Food and travel go hand in hand—and I love both—so last night I attended the Curry Economics lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as part of the museum’s excellent Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World exhibit.
The show reminds me of my own travels along this ancient route in China this past fall to Xi’an, Turpan, Urumqi, Yarkand, Kashgar and the Karakoram Highway to Tashkurgan (details of which I’ll eventually share on this blog), and the event shed light on some interesting facts about how food trade can bring about significant cultural and economic shifts in a society.
The lecture didn’t focus exclusively on the Silk Road, and the discussion sometimes veered off into quite contemporary issues, such as genetically modified (GM) foods. But it was fun to listen about the spice-trade history (it reminded me of my myriad econ classes, now quite missed) and a few of the points made during the lecture were particularly interesting:
- Clove buds were found in the mouths of bodies discovered in China dating to the Han Dynasty (207 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.), indicating that “globalization” and trade were taking place in the remote “Spice Islands” (now known as the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia) long before the rise of colonialism during the 16th and 17th centuries. The spice was used to cover up bad breath.
- Indian cuisine used to be mild rather than spicy. Chili peppers, now common in Indian, Thai and other Asian cuisines, weren’t cultivated and introduced to the Old World until after Columbus discovered them in the Americas. This discovery is also what triggered the plummeting value of black pepper, indigenous to South India and a key element in that region’s trade and wealth.
- Religion is as important as trade when it comes to cuisines. The vegetarian diet didn’t take off in India until the rise of Buddhism and Jainism after 500 B.C.E. And the spread of Islam not only increased the popularity of lamb meat and made the consumption of alcohol and pork forbidden, but it also brought okra to the Middle East from Western Africa, tomatoes from the New World by the Moors of Spain, and yoghurt from the Turks and Mongols.
Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy (Gotham, 2007), moderated the panel, which included Tom Standage, business affairs editor of The Economist and author of An Edible History of Humanity (Walker & Company, 2009); Eric Tagliacozzo, associate professor of history at Cornell University and author of Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1965-1915 (Yale University Press, reprint edition 2009); and Julie Sahni, cooking teacher and cookbook author, including the seminal Classic Indian Cooking (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1980). I now want to read each of their books.
Upcoming events tied to the Silk Road exhibit, on view now through Aug. 15, 2010, include:
- Voices of the Silk Road, Jan. 16 and 17, 12 to 5 p.m.
- Global Kitchen: Aromatics Along the Silk Road, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m.
- Caravanserai: A Perfumed Tasting Menu, Jan. 21, 7 p.m.
- Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, performances Feb. 7, 14 and 21, various times and locations
- Global Kitchen: Wines With Ancient Lineage, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m.
- The Message Behind the Music, Feb. 21, 1 to 5 p.m.
- The Looting of the Iraq Museum: An Evening with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m.
Visit the AMNH Web site for additional information.