For thousands of years, the East and West remained a mystery to one another. But the birth of the Silk Road acted as a bridge that allowed people to share ideas and heritage, feeding the people culturally and literally.
The Silk Road is as much a story about food as it is about travel across an ancient trade route. Meals we eat today bear the fingerprints of exotic cuisines that traveled between the East and West across this route.
The Silk Road was not one single path. It was a shifting network of trails and shipping routes that opened and closed throughout history. It began to emerge in the first century BCE. In the East, China had been torn apart by hundreds of years of war until the emergence of the Han Dynasty. Under this new empire (206 BCE – 220 CE), commerce and safe travel became possible across a much larger land area.
The West simultaneously enjoyed a unique period of harmony. Expansion by Alexander the Great led his Greek Empire deep into central Asia by the mid-third century BCE. After the Roman Empire supplanted it, the conditions were ripe for trade and travel.
But the Silk Road we think of today was at its prime in the 13th and 14th fourteenth centuries CE. The era was known as the Pax Mongolica, or Mongolian Peace. The name was a nod to the Pax Romana — the Roman Peace, the period of stability one thousand years earlier.
The Mongolians were originally a loosely affiliated group of nomadic tribes in Mongolia’s harsh plains. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan — “Universal Ruler” — the tribes united and created the largest land-based empire in history.
It was an era of adventure. Famed travelers, such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, roamed the land, recording stories of their traveling exploits.
However, as the Chinese say: “The Empire, long divided, must unite. Long united, must divide.” An outbreak of the Black Death in Asia and the break-up of the Mongolian Empire ended this period of relative peace and security. The two ends of the world were once again locked off from each other for hundreds more years.
The “Silk Road” earned its name from silk, since it was such an important commodity. For nearly 3,000 years, China monopolized the guarded secret of sericulture, or silk production.
Roman author Pliny the Elder said that Rome lost tens of millions of dollars every year to the East in the trade deficit, mainly over silk. But traders also shared ideas, religions, culture, and ways of life that would profoundly influence each other.
The Silk Road also contributed greatly to the evolution of the world’s cuisine. Wherever people go, they are sure to be united by the one thing they all share in common: the love of food. Fervet olla, vivit amicitia! “While the pot boils, friendship endures.”
One famous legend illustrates the origin of Italian spaghetti. When Marco Polo returned home from China, he described the noodles he had seen in the Orient. His stories gave birth to one of Italy’s most revered culinary traditions.
Further proof of China’s long heritage of noodles came during a discovery at an archaeological site along the Yellow River in China. In 2002, archeologists at the Lajia site discovered an earthenware bowl containing perfectly preserved 4,000-year-old noodles. These early noodles were made of millet, not wheat. They pre-dated noodles in Europe and also Japan’s ramen noodles.
The early travelers from the Fertile Crescent along the Silk Road trade met Chinese noodle makers. The Fertile Crescent is rich in wheat, so it became the core ingredient.
Over time, these food staples evolved to support large proportions of the world’s cuisine. In northeast China, in the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, the famous noodles, dumplings, and steamed bun recipes were all made from wheat.
Rice was often used to pay for the wheat. The use of rice then spread throughout the Middle East, Latin and South America. Even rice fusion with curry grew in India and Japan.
Spices were also some of the earliest commodities traded along the Silk Road. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas simply because he was searching for an easier way to the rich spice markets of India. Although the same spice can be used in different kitchens, how they are used differs depending on the culture.
Historically, the Chinese culinary arts were steeped in philosophy. Traditional beliefs say that everything in human society is an expression of the Tao, or the Way. Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, wrote: “Man follows the earth. The earth follows the heavens. The heavens follow the Tao. The Tao follows nature.”
The Tao is living in harmony with the natural order. It’s the root of traditional Chinese cuisine, suggesting that eating should help balance, strengthen, and restore the human body. Chinese chefs are expected to master what is called “the five flavors”: hot, sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Chefs should blend them in harmony with each other to enhance the dish’s natural flavors. Sichuan cuisine combines these basic flavors to create up to 20 more “compound flavors,” like numbing spicy, tingly spicy, chili-oil spicy, and fish spicy, for example.
The third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, would agree with that ancient Chinese sentiment: “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
Perhaps the influences of the early colonists trading with China, albeit through Britain, brought back more than tea, silk, and porcelain.
‘The Nectar of the Gods’
Tea is one of the oldest and most beloved beverages in the world. Tea was discovered 4,000 years ago, around the same time noodles were first made.
There are many legends about how people first discovered tea. The most enduring is the tale of Shennong, a semi-divine mythological emperor from ancient China. One day he was boiling water in his garden when a leaf from a nearby tea plant fell into his cup. He enjoyed the enticing aroma and drank it, starting this timeless tradition.
Tea was originally used as medicine. Shennong would eat plants and note which were poisonous. When he ate something toxic, he would drink tea to heal himself.
Tea, which became known as “nectar,” is comprised of six main varieties: white tea, green tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, Pu’er tea, and black tea. Each category is further divided into hundreds of distinct types.
Although black tea makes up a small percentage of tea produced in China, it became beloved by the British. It was one of the most traded commodities in the British East India Company. The plant was exported to India under British control, where the flavors of the tea became deeper and stronger.
In China, tea is drunk plain, whereas, in England, milk, cream, sugar, and lemon are added to the warm elixir. Imported from China, the British spread their favorite beverage to all parts of the empire, including the American colonies. Since the 1840s, high tea has become an honored part of daily life for millions.
The Silk Road contributed greatly to the evolution of international cuisine. Though we are not traveling on camels across the Silk Road, the spirit of sharing culture is alive today. Now, more than ever, it is important to share traditional culture and values as new cultural hubs are created in this modern era.
By Nadia Ghattas