Sunday, April 4, 2010

Family Background of the Vegetarian Hostess and Silk Road Cooking


Today's posting is about my family's ancestry in relation to the kinds of foods I was brought up with; Central Asian cuisine from the Silk Route. The dishes on this blog represent my cultural culinary history that is rich with interesting history of the Jews from the region along with the diverse yet similar dishes along the Silk Route which connects East, South and Western Asia with the Mediterranean, as well as North and East Africa with Europe. The map above represents the thousands of miles the Silk Road spanned.

The diversity in the dishes has to do with the spices that were indigenous to the country and the produce that were seasonally available. Keeping that in mind, I have aimed at eating rhythmically to the seasons to remain interconnected with the environment to appreciate the change of foods with the change of seasons. It is also noteworthy that a meat based diet along the Silk Route was a luxury, because of the expense and the scarcity of animals. Most animals, chattel to be specific were used as laborers and on special occasions for consumption.  So many of the dishes from the region are vegetarian based that is a collage of Asian, African, Russian and Mediterranean cuisine fused into a unique new cuisine that most Westerners have never tasted. 

This is my family history....

My family is of Central Asian Jewish descent where my parents were born in a Southern Republic of Russia called Bukhara (Uzbekistan), which lies along the Silk Road to Afghanistan, Iran and India. Most Jews from Bukhara have lineage to Persia (Iran) and Babylonia (Iraq) because it was part of the larger Persian Empire that split off from Babylonia after King Cyrus overtook Babylonia in 600BC. Almost 12 centuries later, the Shiites took over Persia forcing Islamic conversion upon many Jews, while some, like my family, sought refuge in Bukhara. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia became a Communist country so Bukhara became an oppressive place to live. Because of that, my parents were uprooted with their respective families to Kabul seeking financial freedom.

My grandparents brought to Kabul their Bukharian cuisine, which has similar imprints to Persian, Chinese, Russian and Indian dishes bearing that many of its inhabitants come from those regions. However the predominant seasonings are onion, garlic and cilantro with the main spices consisting of cumin, coriander and turmeric. All dishes in the region represented the wide variety of vegetables grown and the fundamental staple ingredient along the Silk Route; rice.

The cuisine in Kabul consisted many of the same foods as their bordering countries with the addition of dried fruits and nuts. A typical Friday night dinner at my parents included a rice dish prepared with assorted vegetables, herbs and spices, called Pilaw. At some point, I will post the recipe for that delicacy.

My mother and her seven siblings resided in Kabul until she was a teenager, and then moved to Israel in 1949 adopting yet another cuisine to add to their growing palate; Middle Eastern food.

My father with his five siblings lived in Kabul for a few years working as a tradesman. It was common for Jewish families like mine, located along the Silk Route to be traveling merchants, trading commodities.  Seeking to expand the family business, my father moved to Peshawar until 1947.  When a religious war broke out between Pakistan and India this caused for my father to travel south seeking refuge in Bombay where he remained until he was thirty years old. During that time he visited Israel where he met and married my mother in 1952 making Bombay their home base.

Bombay Jewry was a melting pot of cultures attracting Near Eastern Jews drawn by the economic potential this vibrant city boasted, and my family was another addition to the collage. It is only natural that Bombay’s cuisine was as diverse as the country itself, however there were certain characteristics they were unique to India. Being that India was a predominately Hindu country with a strong respect for life, a strong vegetarian diet was adopted.  My mother quickly assimilated into Indian gastronomy learning and cooking vegetarian dishes prepared with cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and mustard seed to name a few.

In 1956 my parents and my eldest sister emigrated to New York which would become the home base for my father’s intercontinental businesses. 

When my family moved to New York, my father with his brothers set up satellite offices in Kabul, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, India, Thailand, Hong Kong and Israel. Due to my father’s work as an International Trader and my family’s frequent moves from country to country, my parents absorbed the cultures, languages, and cuisines of each nation in which they resided and passed it down to me. Now I am passing to you the dishes I grew up with which consisted of Nuts, Spice and Everything Rice.
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