Friday, December 13, 2013

I Am the Emperor and I Want Dumplings

Readers of this weblog are probably familiar with the term "Columbian Exchange," with whose definition I will not trouble them.  That a similar matrix of intercontinental exchange covered the Old World well before Columbus's day is well known to world historians, but as James Millward's new book is the first I have read that proposes using the term "Silk Road" as a shorthand label for these exchanges.  Part of the useful Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press, The Silk Road focuses on the exchange of people, plants, animals, goods, technologies, and ideas within the Eurasian land mass between 3500 BCE and 1500 CE, particularly during the last millennium or two of this long period.  Millward observes that the Central Asian steppe region, with its abundance of grass and horses and shortage of practically everything else, occupied an analogous position in the Silk-Road exchange system to the Atlantic Ocean: it was the dangerous but efficient transit zone that tied the civilizations around it together.  The various nomadic cultures and empires of the region, such as the Scythians, the Xiongnu, the Seljuk Turks, and the Mongols, served the same function as Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch mariners of the early modern era: violent and exploitative as they were, they also created the trade networks that enriched and disrupted the surrounding cultures.

Within the Silk-Road system, Central Asia supplied an abundance of horses, which remained one of central Eurasia's most important trade goods - as late as the eighteenth century the Mughals were importing 50,000 central-Asian horses into India every year.  The steppeland peoples also introduced the chariot, the cutting-edge war machine of the late Bronze Age; developed the equestrian rituals, such as polo games and royal hunts, that became features of aristocratic life from Europe to China; and invented the stringed instrument known to the Arabs as the oud and to southern Europeans as the lute. From India came cotton, lemons, sesame, the humoral theory of disease (which Galen brought to Europe and traders brought to China), and the Jakata tales, which may have inspired the 1,001 Nights.  Europe supplied wine and viniculture - first developed in the Caucasus but popularized by the Classical Mediterranean cultures - as well as new types of beans, peas, and alfalfa, and a new weapon, the trebuchet, of which the Mongols became very fond.  It is an open question whether new crops or new military technologies spread faster through the Silk-Road trading network.

From China and East Asia, the network diffused several plant species eagerly adopted in the Middle East and Europe, such as sugar cane, peaches, almonds, and millet, as well as the new technologies of paper-making (which reached Europe via Spain in the 13th century) and gunpowder, which helped build the empires, notably Russia and Qing-dynasty China, that eventually conquered Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Chinese sericulture - that is, knowledge of how to make silk - gave the Silk Road its name, and Chinese silk was itself an important trade good, but other cultures spent considerable effort learning how to make it themselves, with the Byzantines (for instance) learning the secrets of silkworm-raising by the 6th century.  The same was true of China's eponymous blue-and-white kaolin porcelain, which in the early-modern era became one of the most widely copied artifacts in the world, produced by Safavid Persians, Ottoman tile-makers, the Dutch porcelain center of Delft, and Mexican Indian workers in Puebla.


Of particular interest to your narrator was the emergence of a distinctive foodstuff whose origins are obscure, but which probably could not have existed without the Silk-Road exchange system: the dumpling.  The distinctive triangular dumpling or potsticker, cased in wheat-flour and stuffed with pork, chicken, horse meat, pumpkin, and/or various spices, first appeared in central Asia in the eighth century CE* and spread as far west as Italy and as far east as Japan.  Various Eurasian cultures steamed or fried these pastries and served them with "soy sauce, vinegar, sour-cream, yogurt, butter," and broth.  I write here in the past tense, but these are the same dumplings one can order at most Chinese restaurants today, and I like to think they are the same kind of food that Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria (r. 1835-48) demanded in the one coherent sentence he ever spoke: "I am the emperor, and I want dumplings."  Food fit for a king, in other words, though readily available to modern commoners.


* Millward notes that archaeologists discovered a "dessicated dumpling" in a 1200-year-old tomb near Astana, Kazakhstan.  Despite its advanced age and condition I'll bet my petite amie's dogs would still eat the thing if one allowed them.

The potsticker image above is courtesy of haleysuzanne, is available under a Creative Commons license, and may be found here.

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