Roots of the Silk Road


No, not another promised exploration of the cuisines of the Levant States or of Saudi Arabia. This essay is about the root vegetables eaten along the Silk Road. That is onions, shallot, leek, garlic, carrot, rhubarb, beet, radish and turnip – and everything in between.

For example, all of the commonly consumed vegetables in the Allium family (onion, shallot, leek and garlic) as well as the most important of those in the Apiaceae family (carrots and celery) all arose in Central Asia and spread globally from there. Turnips and parsnips are Eurasian and beets appear to be southwest Asian in origin. Yams are common throughout the Old World and are commonly used in the cuisines of SE Asia and the Pacific. Roots arising on the Indian subcontinent and spreading from there include the spice turmeric.

Some of the root vegetables commonly eaten today arose in NW China or Mongolia and spread around East Asia as well as made there way into Central, Western and Southern Asian cuisines include diakon radishes, rhubarb, gingerroot and to some degree lotus roots (spread to S Asia). Examples of roots with origins in China that remained predominantly in East Asian use include water chestnuts, spring onions and lemongrass (it may be a stretch to consider lemongrass a root vegetable, but it can be cultivated by root).

Of course, the potato is a new world root (recent genetic evidence suggests Peru as the point of origin) that was introduced into Europe around 1536. It reached India by the early 1600s and mainland China by the early to mid 1700s, the Himalayas by the late 1700s, Indonesia and Persia (Iran) by the early to mid 1800s and Thailand and Malaysia in the late 19th Century.

Another important root vegetable from the New World that has become a linchpin of Southern and SE Asian cuisines is cassava and its starch tapioca.

For the early pastoral peoples in Central and Southwest Asia, the gathering of wild vegetables and informal cultivation of native roots were very important sources of nutrition to these seasonally nomadic people. They were also important trade items. Shortly after 3000 BC vegetables of the allium family (onion, leek and garlic) are documented in pharaonic Egypt. Evidence of native Egyptian cultivation of allium isn’t found until about 2000 BC, so it seems that it was introduced as a trade crop from Asia. The Egyptians truly revered onions and even incorporated them into their burial ceremonies.

On a similar note, the lotus and lotusroot has important symbolism in the Indian subcontinent as the home of the god Vishnu. But, frankly I think that much of the attraction to root vegetables is practical, and that the symbolism came later. They provide a ready source of good nutrition; they have generally excellent storage characteristics and in colder climates many of them can be planted in the winter for spring harvest. In the Himalayas and on the Tibetan and Mongolian plateau many roots (particularly carrots and potatoes) also formed important staple sources in areas where rice cultivation was impossible.

The threat of famine which was not uncommon in many areas of Asia and is well documented on the Indian subcontinent and in some areas of Central and Northern China was also in some part staved off by the consumption of root vegetables.

Many vegetables and seeds were also used medicinally or for other apothecary reasons. Garlic is one of these root vegetables that was considered a cure-all – even up until the 18th Century when it was used to lessen the effects of confluent smallpox.

Some interesting and simple culinary ways to prepare root vegetables include baking them prior to mixing them with other ingredients. For sugar beets and other sweet roots, this “fixes” the sugar in them and keeps them sweet even when mixed with vinegars or other vegetables. (Bake them with the skins on and wrapped in foil. When done and cool, slip the skins off with your fingers and prepare as needed). One of my favorite recipes for beets is the warm Georgian Beets with Sour Cherries from The Silk Road Gourmet.

Taking a cue from the Central Asians, I also like to stuff onions. For this I use a larger, sweeter onion like a Vidalia or a mayan onion. Stuffings can be rice or meat based and usually also include garlic, cumin and possibly some fenugreek.

There are so many delicious potato recipes from Asia that it is hard to pick one. Favorites include the Cinnamon Potatoes with Pine Nuts from Azerbaijan or the Tamarind-Ginger Potatoes from Afghanistan. Potatoes are also used as fillings for samosa or samsa pastries eaten from western to southern Asia.

Spectrum of Carrot Colors

Most Asian cuisines integrate root vegetables into main dishes (curries, stews and meal-soups) instead of serving them by themselves. This is in part done because the consumption of meat is, even to the modern day, a less common thing in most of Asia than it is in the west. When meat is eaten, it is also consumed in smaller quantities for both economic reasons and cultural preferences. The tradition of main dishes featuring root vegetables become more common in cultures practicing some level of vegetarianism as in the Hindu areas of the Indian subcontinent and in some Buddhist countries.

Many Central Asian states have delicious recipes for carrots which can be found in huge piles in the markets of the area. Some of these have East Asian influences in them from traditional contact with China and more recently with Korean workers settling there on a long-term basis. Also of note with carrots on the Silk Road is the amazing array of colors that carrots naturally come in. Most colors have been lost in time with the standardization of carrots to orange hues. The great news is that some specialty grocers are reintroducing multicolored carrots. This has been underway in the UK for several years and is just beginning in the US. Hmmm, make mine deep purple. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Rhubarb by Gynane |; Photo of the Carrot Sprectrum by the US Agricultural Research Service.)