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

No Cuisine is an Island #1: An Indian Shellfish Curry

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

The booksigning at the Smithsonian went well. Actually it went very well – we sold and signed all but two of the books purchased for the event. I also really enjoyed meeting people and discussing the book with them. I was pleased to see that people were most interested in the book’s message that cuisines are interconnected, and how dishes we think of as cornerstones of national cuisines actually contain ingredients from all over the world.

To that end, I thought that a demonstration of how globally-sourced ingredients were combined for one of my favorite subcontinental dishes was in order. The recipe is for a delicious sweet, spicy, hot and sour shellfish that will amaze you. The recipe and description are followed by an analysis of ingredients and their origins. What seems like and Indian or subcontinental dish has connections to five continents and many more nations. It is truly global, and should be savored by all.

Shrimp or Scallops in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

1 pound shrimp, peeled, rinsed and deveined, or
1 pound sea or bay scallops
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon mustard or other seed oil
2 tablespoons peanut or light sesame oil
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4-5 hot, dried, red chili peppers, torn or chopped
1 large onion peeled, sliced, and separated into crescents
3-4 teaspoons garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup of water to moisten (more if needed)
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon tamarind paste dissolved into 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plain yogurt
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (20–30 sprigs)
¼ teaspoon Indian Garam Masala

1. Shuck and devein shrimp or prepare scallops and place into a bowl with the cayenne pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, cover, and set aside for at least 1 hour.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and when hot, sauté the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Remove from heat and let sit while shrimp or scallops marinate in the spices.
3. When almost ready to cook, reheat oil and add the mustard seeds and chili peppers and sauté for a minute. The mustard seeds may pop as the warm up, so you may wish to cover the pan, and shake to move contents. When done, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
4. Warm the sauté pan with the fennel and mustard seeds up again and add the onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions turn translucent and start to turn golden.
5. Add water to moisten. When water is warm, put in the cumin, coriander, and tomato and mix well. Cook 3–5 minutes to fully warm the spices.
6. Add tomato sauce, tamarind, lemon juice mixture, and salt. Cook to warm and add yogurt and cilantro leaves. Cover and gently cook for 15 minutes. Add garam masala and mix well. (The recipe can be paused here to allow other dishes to finish.)
7. If paused, reheat curry base and add shrimp and cook for 3–5 minutes or until shrimp are fully cooked. Serve immediately with rice or bread.

Now, here comes the fun part. The map below depicts where the ingredients from this dish hail from. Lines terminate only in rough geographic areas, not on specific places:

Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map of Ingredients Source
Modern Shellfish Curry-World Map

The only ingredients that originate in India are black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and they are all in the garam masala used to finish the dish. Important certainly, but in this dish, almost an afterthought. Turmeric may also originate on the subcontinent, but no one is sure whether that is the case, or whether it arose in Southeast Asia and was adopted in antiquity by the Indians.

From South America there are chili peppers, and peanuts in the peanut oil, and from North America there is the tomato, and possibly the cayenne pepper. From North Africa (Southern Mediterranean) there is black mustard seed in the mustard oil, and from East Africa there is the lovely, sour tamarind pod. From Southern Europe there is fennel and yellow mustard seed and from Asia minor there is coriander or cilantro. Onions and garlic probably hail from Central Asia (Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan) because that is where most of the genetic diversity in Allium species is found, and cumin is Western Asia’s gem, which has been flavoring dishes from ancient Mesopotamia to today.

Cloves and nutmeg used to round out the garam masala of course come from Indonesia’s Moluccas, and the dish is usually served on rice which comes from China’s Pearl River valley, but it can also be enjoyed with bread, or potatoes from the New World.

All of these ingredients made their way to India through movement of people and ideas or through trade and conquest. Some ingredients arrived deep in prehistory, and some are relative newcomers which only arrived in the middle or late centuries in the last millennium. The Silk Road was an important part of the spread of these ingredients and in the forging of links between cuisines and cultures.

To some degree, we tend to think of the world’s borders and biodiversity much as we find them today, but a simple exercise like this shows us that this is not really the case at all, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of human history. With apologies to locally-sourced aficionados, eating-locally is a relatively modern concept when compared to the global nature of most dishes.

Cultures combine ingredients differently, but most cuisines include ingredients from places beyond their national borders. Each bite connects us with the past and with the people who often travelled great distances to bring variety home. Diversity is a wonderful concept, appreciate it the next time you enjoy a delicious curry or stew or koresh or bhaji or braise or . . . (Words and ingredient analysis by Laura Kelley; Photo of Shrimp or Scallops with Spicy Tomato Sauce by Celeste Heiter; Map of Ingredients drawn by Laura Kelley).

Amphorae for Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – Not Wine!

Greek Amphora – 3rd Century BCE

With the help of DNA analysis, scientists are getting a present-day look at centuries-old trade in the Mediterranean. Such studies may help debunk some long-held assumptions, namely that the bulk of Greek commerce revolved around wine.

During the fifth through third centuries B.C., the Mediterranean and Black seas were major thoroughfares for ships loaded with thousands of amphorae, thought from their shape to contain wine. But only recently have researchers peered through the lens of 21st century genetics to identify the actual remnants of the jars’ long-disappeared cargo.

Analyses of DNA fragments from the interior of nine jars from Mediterranean shipwrecks now reveal various combinations of olive, grape, Lamiaceae herbs (mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage), juniper, and terebinth/mastic (genus Pistacia). General DNA targeting analyses also reveal the presence of pine (Pinus), and DNA from Fabaceae (Legume family); Zingiberaceae (Ginger family); and Juglandaceae (Walnut family).

The findings, reported in an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 39, Issue 2, February 2012, Pages 389-398), suggest that the ancient Greeks produced and traded a wide range of foods. The economy of the time was much more sophisticated than previously thought, says Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who coauthored the work with biologist Maria Hansson of Lund University in Sweden and colleagues at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism.  Some samples already await analysis and further studies are planned.

With this new information, scientists could reconstruct a more accurate picture of the crops being grown and the products changing hands when the world’s first complex economies were getting under way, possibly gaining clues to the agriculture, technologies, art and geopolitics that played into daily life. (Words by Laura kelley; Photo borrowed from

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).

Take Two Curries and Call Me in the Morning #2

Once again, its time to look at some of the health benefits of curries and their constituent ingredients. Like the previous post that extolled the medicinal virtues of turmeric, marigold, coriander, black onion seed and bay leaves, this post will look at the uses of cumin, black cumin, cardamom, black cardamon and fenugreek both in the kitchen and in the armamentarium of treatments used by doctors and pharmacists around the world. Modern scientific research is also cited to discuss the antimicrobial, antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects of these herbs and spices.


Cumin seeds (fruits), also known as Cuminium cyminium has been known for its culinary and medicinal uses since antiquity. Called kamunu in Akkadian, the spice was widely used in ancient Mesopotamia and spread to the rest of the world from its origins in Western Asia. In traditional medicine it is used as an anti-inflammatory to treat a wide variety of ailments from stomach upsets to colds, asthma and fever, but modern science is finding that it has powerful antimicrobial properties as well. Recent research has shown that it can be used to inhibit the growth of bacteria on food as well as an inexpensive adjuvant for oral fungal disease. J. Appl Microbiol. 2011 Jan 12.1365-2672; J. Med Assoc. Thai 2010 Dec; 93 Suppl 7:S227-35; and Indian Dent Res. 2010 Jul-Sep;21(3):334-6.)

Black Cumin Seeds

Black Cumin

Often confused with black onion seeds in the literature, black cumin Bunium persicum is the earthy, smoky spice that is unrelated to cumin. It’s scimitar-shaped seeds, use of which first arose in Central Asia or Northern India are used in traditional medicine in Western, Southern and Central Asia to treat a wide variety of inflammatory conditions from colic and other digestive illness to irregular menstrual periods. Modern science is finding black cumin useful in reducing pain and has shown antioxidant and free-radical scavenging activity in vitro. (Pharm Biol. 2011 Feb;49(2):146-51. Epub 2010 Oct 13; Pak J Pharm Sci. 2010 Jul;23(3):300-4.)


Cardamom is not just for coffee, curries and desserts anymore! Green cardamom, also known as Elettaria cardamomum hails from the southern Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka and has been traded and used as a culinary spice for millennia. Cardamom is broadly used in South Asia to treat infections in teeth and gums, to prevent and treat throat troubles, congestion of the lungs and pulmonary tuberculosis, inflammation of eyelids and also digestive disorders. It also is used to break up kidney stones and gall stones, and was reportedly used as an antidote for both snake and scorpion venom. Recent research is also uncovering that the phytochemicals in cardamom have antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties. Other research has found that cardamom can reduce blood pressure in stage 1 hypertensive individuals as well. (Pak J Biol Sci. 2010 Apr 1;13(7):340-3; Recent Pat Food Nutr Agric. 2010 Jun;2(2):166-77; Indian J Biochem Biophys. 2009 Dec;46(6):503-6.)

Black Cardamom

Black Cardamom

Despite the similar name, black cardamom, the large, dark, smoky flavored seed, Amomum subulatum, is only distantly related to green cardamom. Medicinal and culinary use of black cardamom arose in Nepal and the Himalayas and spread into Eastern Asia and Northern India from there. A distinct subspecies of black cardamom is cultivated and used in northern China and is used throughout Eastern Asia to treat a wide variety of digestive ailments, malaria and enlarged spleen of other causes. Recent work is showing that is has powerful metal-chelating and antioxidant properties, and can both prevent superoxide generation as well as scavenge them once they arise (Biofactors. 2007;31(3-4):219-27; Biofactors. 2007;29(2-3):147-57.).


Fenugreek is an ancient spice used in medicine and in the kitchen from Europe to China. Use of Trigonella foenum-graecum probably started in the Eastern Mediterranean, but its use is so ancient and so broad that it is difficult to determine its origin. Like cilantro, both the leaves and the seeds are widely used both in the kitchen and out. Traditionally used to increase the flow of milk in lactating women, it also has uses as a general anti-inflammatory and is used in Chinese medicine to increase kidney health. Modern science is confirming the benefits of these traditional uses as well as identifying new uses for the herb such as pancreatic a-amalayse inhibition (anti-diabetes) and as a promoter of male sexual health. (BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Jan 20;11:5; Phytother Res. 2011 Feb 10.3360).

1001 Tales from the Spice Trade: Cinnamon

We take so much for granted these days. Almost every household cupboard has ground cinnamon or cinnamon sticks in them. Mass produced cinnamon is cheap and readily available at almost every market and even higher quality cinnamon sticks from the far reaches of the globe are accessible and relatively affordable via the internet. In times past, however, spices were rare and expensive and significant portions of household income were spent on them for their medicinal and nutritive qualities and well as for the maintenance of one’s social standing through conspicuous spice use.

Ceylonese Cinnamon Sticks

For Greeks, Egyptians, and others in the ancient world, spices came from far-away places. The men who gathered them risked their lives to do so, and their bravery was compensated for by high demand and high price for their sometimes intermittent supply of spice. As early as the 5th Century BCE, Herodotus wrote in his Histories that the “Arabians” obtained cassia by traveling to the shores of a great lake and gathering cassia on the shores. However, the shores were patrolled by a huge bat-like, winged creatures which screeched horribly and attacked the spice gatherers. To protect themselves from the creatures, the spice gatherers covered their bodies and their faces with the hides of oxen and other skins leaving only holes for the eyes. Dangerous and hot work – to harvest a rare bark.

Another legend related by Herodotus is that cinnamon came from the land of Bacchus. Great birds were said to collect branches of cinnamon and make their nests with it. The nests were constructions dappled with mud and affixed to sheer cliff faces. Still more wonderful was the mode in which they collected the cinnamon. The “Arabians” cut meat and joints from their beasts of burden such as oxen and asses and place near the nests to lure the birds from their nests. Herodotus tells us that the cinnamon gatherers withdrew to a distance and allowed the birds to swoop down and seize pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests. The nests, not being able to support the weight broke off and fell to the ground, whereupon the Arabians returned and collected the cinnamon for sale abroad.

Cinnamon – Botanical Print

Legends like these abounded for centuries. In the 4th Century BCE, Theophrastus tells us in his Enquiry into Plants ( IX v. 1-6) that cinnamon and cassia came from bushes with many branches that grew in deep glens and that in these there are numerous snakes which have a deadly bite which guarded the bushes. The men who harvested the bark and branches protected their hands and feet from the snakes and when they were through they left one portion of the harvest behind for the sun in gratitude for being spared from the snakes. The portion left for the sun was said to ignite spontaneously and perfume the air with a sweet incense as the gatherers departed the glens.

Still other legends tell of flying snakes guarding cinnamon trees and gatherers having to burn noxious incense to chase the snakes away and gather the bark in safety.

The wonderful thing about all these legends is that they are not just accidental tales from the active imaginations of traders and travelers. They are deliberate attempts to drive the price of commodities as high as possible by making the collection of cinnamon and cassia sound very dangerous and difficult to do.

An interesting aside is that what we call cinnamon (which is either true cinnamon or cassia or a blend of the two spices) is not what traders and merchants in the ancient world would have considered cinnamon. Long ago, cinnamon was thought to be the whole branch – wood and inner and outer bark – with the delicate newer growth considered of higher quality than the wood and bark close to the roots of the tree. The bark devoid of inner wood was called by another name (often cassia). Eventually, the whole branch fell out of commercial trade and the bark only became known as cinnamon.

Today, a number of different species of Cinnamomum tree are cultivated and sold as cinnamon. There is Cinnamomum verum – the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka that cultivates only the inner bark and was traded along the early silk road; C. burmanni which is Indondesian cinnamon; C. loureiroi or Saigon cinnamon and lastly, C. aromaticum or Chinese cinnamon which uses all layers of bark and has a more harsh flavor than Ceylonese cinnamon. Medicinal cinnamon is the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka, not cassia from China and Southeast Asia which can have hepatotoxic effects when taken in medicinal doses.

So next time you use cinnamon or cassia to flavor a sweet treat or to make a savory Asian curry or stew, think on the dark and dangerous (and fictional) tales of the ancients who gathered these spices along the silk road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Plate of Cinnamomum varum Kohler, and Photo of Cinnamon sticks from Wikimedia)

The Silk Road Roots of the Age of Exploration

I’ve written a lot about the participation of Asian nations in Silk Road trade, but what I haven’t considered enough is the effect of the Silk Road on Europe. The Silk Road and its spice trade played important parts in shaping early modern Europe, and it was no less than the price of pepper, cinnamon and cloves in the mid-fifteenth century that forced the Portuguese and the Spanish to the seas to find a route to Asia – kicking off the European Age of Exploration. A route to Asia that didn’t involve the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, that is.

Beginning with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Muslim traders controlled both of the major sea ports that brought Silk Road goods into Europe – Cairo and Constantinople and were soon to wrench Kaffa away from the Genoese twenty-two years later. With the control of all three ports, the traders and their financiers started charging higher and higher overhead fees for the passage of goods, which drove up the cost of goods to European consumers. There may have been a bit more than profiteering going on as well, because the higher import fees were being levied on the Christians who had unsuccessfully defended the remains of Byzantium against the Ottomans – a sort of Silk Road tribute to the victors if you will.

So in the mid-to-late fifteenth century the Portuguese and the Spanish begin funding massively expensive ocean expeditions to try to avoid the Muslim taxes on spices and Silk Road goods. In 1492 Columbus winds up in the West Indies and in 1498 the Portuguese – sailing in the correct direction – landed in Kerala, India. Within a decade, Vasco de Gama, Almeida, Albuquerque and other Portuguese pioneers had negotiated treaties with local rulers and set up trading posts to buy and sell black pepper, cinnamon and other spices at four sites in Southern India. With ports at Malindi, Mombasa and Mozambique in Africa they ran a vast spice empire that moved Asian spices from India, Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific directly around Africa to Lisbon for further distribution into Europe.

Three Types of Peppercorns

The seafaring Dutch were at first the principal partners of the Portuguese in transporting spices and other trade goods from Lisbon to the rest of Europe. Although Charles V was born in Ghent, as Holy Roman Emperor, he increased pressure on the growing Protestant population in the Netherlands – in part a Spanish possession. This caused unrest in the region and helped lead to the Dutch Revolt. Eventually, the Dutch were excluded from their part in this trade, and took to the seas on their own – forming the Dutch East India Company. Within a few decades, this company came to dominate the seafaring spice route, and until its demise in the late 1700s moved two and a half million tons of Asian trade goods into Europe and sent almost one million Europeans to work in Asia.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europeans loved their spices and paid dearly for them. A pound of cinnamon cost 24 pence and a pound of ginger half that; black pepper was about 18 pence per pound. With the average wage of a master carpenter being about 8 pence per day, one would have had to work 3 days for a pound of cinnamon and a little more than 2 for pepper. With 96 teaspoons in a pound, these purchases would probably last for 2-3 months in an average sized family, but still one can see how expensive spices were at this time. Anyone who could afford them, even if it was a stretch for their household income, considered spices a necessity. This was not only because food tastes better with added flavoring, but also to show to others in the community that they were well-off enough to afford spices (conspicuous consumption) and to harness the medicinal benefits offered by spices that I’ve written about in other posts.

The culinary creations enjoyed by the people of late Medieval and early modern Europe with Silk Road spices were well worth it. I am lucky to be married to a man who loves to dabble in historical cookery and am treated to these dishes on a regular basis. Recently he cooked a lamb stew from 17th Century Europe that had culinary relatives in Persia, Uzbekistan and even Mongolia. More accurately stated perhaps, the Persian dish gave rise to the European, Uzbek and Mongolian dishes. He started with a wonderful stock from Hugh Platt’s Delightes for Ladies from 1602 that combined currants, dates and almonds with onions, white wine, mace, black pepper, parsley, mint, bay and rosemary on a chicken and lamb base. The Levantine fruits, parsley, mint and mace make this a sweet treat to build a stew on. The completed stew goes on to add more onions, chestnuts, nutmeg and cloves for a rich, deep, filling stew.

So changes in traditional Silk Road maritime routes in the Mediterranean and Black Seas in the fifteenth century sent the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and eventually the rest of Europe to sea. The Dutch Revolt was the first in a series of struggles for succession that shaped early modern Europe, and the dissolution of the remnants of Byzantium sent the Greeks into Europe and opened intellectual doors that had long been shut – paving the way for many of the innovation and rediscoveries of the Renaissance. A victory for the Ottomans was the first in a long line of changes in the global spice trade that eventually led to the end of the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)

Take Two Curries and Call Me in the Morning #1

Nutritious Curry

One of the food-related trends in modern society is that of nutraceuticals, that is, people seeking foods that will enhance some physical characteristic or another that they value. From foods to boost brain power to foods to aid weight loss, or foods to boost immunity. The quest goes on for the quick food fix, usually as an alternative to a healthy lifestyle.

Some of the popularly published articles touting the benfits of various foodstuffs have no scientific support at all, and simply invoke “scientific evidence” like some sort of magic to support their claims. Others cite the tangible biochemical properties of the fruit, vegetable or substance and hypothesize the benefit that these chemicals will have on a person. Worst of all are self-reported, long-term studies that often confuse coincidence with causality and draw sometimes ridiculous conclusions from analysis of their constituent surveys, such as ‘high peanut butter consumption linked to longevity in nurses’.

In truth, rigorous trials with living animals or people are the only way to really see if any of these foods or their constituent chemicals have any affect whatsoever on immune response, healing or other characteristic in a living system. The reason for this is because living systems are very complex. Just because a food is rich in phytochemicals or some other property doesn’t mean that it will help your overall health when eaten. This is because of the complicated picture of overall health, metabolism, bioavailability and competing factors.

That bit of skepticism voiced, there is a growing body of scientific evidence, largely coming out of Asia, that lends support to the claims that some Asian spices and ingredients have anti-inflammatory effects and will function as immune modulators or that they prevent injury or even speed healing in response to direct injury.

Very roughly speaking immunity is modulated in part by a large selection of chemicals call cytokines. Some of these substances are “pro-inflammatory” that is they increase the number of cells that engulf foreign particles (phagocytes) or increase the fluid content of tissues to help stop the spread of injury. Others are “anti-inflammatory” and have to opposite effect. Others are fibrogenic and help speed tissue replacement (however imperfect) of damaged tissues. Still others have other functions.

In addition to cytokines, we’ve all heard that antioxidants are good things that bind with “free radicals” produced by an over abundance of reactive oxygen and nitrogen chemical compounds and thus reduce the oxidative stress on tissues. Well, another way that Asian spices are shown to have specific health benefits on living systems is in their function as antioxidants.


Turmeric, the lovely root, originating on the Indian Subcontinent, which when ground and dried forms the bright orangey-yellow powder that is used to color curries and stews and to offer a thick blanket of flavor that calms the extremes of other spices and unites them into a gentler whole. Also known as curcumin, systemic turmeric has been found to reduce both acute and chronic radiation-induced skin injury in animals after they received a single 50 Gray exposure to the hind leg. This reduction of injury comes about because the curcumin downregulates both inflammatory and fibrogenic cytokines. The coolest part of this testing, which began in China and is now being continued with US-NIAID funds, is that similar effects were noted when the curcumin was administered both before and after exposure. This means that this experimentation could lead to preventatives AND treatments for radiation-induced skin injury. (Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2006; 65(3):890-898.)


Marigold petals, also known as Calendula officinalis, originated in western Asia and are still widely used in Black Sea and Caspian regions as well as in Southern Russia. The spice that is used to color foods and unite straining flavors in a way similar to the southern Asian use of turmeric, is also used as an ingredient in many teas. Used for centuries as a medicinal herb, modern science is just beginning to find that marigold is also a powerful antioxidant in concentrations as low as .20 micrograms per milliliter.

Additionally, marigold flower extract acts to prevent deliberately induced chemical damage to the liver and kidneys in a dose-dependent manner when given before the insulting injection in doses of 100 and 250 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The mechanism of this protection is still being studied in India, but is believed to be due to marigold’s inherent antioxidant activity. (Pharmacology. 2009;83(6):348-55; Indian J Exp Biol. 2009 Mar;47(3):163-8.)


The spice that is ubiquitous in Asian cooking – whether as a seed, a powder, fresh leaves or roots – coriander or Coriandrum sativum seems to have a multitude of benefits on specific systems. Like marigold, its antioxidant properties help to protect against oxidative injury to the liver when administered in doses of 100 to 200 milligrams per kilogram of body weight in animals. Additionally, when studied in India in living animals, coriander has a strong diuretic effect which may make it useful in the treatment of hypertension. (Food Chem Toxicol. 2009 Apr;47(4):702-8. Epub 2008 Dec 29; J Ethnopharmacol. 2009 Feb 25;122(1):123-30.)

Black Cumin

The tiny scimitar shaped seed with the smoky bite that hails from the northernmost reaches of the Indian subcontinent or possibly Central Asia has recently been shown to protect animals against lung injury. Administration of black cumin – Bunium persicum – in the form of volatile oil was shown to decrease the amount of fibrotic tissue, granuloma and necrosis in the lung after injury. The mechanism of this protection is still under investigation, but might be related to suppression of inducible nitric oxide synthase and an increase in surfactant protein D in the lungs. (Acta Histochem. 2009 May 8.)

Bay Leaves

Here’s a spice with real wow factor! Laurel nobilis, bay leaves, which hail from Asia Minor, are now found widely all around the Mediterranean and were associated with the God Apollo by the Greeks also seem to have some fantastic effects on glucose and lipid profiles in people with type 2 diabetes. Pakistani researchers mounted a small, placebo controlled, clinical trial in which they administered 1, 2 or 3 grams of ground bay leaves per day to diabetics for 30 days. They found that all three doses reduced serum glucose from 21 to 26%; total cholesterol decreased, 20 to 24%; and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol fell 32 to 40%. High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol increased 29 and 20%, and triglycerides also decreased 34 and 25% after 30 days. These results need to be repeated in larger trials and examined carefully for toxicity profiles etc, but as a first shot across the bow, modern science seems to have found a real winner in bay leaves. (J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2009 Jan;44(1):52-6.)

As you can see, modern science is beginning to confirm the facts that subcontinetal cooks have known for millenia – many of the spices in your average curry are really quite good for you. So, as the lines between food and medicine continues to blur – the next time you are feeling a bit peaked, take two curries and call me in the morning. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Nutritious Curry © Mayangsari |

Flowers that have Changed the World of Food #1: Orchids

Monday morning was magical. I woke up in the middle of a snow-covered wood not having realized that it had snowed overnight. I looked out onto the ground, blanketed with a thick covering of pure white powder, and felt just like a kid who had slept with a spoon under her pillow – I didn’t have to go to work today – yeah! One by one my children and husband woke up to a similar feeling of elation and we all set about doing recreational activities as the snow continued to fall through most of the day.

Harlequin Phalaeonopsis

With winter’s green garden turned to white, I turned inward in search of life and found in our home a riot of botanical color bursting forth. Every windowsill had an orchid in bloom and there were massings of them in areas of the house where we have large picture windows. With colors as deep as the wine-dark sea to almost pure white, waterfalls of Phalaeonopsis and Paphiopedliums cascaded down before me. A few Doritinopsis and Miltonia still clung to their precious flowers long past their prime and a couple of Oncidiums lent a sickly sweet scent to the air about them – kind of like someone using too much perfume to try to mask an unpleasant odor.

I set about photographing some of them as I do every year and as I arranged and clicked my way through the collection I began to wonder how I could relate this aspect of my life to the blog. I thought immediately of the culinary contribution of orchids to world cuisine – namely vanilla flavor which is produced from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid – most commonly Vanilla planifola.

Vanilla was originally cultivated and used as a flavoring for foods by the Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples. The first to cultivate vanilla were the Totonac people, who inhabit the Mazantla Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz. In the fifteenth century, Aztecs from the central highlands of Mexico conquered the Totonacs, and the conquerors soon developed a taste for the vanilla bean. They named the bean tlilxochitl, or black flower, after the pollinated seed pod, which shrivels and turns black after it is picked. Then as now, vanilla flavor is introduced into food either by mixing in diced whole pods, using ground powdered pods or by soaking the pods in alcohol (now, often rum) to extract the flavor.

Phalaeonopsis – Big Pink Thing

Introduced into Europe and to Silk Road trade by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in the 1520s, vanilla was quickly adopted to flavor breads, desserts, puddings and occasionally meat dishes as well on the continent and across Asia. Vanilla remained rare and expensive until a way was found to cultivate it outside of Mesoamerica in the mid 1800s when a commercially viable method of hand pollination was discovered. Today, most vanilla is produced in Madagascar and Indonesia through the cultivation of the Vanilla planifola orchid which grows in long twisting and climbing vines. Other types of vanilla orchids cultivated for use in foods include Vanilla tahitensis grown in the South Pacific and Vanilla pompona grown in the West Indies, Central and South America.

The ease of growing and extracting the flavor of vanilla caused a revolution in the preparation of food. On the one hand, the flavor was used more widely than it had been in the past, but on the other, floral flavorings that were used prior to the introduction of vanilla were sometimes supplanted. For example, floral preparations like Fiore di Sicilia today used to flavor Pannetone and other baked goods, moved into more limited use because of the difficulty (and seasonality) of its production. Made from combining the essences of thousands of flowers – to no set recipe according to Chef Miles Collins – Fiore di Sicilia was out competed by the stronger and more easily produced vanilla – especially after global production of vanilla began in the 19th Century.

In Asia, vanilla – to some degree – supplanted the use of pandanus or screw-pine to flavor foods. Originally cultivated and used on the Indian subcontinent, pounded pandanus leaves can impart a vanilla-chai flavor to foods and is commonly used to flavor rice, and dessert dishes in this way in South and Southeast Asia. In Thailand, iced drinks from young coconuts with pandanus flavor are popular, and in Indonesia, pandanus leaves are made into ice cream like concoctions. Furthermore, the leaves appear more frequently in sweet puddings or custards based on sticky rice. The Thais use pandanus to wrap marinated meats that are then fried and there are many uses for pandanus flavor in fish and seafood recipes (I have a couple of delicious Cambodian recipes). It is interesting to note that pandanus or its extract kewra is still used to flavor seafood dishes in Southeast Asia, although in Tahiti – a vanilla producing country – it has been replaced by vanilla.

Vanilla Orchid Seed Pods

Today, thousands of metric tonnes of vanilla are produced and globally traded – with Asia now leading in the production. From humble Mexican origins, use of the vanilla orchid to flavor food has spread around the world. So, as you join me in tending to your flowering Phalaeonopsis, realize that it is one of a lineage of flowers that had an important influence on cooking and world cuisines as its travelled The Silk Road. (Words and photographs by Laura Kelley)