China: There and Back Again

We returned home from China a few days ago, my mind is still awash with all of the fantastic food I encountered on our combination family vacation and food research trip. We sampled a wide variety of food from fine restaurants in big cities serving national and regional specialties to street vendors dolling out snacks for a single yuan or two. We toured outdoor markets serving cooked food as well as huge, modern supermarkets where locals buy fresh produce and staples as well as fresh dumplings, rolls and breads. I even bought an armful of unusual, local snacks at the Xi’an Airport which included Yak Jerky and Dried Chicken Feet. In addition to sampling and enjoying food, I’ve brought back recipes and food ideas that I will have to reconstruct and share with you.

Hua’s Restaurant – Shimao Mansion

In Beijing and Shanghai, we sampled classic dishes such as Shark’s Fin Soup, Bird’s Nest Soup, Hong Kong Roast Goose, Deep-Fried Pigeon and Stir-Fried Abalone. We also enjoyed a modern take on Peking Duck, called BaYe Duck, that is prepared exclusively at Hua’s Restaurant in Beijing. This last dish is interesting, because it is representative of a new, lighter Chinese cuisine called Beijing cuisine in which traditional dishes are prepared with modern health sensibilities in mind.

Seahorse Tokay Wine

Xi’an was all about local food and drink for us. We sampled a variety of local “wine” which was really corn-based liquor (aka Chinese moonshine) flavored with pomegranates, saffron, ginseng and wolfberries and the strangest with starfish, sanddollars, a turtle and what might have been a lizard. The drinks flavored with pomegranates and saffron were good and had a great flavor, the other two just tasted sharp to me – not something I would reach for a second time unless they had fantastic health benefits attached to it. On the other hand, the tea we had in Xi’an – blooming jasmine, pu’er, and dragon-well tea were keepers that I brought home loose or pressed in decorative tea cakes

Other local food we had in Xi’an include hand-stretched noodles in a rich broth and thousand year eggs as part of an incredible buffet. We also had grilled mutton spiced with cumin, babaojing rice cakes flavored with jujube and jam, and persimmon cakes – all food that arose from the Shaanxi Muslim community.

Dumplings were everywhere – stuffed with pork, cabbage, fish, and combinations of meat and vegetables, and we enjoyed them with dipping sauces or sliced baby ginger and salted cucumber sticks. They also have marvelous “soup dumplings” that are served with straws for you to enjoy steaming hot soup before the cooked dumpling dough. These are made with a mixture of meat and aspic that then becomes “soup” when steamed. We trudged through the long queue in Shanghai’s Yu Yuan Bazaar for an authentic soup dumpling from the source at the Nanxiang Bun Shop.

I’ll be writing about these experiences and more over the next few weeks and I hope you tune in to enjoy the descriptions, cultural significance and when possible, recipes for some of the food we sampled. (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley).

The Great Silk Road

Several readers have commented that they have been surprised at all of the countries that I’ve included in the Silk Road Gourmet and in the blog. Being used to only considering the northern land route from Xi’an to the Caucasus as the Silk Road, some folks are amazed to learn of the many other land and sea routes that actually networked to move goods around the Old World. And of course with the goods came the exchange of religion, culture and food as well. Geographically, the Silk Road is an interconnected series of ancient trade routes between Xi’an, China with Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Caspian and Caucasian states as well as Europe and North Africa. The best representation of the major routes can be found in the picture below.

Silk Road Map

As you can see, the northern and westward route extends through Xinjiang and into Kazakhstan, the middle westward through the Fergana Valley on the border of Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan before splitting into two routes. The westward fork continued across Central Asia and Iran before ending at ports in Mediterranean Turkey, while the southward fork skirted down through Pakistan and met with ships near Karachi that continued across the Arabian Sea towards the Levant and Africa. The route leading south out of Xi’an made a beeline down the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, through Burma and into Bangladesh and Orissa to meet up with maritime routes in the ports of the Gangetic delta in the Bay of Bengal. Another easterly road travelled across north-central China before heading due south to ports in Hong Kong and Guangzhou where it joined ocean-going ships that skirted down the edge of the South China Sea and into the Indonesian archipelago and Malaysia before coursing up the Thai peninsula and meet the southern land route out of Xi’an.

With all of this ancient contact going on, it is easy to see how cultures and cuisines separated by many thousands of miles influenced each other. Fortunes were made and commercial empires built on the flow of goods along these routes. In many cases business dictated politics as we are seeing once again in our own time with the recently renegotiated relationship between Taiwan and mainland China.

One surprise to most people is the extent that Eastern Africa participated in trade with maritime routes stretching all the way down past Sudan and the horn of Ethiopia to Mogadishu, Somalia. The shape of the and political structure of the world today is not the same as it was in times past and the deserts of today with studded with herding villages and encampments of bandits were great kingdoms with important goods to contribute to sell on the globalized market that was the Great Silk Road.

Another thing that surprises a lot of readers is the great age of the Silk Road. They’ve only heard of the Silk Road in its heyday or have learned incorrectly that it was Alexander who started the Silk Road. In reality, the Silk Road had been in existence for almost two thousand years by the time Alexander started to network together the northern and southern land routes and unite the maritime routes with those over land. It began as episodic trade between China and Afghanistan exchanging Chinese jade for Afghan lapis lazuli and grew from there to include more regular trade, more countries and a wider variety of goods. Almost 1000 years before Alexander, special platoons of Chinese soldiers patrolled the northern route form Xi’an almost to the shores of the Caspian to help ensure the safe passage of goods.

Thinking about this swirl of history leads me to contemplate the beauty of impermanence. Mali’s now dusty Timbuktu was only a few hundred years ago, one of the great centers of learning in the Muslim world and would-be scholars flocked there to study and especially to read the law with learned clerics. So the fortunes of families rise and fall as well, and the family of hard working but uneducated laborers that I was born into has an ancestor who ruled part of Europe in the 15th century and his portrait still hangs in the Louvre.

We try, faultily of course, to hang on to things and enforce a false permanence on our lives, our families and our possessions – as if to prove to ourselves that we are in control – when we are not. One of my favorite story lines along the lines of this theme is mentioned off-handedly in the wonderful movie: On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever. Its about the wealthy businessman who is desperately trying to discover his future incarnation – so that he can bequeath his money and estate to himself. Ahh human fraility!

Kalachakra Sand Mandala

I remember watching a group of monks, painstakingly build an intricate and colorful mandala across a series of days. A few grains of sand here, another few grains in a different color there until a stunning geometric latticework lay before them in brilliant technicolor. Words, shading, mythological creatures all incorporated into a vision of an orderly cosmos. At the end of the creation and after many prayers and chants they carried the panel it rested on down a steep stone stairway carved in a slanted rockface. In my mind I can still see the wisps of colored sand flying off the surface to be carried by the wind into heaven. When they reached the base of the steps, they tilted the board and abruptly poured the remaining sand into the river below. Even though I knew the outcome and meaning of the ritual beforehand, I still felt a profound sense of loss and shock at seeing such beauty thrown away. Seeing the monk’s happiness at the completion of the ritual tempered my western negativity a bit and made me feel a bit more sanguine about the passage of time and how it shapes our lives.

So, when you travel or read about other lands, remember always that there is something that came before the present. Even if you don’t know what that something is, just know that it is there. The Great Silk Road is the unseen force that has shaped many of the cuisines of the Old World and is the reason why there are so many southeast Asian ingredients in Sri Lanka’s cuisine or why the Persian and Arab influences in Christian Armenias specialities sing a different cultural tune. So, as you cook and eat your way around the Silk Road, appreciate the history, breathe it in, because like a hidden hand, it has shaped everything you see today. (Words by Laura Kelley, Image from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1.)