Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case, death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Read more about pomegranates on Zester Daily – HERE.
A post about the real Sibad the Sailor – A Persian named Soleiman Siraf
The Voyages of Sinbad tell of giant, magical creatures: whales the size of islands, snakes so large that they could swallow elephants, and rukh (roc) birds so large that they could carry a caravan of men on their backs. Tales of these creatures repeated across cultures and through the ages have made most readers assume that they were simply pigments of a colorful imagination – works of fiction. But what if these creatures were real? What if the fictionalized accounts were based on the observations of early travelers that were tainted by mysticism and embellished over time by the repetition of stories in an oral tradition? Remember, maps in the medieval world portrayed demons and the edge of the world was thought to be a very real place.
In part at least, the Voyages of Sinbad are based on the voyages of Soleiman Siraf – the first western Asian man to navigate the seas from his home in Siraf, Persia, to Western India, around the Malabar coast and across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, Thailand and eventually to Southern China through the Straits of Mallaca. He sailed around 775 and his voyages were recorded almost 70 years later by Abu Zaid al Hassan in his Siraf & Soleiman the Merchant in 851 ACE.
Siraf sought to open a route to China for western trade so that Persia was not simply the recipient of goods from the east and subject to the inflationary markup of the many merchants the goods had to pass through. Great Chinese ships carrying goods to Indonesia, India and beyond to Arabia and the Persian Gulf were already seen at the larger, deeper ports capable of hosting large ships. These ships carried, silks, pearls and other precious stones, porcelain, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon indicating that Chinese merchants made many stops along their way to the western seas. But until Siraf, no western trader had ever navigated his way back to China to trade directly with the Chinese and the other countries along the way. In sailing and travelling all the way to China and back, Siraf was opening the doors to two-way trade on the Maritime Silk Road.
Sailing almost 500 years before Marco Polo and his family departed Italy for China, Siraf’s voyages have gained little attention in the west outside of academic circles – until now. An Iranian film by director Mohammad Bozorgnia that just opened at the Kish film festival celebrates the life and travels of Siraf and his companions. The film is told through the eyes of a fictionalized young man who participates in the voyage and records its details in a Watson to Holmes sort of relationship. Since the film is racking up awards in Iran, I hope that it will released internationally, at least on DVD – I would love to see it.
Building on the extensive knowledge of Arab and Persian geographers of the time – who had already described Southern Europe and Asia, Northwest and eastern Africa to Madagascar, and the Malabar coast – Siraf first navigated across the northern Arabian Sea to around the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat) and then down to Kollam. Given the importance of trade to the merchants of the Tang Dynasty, the presence of Chinese traders in Kollam was fairly common, but sizeable permanent settlements of Chinese on India’s western coast didn’t begin until the Yuan Dynasty several hundred years later – and indication of how trade grew with the opening of a two-way maritime route.
As to the stories themselves, the origins of the Voyages of Sinbad are more or less contemporaneous with the publication of the account of Soleiman Siraf’s travels in the middle of the 9th Century ACE. Early Arabic manuscripts of One Thousand and One Nights do not include the Sinbad stories as part of Scheherazade’s tales. Rather, the Sinbad stories, which are legitimate regional folktales were added in the 18th Century by French traveller and translator Antoine Galland. Still, the stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries.
Whether as early accounts of a fantastic and dangerous world that can provide riches for those who dare depart familiar shores, or in the painting of Sinbad as a romantic a swashbuckling adventurer, or as stories for children to fuel their imaginations, the tales continue to be told. From Galland to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks, Voyages of Sinbad have endured for more than 1000 years. And, in part, at least, they were inspired by a very real Persian man – Soleiman Siraf – who changed the face of maritime trade on the early Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of The Maritime Silk Road Production Still, Sinbad by Paul Klee and Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks to Dreamworks from Google images.)
Muslim Communities in Central China have female religious leaders as well as their own unique food culture.
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.
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.
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.)
Triple digit temperatures have hit the Central Atlantic once again, leaving locals and visitors alike to find any way they can to keep the mercury down. Some become shut-ins moving between their air-conditioned homes to their air-conditioned cars to their air-conditioned jobs and back again; some take to the beaches, lakes and pools to swim and soak the heat away; still others turn to cold drinks, ices and of course, ice cream to keep cool.
The origins of ice cream are a convoluted tangle of misinformation and repetition. Alternately the Persians, Chinese, Arabs and Indians are credited with inventing ice cream. This seems to happen because non-dairy puddings and other chilled desserts are treated as synonymous with ice cream – causing a confusion of substance, time and place.
Although the Chinese seem to get the most credit for developing ice cream, the one really important thing bothers me about this version of history is that milk and milk products do not form a large part of the Chinese diet. The Tibetans and of course the Mongolians have lots of dairy in their diets, but the Han Chinese and other ethnic groups do not. Although a modern artisanal cheese industry is today taking root in China and producing Gouda and other western varieties, traditionally, cheese is not something associated with Chinese food. Bean curd-based concoctions, whether fried, or in soup or pudding form, these are often referred to as, “Chinese cheese”. There are only two traditional buffalo milk-based puddings that are sometimes eaten chilled that have any relation to ice cream, namely Jiang Zhuang Nai – the sweet gingery pudding and Shuang Pi Nai – which is a sweetened, cooked custard of milk and egg whites encased between two milk skins.
The pages of Marco Polo’s Travels record a lot of milk being enjoyed as cheese, curds, yogurt, milk, and even a sort of vodka (arkhi) in the Yuan court. So after the 13th Century, milk enters the Chinese diet through the Mongolian-led dynasty. However there is no mention of ice-cream, or anything resembling it.
In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), however, a poem entitled Ode to the Ice Cheese “詠冰酪” was written by the poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206).
It looks so smooth but still has a crisp texture,
It appears congealed and yet it seems to float.
Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;
As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.
So it’s still possible that the roots of ice cream in China preceded the rule of the Mongols. But from where did the idea come from? Was it indeed an indigenous Chinese idea, or was it an adaptation of an idea that came from far-away shores?
Although information is hard to come by, a few pieces of information have solid references behind them. Ice harvested in the winter or from ice-covered mountainous regions and then used to increase the storage time of foods has been used in many cultures for millennia. The Persians had yakhchals to keep the ice frozen during the warm seasons and the Chinese and Mesopotamians had icehouses. Documentary sources exist of orders of ice coming from pharaonic Egypt to keep food in the warmest months.
The first recorded ice-desserts are honey and fruit flavored sorbets offered for sale in Athenian markets in the 5th Century BCE. Both the Persians and the Chinese enjoyed ice or snow flavored with honey and fruit or sugary syrups. For the Persians, sherbet was more of a drink than the frozen dessert we now know by the same name. In the 4th Century BCE, the Persians were enjoying an ancestor of today’s chilled faloodeh pudding made from vermicelli noodles, rosewater, lime juice and a bit of cornstarch for thickening.
The next data point we have is from Pliny, recording Emperor Nero (54 to 68 CE) sending slaves to the mountains to gather snow and ice for as a basis for desserts flavored with berries and nuts. This doesn’t seem to be an advance on what the Greeks were doing five centuries earlier, but rather a simple repetition of a great idea.
So to the first century CE, we have ice and snow-based desserts flavored with fruit, nuts and syrups, in both east and west, chilled drinks on a shaved or crushed ice base in the west, and a rocking, chilled wheat based pudding also in the west. The next innovation that I have come across that walks us a step closer to ice cream is the addition of buffalo milk to the faloodeh. This seems to have occurred in China’s Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE) where a frozen concoction of milk, flour and camphor was enjoyed in the royal court.
Tang China was a cosmopolitan place. Arab and Persian traders were there and spreading the word of Islam by the early to mid 7th Century. Soon after this informal contact began, formal ambassadors arrived in China, led by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās, the maternal uncle of the prophet himself. Over the next century contact grew more frequent between the Chinese and the western Muslim world with Arab and Persian fighters assisting the Chinese in quelling rebellions in Tibet and with the exchange of servants from the royal courts. I think it likely that the Persians introduced the early form of faloodeh to the Tang Chinese and the next step in the evolution of ice cream took place.
Interestingly, I’ve seen references (that I cannot confirm) to the Indian use of ice and salt to create an endothermic reaction used to lower the temperature of other substances as early as the 4th Century CE. Also the Arabs are credited with being the first to sweeten ice-desserts with sugar instead of honey or fruit juice. But by the 10th Century CE, ice cream was widespread amongst many of the Arab world’s major cities, such as Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.
Greeks, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, and Indians all can be referenced with developing some part of the process of freezing and flavoring ice, milk or cream to come up with ice cream. Sounds like a Silk Road creation to me – eh? I see ideas flowing around the globe, innovations taking place and being passed on to the next place until a precursor to the modern product emerged.
Today, some amazing innovation in ice cream flavors are coming out of Hong Kong – including: Sichuan pepper and Morello cherry flavored ice cream. Other flavors offered include: black sesame, jasmine tea, pear and port and even gorgonzola ice cream. (Words by Laura Kelley).
For today’s post in celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, we have a guest blogger, Azita from the wonderful site Turmeric and Saffron. Azita is an Iranian who celebrates the cuisine and culture of Iran on her website. In addition to being an accomplished cook, she is also talented in food styling and food photography and regularly illustrates the recipes on her site with her lovely photos. Here’s some of her memories of the Norwuz celebrations past, some information about the holiday and of course, a recipe and photos. Many thanks, Azita!
Back home in Iran, the days leading up to Nowruz were always very busy and bustling with many different activities. These would include the cleaning of our house from top to bottom, washing the drapes, changing the upholstery of old chairs, cleaning our Persian rugs and some years we would apply a new coat of paint to our living room and dinning room.
My mother would take my sister and I to pick out our favorite floral fabrics for our New Year dresses. The next stop would be going to the seamstress for fittings. On the other hand, my father would take my four brothers to the tailor for their Nowruz suits.
The change of the season along, with all the preparation, would bring about such excitement and joy especially knowing that we would have 13 days off from school. During the day of the Nowruz celebration, we’d wear our new clothes and shoes and take our seats around the haft-seen table and wait for the countdown to the exact moment of the spring equinox (tahvil-e sal). My mom would light the candles, one for each of us, including my parents. In the last few minutes we’d remain quiet and would hold some grains of uncooked rice in the palms of our hands, representing blessings, while praying for health, happiness and everything else that we wished for.
My father would always remind us to pray for others before wanting and wishing anything for ourselves. Nowruz gifts (eidi) were usually money given to us by my parents and elders of the family. Traditionally, the eldest always give eidi to the youngest. The following days after the New Year would be spent by paying visits (did-o-bazdiz) to family members, relatives and friends of the family.
This year, March 20th marks the beginning of the Persian New Year (Nowruz) celebration for year 1389. Nowruz always begins on the first day of spring/vernal equinox, when days and nights are of equal length. Nowruz holiday lasts for 13 days and it literally means “new day” in Persian. It symbolizes a new beginning and the victory of light over dark and the harshness of winter. The history of Nowruz celebration is rooted in the 3000 year old Zoroastrian belief system and goes back to the great Persian Empire.
Today, Nowruz is celebrated as greatly as ever and is a major national holiday in Iran. In preparation for the New Year festivities a thorough spring-cleaning (khaneh-tekani) is carried out weeks before the New Year celebration. Growing sabzeh (wheat, barley, lentils) is an essential part of getting ready for New Year. Setting the Nowruz table (sofreh-e haft seen) and sitting around it during the turn of the year and wearing new clothes are practiced by Iranians all over. According to Zoroastrian beliefs, the souls of the departed come down and join in the festivities and celebrations. Even though the history of Nowruz and the Haft Seen spread may be somewhat obscure, it has been written about by the great Persian poet Ferdowsy (935–1020) in the book of “Shanameh”. During the Nowruz celebrations we are reminded once again by the ancient Zoroastrian teachings of “Good Thoughts” (goftar-e nik), “Good Words” (pendar-e nik), and “Good Deeds” (kerdar-e nik).
The Haft-seen is traditionally set up with seven items beginning with the letter “seen” (S) that symbolically represent, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, beauty, patience and re-birth. The “seens” are as follows:
Sabzeh (wheat sprouts) representing rebirth, new life and fertility
Sumac representing the spice of life
Senjed (dry fruit of the lotus tree) representing love
Sonbol (hyacinth flower) representing spring
Samanoo (sweet wheat pudding) representing the reward of patience and sweet life
Sekeh (coin) representing wealth and prosperity
Seer (garlic) to ward off bad omens
The haft-seen table would also include a mirror at the top, candles representing light, seeb (apple) representing beauty and health, serkeh (vinegar) representing age, colored eggs representing fertility, gold fish the symbol of life, and rose water, a symbol of its cleansing power and an orange in a bowl of water representing the world. Many people would also place their holy book or a book of poetry by Hafez on the table.
One of the most popular and traditional dishes served on the day of Nowruz celebration is a fried or baked vegetable and egg dish called Kookoo Sabzi. Another traditional Nowruz dish is Sabzi Polow (herb rice) which is usually served with smoked or fried/baked white fish (mahi).
2 cups chopped parsley
2 cups chopped scallions (green parts only) or (leeks, chives)
2 cups chopped spinach
1 cup chopped dill
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons barberries (zereshk), optional
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, optional
5 large eggs
1/3 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon flour
4-5 tablespoons vegetable oil
Clean and wash the vegetables. Chopping them by hand is the preferred and the traditional way. However, the convenient and the less time consuming way is to use the food processor. You may chop them finely but I only pulse it a few times and not to have it mushy at the end. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs well with a whisk. Then add all the above ingredients except the oil and mix thoroughly until well blended. To this mixture add one tablespoon of oil and stir well.
In an oven proof baking dish place the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil. Gently pour the herb mixture into the dish evenly, cover lightly with an aluminum foil and place in a 350 degrees pre-heated oven for 40 minutes. Remove the foil half way through the cooking. Once cooked, remove from oven and let it cool for a few minutes before cutting it into small pieces. Place on a serving platter. It could be served hot or cold with warm bread and yogurt or mixed-vegetable pickles (torshi).
Sounds delicious Azita! Again, many thanks for sharing your memories and knowledge of Nowruz with us. Happy Nowruz, Happy Spring to you all. (Words and Photos by Azita M.)
(Additional: Laura would like to dedicate this post to colleagues Arash and Kamiar Alaei who are celebrating this Nowruz in prison.)
Skilled dancers from Xiiang,
Persian masks and lion masks.
The heads are carved of wood,
The tails are woven with thread.
Pupils are flecked with gold
And teeth capped with silver.
They wave fur costumes
And flap their ears
As if from across the drifting sands
Ten thousand miles away…
- Bo Juyi, 9th Century
With Chinese New Year, rapidly approaching, a post about the endangered Asiatic Lion seemed like a good idea. The Chinese along with many other Eastern and Southeastern Asian cultures usher the New Year in with a lion dance to banish evil spirits and sorcery and allow good fortune and joy to reign. Not native to China, common knowledge is that lions and their symbolism probably came east to China from India with the spread of Buddhism by the first century of the Common Era along the Silk Road (Some accounts call for the adoption of Buddhism in China to be in the first century or two BCE). Lions were quickly revered and incorporated into Chinese culture as symbols of majesty and power. Whether real or imagined, lions were believed to protect people against evil spirits by chasing them away and were conjured in protection rituals and carved in stone to be sentinel temple and palace guards.
There were, however, many opportunities for contact between Chinese traders and soldiers and peoples from lion-inhabited lands along the Silk Road. Bo’s poem, however, speaks of a lion dance that took place eight centuries later, in the T’ang Dynasty in what was then a western frontier region, Liangzhou, in which the dancers wore Persian masks. Since the Persian Achaemenid Empire reached as far east as Tajikistan by 500 BCE, it is not out of the question that the Chinese knew about Asiatic lions sooner than the first century CE, but perhaps their adoption of Buddhism gave greater zeal to the symbolism of the lion.
China is not alone in is reverence for lions, many Asian countries incorporate its symbolism into their myths, folklore and art. In Tibet, the snow lion is an imaginary beast that is said to represent unconditional cheerfulness, a mind free of doubt that is clear and precise. It has a beauty and dignity resulting from a body and mind that are synchronized, and a youthful, vibrant energy of goodness and a natural sense of delight. The snow lioness also is said to have a special milk which heals both physical and spiritual ills.
Lions are so honored in South Asia as to be symbol of India herself and are often used in depictions of Bharat Mata or Mother India.
The Lion Capital of India with its three lions placed with their backs together, facing outwards was first erected in 250 BCE by Emperor Ashoka has also become a national symbol for the country. Singh is also an ancient Vedic name meaning lion that dates back thousands of years. Narashima or Narasingha is also the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Vishnu and is held sacred by all Hindus. In Sri Lanka, the lion represents the ethnic Sinhalese – or people with lion blood – and a sword wielding lion is the central symbol on the country’s flag.
In considering bravery and fearlessness as two important aspects of the lion symbolism, whether Asian or African, I am reminded of a story once told to me by a former colleague. It is about his own adventures in Central Africa as an American epidemiologist. His research group was camped not far from a native village whose population part of an ongoing study. One night, he heard the usually peaceful village in an uproar. He heard lots of yelling and screaming going on, lots of drumming and other noise making. Not sure what was going on, whether it was a festival or trouble, he made his way towards the village alone. By the time he reached the village, it had grown quiet again and no one was about, so he left and went back to camp. He queried the village headman the next day about the cause of the noise and was met with disbelief that he was still alive. It seems that a lioness had made her way into the village and the noise was made to scare her off. She ran off through the trees in the direction of the path that he was walking. The headman made some consultation with other men of the village and then the good doctor was given a bracelet of lion claws – because he must have been a man beloved by lions.
Back in Europe, at the Pergamon, I’ve walked through the Ishtar Gates of Babylon and down the heavenly cobalt blue and turquoise path strewn with golden sunflowers and lions. Built by Nebuchadnezzar II around 575 BCE, it is one of the wonders of the ancient world that I am grateful for having experienced.
Reverence and symbolism aside, the last wild lion was seen in Western Asia in mid-20th Century Iran. How can we as a species value the idea of a lion and the symbolism we have assigned to it so highly and care so little for it in the world? Once roaming freely from Eastern Mediterranean Europe across Western Asia and North Africa and into Central India and the Northern Levant, less than a few hundred Asiatic lions remain in the wild, most living on the Gir Forest Reserve in Gujrat, India. Worse than these dangerously low numbers is that the exisiting wild lions are descended from an even smaller population that survived to the early 20th Century and are thus so closely related that they do not form a natural, healthy population. Now critically endangered, the lion has become mired in internal Indian politics between factions who wish to create separate populations of the animals outside Gujrat in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and Gujrati’s who don’t wish to lose the designate of the last refuge of the Asiatic lion. Gene pools, zoos and captive breeding seem like the only hope for Asia’s last lions as habitat destruction, poaching, pressure from encroaching human villages in Gujrat and lack of genetic diversity continue to wear away its tenuous hold on existence.
So if you see a lion dance during the coming Spring Festival, and if they banish the evil spirits that afflict you and bring you gifts of oranges and good fortune, remember that your children may be telling their children about how lions – like the ones in Africa – once roamed Asia. (Words and photos of Nepalese Lions by Laura Kelley; illustration of Bharat Mata and Photo of the Ishtar Lions from Wikimedia Commons. Click here for more information about Asiatic Lions.)