A Subcontinental Feast

We had a wonderful dinner party on Saturday night with a selection of Indian subcontinental food. The dinner was to celebrate the announcement of the secret marriage of a couple of friends and to give a former Londoner some of the curry that he so sorely misses. The meal was also a rewarding end to a couple of days of cooking by yours truly. In truth, I’ve been working this dinner for a couple of months. I made the mango pickle a couple of months ago, the vindaloo paste two weeks ago and the chutneys several days ago. Despite all the work, I simply love hearing that the shrimp in spicy tamarind-tomato sauce with hints of mustard and fennel is, “amazing” to one of our guests. Our menu included:

Spicy Cucumber Wedges
Pakistani Bean Salad
Pakistani Riata (Yogurt and Cucumber Dip)
Cashews with Black Pepper
Punjab Snacks

Bread, Condiments and Rice
Naan (plain)
Papad (cumin seed and chili)
Mango Pickle
Tomato Chutney
Cucumber Chutney
Rice with Garlic and Pine Roasted Nuts
Spiced Saffron Rice

Main Dishes
Lamb Vindaloo
Bangladeshi Chicken and Pineapple
Shrimp in Spicy Tomato Sauce
Sweet and Sour Okra
Butternut Squash in Coconut Cream

Gulab Jamun
Bengali Rasgulla
Cardamom and Rose Lassi

Chicken and Pineapple Curry

The Pakistani Bean Salad is an all-time winner with its grapeseed oil sweetness blending with chili peppers and white vinegar for a sweet and sour treat, and for the cucumber wedges, I used a garam masala to flavor them instead of ground cumin for a sweet but spicy surprise. The spicy Pakistani Riata, the chutneys and the pickle were also enjoyed with the selection of breads while we waited for the mains to heat up. My favorite of the three is the cucumber chutney with malt vinegar and ginger bringing a great zing to the natual cool of the the cucumbers.

The main dishes were served with two contrasting rices. The mild Pakistani rice with loads of garlic and roasted pinenuts brought a gentle flavor that origninated in the Arab world and traveled to Pakistan along with goods, beliefs and ideals, and the spiced saffron was flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves was well as saffron and sweet butter. For our London friend, I made a proper lamb vindaloo that made him sweat after a few mouthfuls. For his new American wife, who has less of a taste for spice, I made a sweeter Bangladeshi curry of chicken and pineapples. For myself, I prepared one of my favorites: a curry of shrimp in a tamarind tomato sauce with dashes of mustard and licorice-like fennel. The vegetables on the omnivore table were a lovely butternut squash with mustard seeds in sweet coconut cream and a sweet and sour okra served a sides – but they could easily have been enjoyed as part of a series of main dishes on a vegetarian spread.

Our guests were serious Whovians, the desserts – two subcontinental sweets in syrup were an afterthought – eaten in near silence while watching the second “Weeping Angels” episode of the Matt Smith Dr. Who series. We also had good chardonnay and Williamsburg mulled and plain ciders flowing all night

A lovely evening with some happy people. Good food, good friends, a shared interest – a wonderful evening which I am happy for, but still tired from as I look forward to another week of work. Still, these are the moments that sustain us. Leftovers, however, will also sustain both families for some time to come as well! (All recipes from the Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1; Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Chicken and Pineapple Curry borrowed from Google Images).

Flowers That Have Changed the World of Food #2: Saffron

“Your lips drop sweetness like honeycomb, my bride, syrup and milk are under your tongue, and your dress had the scent of Lebanon. Your cheeks are an orchard of pomegranates, an orchard full of rare fruits, spikenard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon.”

Fresco of Saffron Gatherers from Akrotiri

What substance was revered by the ancients, was used in Cleopatra’s baths to enhance her beauty and pleasure, was used to treat melancholy and a multitude of gastrointestinal ailments and fetched is weight in gold in Philadelphia markets when brought in by Pennsylvania “Dutch” farmers? The answer is, of course, the stamens from the Crocus sativus flower also known as saffron.

The earliest pictorial reference we have of saffron cultivation comes from the Minoan civilization on Akrotiri which has a number of frescoes of women cultivating the flowers and using them to treat various illnesses. The eruption of the Santorini volcano that destroyed their civilization provides the date of 1600-1500 BC as a fixed point in time for the cultivation of saffron by the Minoans. The cultivation and use of saffron is probably much older than that, however, because the flower that yields the precious spice hails from Southwest Asia. The Minoans likely came to saffron as a traded item from the east as part of their great network of sea and land traders that ranged the ancient Mediterranean.

Native to Southwest Asia, the Crocus species that produces the valuable reddish-orange hued stamens treasured by cooks around the world to color and flavor their dishes was created by men and women who used directed selection to breed a new species of flower with extremely long stamens. That this occurred some 20 centuries before the Common Era is worthy of a bow to the agricultural and commercial sophistication of the early civilizations involved in its use and trade.

The peoples of the Fertile Crescent used saffron as a pigment in cave paintings as early as 40,000 – 50,000 years BCE, and later the Sumerians used it medicinally in remedies and potions. By about 4000 years ago, the culinary use of saffron had begun, as witnessed in the early Hebrews revering it as a sweet-smelling spice in the words of the Song of Solomon. The first scientific documentation of saffron’s use was noted in an early botanical produced for Assyrian King Ashurbanipal seven centuries BCE.

Modern Saffron Cultivation

Although it is unclear when the cultivation and trade of it began, Persian use of the flower as a dye, perfume and medicine was truly prolific and by the 10th Century BCE, there is evidence of mass cultivation at Derbena and Isfahan. By 500 BC, the Persians had spread cultivation of the saffron Crocus corms throughout the Persian Empire along Silk Road routes and cultivation in Northern India and Kashmir was formally underway.

How saffron reached China is a matter of debate. Some sources (the Bencao Gangmu) place its arrival as early in the 16th Century BCE and brought by Persian merchants along the Great Silk Road. Other sources attribute the arrival in China as later in the 3rd Century CE and attribute Kashmir as the source of the flower. It’s likely given the skew of time between the two documents that there were multiple introductions of the spice into China with the earliest coming in 1600 BCE or sometime before.

In Greco-Roman times the Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean trade of the spice, and when the Romans conquered and later settled Gaul at the dawn of the Common Era, they brought saffron with them into Europe. European centers of cultivation grew up after the decline of the Roman Empire and the Crusades cut European traders off from important sources of cultivation and trade. First Basel then Nuremburg, and then by the 14th Century, trade centers sprung up in the coastal regions of Eastern England.

Saffron Threads

Saffron cultivation came to North America with the arrival of Anabaptists originally from Eastern and Central Europe who settled in the Susquehanna River Valley and later became known as the Pennsylvania “Dutch”. These settlers set up a profitable trade in saffron in the 1730s and 1740s with Spanish settlers in the Caribbean that earned its weight in gold for the saffron farmers. This trade persisted until the war of 1812 ruined the trade by the destruction of the American merchant vessels that had been used to ship the spice to the Caribbean.

So once again trade along the land and maritime routes of the Silk Road was instrumental in spreading the use of saffron throughout the ancient known world. From Fertile Crescent and Persian roots use of the herb for dyes, perfumes, medicine and culinary purposes spread first to Greece and other Mediterranean countries and then to the rest of Asia, Europe and North America. Highly valued as a drug and aphrodisiac and used by Alexander the Great to heal his battle wounds, saffron’s golden hues and rich blanket of gentle flavor has been used as an ingredient in wine, rice, curries and stews for millennia. It is a spice that has roots as old as human civilization and was an integral part of the early globalization brought about by the Great Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)