Mantou Across the Silk RoadWhen we think of the Silk Road, we often think of something ancient and exotic. Spices. Traders. A caravan of camels plodding across sun soaked dunes. But did you know that while the silk road’s heyday was a long time ago, it’s influence still lives on in the food of western China? In this blog update, we’d like to talk about finding traces of the silk road today in China and across Asia.
The first thing to point out about the silk road is that a better name would be the Silk Routes, because it was not a single path but many paths going from East to West and back again. Some over land, others over sea.
Even more, the silk road was not a one-way street. Silks, spices, art, cuisine, languages and everything else we associate with culture were eagerly exchanged back and forth. This meant that across the silk road, there was almost a common culture; or there was at least certain items you can find along its breadth.
Prepared foods such as rice and flat nan bread can be found in every modern country that lines the silk road. In China, we eat mantou, or baozi, which is bread often stuffed with meat. In central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus, manti refers to a sort of dumpling stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables.
Dried items such as figs, dates and raisins are all also common. Shared produce comes in many forms including persimmons, melons, carrots, onions, peaches and leaks. And then there are of course all of the spices. Ginger, cumin and turmeric still delight people from Xi’an to Syria.
PomegranatesIn addition to sharing food items, peoples of the silk road also seemed to share philosophies about food. In China, our concept of Yin and Yang in foods (see our previous blog post) is very similar to a concept in Iran of “hot’ and “cold” foods.
However, like we said, it wasn’t just Chinese culture and products flowing west, our food in western China is still heavily influenced by the silk road. From the Han dynasty onward, we imported and adopted all sorts of vegetables such as spinach, onions, cucumbers, walnuts cherries, figs, dates, grapes, almonds, cilantro, pistachios and pomegranates! Can you imagine Chinese food without cilantro, onions or cucumbers?!
Biang Biang MianThe food of Xi’an is a modern testament to the silk road. Xi’an used to be the end point of the silk road and the capital of China when it was called Chang’an (it’s where the terracotta warriors are). Dishes such as hand pulled ribbon noodles, or po noodles, are a wheat flower noodle (also common all along the silk road!), vinegar, soy sauce, cilantro and hot peppers. (Learn to cook in Xi’an with us!) Another Xi’an specialty is roujiamo, a mini nan-like flat bread stuffed with spiced meat.
Can you think of any other foods in China that show the influence of the silk road? Have you ever been to Xi’an or other cities along its route? Let us know on our Facebook page!