Adventurous Flavors from the Silk Road

Don’t let the lack of traditional wine pairings deter you from exploring the spicy dishes of Central Asia.


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To most of us, Central Asia conjures images of craggy mountain ranges, arid deserts and vast grasslands pocked with primitive villages. But 2,000 years ago, this region was a veritable I-95 Boston-New York-Washington corridor for the ancient world, a 4,000-mile network of trade routes that served as the conduit for commercial, technological and political exchange.

The Silk Road extended from China to the Mediterranean. Named for the Chinese silk that was its best-known cargo item, the Silk Road trade included other textiles, perfumes, gems, precious metals, glassware and—significantly—spices.

Cultural and culinary practices were likewise exchanged along the Silk Road, with the cuisines of the great civilizations of China, India and the Mediterranean influencing each other and all those in between.

“I see Silk Road cuisine as a rich mosaic, with each piece related to each other, but each uniquely itself,” says Dahlia Abraham Klein, whose cookbook, Silk and Spice: Recipes from the Silk Road for the Mindful Vegetarian, is scheduled to be published by Tuttle in 2013. “You’ll find different versions of the same dish popping up all along the way.”

For Klein, Silk Road cuisine is a personal affair. She can trace the progression of her family’s roots from ancient Israel to Persia, Bukhara (the Jewish community in what is now Uzbekistan), Afghanistan and, finally, India. Even after her parents immigrated to the United States, her mother, like all the cooks in her extended family, prepared traditional dishes passed down from previous generations.

These were typically one-pot meals that could feed large Central Asian families who cooked communally. Rice was the staple grain, and fruits and vegetables played a major role in the cuisine. To give their food richness and complexity, says Klein, Silk Road cooks utilized spices—not one at a time, but in aromatic, luscious combinations.

“We use tons of turmeric, cardamom and other savory spices,” says Michelle Naklowycz, wine buyer and operations manager at Laili, a restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, where owner Wafi Amin bases his Silk Road menu on the food of his homeland, Afghanistan.

The complex and sometimes pungent flavors of Silk Road cuisine can pose a challenge for wine lovers, says Naklowycz, but wine has been a staple there since the days of the Romans.
At Laili, she suggests big, tannic reds for the classic spiced-lamb and -beef dishes, but prefers whites and light-bodied reds like Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and earthy, tangy varieties from Jura, like Trousseau and Poulsard, for dishes with delicate spicing.

“Silk Road cookery is all about melding seemingly contrasting flavors into an exciting, satisfying harmony,” says Klein, whose great-grandfather owned a vineyard in what is now Samarkand, Uzbekistan. “And isn’t that what you do when you pair wine and food?”

Khoresh Bademjan (Persian Eggplant Stew)

Recipe adapted from the upcoming cookbook Silk and Spice: Recipes from the Silk Road for the Mindful Vegetarian by Dahlia Abraham Klein

1 large eggplant, peeled
and cubed
1½ tablespoons sea salt, divided
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
3 Roma (plum) tomatoes,
peeled and diced
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Steamed basmati rice, for serving

Place the eggplant in a colander set over a large bowl and sprinkle 1 tablespoon salt on it; this will tame any bitterness. Let stand for 30 minutes, then drain and pat dry with paper towels.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan set over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions, stirring and shaking the pan, for 7–8 minutes, or until translucent. Stir in the garlic cloves and sauté, making sure they don’t burn.

Stir in the eggplant with the remaining salt and cook for about 10 minutes, until the eggplant softens and sweats. Add the tomatoes, turmeric, cumin, paprika, cinnamon and pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Serve over basmati rice. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: Curtis recommends either Domaine Sigalas’s Barrel Fermented Assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini or Feudi di San Gregorio’s Fiano di Avellino from Campania in Italy. “I think that the somewhat oily texture of the eggplant wants something crisp and clean to cut through it—fresh, crisp and zingy,” says Curtis. “These two Mediterranean favorites are just the trick.”

Anar Chicken

Recipe courtesy Wafi Amin, owner of Laili restaurant, Santa Cruz, California

For the chicken:
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon minced garlic
¼ cup lemon
1 teaspoon saffron
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and black pepper, to taste
2 chickens, 3½–4 pounds each, halved lengthwise

For the anar sauce:
3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon ground red pepper
1 cup pomegranate molasses

Combine the first nine ingredients in a container large enough to hold all the chicken, mixing well to evenly distribute marinade. Use two containers and divide the marinade in half, if necessary. Cover and refrigerate for 10–24 hours.

When you are ready to cook, preheat an oven to 500˚F. Place the chickens into a large roasting pan and roast for about 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165˚F.

Meanwhile, make the sauce by combining the sugar and 1½ cups of water in a large pan set over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has reduced in volume and is thick and golden brown. Add the lemon juice, salt and peppers and stir to combine. Slowly mix in the pomegranate molasses.

When the chicken is done, let it rest for 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter and pour the sauce over the top. Serve with roasted potatoes and broccolini. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: Michelle Naklowycz, wine buyer and operations manager for Laili, says her first choice for this dish is a Kuentz-Bas Riesling from Alsace. “This is a biodynamic dry-style Riesling,” she says. “It still has hints of the floral quality classical of the Riesling grape, combined with a touch of minerality and bright lime. It is aromatic, yet crisp and refreshing. The acidity in this fresh, slightly tart wine pairs wonderfully with the tanginess of the pomegranate sauce. The floral notes support the sweetness found in the sauce.”

Her second choice is Verus’s 2010 Furmint from Slovenia. “This wine has characteristics of an elegant, smooth Sauvignon Blanc, yet is also reminiscent of a bright, minerally Grüner Veltliner,” Naklowycz says. “The Furmint is bright and lively, with refreshing fruit notes, and an acidic finish. It goes great with the Anar Chicken, as it has the tanginess as well as fruit characteristics to complement the sweet tanginess of the dish.”

Shirin Polo (Persian Orange Rice)

Recipe adapted from the upcoming cookbook Silk and Spice: Recipes from the Silk Road for the Mindful Vegetarian by Dahlia Abraham Klein

2½ cups white or brown basmati rice
1 cup finely slivered orange zest
1 cup brown sugar
1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Pinch of saffron threads
2 tablespoons rose water
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons sea salt
¼ cup canola oil
1 cup split, blanched almonds

Wash the rice in a bowl under running water, swirling the grains until the water becomes milky and any debris floats to the top. Strain and repeat until the water runs clear. Then soak the rice in enough warm water so that it’s submerged by about an inch. Soak brown basmati rice for at least 2 hours and white basmati for at least 30 minutes. Drain.

Place the orange zest into a small saucepan and add enough water to cover. Boil for 10 minutes. Drain and repeat twice to remove any bitterness. In the same saucepan, combine the orange zest, 2 cups of water, brown sugar, lemon juice and saffron, and stir over low heat until boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until syrupy. Let cool, add the rose water and cardamom and set aside.

In a large saucepan, bring 9 cups of water to a boil with the salt. Add the rice and boil rapidly for 8–10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain in a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the rice back into the saucepan and poke 7 deep holes in the surface of the rice and drizzle with the oil.

Top the pot with a paper towel large enough to cover the surface of the rice. Cover tightly with a lid, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until steam appears. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the bottom layer of rice is crisp. (The towel will prevent the rice from getting too sticky.)

In the meantime, preheat an oven to 350˚F. Spread the almonds on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until they are golden and fragrant.

Spoon the rice with a flat serving spoon onto a large platter. Break the crust at the bottom of the pot into large pieces and set aside. Top the rice with the candied orange zest and roasted almonds. Garnish with the rice crust. Serves 6.

Wine Pairing: Charles Curtis, MW, Christie’s head of wine sales for Asia, suggests pairing this dish with either Zind Humbrecht’s Clos Windsbuhl Gewurztraminer from Alsace, in France, or F.X. Pichler’s Loibner Berg Grüner Veltliner Smaragd from Wachau, in Austria.

“With the saffron and rose water,” he says, “I feel that something exotic is called for, and the aromatics of the Gewurz or the lush texture of a smaragd-level Grüner would be perfect.”


Silk Road Spices

Here are just a few of the most commonly used Silk Road spices, with pairing suggestions by Hong Kong-based Charles Curtis, MW, Christie’s head of wine sales for Asia.

CARDAMOM: The new darling of creative bakers comes in pod, seed and ground form. It has hints of eucalyptus, citrus and camphor and is often used in curries, rice dishes, baked goods, coffee and tea.
WINE PAIRING: “Pinot Noir, because the aromas of cardamom are elegant and delicate, and a wine that is too powerful will overwhelm them. I think the equally elegant Pinot is a perfect match.”

CUMIN: Though well-known as a Mexican flavoring, cumin originated in the Mediterranean, at the western end of the Silk Road. It tastes bitter, earthy and slightly lemony, a combination ideal for curries and other Asian and Middle Eastern dishes.
WINE PAIRING: “This is a difficult match, since cumin is so pungent. A full-bodied Grenache with plenty of alcohol, however, could absorb all of that aroma with fruit to spare.”

CLOVE: With a distinctive aroma and a sweet-hot-spicy flavor, clove can overwhelm a dish, so use with caution. It’s often employed in curry powders, hot drinks with wine, punches, fruit juices, desserts and stewed fruits.
WINE PAIRING: “Clove is a very strong aroma, and a Pinot Gris could provide an interesting pairing. The crisp, light versions would be a contrast, while the richer Alsatian versions could match its exotic flavor.”

CORIANDER: In the U.S., only the ground seeds are known by that name. The leaves are known as cilantro. Elsewhere, both seeds and leaves are called coriander. (Some call the leaves Chinese parsley.) Aromatically, it’s reminiscent of lemon and sage.
WINE PAIRING: “Coriander is crisp, clean and green, and Sauvignon Blanc is the wine that most resembles it in these respects.”

CINNAMON: A staple of Western desserts, cinnamon stars in savory Silk Road fare. Its warm, sweetish flavor and aroma is ideal for desserts, breads, cooked fruit, coffee and cocoa, as well as curries and rice dishes.
WINE PAIRING: “Chardonnay, because cinnamon (along with vanilla) is a common aroma associated with barrel-aged Chardonnay, and I think that wines treated in this way would be a logical match.”

GINGER: Pungent and hot, it is used mainly in sweets in the West, but elsewhere it adds interest to pickles, chutneys, curry pastes, curry powder blends, puddings, jams, preserves, beer and tea.
WINE PAIRING: “Ginger is pungent, spicy and exotic. Gewürztraminer is a perfect match—it is rich enough to act as a foil for the fruit, and its own exotic flavors will complement, rather than overwhelm, the natural spice of ginger.”
 

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