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Silk Road Culinary Influences

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(4) pages: 25 to 28

China no doubt adds foods or beverages seen or tasted when traveling along the roads latter dubbed the ‘Silk Roads’. They may have come from places they knew not whose foods they savored on the way, to or from China. Maybe they encountered them at one of the many night bazaars or caravanserai they visited along the way. At them they could be avoiding thieves or others with similar thoughts in mind. These foods might be from the Middle East or from Central Asia, maybe a ‘stan’ country such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, or Kazakhstan.

You can read about some of these foods in articles in earlier issues of Flavor and Fortune, such as in the Summer Volume 10(2) in 2003,in Volume 13(4) in 2006, or in Volume 22(1) in 2015. These had more than ten recipes, and most brought letters to the editor complimenting the articles or the recipes, or both. In issues titled ‘Savoring Diversity on the Silk Road,’ ‘Eating on the Silk Road,’ or ‘Silk Road Foods, Faces, and Fancies.’

Many were dishes new to the Chinese including renditions of lamb dishes and other meats. Those traveling these routes did see, stop, and sup on the meats, or fruits and vegetables new or known to them. Their names and preparations might be different because they did come from different parts of the world, or maybe they knew of them or had tasted them before.

Lamb was the most popular meat along this ancient route, ‘halal’ or otherwise ritually slaughtered, sold and served by Muslim or other vendors for whom pork, the favorite Chinese meat, was forbidden. The foods came from folk of various religions. National Geographic, in its December 2017 issue reports there could be from almost two billion followers of Islam, six million Taoists, more than half a million Buddhists, close to a million Confucianists, almost fifteen million Jews, more than twenty-five million Sikhs, and/or one billion Hindus nearby or traveling these routes. Many vendors and purchasers could have food proscriptions allowing or disallowing certain foods, some doing so only on certain days. In the Middle Ages, Muslims were more tolerant than they are today, but how restrictive then and when traveling is not certain.

Those observing halal dictums were not served pork, dead animals, and more due to their religious restrictions. Some culinary offerings from their cauldrons, woks, or grills did reflect where they came from and what they believed. These were challenges for purchasers who may not have been able to ask or understand answers about ingredients or preparation techniques.

Many venders did sell barbecued meat on skewers known as kao yangrou along with flat bread known as nang. Their customers may have thought them delicious or disgusting, salty or plain, prepared in or with vegetables grilled, other things, too. They could be entrails on sticks, boiled dumplings, dough called yangrou shuijiao, in soup, or stacked and spicy or in a very vinegar sauce. What ever was served, plain or with tomatoes, eggplant, or peppers, of Uyghur or Kashkar origin, made with one or more fruits including plum, apricot, mulberry, melon, grape, pomegranate, apple, pear, or western melon, it mattered not to the Chinese if they were not Buddhists as long as they liked its flavor or how hungry they were. Some wanted to copy it when they returned home so remembering it was important to them.

Some fell in love with the tea, red or green, that was hot and heavenly, or the beer they called baijiu if cold or not, timid or tasty, flavored or plain, or a fruit juice, yogurt, melted or solid ice cream, or whatever they may have purchased. What did matter was what it tasted like, if they could afford it, if they cared about its ingredients, and/or if they had thoughts of selling it when back home.

These tastes of merchants, monks, traders, pilgrims, or ordinary people along this Seidenstrasse, a name coined later by Ferdinand von Richtofen after one of his seven trips to China from 1868 to 1872, probably broadened their culinary exposure, filled them if hungry, etc. They also may have purchased to keep or resell things they saw and appreciated. These could be new or special silks, nephrolith jade, lapis lazuli, a mummy or two, and other things they saw along the way, some perhaps their first contact with things Chinese never seen before.

While the Chinese army did police these routes, there were bandits at bay trying to outfox the many travelers; some got away with stealing and outwitting General Chao’s army of seventy thousand mounted and foot solders there to protect them. The contacts, if positive, increased cultural and culinary exchanges, ideas, religions, clothing, military maneuvers, even art. The people and products could be those they stole, and things never before seen including caves such as the Kizil Caves, Mogao Grottoes, Caitya Caves, and places for shelter when no caravanserai were available for their safety.

By the end of the tenth century, there were fewer Silk Roads and more maritime possibilities. Some experiences became available by folks such as Aurel Stein, a Hungarian working for the British government who made it to Douhuang in 1907 using Xuanzhang’s seventh century descriptions. He left China with twentyfour cases of manuscripts, paintings, relics, and more than one hundred pounds of written items in a dozen languages including some in Sanskrit, Turkish, Judeo- Persian, and Chinese. One was the famous ‘Diamond Sutra’ which was sixteen feet long, printed with wood blocks in 868 CE, and written six centuries before the Gutenberg Bible. It may have been his most valued acquisition.

Since then, we found only one Silk Road cookbook. By Najmieh Batmanglij, it shares one hundred fifty recipes, made from the ancient networks of trade and travel. They are, she says, from the Mediterranean and from Xian to Samarkand, Uzbekistan to Istanbul, They illuminate some of the foods encountered, some of her personal favorites, and others to follow and open ones eyes to what may have been available on this Seidenstrasse.

She writes of a bread, torn into pieces in a lamb-based soup called Yang Rou Pao Mo probably served with one or more garnishes, and made with many seasonings, dried vegetables, and with lamb. Popular in cities along the routes, the book has dishes known as Braised Lamb, Rollers with Mutton, and others, renditions of some follow. Try and enjoy the fact that all our travels are no longer on foot or on the back of a donkeys or a camel. Most are in air-conditioned buses after staying, at air-conditioned hotels with indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences. The many small eateries along the way nowadays are less small, indoors, or in your imagination. New ones are there, too, so dine on her notions or other things you locate. No need to go hungry nor must one travel there. Just cook any of these or others, and enjoy doing so.

Torn Bread and Lamb Soup

1 pound lamb shoulder, cut into one-inch cubes
5 slices fresh ginger, slivered
piece of cheesecloth or a spice bag
3 scallions, cut into half-inch pieces
3 star anise
1 Teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 piece cassia bark
1 Chinese cardamon
1 teaspoon coriander, chopped
3 Tablespoons Chinese wine
1 pound all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
½ teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 small bundle dried cellophane noodles
10 dried lily buds, broken in pieces
3 large wood ear pieces, crushed
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon bouillon powder
2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar
½ teaspoon chili oil
1 peeled tomato, cut into eight pieces


1. Put lamb and the ginger into a large soup pot, add four quarts of cold water, with the spices in the step just below and simmer for one hour; skim if/as needed.
2. Into the cheese cloth, or a spice bag, put half the scallions, and all the star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cassia, cardamon, and the coriander and knot to keep them in, and add it to the lamb and liquid in step 1; and remove and discard it after it simmers for one hour, and turn off the heat source after adding the wine and setting it aside for half an hour.
3. Mix the four, garlic, sesame oil, and baking powder with two or three tablespoons of cold water and knead until smooth, then roll out thinly, cut into one-inch squares, and boil them for two minutes, then drain and put into the lamb soup.
4. Break up or cut the cellophane noodles, and do likewise with the lily buds and wood ear fungi, and add them and the soy sauce, bouillon powder, black vinegar, and the chili oil, adding them and bring the soup to the simmer just before serving it. Add the reserved scallion and the tomato pieces. Ladle into diners individual bowls, and serve.

Braised Lamb Silk Road Style

1½ pounds boneless lamb, cubed
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground cardamon
½ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 large lettuce or cabbage leaf
10 dried apricots, each cut in four
¼ cup pecan halves
1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 cups hot cooked rice


1. Mix lamb with cornstarch, then toss it well with the cloves, cardamon, salt, and pepper and let rest for fifteen minutes.
2. Put leftover spices at bottom of heavy pot, then add the lamb pieces.
3. Now add the apricots, nuts, pomegranate molasses, and the rice wine in that order, and bring this and one cup of water to the boil, reduce heat quickly, and simmer for one and a half hours, then set aside for another half an hour. Reheat to serve with or next to the cooked hot rice.

Hexi Lamb with Rollers

1 cup wheat flour, 1 Tablespoon set aside to toss the lamb
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
¼ teaspoon ground finely minced fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 cup chicken broth


1. Mix lamb and set aside tablespoon of flour, and let rest for fifteen minutes, then simmer in half cup of water for half an hour.
2. Mix rest of the flour with the salt and the ground Sichuan pepper, minced fresh ginger and the ground white pepper and half cup cold water, and mix then knead until smooth.
3. Roll this out to about the same thickness as thick noodles, brush the oil on one side, then sprinkle the Sichuan pepper, ginger, and white pepper on top, and roll loosely, then cut into two inch pieces. Fry on all sides until tan and cooked, then remove to a plate.
4. Put these rolls, the lamb and its broth, and a half cup of cold water into a small pot, bring to a simmer, and cook until the meat and dough are cooked through, about half an hour, the serve.

Lamb and Cabbage Pancakes

2 cups wheat flour
½ cup and 1 Tablespoon cold water
½ teaspoon salt
½ pound ground lamb
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup chopped cabbage leaves
1 scallion, minced
¼ teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
2 Tablespoons white sesame seeds
½ cup vegetable oil


1. Make the dough mixing flour, salt, and half cup cold water. Knead for eight minutes, adding an extra tablespoon of water if it seems too dry.
2. Cover with a clean dish towel and set aside to rest for an hour, then roll into a long thin rectangular piece of dough.
3. Make filling next mixing meat, five-spice powder, cumin, soy sauce, and the salt, then mix with the chopped cabbage leaves, and the ground white pepper, and spread on one of the six-inch square piece of the dough. Roll it and its filling into a cylinder about threequarters of an inch thick, press it down lightly, then sprinkle some of the sesame seeds on top, pressing them gently, as well. There should be enough dough to make five or six such cylinders.
4. Brush about a tablespoon of the oil in a wok or fry pan, and fry one or two until tan, then turn it over and fry the other side. When tan on both sides, remove to a paper-towel-lined plate, and fry the rest of the rolled stuffed pancakes, one or two at a time; then serve.

Lamb on Skewers

1 pound boneless lamb loin, cut in two-inch cubes
1 Tablespoon ground chili powder
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons coarse salt
5 cloves fresh peeled garlic, minced


1. Mix cubes of lamb with the chili powder, cumin, and salt and refrigerate covered overnight.
2. One hour before cooking the meat, put the meat cubes on skewers and on a plate, When ready to cook, put the skewers on a heated grill or charcoal briquets turned white and cook for five minutes, turning the skewers every minute. Remove and allow to rest for two to three minutes, then serve.

Five-Spice Lamb Chops

5 loin lamb chops
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon each ground cumin, ground coriander, sweet paprika, ground white, black, and/or cayenne pepper
¼ cup vegetable oil or 3 Tablespoons chicken fat
3 shallots, sliced thin
½ pound spinach leaves, stems discarded


1. Toss lamb chops with the five selected spices and toss together.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add shallots and the oil or the fat and stir-fry for two minutes then add the chops and brown on each side then cook three minutes more per side, then remove and stir-fry the spinach until wilted, then move it to a pre-heated platter, put the chops on top, and serve.

Black Beans, Lamb, and Green Peppers

¼ cup fermented black beans, lightly mashed
¼ cup Chinese rice wine
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
3 green peppers, seeded, and cut in wide slices
1 pound boneless leg of lamb cut in thin slices
1 Tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
20 canned gingko nuts
¼ cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
½ cup minced scallions
2 cups cooked hot rice


1. Mix black beans and wine aside, heat the wok or a fry-pan, add half the oil, then add green peppers and stir-fry five minutes.
2. Add rest of the oil, the lamb and stir-fry until brown on all sides.
3. After all the lamb is fried and brown, add the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, gingko nuts, and the stock, two tablespoons cold water, and half the scallions. Bring to the sauce to the boil, add the black beans and boil until reduced by half, then the rest of the ingredients. Serve over hot cooked rice.

Kofta Kebobs

20 wooden skewers soaked half hour in water
5 cloves peeled garlic, minced
1 teaspoon coarse salt
3 Tablespoons minced onion
3 Tablespoons minced cilantro
½ Tablespoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 egg white, optional
1½ pounds ground lamb


1. Soak wooden skewers for thirty or more minutes in tepid water.
2. Mix prepared garlic, salt, onion, cilantro, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, allspice, cayenne, ginger, and the black pepper and gently mix with the ground lamb, and set aside for half an hour.
3. Mix egg white and spice mixture and the ground lamb, shape into twenty balls, and load two of them onto a pair of the soaked skewers kept next to each other. Then flatten these slightly and refrigerate covered for one hour.
4. Grill the skewer pairs turning each pair together every two minutes four times, that is eight turns for eight minutes, then serve.

Lamb with Ground Seaweed

4 to 6 lamb chops
½ teaspoon seaweed powder
3 leaves basil, minced
¼ teaspoon minced fresh garlic
½ teaspoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sa cha sauce
¼ cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon cornstarch


1. Rinse and dry the lamb chops using paper towels. Then mix seaweed powder and the basil and toss them with this mixture and set aside for half an hour.
2. Next, brush them with cornstarch mixed with the soy sauce and sa cha sauce, and let them rest another half an hour.
3. Bring the broth to the boil, add the chops, and simmer about six minutes or until no longer pink, then serve

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