Eating along the Silk Route

All human beings seem to love to define the uniqueness of their culture – what makes them who they are. When I was young my mother used to make me tea in her pretty bone china tea pot. This was the definitive connection to her British/Irish roots. Of course, we all know that tea does not grow in England or Ireland and bone china is, not surprisingly, from China. These are not my cultural roots, but our global- historical roots.

The historical Silk Road comprised a series of land and sea trade routes that crisscrossed Eurasia from the first millennium B.C.E. through the middle of the second millennium C.E. The intersections among people from diverse cultures along the way promoted an unprecedented sharing of commodities, ideas, arts, sciences and innovations.

The most famous person to travel the Silk Route is Marco Polo, who, at seventeen years of age, with his father and his uncle, set off for Asia on the series of adventures that were later documented in Marco’s book. They returned to Venice in 1295, 24 years later, with many riches and treasures. They had traveled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km). In the west the end of the Silk Route was Italy, in the east it was China. This collection of routes had been traveled for almost 1000 years before the Polo’s set out on their epic journey. 


One of the most important things to travel the Silk Route was not silk, but religion. Although some of you might think of Buddhism as Chinese or East Asian, it came via the Silk Route, compliments of India. Below is the Stupa at Sarnath, near Varanasi and the banks of the River Ganges where the Buddha gave his first sermon.


Food and spices were the other important commodity. Pepper, cinnamon, saffron, salt, grains, cloves, nutmeg, as well as many, many others were common commodities alongside religion.

Food is one of the innovations that traveled along the Silk Road and was adapted by different countries. Noodles are known in almost every country along the Silk Road. Where did pasta originate? Food historians say probably in Persia. Flat bread known as pita in Armenia became puri in India. Chinese dumplings and stir-fry rice are similar to Italian ravioli and risotto. –

There is an idea that risotto is inherently Italian, but rice was introduced into Italy only in the late 14th Century. I had the immense pleasure of enjoying an Aloo Papdi Chaat in Chennai, but potato’s come from South America, and the crunchy Papdi are made from wheat and originate in Gujarat in Northern India.

Whether our authentic culture, as it is expressed through our religious beliefs, customs, food and dress, is indigenous or imported has been a topic at many a dinner table and the cause of quite a few wars. In this series I’m planning to take a look at our imported histories; the cultural aspects of ourselves which we have begged, borrowed, stolen and otherwise procured from someone or somewhere else. Starting with Italy, we’ll follow the culinary path of the Silk Route, overland and over sea, to China. Let’s begin with a dish that might well have been an inspiration for the Polo’s to start on their epic journey.

Lemon Saffron Risotto

1 ¼ cup Arborio rice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sweet onion, finely diced
¾ cup dry white wine
5 ½ cups chicken stock
15 saffron threads (or a pinch) steeped in ½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon zest (2 medium lemons)
2 ½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ cup Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup Romano cheese
3 slices of prosciutto – cooked until crisp in microwave for garnish

Boil water and add to saffron threads to steep.Heat all of the stock in a large saucepan.You will be adding warm stock to the rice in small increments.Place 3 slices of prosciutto on a microwave safe dish and cook until crisp. Place on paper towel to cool, and then break into pieces. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons butter in large saucepan over moderate heat. Add 1 cup of onion and cook for 10 minutes. Add garlic and rice stirring until coated, cook for 4 minutes. Increase heat under rice/onion mixture and add in wine.

When the mixture bubbles, reduce heat to medium, simmer until wine is absorbed. Keep the rice at a hot temperature as you continue to add warm stock 2 ladles at a time, stirring until liquid is all absorbed before each new addition of stock. Pour in the saffron infused water, the lemon juice, lemon zest with the final amount of stock and stir until absorbed. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the cheeses. Stir well and season with salt and pepper.

Serve with sprinkles of Parmesan and crispy prosciutto.


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