Silk Route: Kumara Cuisine

There is a reason I start this little culinary research journey in Rome in the 1300-1400’s. This is where we Eurocentric people believe that “modern” history began. With Columbus, De Gama and the “discovery” of the “New World”. I wanted to take you all from a place where you all feel comfortable (assuming you are Eurocentric) and send you back in time; take you from a cuisine you are familiar with to one you are less familiar with; from a culture you know to ones you might not know even existed; from an outdated perspective to a new view of the world.

As we move along our Journey into China, it is important to understand that Asia had it’s own, very sophisticated, trading system long before the Europeans arrive. It amazes me that we know, with absolute certainty, that people made it to the Hawaiian Islands Via Polynesia, yet some how we can’t believe they made it to South America.

From The Salt:

By analyzing the DNA of 1,245 sweet potato varieties from Asia and the Americas, researchers have found a genetic smoking gun that proves the root vegetable made it all the way to Polynesia from the Andes — nearly 400 years before Inca gold was a twinkle in Ferdinand and Isabella’s eyes.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer more evidence that ancient Polynesians may have interacted with people in South America long before the Europeans set foot on the continent.

The sweet potato made three independent trips to Southeast Asia. The Polynesians probably introduced it in 1100 A.D. (red). While the Spanish (blue) and Portuguese (yellow) brought other varieties from the Americas around 1500.

Sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America. But archaeologists have found prehistoric remnants of sweet potato in Polynesia from about A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1100, according to radiocarbon dating. They’ve hypothesized that those ancient samples came from the western coast of South America. Among the clues: One Polynesian word for sweet potato — “kuumala” — resembles “kumara,” or “cumal,” the words for the vegetable in Quechua, a language spoken by Andean natives.

There is ample evidence that Columbus was not the first to “discover” America, but the last. If we are going to look for Old/New world contact the best place to look would not necessarily be across the Pacific for evidence of Chinese visitors, but on the East Coast of South America and the Mayan Peninsula  Why? Wind, currents and distance. We have already seen, a few posts back, evidence of global homogeneous architecture in the Canary Islands off the cost of West Africa.


We also know that the Chinese and Arabs were trading in the Indian Ocean since at least Roman Times. So if we are going to look for evidence of ancient trade with the America what cultures seem like our best bets? Well, there were the Olmec’s and the Mayan in Mesoamerica who might have made good trading partners. There was the Mississippi Valley Civilization which was HUGE and began with building cities in 3400 BCE (that’s right – before the Pyramids) and flourished until about the 1500’s.  The Chinese were certainly capable of making it to Africa and of extended sea voyages. The Arabs fall into this category, as well as the sophisticated Kingdoms of East Africa. West Africa can’t be dismissed either as they had cultures practicing iron smelting at least as early as 500 BCE. And, of course there is always the possibility that trade when the other way. Some research suggests that cocoa and Tobacco (new world plants) were present in Ancient Egypt.

One thing is certain, you would have undoubtedly been able to find this or something very similar to it (with sweet potatoes) if you made your way through the Chola Dynasty, which controlled a good part of Malaysia, on your way to the Song Dynasty in China around 1000 to 1100 CE:

Spicy Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken and Sweet Potato


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons chopped shallots
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced lemongrass* (from bottom 4 inches of about 3 stalks, tough outer leaves discarded)
  • 2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons Thai yellow curry paste*
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili paste (such as sambal oelek)*
  • 2 13.5- to 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk,* divided
  • 5 cups low-salt chicken broth
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)*
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3 cups snow peas, trimmed
  • 2 cups 1/2-inch cubes peeled red-skinned sweet potato (yam; from about 1 large)
  • 1 pound dried rice vermicelli noodles or rice stick noodles*
  • 3/4 pound skinless boneless chicken thighs, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 red Thai bird chiles or 2 red jalapeño chiles, thinly sliced with seeds
  • 1 lime, cut into 6 wedges

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add next 4 ingredients; stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in curry paste, curry powder, and chili paste. Add 1/2 cup coconut milk (scooped from thick liquid at top of can). Stir until thick and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add remaining coconut milk, broth, fish sauce, and sugar; bring broth to boil. Keep warm. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Refrigerate until cold, then cover and keep chilled.

Cook snow peas in large pot of boiling salted water until bright green, about 20 seconds. Using strainer, remove peas from pot; rinse under cold water to cool. Place peas in medium bowl. Bring water in same pot back to boil. Add sweet potato and cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Using strainer, remove sweet potato from pot and rinse under cold water to cool. Place in small bowl. Bring water in same pot back to boil and cook noodles until just tender but still firm to bite, about 6 minutes. Drain; rinse under cold water to cool. Transfer to microwave-safe bowl. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 hour ahead. Let stand at room temperature.

Bring broth to simmer. Add chicken; simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add sweet potato; stir to heat through, about 1 minute. Heat noodles in microwave in 30-second intervals to rewarm. Cut noodles with scissors if too long. Divide noodles among bowls. Divide snow peas and hot soup among bowls. Scatter red onion, green onions, cilantro, and chiles over soup. Garnish with lime wedges and serve.


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