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Silk Road Foods, Faces, and Fancies
Food in History
Spring Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(1) pages: 13 to 18
Before the turn of the last millenia and until the mid-1800's, luxuries were transported along many long and difficult routes from Xian to the Mediterranean including silk, satin, other fabrics, rubies, diamonds, pearls and other jewels, rhubarb for medicine, and more. These were tied onto, that is packed on camels, donkeys, and other pack animals; the animals themselves tied tail to head, and led by a few folk caring for them. Most went from Xian or further east to the Mediterranean and on to Rome. These men and their animals went through inhospitable deserts, over high mountains, into flat places devoid of life, and through lovely or lonely oases; and they often encountered bandits.
Those leading the caravans and their helpers did see a diversity of folk who spoke a myriad of languages, wore many kinds of clothes, practiced different religions, or they had none. These were travelers and traders who ate different foods, drank different beverages--alcoholic or not, and had many different ideas.
Unexpected items were found in the tomb of Fu Hao in Egypt, a Chinese Shang Dynasty queen who died in 1200 BCE. There, among her other things, were more than seven hundred pieces of jade thousands of years older than she was, and many, many pieces of silk that only could have originated in China. Hers was not the only tomb nor the only one with these oldest of materials. Another with silk may have belonged to Xi Ling, the wife of the legendary Yellow Emperor; she lived sometime between 2698 and 2598 BCE.
In 1927, an unexpected item was found in a tomb, a silkworm cocoon found at a neolithic site. Radio-carbon dating showed it was from 5000 to 4000 BCE. This did reveal how silk began, but no one paid attention to this cocoon nor at that time did they believe it had anything to do with silk.
These silks and other goods no doubt traveled on the pack animals that went through Central Asia. This road was the travel bridge that linked China with Europe, a route the Chinese called situ. It was not one road but many different ones that went from Chang-an, now known as Xian, to the Mediterranean Sea. It was intended and did get people and goods to Rome, if they were not traded along the way.
These many routes totaled more than four thousand miles, parts of them unsafe for the many who went on them. However, there were safe places along the way in caravanserai like the one seen on this page. Most were about forty miles apart, and travelers, their animals, and their wares could safely spend the night in them locked away from marauders and others who did prey on them.
These were Eurasian trade routes in use long before the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 CE). They went east to west or visa versa, a few went north to south or south to north, and they were used by people and products coming from or going to China. Many, but not all of the countries they went through included, in alphabetic order, were: Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Since then, these routes became known as the ‘Silk Roads’ or ‘Seidenstrassen,’ given that name that did stick, in 1877 CE, by Ferdinand von Richthofen. He was a German geographer who made seven expeditions to and from China between 1868 and 1872 CE.
These routes carried silks and other goods and may have been how silks in the tomb of Fu Hao found their way to Egypt. Historians believed some of the items in her tomb may have traveled there as early as 139 BCE thanks to Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 25 CE). He sent Zhang Qian as his official envoy to what is now Iran, Iraq, India, and Afghanistan and parts thereabouts.
During these times, other foreign merchants went to China, specifically to Panyu which is present day Guangzhou, to trade their wares. The exact dates they did so are not known. Others probably used these routes during the Sung and Yuan Dynasties (960 - 1280 and 1280 - 1368 CE, respectively); some also used the Wakhan Corridor as did Marco Polo in the late 1200s, and/or they used other routes.
The Silk Roads connected many people and places. Some say there were three, others say there were four major ones and many smaller branches. They were how silks and other goods got to Greece and Rome from China, Persia, Central Asia, the rest of the Arab world, etc. They were also the way other fabrics, gemstones, porcelain, and other things went east to west and visa versa.
Years later, people and their goods abandoned these land routes and used sea routes such as through the Bay of Bengal and Masalia, Bombay, Karachi, the Persian Gulf, Baghdad, and Damascus, or they went from Suhar and Qana via the Red Sea and Alexandria. The land routes were abandoned and sea routes became more popular because they were faster, less expensive, and more reliable.
Exact dates and specific items carried on any one or on all of the land routes are not known. What is known is that they were a means of cultural transmission linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, religious folk, soldiers, and nomads, and they provided political and cultural integration, opportunities, and riches as they connected people, cultures, military ideas, religion, politics, alliances, even illnesses such as Black Death.
Silk and jewels did go on these routes as indicated by items found in the tombs of pharaohs and their families long before 1000 BCE. China was the only place and Chinese the only people who knew how to make silk. In those early times, lapis lazuli and other gems went to China and India from Egypt and Afghanistan using the reverse of these routes. We know that because these stones became one of India’s and eastern places treasures of Buddhism.
We also know that Zhang Qian died in 114 BCE as China’s first envoy to Central Asia after he made seven expeditions to thirty different Asian and African countries during Western Han Dynasty times (202 BCE - 23 CE). And, we know that in 166 CE, Persian delegates went to the Chinese city of Loyang and were the first official direct contact from Persia to China.
We know many of theland routes were most inhospitable. Many had little rainfall, little vegetation, many sandstorms, and lots of marauders. We know that some Arabs, Chinese, Greeks, Indians, Persians, Romans, and others traveled alone, others with other people, some with five hundred or so animals. We know they influenced each other, exchanged, adapted, and shared what they knew about art, architecture, dress, food and how to cook it, language, music, philosophy, religion, science and technology, and more. We know they used these four-thousand-year-old well-used routes between China and Europe.
We know that of the many roads one, the Persian Royal Road, was about half the length of any other one, and it went from the city of Susa East of the Tigris River to the port of Smyrna, now known as Izmir, on the Aegean Sea. Used during the time of Herodotus, circa 475 BCE, accounts of it are in the Bible in the chapter about Queen Esther sending dispatches from Susa to the provinces. We know that India also used these routes during the reign of Xerxes the Great (485 - 465 BCE).
Many wonder what were the origins of those who traveled these routes? They were probably a dozen different populations exploring each other, their diets, and their cultural differences; they watched folk eating kebabs, ice cream, dumplings, flat breads, noodles, rice, other staples, and more. While there are recipes at the end of this article to enable folk to make and taste what was probably eaten on these routes, keep in mind they are educated guesses because no recipes still exist from those early times.
While one diplomat, Zhang Qian, did use some of these routes in 138 and 139 BCE, as did Ban Chao and Ben Yong in 73 BCE. They carried silk, gold and platinum, porcelain, bronze mirrors, lacquerware, medicines, and more from west of Xinjiang, and brought back to China seeds of alfalfa, cucumbers, grapes, pomegranates, walnuts, dates, pistachios, and others, they also brought back some food stuffs. When they went, we know that more than thirty different languages were spoken on these routes including fifteen Sino-Tibetan ones, eleven Altaic ones, five Tai-Kadai, two Hmong, and two Indo-European routes.
We also know there was a route that went up the Gansu corridor to Dunhuang and on to the edge of the Taklimakan Desert. We know there was another, a northern one, that went across the Gobi desert to Kumul, on to Kashgar, through the Tian Shan mountains, and to Turpan. We know there was another route that went to Almaty in Afghanistan, through the Fergana Valley in what is now Uzbekistan, across the Karakum Desert and Turkmenistan, past the Caspian and Black Seas, and on to the Mediterranean Sea.
We know there was also a Southern route branching off at Dunhuang to Khotan, north toward Kashgar and through what is now Pakistan, to the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan, through the Syrian Desert, and on to the Mediterranean. Another one went west and south crossing the Himalayan Mountains, some called it the Sichuan-Yunnan-Burma-Bangladeshi route as it went through these countries, on to Kashgar, across the Pamirs to Samarkand, past the Caspian and Black Seas, and to the Mediterranean.
During the early days of these routes, not much was written about them. However, in 1222 - 1223 CE, Yilu Chucai and poet/patriarch Qiu Chuji toured them and wrote about cultural information they learned on them and many things that were carried on them. Marco Polo also wrote about Dadu, now known as Beijing, when he went to China and he told of going on them in 1275 CE. He notes in his journal, there were castles in Loulan, Gaochang, and Jiaohe, and hundreds of caves, grottoes, tombs, and towers, most well-maintained along the way. He reports about a cemetery in Loulan where Siberians, Indians, Afghans, and others were buried. In Hindu Kush, now Afghanistan, some report they saw a huge Buddha almost one hundred and eighty feet tall; that may be the world’s second largest Buddha.
Much was learned from these and later writings including that there were many dry areas, and shifting sands covering and uncovering things seen on them. One such was the Xuanquan Station, a postal service probably in use since Han Dynasty times. There were other finds, some now under excavation, a few probably still unknown.
Food and drink along the silk road varied from Xian to Kashgar. There were many small restaurants and big night markets. People ate lots of meat and milk, the latter in the form of yogurt, kefir, and cheeses from camels, sheep, yaks, and goats. There were also many breads made from various flours, crushed or ground from a large variety of grains and seeds. People drank teas and alcoholic beverages, and flavored their foods and beverages with herbs, spices, grasses, and salt.
Barbecued meats on these routes were cooked on skewers, most were lamb, some grilled as steaks. Eggs and onions were made with cumin, black pepper, Sichuan peppercorns, and/or with chopped vegetables. Some were cooked in bronze ware. Several authors said the foods were less spicy the further west they went. Most were sweet, salty, or plain, and were made in different kinds of cookware. There were boiled mutton dumplings plain or with a sauce made of soy and/or vinegar, some spicy or plain, some were served in soup, eaten with flat breads or noodles, and seasoned with lamb, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.
When in season, traders and travelers ate apples, apricots, figs, grapes, Hami melons, mulberries, peaches, plums, pomegranates, pears, and western melons. There drank tea, green most often, beer and wine, and more potent liquids, too.
Some people on these routes were sent by the emperor to find fast horses, called 'Heavenly Horses.' Some brought back alfalfa to feed them, and other foods to feed their owners. They consumed lots of meat and wheat foods made many different ways, found different beers, traded plain tea for syran, a milk mixture of kymyz made with fermented mare’s milk, and shared noodle and rice dishes, the latter called palovs. These were made with rice, meat, carrots, and onions; and often served in shurpa, a soup made with fatty meat, manti, samsa, and kebabs.
Some traders were Buddhists, Islamists, Jews, Manicheists, Nestorian Christians, or Zoroastrians, who spoke about their religious beliefs. Some built grottoes such as Mangao in Dunhuang. Some saw or may have helped make the terra cotta warriors in Xian.
Most land routes ended in 1453 CE when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west. After they did, there was little availability of spices, dates, pomegranates, and other fruits. Some say this began very early starting with Justinian from Constantinople (527 - 565 CE). He was tired of paying exorbitant prices for Chinese silks and other goods, so he began reducing, then stopping the use of these routes.
Justinian was determined to learn how the silks were made. Before ending the trade routes, he did send two emissaries disguised as monks to steal what were believed to be the worms that made the silks. These men used hollow canes, learned how to feed the (silk)worms, unwind their threads, and weave them as the Chinese did.
They were not the only ones carrying things to China from the west. One traveler, Xuan Zhuang (618 - 907 CE), brought Buddhist scriptures to Chang-An (Xian), and later received permission and did build the Great Goose Pagoda to house the six hundred scrolls he brought back to China in 742 CE.
Xian was then the largest and most cosmopolitan city in China. There were five thousand foreigners living there including Turks, Iranians, Indians, Japanese, Koreans, Malays, and others. Some believe they came there because they heard about Chang-an when trekking the Silk Road. During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), some four thousand Arabs bought land and settled along the Silk Routes.
Years later, when travel on these routes was stopped because Ottomans and others were upset with growing problems between Moslems and Christians, Genghis Khan tried to unify the people, but he was not successful even though he and Kublai Khan were sympathetic to all peoples and all religions. Franciscan friars and others who visited the Mongolian city of Karakorum also wanted to stop this travel, but they had no success, either.
Marco Polo in 1261, went to the Summer Palace, also known as Xanadu. He mistrusted the Muslims, thought better of Buddhists and Hindus, and showed more interest in trade, marriage customs, and military campaigns than of ordinary Chinese. His journal, laced with inaccuracies probably because they were recorded and translated in prison by a fellow detainee, Rustichello of Pisa, who was a romance writer. He intended to use them as entertainment in a volume he was planning to write.
In 1453, the Ottoman Empire did completely close the silk routes and cut off all ties with the west. Therefore, the Silk Routes remained dormant until British, German, Russian, Japanese, and French archeologists showed interest in the 20th century after a monk discovered writings in a walled up library in Dunhang. Before they were found, student demonstrations in Shanghai wanted to bring an end to western explorations because those who found things in China took them back to their own countries, thus stealing and scattering Chinese artifacts in museums around the world.
Nowadays, a railway connects Lanzhou with Urumchi and the border of Kazakhstan joining the Russian rail system to Rotterdam, from Lian Yungang in the Jiangsu Province. It connects Chinese places to Germany making it easier for scholars to search and see finds of those who did travel years back and took things they found back to their own countries. That and Google makes them more accessible to all.
Along the Silk Roads there were eateries specializing in Sichuan, Cantonese, Shanghai, and other cuisines available to caravan drivers and others. There were night markets and stalls where many kinds of foods could also be purchased or bartered.
When the silk roads were at their peak, mutton was the main meat, often barbecued on skewers. There were hot pots and stews, lots of prepared organ meats including lung, liver, and entrails to eat with breads and noodles. These were popular in Xinjiang and elsewhere, as were raw and cooked vegetables, raw and dried fruits, various teas, beers, rice wines, and liquors, and other foods and beverages.
Few Silk Road recipes exist before 1400 CE. Scholars have guessed at some, the few in current cookbooks probably did not exist then. One or two Silk Road tomes written since have been reviewed in Flavor and Fortune such as The Silk Road Cookbook>/i> which appeared in the Summer issue of 2003. However, this book has no author and several expressed concerns about its recipes. The recipes may provide possible tastes of the early times on the Silk Routes, but that is not guaranteed. Should you find any others, do share them. In the meantime, try those below which may have tasted as some foods available on the Silk Roads then.
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