Silk Route: Recipe for a Culture

During the time that our fictitious person might have left Rome to travel along the Silk  Route, he would have had a choice of ways to get to China – The overland route or the sea route. The sea route would have taken him (or her) to ports in Southern India, then controlled by the Vijayanagara Empire.

The empire’s economy was largely dependent on agriculture. Sorghum (jowar), cotton and pulse legumes grew in semi arid regions, while sugarcane, rice and wheat thrived in rainy areas. Betel leaves, areca (for chewing), and coconut were the principal cash crops… Spices such as turmeric, pepper, cardamom and ginger grew in the remote Malnad hill region … The empire’s capital city was a thriving business centre that included a burgeoning market in large quantities of precious gems and gold.

Traders of many nationalities (Arabs, Persians, Guzerates, Khorassanians) settled in Calicut, drawn by the thriving trade business. Ships sailed to the Red Sea ports of Aden and Mecca with Vijayanagara goods sold as far away as Venice. The empire’s principal exports were pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, myrobalan, tamarind timber, and anafistula.

We can think of foreign influences in India as Northwest and Southeast, with the Northeast assimilating influences via the overland route and the Southeast assimilating influences via the sea route. The difference, as we can see from the maps below, is that the overland route tended to extend foreign empires, while the sea route tended to support indigenous empires.

My friends always talk about this imaginary “Indian” culture (and I wonder what they might point to as definitive that would be at least statistically valid in all of  India) and have debates over the “into India” and “out of India” theory. It seems that we cannot really think of India completely indigenous (because even the indigenous empires were heavily influenced by outside forces), but must consider it in a larger context with either Western (via Greek, Roman and Aryan) influences or as Eastern (Via china and south pacific) influences. It also seems to be closer to the truth to throw out the idea of an “Indian” culture all together and see India as a kind of pervious membrane, both creating and assimilating cultures and ideas over centuries to create it’s rich and complex flavor. An even better metaphor would be to see Indian culture not as a complete entity, like an Eggplant, but more like a dish…or, better yet, a banquet.

Since India has such a long history, with so many dynasties with names virtually unpronounceable by the western tongue, I’ve included some pics to help you out. Here is India around 1 CE when the Satavahana Empire was in the South and the Kushans (remember them) came down from the Northwest:

kushan 1st-3rd

and around 266 CE when the Silk Route between the Roman Empire and China was going strong. The money and trade of the overland Route made for a strong and vast empire – The Maurya:


Here is India about 800 years later. This is the Chola empire growing from Silk  Route trade with China. Remember those Chinese Treasure ships? The power and wealth of China under the Song Dynasties was growing during this period:

chola empire

And  Across the overland route to China those darn Mongols and Muslims were kicking ass and taking names, making trade expensive. Mean while, in Europe people were still hankering for pepper. We all know what was going on in Europe around 1446-1520 – the Renaissance, of course. All that earlier trade with the Middle East and China had made city states like Venice and Rome rich and they began to think, “Screw the Golden Horde, we’ll take the other way around”. Just three hundred years after the Chola Empire, here is India a little after the time our fictitious friend left Rome:


And, finally, here is the India under the Moguls in 1700 which the British eventually wrangled from them:

mughals and marathas 1700And here is the British Empire in the 1700’s:

map_british_empire_1713See those tiny little dots in India and Spain? When we look at this map it becomes quite clear why the British chose India as a sea route to China rather than the overland route. Plus, they are British – they are really good a sailing. So there was a lot of other crap going on in the 1700’s, a few small revolutions like the French, American and the Haitian Revolutions that pushed traders toward India. Also, India had Spices.

I know, like the future of most 30 year old’s, this is getting complicated. The route and it’s consequences is not nearly as clear as when our fictitious friend left Rome and made it all the way to Baghdad. One thing we can say for certain, if you were to take the sea route and stop at some bustling port in Southern India, your chances of getting a yummy, yummy dosa were much better than if you took the overland route. Of course, you would have to wait until the British got there to get one with Potato Masala.

Masala Dosa (from


Soak Time: Overnight or at least 8 hours
Fermenting Time: 8 – 24 hours (depending on climate)
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Serves: Approx a family of 4-6


Long Grain Rice – 2 cups
Ponni Parboiled Rice- 1/2 cup (If you cannot find this, leave it out and reduce the amount of water needed to grind rice)
Urad Daal – 1 cup
Chana Daal – 2 Tbsp
Methi (Fenugreek Seeds) – 1 tsp
Water – approx 1 1/4 cups to grind daals
Water – approx 1 cup to grind rice
Salt – 1 1/2 tsp or to taste
Baking Soda – pinch
Oil – for griddle frying


1. Combine Long Grain Rice and Ponni Rice, wash until water runs clear and soak in ample water (minimum 8 hours or overnight).
2. Combine Urad Daal, Chana Daal and Methi, wash until water runs clear and soak in ample water, separately from rice (minimum 8 hours or overnight).
3. Drain water from both Rice and Daals, keeping the two separate.
4. Add Daals in a grinder and using approx 1 1/4 cups of Water (added little at a time), grind to a smooth paste.
5. Remove Daal paste into a large container with lid, leaving approx 1/2 cup paste inside grinder.
6. Add Rice and grind to a smooth paste using approx 1 cup Water (added little at a time). Rice will still seem a little gritty after grinding.
7. Add Rice paste to the Daal Paste, add Uniodized Salt and mix well. (Note: If using Iodized Salt, wait until after fermentation to add salt).
8. Cover and keep container in a warm place to ferment the batter (minimum overnight or up to 24 hours, depending on climate).
9. Once fermented, gently mix the batter.
10. When ready to make Dosa, remove a few scoops of the batter into a smaller bowl and add just a pinch of Baking Soda. Mix well.
11. Preheat a seasoned pan, drizzle a few drops of oil and wipe off with a paper towl.
12. Depending on the size of the pan (skillet), drop a small ladle full of batter in the center of the pan. Using the flat back of the ladle or the flat back of a steel bowl, spread the batter outward in a circular motion. Dosa should be spread thin.
13. When the wet look of the batter is gone, drizzle a little Oil onto the dosa.
14. When brown spots are seen coming through the dosa, loosen the edges and roll the dosa.
15. For Masala Dosa, after drizzling Oil, sprinkle Dry Chutney Powder over dosa and place Potato Masala along the center of the dosa. Loosen the edges and roll the dosa.
16. Serve immediately with Sambhar and Coconut Chutney.

You can find the recipes for Sambhar and Coconut Chutney at:

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