Spring on the Silk Road Means: Black Locust Blossoms

Black Locust Blossoms
Black Locust Blossoms

Spring has finally come to the Central Atlantic and all the leaves have opened out into a sea of green. In our area, dairy cows graze and suckle their young in fields of buttercups and the first cascades of wild roses are blooming on the edge of the woods. This time of year also means that the fleeting blooming of tree flowers is also upon us. My favorites to be had in abundance here are the black locust flowers (Robinia pseudoacacia) that bloom in off-white grape-like clusters. Just pick, clean, prepare and enjoy a bit of nature’s sweet bounty.

I was introduced to eating locust flowers when I was a little girl. My Austrian grandfather would gather them from the trees around his house and make them into pancakes or fritters that he then dusted with a bit of confectioner’s sugar or a dash of honey. The flowers themselves have no taste, but the pea-like base of the flower is lightly sweet and crunchy. They are sweetest when the flowers are barely opened, so if you live in more northern climes than we do, keep your eyes peeled for the blooms and pick them as soon as you can.

Black Locust Leaf
Black Locust Leaf

The trees themselves have deeply crenulated light-grey bark that is easy to slip your hands into sideways. This gives even younger trees an aged appearance. The leaves are pennate, or arranged like feathers around a central stalk and sway gently in a fern-like manner with even a light breeze. If you are relatively confident that the flowers will be pesticide free, I recommend that you NOT wash the flowers before preparing as this will rinse away some of the fragrance and flavor. Instead, pick thru the blossoms by hand for insects or other impurities.

Most European recipes I have come across over the years emphasize the sweet nature of the flowers. Many different nationalities make fritters or pancakes, doughnuts, or if harvest is bountiful, they can be used to flavor custards, jams, and syrups, and other sweet foods. The Italians add a bit of cheese (usually ricotta) to the fritters for an added flavor.

On the other hand, many Silk Road countries prepare them in a savory or spicy manner, or use them to add sweet flavor to dishes that are otherwise not sweet. Some cultures in the Eastern Europe/Western Asia area also make flavored sodas with the syrup.

In India, people lightly saute the flowers with whole spices (a couple of cloves, black pepper, some cumin (not too much) and coriander, and serve the flowers over rice as a seasonal delicacy. In the north and in some areas of the Himalayas, star anise is used as a the dominant flavor. Since they are a wild food with a limited season, the spicing of the fritters or sauteed flowers is very variable. Because whole spices are used, the flavor is a bit milder than if the spices were ground. This allows for the natural sweetness of the flowers to shine through. In an Ayurvedic diet, the flowers are also useful as an antispasmodic and laxative, and poultices of them can be applied to speed the healing of some skin lesions – like chickenpox.

Eggs with Locust Blossoms
Eggs with Locust Blossoms

The black locust is a common tree in China, and is often called ( 洋槐 “yanghuai”), or Foreign Scholar Tree, as both the tree itself and the flowers can resemble the Scholar Tree (Japanese Pagoda Tree Sophora japonica that is native there. Two common ways of preparing them in China are as rice-flour fritters that are then served with a rich and savory brown sauce, or as an addition to chilli-pepper laden scrambled eggs. In the latter, the sweet flowers add both texture and a light flavor to the otherwise spicy eggs.

Further east in Japan and Korea, bunches of flowers are cooked in a tempura batter and eaten with a variety of dipping sauces, or in a “dry tempura,” flowers can be broken off the stem, rinsed, mixed with small chunks of tofu, sprinkled with tempura batter, and lightly fried. Likewise the individual flowers can be parboiled, and lightly pickled (1 week or less) in rice vinegar and sugar and eaten as a condiment or light snack. In Vietnam, locust blossoms are used with mint, chopped vegetables and shrimp to flavor summer rolls which are then dipped in a peanuty chilli-garlic sauce.

So, as you can see, there are many ways to enjoy locust blossoms beyond fritters and pancakes. I hope this inspires you to get out there and pick them during their fleeting season. Since my post only listed a few Asian recipes for locust blossoms, if you would like to share some of your own recipes, please do so in the comments.

Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photograph of Black Locust Blossoms by Fotodietrich @ Dreamstime.com; photograph of Black Locust Leaf from Wikimedia; photograph of Eggs with Locust Blossoms by Laura Kelley.

Salted Eggs Revealed

Salted Eggs Ready to Harvest
Salted Eggs Ready to Harvest

Its been a few months since I put up my salted eggs, and over the holidays I noticed that the water they were in had turned a rusty brown from the spices used in preservation. This meant that it was time to harvest them.

I carefully removed a few raw (but preserved) eggs from the jar. A gentle shake of the egg allowed me to feel the hardened yolk inside the shell, but just to be sure they were done, I broke it over a bowl and watched the solid, dark orange yolk spill out of the shell. A lovely site for anyone into preserving and fermenting foods!

Salted Egg Yolk (Raw)
Salted Egg Yolk (Raw)

There are many ways to enjoy salted eggs, but an omelette of mixed eggs is a great way, and one of my favorites. I hardcooked a couple of salted eggs by cooking them for 3 minutes in rapidly boiling water, and set them aside until they were cool enough to handle. Then I peeled the eggs, and chopped them for inclusion in the omelette.

I beat a few, “regular,” eggs, diced some spring onions, and ground a dash of white pepper.  Combine the salted and the unsalted eggs and stir to mix.  Now, salted eggs are salty. No strike that, they are EXTREMELY salty, so I recommend using one or two salted eggs per 3-4 regular eggs per omelette. A higher ratio of salted egg to unsalted egg, and the resulting dish may be to salty to enjoy.

On the subject of salt, some recipes flavor salted eggs with copious amounts of soy sauce. I recommend caution on this because of the saltiness of the eggs. One option is to serve a bit of soy sauce in dipping bowls as part of the meal so diners can dip a bit of omelette into the soy sauce or sprinkle a bit over their portion. Other ways to introduce flavor is to add a bit of minced shrimp or other shellfish, some minced and pickled mustard greens for a bit of pucker, or some fresh or dried ginger for a bit of sweetness.  Be creative – think outside the salt box on this one – you’ll be happier if you do.

Omelette with Salted Eggs
Omelette with Salted Eggs

Just heat a tablespoon or two of sweet butter in a pan and saute the spring onions and any other ingredients you wish to add over medium heat until they are mostly cooked.  Add the eggs and the white pepper and stir quickly with a fork to evenly distribute the salted egg pieces and pepper.  Cook as usual and, if desired, finish under a preheated broiler.  When done, loosen the omelette from the sides and bottom of the pan and invert onto a serving plate.  Serve with condiments: minced spring onions, minced pickled mustard or ginger, soy sauce, or even lavender flowers. It is especially good when served with a selection of steamed Chinese sausage.  If you have a larger group to feed, you can make this dish along with the Eggs with Shrimp and Pidan for some variety of egg dishes at the meal.

Salted eggs in one form or another are eaten all over eastern and southeastern Asia, from China and Vietnam to the Philippines in the east and Sri Lanka in the west.  (Geographically, Sri Lanka is part of south Asia, but so much of its food culture is influenced by southeast asian cuisines that I’m including it in this list.) The process to make them in the Philippines is a bit different and is more like the pidan-making process than the Chinese method of preserving eggs in salt.  In the Philippines, they mix salt with a thick, clay-based mud and coat the eggs with it to salt-cure them.  Other ways of salting eggs that are sometimes confused with this type of salt-preserved egg are eggs marinated in soy mixtures that make the egg taste salty, but do not preserve them.  (Words and all photos by Laura Kelley.)

Chinese Salted Eggs

Chinese Salted Eggs - Just Potted
Chinese Salted Eggs – Just Potted

I love to be of use. It turns me on to help people and to help them figure things out. To that end, this recipe is a request from a colleague who loves Chinese culture and cuisine and who is learning how to make some delicious and interesting dishes. Earlier today she asked me if I had a recipe for Chinese salted eggs. Wouldn’t you know, I put up a bunch only 6-8 weeks ago and the are about ready for harvest! I am happy to oblige the request, so here it goes. . .

Salted eggs are usually duck (tho’chicken eggs can be used as well) that are preserved in a flavored brine for 6-8 weeks. There are many ways to flavor the brine, but the most common way is to use Sichuan pepper and star anise along with some chilies (and of course lots of salt). A couple of months in brine firms the yolk and darkens it significantly. It also deepens and changes the flavor of the egg and makes it stand out in when used in congees, stir fries with shrimp or more often with pork, in dumplings or even occasionally in soup. As some of your may have noticed, salted eggs were used in several of the thousand-year egg recipes that I featured a couple of months back. Without further ado, the recipe:

6 cups water
1.5 cups coarse sea salt
2 Tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
4 Star anise corms
4 Red chili peppers
12 chicken or duck eggs

Five to six hours before you wish to make salted eggs, bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. As it heats, dissolve salt into the water in batches, taking care that all of the salt dissolves into the water (the water should clear as the salt dissolves). Bring to a full rolling boil and let cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and cover. Cool the salt-saturated water to room temperature.

Clean and sterilize a couple of pint size mason jars if salting chicken eggs. You may need a third jar if salting a dozen duck eggs or any larger egg. It’s fine to reuse lids and seals, because an airtight seal is not required. Just make sure that all parts of the container are clean.

Place 1 tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns in each jar. Then add 2 star anise corms and 2 chili peppers to each jar as well. Then take each jar in hand and tilt it horizontally. Slide the uncooked eggs gently into the jar. I can usually fit 6 chicken eggs into each jar. I leave at least 1 inch of space from the rim to ensure that the brine covers the eggs completely. There will be leftover brine.

Chang'e Flying to the Moon
Chang’e Flying to the Moon

When done fitting the eggs into the jars, place the jars on the counter and fill with brine and seal. Let sit for 15 minutes or so, as the brine begins to permeate the egg shells. Then place in a cold place – refrigerator or cellar/garage in cold weather and leave for at least 1 month.

After 4-6-weeks has elapsed, remove 1 egg from the brine and crack the shell over a bowl. If the eggs are properly brined, the yolk will be firm and oftentimes a bit darker in color from uncooked eggs. If the yolk is as runny as that in an uncooked egg, the eggs need more time to brine. Reseal the jars and leave them for another couple of weeks.

Once the eggs are done, they must be cooked before one eats them. They can be cooked as an ingredient of a dish (as in steamed three eggs) or hard boiled before using.

Variations: There are many ways to flavor the brine. Szechuan peppercorns and star anise are just the most commonly used traditional ingredients. Other ingredients to add include, a bit of peeled garlic or ginger, or a different spice mix. Some people also add a bit of rice wine to reduce the odor of the eggs and to keep bacterial growth to a minimum.

One of the important holiday uses of salted eggs in Southern China is as part of the filling for moon cakes along with red bean or lotus seed paste. These moon cakes are eaten as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival which is a harvest festival that in many cases honors the moon. There are myths told from ancient times of husbands and wives separated by magical elixirs and of women (like Chang’e pictured here) who become part of the moon that are part of this festival as well. But the salted egg with its dark, salty yolk is the archetypal symbol of the moon in Southern Chinese culture and in many of the cultures along the Mekong as well. When you eat a salted egg, you consume the moon and with it its powers of renewal and rejuvenation.

(Words, recipe and photo by Laura Kelley.)

Games of the Great Silk Road – Mancala

Most parents will be quick to agree that they learn a lot from their kids. When you have kids, you cease to be the center of your own life and the lessons range from the mundane to the profound. When they are little, you realize how little they know when they come into the world and how much you, as an adult, have come to take for granted. When they are older, you begin to see fragments of yourself or of your spouse or partner who helped raise them. But these characteristics are not a direct reflection. Rather, they are more like a mosaic. From mother to daughter or father to son the tesserae can be the same, but the patterns that they are arranged in can be very different.

Ethiopian Mancala Board, 6th or 7th C.

I am beginning to pass into a new stage, with a teen and a tween in the house, they are beginning to introduce me to things I have never heard of before. By exploring their interests with them, I am learning things about the world that I never knew. This is quite humbling to someone like me who has always considered herself something of a well-traveled brainiac.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the National Geographic Society to see the latest treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings and religious items (The Staffordshire Horde) that have recently been uncovered in England. Rich, finely worked 24-carat gold with sparkling garnet inlay filled the display cases. Videos to explain the details of the craftsmanship accompanied the exhibition, along with recordings and quiz games of Old English helped to bring the exhibit alive and make it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Endodoi Board – Tanzania

On the way out, we did the obligatory pass through the gift shop on the way to the exit. While we were browsing, my daughter came flying at me – begging for a mancala set, telling me how fun it was and explaining how it was played. We got the set and later that evening she taught me how to play. That night, I learned that the game is played all over the world and has been for the better part of the last couple of millennia.

Pallankhuzi Board – Sri Lanka and S. India

What my further research has shown, is that the Silk Road trade of goods, ideas and cultural elements was probably responsible for its spread – at least across the Old World. From Vietnam and Mongolia, through Central and Western Asia, across Central and Northern Africa and into Europe through Andalusia, the Old World plays this game. It passed into the New World with the slave trade and is played from Louisiana and Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Toguz Kumalak Board – Kazakhstan

If you’ve never seen or played mancala, count and capture or any other variety of the game, it is often played on a board containing at least two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. The number of cups varies across cultures and over time, but the game remains the remarkably the same. The goal is to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent, and there are strategies, societies and in some nations, major competitions in which people play mancala. Our board is a nicely carved wooden set with small, irregularly shaped stones as pieces, but some mancala boards consist simply of holes dug in the ground or bored into stone into which other stones or objects are moved.

Girls Playing Oquan in Vietnam

There are 19th and 20th Century claims that the game is arose in ancient Egypt, Jordan or even Mesopotamia – but none of these are accepted by modern game scholars (did you know there was such a thing?) or archaeologists specializing in these areas. The oldest definitive set comes from Axum (Ethiopia) and date from the 6th or 7th century ACE, but an earlier set may come from a 4th Century Roman-era fort in Egypt along the banks Red Sea. The earliest European set is found in Spain’s the Museo de Burgos. It belonged to a daughter of Abd-al-Rahman III, the emir (912-929) and first caliph (929-961) of Cordoba. The scholar Murray, writing in the mid 20th Century, concluded that the game spread from east to west across Africa and from west to east across Asia – which again points to an Eastern African or Levantine origin.

Importantly, Arab and Muslim traders were probably an important force in moving the game around the Old World. The very name, “mancala” comes from the Arabic verb “naqala” meaning, “to move”. It is not mentioned in the Koran by this name, but must have been known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages, as it is referred to in the commentary to the Kitab al Aghani, the “Book of Songs,” which speaks of a “game like mancala.”

Ornate Congkak Board – Malaysia

Today, the game is played competitively in many Central Asian nations, with Kazakhstan having a national association for their version of the game, Toguz Kumalak, whereas in most of Africa, it is a game to be played while relaxing after the day’s work.  Interestingly, in the New World it is sometimes played as part of mortuary or funerary practices – to amuse the spirits of the dead.  This suggests that this might have been a practice among the Africans who carried the game with them to the New World, although this practice seems to have vanished in modern-day Africa.

I’ve played a few games with my daughter and can attest to the game being both fun and a great way to teach strategy and the consideration of future consequences when deciding current moves. Thanks to my daughter, to whom I dedicate this post, I’ve found an unexpected echo of the Silk Road found in an ordinary board game. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos from Mancala Wiki).

N.B. I will be in China for the next couple of weeks and will blog if I can. Hopefully, I will return with loads of tales and photos.