Published by the University of California Press, 2019
hardcover, 392 pages, $29.49
review by Jack Kittredge
For anyone interested in the history of food plants and how they have influenced human culture, this book is full of discovery. Spengler, an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Human History, proposes that the Silk Road and the botanical exchange it facilitated between East Asia and cultures in Central and even West Asia prefigured the Columbian Exchange by thousands of years and was as significant for the human diet today as was that pivotal event.
Spengler is well acquainted with the writings of early travelers along the 7,000 kilometer long route, which is in truth more a network of routes running from China all the way to the Mediterranean. Although organized trade (associated with military outposts and government taxation) along the Silk Road dates to the Han Dynasty around 200 BC, exchanges had been taking place along it for three thousand years before that.
The current desolate terrain of Central Asia – seemingly endless craggy mountains and vast deserts – emerged from the glaciation at the end of the Pleistocene in about 12,000 BC as an expanse of lush shrubby forests, many producing nuts (pistachios, almonds, walnuts), and fruits (wild cherries, apples, peaches, plums, apricots, mulberries). Although the landscape gradually became more arid, orchards and gardens had been established in oasis towns and fabled garden cities like Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand long before the first millennium BC.
There are many accounts from traveling authors of the botanical wonders along the Silk Road — beginning with the spread of Islam and continuing through the empires of Tamerlane, Babur, Genghis Khan and countless other conquerors. But not much in writing predates the Islamic period despite such memorable events as the triumphal visit of Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser in about 1100 BC or the conquest of Samarkand by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. For the earlier years, we have to rely for information on archaeobotany.
Spengler describes some such surveys in which he participated that excavated “lost” towns up to three miles high in the Pamir Mountains. One, Sarazm, dating to the 4th millennium BC, was a mining town that specialized in ores and smelted goods. Such sites and their manufactures may well have been the reasons travelers were originally drawn to the area for trade.
The plant remains in these towns have been remarkably preserved, likely because of the cold climate at that elevation. Middens (ancient trash heaps) include rich collections of the seeds, pits and shells of apples, peaches, apricots, grapes, melons, cherries, pistachios, rosehips, and Russian olives, as well as peas, chickpeas, wheat and barley.
Of little historical significance (but surrounded by passionate feelings) is the question of Who Introduced Pasta Where? Was it introduced to China from Italy, or the other way around? Spengler suggests all the data is not in on this question, but indicates that the lack of early descriptions of Italian banquets containing noodle dishes pushes him to support the theory that pasta was introduced to the peninsula by Arabic traders less than a millennium ago.
The bulk of this book is composed of careful analysis of a number of common food plants, tracking their origin and progress of adoption and mutation along the Road. They include the Millets, broomcorn and foxtail, Rice, Barley, the Wheats, Legumes such as beans, peas, chickpeas and alfalfa, Grapes, Apples, the family Prunus which includes peaches, cherries, plums, apricots and almonds, other fruits such as melons and persimmons, and nuts like pistachios, walnuts and almonds. Vegetables included hundreds of varieties of lettuce, brassicas and other greens, carrots, turnips, onions and other bulbs, roots and tubers.
Spengler is particularly effusive in his chapter on Silk Road spices, oils and tea:
“When you walk through the market bazaars in Almarty, Ashgabat, Bishkek, Bukhara, Kashgar, Tashkent, or Urumqi, your nose leads you automatically to the tables of the spice vendors – urging you past the butchers with their aged, sated, and cured goat flanks, sausages, and internal organs, and the tables of fermented dairy products, such as kumiss and qurt. The colorful mounds of powdered plants and dried leaves, seeds, fruit coats, stems, roots, and flowers are a feast not only for the eyes but also for the nose and tongue. Their scents mingle with all the other pungent aromas of the market to create the unique smell of the Silk Road.”
Ginger, originating in the forests of Southeast Asia, had made it to the Mediterranean by the first century AD. Black Pepper, 3000 pounds of it from tropical South Asia, was part of the ransom paid by Rome to appease the attacking Visigoths in the early fifth century. The four indispensable spices in classical Roman cuisine were coriander, cumin, dill and black cumin, all traded heavily along the Road. Ultimately the demand for pepper, as well as anise, turmeric, cardamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon, launched the ships of da Gama, Columbus and the other nautical adventurers of Europe’s Age of Exploration.
Oilseed plants were grown and pressed locally in much of western China and included the native hemp as well as cotton originally from India. Sesame, flax, rape and lallemantia were other oils grown throughout Asia and spread along the Road.
Of course, no discussion of the traveled plants of Asia is complete without mentioning tea (Camellia sinensis). Its four main types — white, green, oolong and black – all originate from the same plant and just reflect the degree of oxidation or aging that the leaves go through before drying. Spengler describes in detail the origins of the various methods of drying and compressing the leaves into bricks that have developed over the millennia. One branch of the Silk Road, known as the Tea Horse Road, runs along the southern Himalayas from the Hengduan Mountains to Lhasa.
The conclusion chapter tries to draw important threads from all the information Spengler presents in this book. Italian cuisine does not fare well for originality, I must caution some in this audience. The tomato of course came recently from South America, along with the red pepper, the noodle and brickoven flatbread that forms the basis of pizza came from China via Arab merchants about a thousand years ago, and even polenta and gnocchi are almost always made with corn and the potato, again from South America.
For readers wanting to learn about the history of food, it would be hard to go wrong with this book. But it will also appeal to anyone interested in how the natural environment interconnects different cultures. After all, the Silk Road was the first fledgling example of globalization, and we have much to learn from it.