriander seeds and Persian lime powder.  A commonly used modern Armenian pickling spice share four ingredients with the Iranian advieh but adds bay leave and the New World allspice to the mix.

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East of India, many Nepalese masalas have the same ingredients as the Indian masala mentioned here – only they tend to add black cardamom to the mix.  One important difference between Indian and Nepali masalas is that Nepali masalas are often roasted, whereas this is an option in Indian cuisine.  Sri Lankan curry powder has the same ingredients as the Indian garam masala except that it adds coriander and fennel seeds and omits nutmeg.  Several additional spices and herbs (pandanus) are also added that are not related to the five or six spice base in most of the other mixes.  Like Northern Indian spice preps, the spices in the Sri Lankan curry powders are sometimes roasted and sometimes not.

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Masala Ingredients

Tibet’s masala adds coriander seed and bay leaves to the Northern Indian base and Khirgistan’s five-spice mix omits black peppercorns from the Indian recipe all together.  Sichuan peppercorns replace black peppercorns along with the addition of star anise and fennel in varying degrees in Mongolia, China and Vietnam.  Like Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s curry paste uses many ingredients not related to other spice mixes around Asia (candlenuts, laos etc), but still it shares the core of spices (black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and coriander seeds) with several of the other powders mentioned.

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A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there and the proportions of the spice mixtures change – but the ingredients remain the same – to some degree across the entire continent.  Likewise, we may be different ethnicities or different religions, but to some extent, the foods we eat are part of the cultures we share – all of which have been shaped by the Silk Road (Words and pattern analysis by Laura Kelley).

Tales Told by a Jade Vessel

Yuan Jade Vessel

This interesting object recently found its way into our home. It’s a jade vessel dating from China’s Yuan Dynasty. It appeared on the breakfast table one morning at the end of January. To be honest, at first I wasn’t so sure about it, but the more I consider it, the more I’m taking a shine to it.

We’ve got to clean it up a bit, but its really quite nice when light is shone behind it: the waves and tails of the sea monsters along the edge glow gold along with the ears, paws and tail of the lion or tiger on the lid. It was used to hold a dark substance, perhaps caked ink or makeup or perfume or oil – we’re not sure.

The sea monsters are a fairly standard Yuan theme. The square repetitive border is also a standard in Song/Yuan jades . . . but those triangles look suspiciously like yurts to me – which I’ve never heard of before in a jade.

What I like best about it is that history is written in its very form. The overall shape is nice enough, but the incision work is rather crude indicating a lesser skilled artisan or even an individual owner did that carving. Jade had come into use for everyday objects in the Song Dynasty and became even more commonplace under the Yuan. Some incredibly fine jades exist from this period, but most of those have royal or noble provenance. It is possible that the Mongolian court drew the best artisans to the center and that people rungs down on the social order wishing a jade vessel such as this had to make due with the craftsmen available, or to incise it themselves.

In general, the time of the Mongolian consolidation of power was a time of great social and political upheaval in China. The Han majority saw the Khans as foreign invaders and when possible, the nobles withdrew and refused to participate in courtly life. Heavy taxation of the peasants to help pay for wars of territorial expansion also made them unpopular with many of the common folk as well.

On a positive note, the Yuan period was a time of great flowering of the arts and sciences in China. This was in part due to contact with foreigners from countries under the sway of neighboring Khanates. Astronomy and mathematics flourished with assistance Persian and Arab scholars, advances were made in printing and typography, the hand cannon was developed, cloisonné came east from Byzantium and was eagerly embraced by the Chinese. It was also during this time that Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta traveled to China. Mongolian troops escorted Northern Silk Road caravans as far west as the shores of the Caspian, and China’s power stretched all the way to the borders of Poland and Hungary.

So from the time of Kublai Khan and his descendants, a time far ago and long away, a beautiful jade vessel from the Silk Road has emerged and made its way to our home. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Yuan Jade Vessel by Laura Kelley.)