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Savoring Diversity on the Silk Road
Chinese Food in the Middle East
Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 5, 24, 25, 26, and 32
An ancient important set of highways traversed countries and cultures and yet had no particular name. Then, two thousand or so years later, which is somewhat more than a hundred years ago, they get one and the name catches on. Since then, we recognize these many east-west trade routes from China to the Mediterranean not as loose land networks across Asia but as if they were one, with their new name, 'The Silk Road.' We do know most of them run east to west and back, but some do go north and south.
All of these routes existed from antiquity, were popular at one point, and were well-traveled. When they were named in the 1870's, their original name was in German. It implied only one route dubbed after one famous item of trade. They were named by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen; he was the first to call them ‘Seidenstrasse’ and his name for them stuck.
A lot is written about these silk routes, a little even before the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). The factis, they remained popular and well used until close to the 15th century. Very little detail but with one unique feature is said, that they exposed people to cultures very different from their own. People, products, and persuasions on them from China, Central Asia and India, the Middle East, and later from Europe, did mix and marry, some literally along the way. So from Han through Yuan Dynasties (202 BCE - 220 CE, and 1279 - 1268 CE, respectively), and probably years pre and post, one should never forget that it is not a single Silk Road but several ways to go from China’s east coast to the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea.
Recently, in 1998 to be exact, Yo Yo Ma initiated a Silk Road Project. This world-famous cellist saw the Silk Road as a metaphor for cultural exchange. Born in Paris of parents who emigrated from China, he recognized its diversity and called them ‘the internet of antiquity.’ He knew about mixing cultures and ideas. He watched his father teach Europeans about Chinese music. He began his life mixing languages, French and Chinese. For him it was logical to start an organization that sparked interest in and connected peoples, places, and cultures. He wanted to coalesce diverse music from China to the Mediterranean the same way the Silk Road dove into diversity. He knew it was where people did meet, mingle, and mix. He wanted to recreate that.
We also thought to savor the delicious diversity that was on the Silk Road and understand when and why it existed. As we do that, we wonder why as early as the second century BCE, diverse food cultures connect places such as Rome with Han China and trade in goods but still remain rather ignorant of each other. These days, many are still ignorant of where, why, and which foods were traded on these multi-cultural meandering trade routes; even ignorant of which goods came from where.
On the western edge, China was experiences border skirmishes. These put the Empire in danger and made the emperor pay attention to his western neighbors. At that time, he and his generals notice that on this western front nomads and military folk ride very fast horses. How they envied them and wanted to acquire some. They did capture some belligerent attackers from Central Asia who, while in prison, speak about kingdoms beyond the western mountains and about these speedy horses. This peaks their interest and raises their curiosity even more. It leaves them wondering what lays beyond. They cogitate about what use they might make of things and people there besides the speedy horses, and Emperor Wudi takes action.
He sends an emissary to see how he might take advantage of this western flank. Unfortunately, he does not learn too quickly because the chap he sends, Hang Qian, is captured and thrown into prison. There, he languishes for ten years. Eventually, he does escape, but unfortunately for him is captured again. It takes another three years until he manages to escape again and can report to the emperor. He brings no alliances as his ruler had hoped for, but does tell more tales, and he suggests ideas for trade. He also comes back with many treasures including grape seeds and how to make wine from their fruit, and alfalfa to feed the swift horses. Perhaps he thought that this feed made them speedy.
Calling them 'heavenly horses' the Emperor knows he has to have them, and quickly. So he instructs General Li Kuang-li to do what he can and bring many back by force, if necessary. The General succeeds and in a matter of months comes back with thirty of them. He also opens trade routes that put portions of what later becomes the Silk Road under Han control.
It is this that makes silk accessible to the west, and traders are delighted with this valuable commodity. They try to learn how to make this coveted fabric, but can not. The emperor makes sure it remains a closely guarded palace secret. Trading is the only way to acquire it and people want lots of it. But silk is not the only thing that travels on these routes. Central Asia trades their beloved flat bread and other foods, too. In addition, the Chinese learn how to capture and raise sheep, and how to roast or grill these savory animals. There are other transfers of culinary commodities such as various rices, many spices, and other foods and beverages.
This diversity of foods and goods expands China’s larder. Many new foods come into their country. Others go out. Rice, for example, goes to Persia and other Central Asian countries. Spices and culinary techniques move back and forth along with transfers of other foods to and from places such as those now called Kazakhstan, Turkestan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Moving east or west were fruits, vegetables, all sorts of animal foods, many herbs that accompanied the spices, and how to prepare each of them. These early years on the Silk Road expand China’s food supply and its diversity.
During these times, many foods make cross-cultural connections. There is a lot of intermarriage of people and products, as well as the mixing of foods. There is trade in items such as horses, jade, gems, glass, laquer, tea, cotton, ivory, wool, and linen, and of course, there is trade in silk. Religions are traded, too. People learn about and practice all or parts of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Manichaeism, etc. Religions of the Silk Road and other publications are wonderful sources to read about them. Five are below, ask librarians to help find others. However, keep in mind that most books discuss more about non-food items they do about foods.
Eating along the way was done in wine houses, small eateries, and in night- market places. Most were in oasis towns from Chang-an, now known as Xian, to Kasgar and beyond. Travelers and locals are served wholesome food, some of it inventive, most of it different from what they are used to eating. For many, they are served huge amounts of food in the different eateries that specialize in them, more than they are used to seeing and/or eating.
The travelers are often offered different items in different small places. These eventually give way to individual restaurants serving the foods of Central Asia or Chang-an, Sichuan, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Beijing. The Chinese traveling these routes eat these varied foods and when they return home they want them again. To get them, they need to bring ingredients and sometimes cooks home with them. This is how these foods travel and make their way into other regions.
It is interesting to note that on the Silk Road, those espousing strong Buddhist beliefs can find places that feature vegetarian foods. Those practicing the tenets of Islam can find places where pork is prohibited. Caravan drivers for whom neither of these beliefs mean anything, can find large amounts of grilled meats and cauldrons filled with stews, more filled with meats than those with meats and vegetables. Virtually any food and drink any person desires can be bought.
Those who travel the Silk Road can eat a large variety of delicious though different foods. They are adventurers and not ordinary folk, so it is assumed they are adventurous eaters. The caravan drivers, merchants, nomads, and military sorts have lots to choose from. The caravan drivers need teams of assistants to watch their hundreds and hundreds of two hump Bactrian camels, tied head to tail. They also need assistance when they lead their horses, donkeys, and smaller beasts of burden, even when their numbers are less. They need staff both to watch and feed the animals and make foods to feed themselves.
The animals go single file over mountain passes and through the deserts and carry goods, spices, foods, medications, and beverages strapped to their bodies. These are all for sale. They also carry food and water for themselves. This is hard work, the amount of food needed to feed them is considerable. Because of their burden, it is not uncommon to change the animals often. Few of them or their drivers make the trip end to end. Most go from one town to another where products and animals can be traded. Some caravan tenders are also exchanged at these trading towns.
When they come to the towns, the caravan drivers sell or exchange their goods and they take on more provisions. They make their way to or fro loaded with cash and things they can sell at the next stop. Some goods have a better chance of going end to end than those who buy and sell them. A few people do make the long, arduous, dangerous journey. Some need people to lead them safely from one destination to another.
It is interesting to note that as the traders make their way along these routes, some practice their own religion, others adopt a new religion, and some pay no attention to any religion. Believers visit places to pray for a safe journey. Others use religious way-stations, such as monasteries, as safe havens to spend the night. Many, in choosing where to stay, eat foods that have a particular religious bent.
From early writings and from monasteries recently unearthed from drifting desert sands, much is learned about some of these way-stations. For example, we know that there are Buddhists ones that only serve vegetarian foods. Others catering to Mongolian travelers serve mostly animal foods, etc. Those that host Mongolians report serving big pieces of meat and skewers of barbecued yak, mutton, and horse meat.
It seems that almost all of them provide fermented beverages. With their food comes wine, women, and song. Much has been written about this. One drink they have is called cosmos, more commonly known as koumiss. It is very popular and made by fermenting mares milk. Another beverage, no name given, is made mixing rice, millet, and honey. It seems that particular drink can be had with or without an alcoholic kick. There is also gruit, also called qurut which is sour milk and water put into a bag made of animal hides. This particular beverage is not only popular at the eateries but is also carried along the Silk Road to alleviate thirst when traveling.
To go with these drinks, there are reports of sausages made of horse intestine and huge pieces of mutton served with salt and water. Grain foods eaten include millet and wheat flours made into noodles and dumplings. One source speaks of sogur, which are marmots. It says that they are popular with the drinkers as are other small animals, and that they can be had on request; but it does not name what the others are.
We conjecture that caravan drivers and their bosses eat all of these. We read that they like the meat of the larger animals and are fond of grilled liver and entrails. We assume that their helpers eat from a lesser selection, but cannot be sure. While on route, both of them use hawks and peregrine falcons to capture prey. Both eat what they catch to supplement provisions taken along and these are dried meats, dried fruits, and fresh and dried vegetables.
People of different cultures travel together on the Silk Road and probably share their food, thus participating in considerable dining diversity. This is been reported by people such as Marco Polo, an Italian, and William of Rubruck, a Frenchman. The latter gentleman was a Franciscan monk, an emissary to the Chinese from King Louis IX of France. There are many others.
While it is clear is that the Silk Road is not one road nor a straight one, it is less clear who went on it or where it begins and ends. Some literature reports that it starts in Chang-an. Some say it is initially used in the first century of the Common Era. Recent materials challenge this last statement that Chang-an is its eastern-most terminus. Others say that people traveled these routes several centuries before the Common Era. Some of the travelers trade silk and other goods and start further east; some begin on the China Sea at Shanghai, others begin as far east as Guangzhou.
The literature does tell us that some routes are better traveled. Maybe so, or perhaps just more is written about them. The most popular ones do go from Chang-an to the Mediterranean Sea. They go from Chang-an to Langzhou and on to Dunhuang. That route splits and goes north to Turfan or southwest to Miran and meets again in Kashgar or Khotan. One can continue in a northerly fashion via Samarkand and Merv or in a more southernly way through the Baroghi Pass to Bactra. People on either of these come together near Mero, or go through the Khyber Pass and on towards India. If they go though Merv, they can go north to the Caspian Sea or directly west to Palmyra and on to Antioch and remain south of the Caspian Sea. Then they can head north to the uppermost tip of the Mediterranean Sea, perhaps through Edessa and on to Antioch. Or they might go via Palmyra and on perhaps to Damascus and then north to Tyre which is more centrally located at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
Should you not recognize some of these names, keep in mind that many change names over the centuries. It is a good idea to look at the map of main routes; it is shown in the hard copy of this article. There are early land routes and later sea routes. Note how those on land go from town to town and skirt the mountains, considered so treacherous in those times. Travelers need to select when to cross them and the desserts. The latter concerns include traversing deserts with reputations for their legendary shifting sands. They need to consider the weather as they make decisions as to which way and when to go. They need to worry about intense heat and unbearable cold, and everything in between. Besides routes and weather concerns, they have to cope with winds whipping them and their cargo no matter the temperature or the elevation.
Along any of the ways, every one of them is bound to meet peoples of mixed marriages and peoples different from themselves. Some look quite exotic in clothing so different. They see people practicing different religions and eating strange and/or fabulous foods when they water their animals, replenish their supplies, sell and buy wares, and fill their bellies with food and drink.
Food along these ancient trade routes is diverse with Islamic, Asian, and Middle Eastern influences, and all of them impact China’s eating habits. Like weather and safety along the way, they are discussed at outdoor stalls and small eateries poised to feed camel and driver. The drivers adore each opportunity to stop and discuss these unusual things. They discuss those who lost their lives, others who made lots of money, where the best places are to water their animals, and where to satiate themselves and enjoy the best alcoholic beverages.
Aside from these, they chat about the inner Asian tribal folk, and the exceptionally skilled horsemen they saw. They talk about military skills seen at the manned garrisons en route and speak of creative and corrupt merchants and important political contacts in the outposts and towns they travel through. They speak of China’s rulers and how they struggle to control these trading routes in creative manners. They are fascinated that the Chinese leaders develop military skills, arrange marriages with Turkic princely families and with Uyghur rulers, and even make alliances with others in commanding positions.
How long these clever strategies exist is unclear, but the Chinese do make use of these routes for centuries, probably since Hang Qian, the Emperor’s emissary went to stake things out in the third century BCE. His trip certainly did expand trade. It opened China to new foods and new ways of life. Later, the Chinese manage first to lose control to the Uyghurs, and later to the Mongols. Both of these folk take over ruling this region after the Chinese do.
The routes traversed are an amalgam of influences that bring a variety of foods to China. Emissary Qian brings back alfalfa for the horses and grapes and wine-making for the people. What other foods follow; actually many. However, when the Chinese overthrow the Mongols, they feel such a distaste for these conquerors that they discard many of the foods brought in associated with them and/or outside influences attributed to them.
The foods that remain include hami melons, wintermelons, apples, apricots, plums, figs, grapes, pomegranates, pears, chives, and cucumbers. What are discarded are horse and camel meat, lamb and sheep meat--except by those who reject pork and donkey meat. During the Song and Tang Dynasties, Uyghurs foods predominate including mutton stews, grilled meats, and goat head soups. Little of these remain today. What the Chinese keep is use of lots of eggplant, string beans, and onions, but few of the spices known to accompany them. They give up the Uyghur love of some offal preparations such as intestines stuffed with meat, flour, ground walnuts, and egg. They rarely consume the Uyghur samsa or dough filled with meat but still eat lots of noodles with and without sauces, and of course Chinese-flavored dumplings. Only in the minority regions can one still get nan, also spelled nang. It matters not if it is baked in an oven or baked on hot sand, as is popular during Silk Road times and in desert regions. The Chinese, for the most part, no longer drink a yogurt and honey beverage, but they still consume lots of black brick tea. They still supplement their foods catching local fish, but rarely do they grill it as the Uyghurs did.
Later, when the Mongolians are the major cultural force and Chinese food gets heavier with more meat consumed, even more mutton; that too, disappears. While many Chinese do drink mares milk, make dried cheese from it, and consume more alcoholic beverages including the ones made of rice, millet, and honey; these too, have disappeared from their dietary. They do enjoy lots of apples and apricots found everywhere in summer and fall and still enjoy these fruits. But they are not their favorites. They go back to thinking of pork as their main meat with lamb and yak meat consumption is now pretty much limited to the minority populations. Certainly, when grilled or in huge chunks or and as kebabs, these food are not common today. They are rarely eaten for any of China's main meals.
Tea and talk are still found everywhere. Apples, figs, peaches, grapes, even watermelons are still devoured in the heat of summer along with dozens of varieties of hami melons. Before the end of Mongol rule, Chinese use of sea routes for shipping silk and other commodities increase. The ships bring in more foods and those from farther east and west.
In the monasteries, monks maintain their vegetarian diets, many only eating before noon, only drinking after that. They and shaman-type medical men, some from India, prescribe foods for common ailments, and these become popular and called 'Traditional Chinese Medicine' or TCM. One reads about long-cooked eggplant as a nipple poultice for nursing women, and know that this and quite a few other medicinal remedies come to the Chinese pharmacopeia on the Silk Road.
While some say that food along the Silk Road is boring, others call it a fascinating mix of many things. Some consider it plentiful, others refer to it as scant. That is not too different from some relating camels as the beasts of burden while others speak only of horses and ponies, or donkeys. What no one disagrees with is that many food diversities remain, thanks to the Silk Road.
To learn about the Silk Road is to taste its bounty. Try a few recipes that follow, said to be adaptations from earlier foods eaten along its way. Read some of the resources that appear, and if you locate any silk road cookbooks not already reviewed in this issue or the previous issue of this magazine, do advise.
Some suggested printed materials:
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