Consider the Chinese wonton. The Indian samosa. The Italian ravioli.
They are different foods from different parts of the world. But each reveals itself as a regional incarnation of one very good idea: a small package of meat or vegetable filling wrapped with carefully cut strips of dough -- like a dumpling.
From culture to culture, the idea is the same, even though the way the food is cooked is different -- sometimes poached, sometimes fried, sometimes steeped in sauce.
There's something else the wonton, the samosa and the ravioli share: a culinary heritage along the ancient Silk Road -- the trade routes from China and Japan in the east across central Asia and India through Antioch, Byzantium and the Mediterranean in the west.
Named by a 19th-century geographer to designate the roads traders plied for centuries, the Silk Road will extend to the National Mall this weekend and next. The occasion: the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which this year celebrates the cross-cultural influences of those ancient roads.
If the lure of silk was the road's initial driving force, it soon welcomed pearls and gems, spices, carpets, glass, medicines, pottery, weapons. But it was food that kept it alive. Whether its wayfarers were merchants or philosophers or warriors, they carried their culinary habits and cooking methods with them. But since people from diverse cultures spent months and even years on the road, the dishes they prepared were susceptible to influence and change.
"As these travelers on camels or in their caravans stopped at caravanserais [rather like ancient rest stops] and oases, they brought food from back home with them -- or the knowledge for making food -- and they would prepare food the way they knew it," says Jim Deutsch, a program coordinator for the Folklife Festival. "It was natural to share that food -- to break bread together as companions. That's how the ideas spread along the Silk Road."
Think about those cooked stuffed pastries. Self-contained. Portable. Often protein-filled. And more stable than the ingredients would have been on their own.
But where did they come from? Did they emerge in many areas? Or did the idea emanate from one place, only to be modified to suit the realities of culture, climate and geography as travelers carried it from place to place? Did Chinese wontons, for example, morph into Italian ravioli? And what about breads and rice? Did a pita in the Middle East turn into a pizza in Italy? Did an Afghan pilau become a Turkish pilaf? Or was each of these developed by the tastes and needs of their own cultures?
"It's an age-old dilemma that folklorists face -- a debate that hasn't been resolved," says Deutsch, "and an idea that we want to explore at the folklife festival."
Local chef, cooking teacher, food historian and cookbook writer Najmieh Batmanglij, whose book "Silk Road Cooking" (Mage, 2002) has been published to coordinate with the festival, doesn't really care much about these questions. Perhaps such foods were borrowed genres that redefined themselves within the context of individual cultures and regions. Perhaps not.
Instead, she sees such mysteries as a kind of culinary bond that ties one civilization along the road to the next. "What's important," says Batmanglij, who was born in Iran, at the center of the Silk Road, "is that the origins of all these dishes are related . . . The Silk Road wove a culinary heritage of these countries, created tasty dishes and passed them on."
In other words, there was unity of the type of food, but diversity in style -- shared characteristics but specific, culturally driven local specialties.
The idea of interrelationship is evident in the simplest of foods, such as breads, rice dishes and dumplings, says Batmanglij. As evidence, she points to the similarity of the names of certain foods in very different languages. Steamed filled doughy breads or dumplings, sweetened or not, for example, appear as mantou in Chinese, manti in central Asia, momo in Tibet, mantu in Iran and Afghanistan, manzu in Japan, mandu in Korea. "They're each a variety of filled buns," she says. "And the language shows the dishes and their names are related. To me, that's more important than their origin."
During the last five years, while she researched the book, Batmanglij spent three weeks each autumn along the Silk Road, observing the harvests and visiting home cooks. ("There is no restaurant tradition in these countries," she says). She particularly focused on vegetarian dishes. "For economic reasons, people didn't eat meat every day," she says. Besides, non-meat dishes were more realistic along roads without modern refrigeration or, for that matter, daily markets.
But even given her familiarity with Silk Road cooking, Batmanglij discovered things she'd never given much thought to -- that dishes from China to Genoa, for example, feature walnuts, almonds, grapes and pomegranates; that street vendors all along the Silk Road sell fruit on skewers too. But not turnips -- unless she was in Uzbekistan, where they are prominent. Likewise, she learned, yogurt may be a feature all over central Asia, but in China, it's only in the Western region.
She was also struck by the principle of balance at work in dishes from all over the regions. The balance of "hot" and "cold" foods, wet and dry, yin and yang. "That way you don't get stomachaches," she says. "That's why you find certain foods together like yogurt and cucumber [which are cold] with dill and garlic [which are hot]," she says.
"My mother was always concerned about balancing hot and cold ingredients -- pomegranates were cold. Walnuts were hot. Apricots were cold. Lamb was hot. It's the same in China and India and parts of the Mediterranean. That's the culinary bond -- the idea of balancing ingredients . . . I notice a lot of young chefs make up recipes without this principle. But there are reasons why they should."
Batmanglij speaks with the confidence of someone who grew up with Silk Road cooking. Her mother was her first teacher -- though her aunt's baklava remains a high mark. She married, and after the Iranian revolution took refuge in France with her husband in 1979. She studied both French and cooking and soon translated her Persian recipes both for the people of the village in the south of France where they lived, and for her first book, "Ma Cuisine d'Iran." Drawn to the United States by its reputation as a nation of immigrants, the couple has been here since 1983.
But she still thinks of herself as Persian, and the role of food and cooking in her childhood set a standard that's never been replaced. "Some of my happiest childhood memories are linked to Silk Road cooking though I had no notion of such a thing at that time," she says. "In the early afternoon, I'd arrive at home from school and hear my mother and other ladies -- all distant relatives -- playing music in one of the brightest rooms in our house. When I smelled the aroma of fresh dough, I knew it was noodlemaking day."
Her mother would urge her to do her homework, but the lure of tradition was too strong. As the visitors worked on wooden boards atop crisp white cotton cloths spread over colorful carpets, they kneaded the dough and rolled it into thin rectangular layers. "Folding each sheet twice, and working with fast, confident strokes with one hand as a guide, they used sharp knives to cut the dough into quarter-of-an-inch strips," she says. "The room would fall into silence as they concentrated on the task, joyfully competing to see who could cut the most even strips in the shortest time . . . And I knew the next day we would have relatives and family come to our house for glorious noodle soup cooked with mint."
"I now know women in all those countries were doing the same thing."
The Smithsonian couldn't import such cooks to demonstrate Silk Road cooking at the Folklife Festival, but it has recruited local ones selected by Batmanglij, who trace their heritage to China, Uzbekistan, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia, Syria, Turkey and Italy. During the festival, they will prepare breads, dumplings and rice dishes that embody Silk Road cooking -- from Chinese scallion bread to pizza, from stir-fried rice to pilaf to risotto, from Chinese dumplings to ravioli.
It says a lot about the power of food that these very basic dishes have endured even though perceptions of time, distance and politics have changed, and the Silk Road is no more.
In a way, of course, the festival is one more stop along the road, another opportunity for an exchange of culinary knowledge, as the cooks meet one another, watch each other's demonstrations and perhaps share recipes.
Beverly Simons is the Smithsonian program assistant who has been organizing and coordinating the cooks. "Each member of this group will be cooking twice a day and in the kitchen a lot," she explains. "We're hoping once they get used to the process that some of the behind-the-scenes interactions will produce new exchanges."
Says program coordinator Deutsch, "One of this festival's original themes has to do with what happens when strangers meet and learn from each other. We want to have encounters where people meet and share and learn, just as there were along the Silk Road."
For a sense of the culinary relationships along the Silk Road, the following recipes focus on different types of filled doughs and stuffed breads, from samosas to boulani to ravioli. All of the recipes were developed by Najmieh Batmangliej, and most come from her new book. They will not be taught at the demonstrations nor will they be available at the Folklife Festival.
(Makes 20 samosas)
Samosas, often served on banana leaves with a little cilantro relish and tamarind chutney on the side, are sold throughout India at all hours of the day by street vendors.
For the dough:
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour, plus more to work the dough
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
About 1/2 cup ice water
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
For the filling:
1/4 cup oil or butter
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1-inch piece ginger root, peeled and grated
3 russet potatoes (2 pounds), boiled, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 hot green chili pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
11/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garam masala*
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup chopped finely chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
About 4 cups corn oil if frying
To make the dough: In a food processor or in a bowl using a pastry blender or 2 knives, mix the flour, salt and oil until crumbly. Gradually add the ice water and mix just until the dough almost holds together. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, sprinkle with the cumin seeds and knead until thoroughly incorporated. Shape into a long cylinder, cover with plastic and set aside to rest for 30 minutes.
To make the filling: In a wok or deep skillet over medium heat, heat the oil or butter. Add the coriander and cumin seeds and cook until aromatic, about 10 seconds. (Keep a lid handy to prevent seeds from flying out of the skillet.) Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the rest of the filling ingredients (but not the oil) and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly. Set aside to cool slightly.
To assemble, have ready a bowl of water and a lightly oiled baking sheet. Divide the dough into 10 equal portions. On a lightly floured surface using a rolling pin, roll each portion into a 6-inch-long oval. Cut each oval in half. Place each half on a lightly floured work surface with the straight edge facing you. Fold in each side to form a cone, gently pressing to seal 1 side over the other.
Fill each cone with about 1 tablespoon of filling. Lightly moisten the top edge of the cone and fold it, like an envelope flap, over the top. Press gently to seal. Transfer to the prepared sheet and cover with a clean towel; repeat with the remainder.
To fry the samosas, in a wok or deep skillet over medium heat, heat 4 cups oil until it reaches about 350 degrees. Add a few samosas to the oil, being careful not to crowd them. Fry, using tongs or a slotted spoon to turn them frequently, until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain; repeat with the remaining samosas. Serve warm.
If you prefer to bake the samosas, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the samosas 1 inch apart on the baking sheet and brush the surface with oil. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown.
* Note: Garam masala is a blend of spices used in Indian cooking. It is available at many supermarkets.
Per samosa: 92 calories, 1 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 236 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Afghan Garlic Chive Boulani
Boulani is a stuffed bread that is baked or fried. It is made by filling a square piece of dough with a garlic chive mixture and folding it diagonally into a triangle. Traditionally it is filled with gandana (similar to garlic chives) and served with yogurt sauce. Gandana is available at Middle Eastern markets; scallions, however, make a good substitute.
For the yogurt sauce:
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
1 small cucumber, seeded and grated
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
For the boulani:
4 cups chopped scallions, or garlic chives (gandana)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bird or serrano chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 package large egg roll skins
About 1/4 cup vegetable oil for frying
To make the yogurt sauce: Pour the yogurt into a bowl and stir well. Add the cucumber, garlic, mint, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate.
To make the boulani: In a bowl, using a rubber spatula, combine the scallions, parsley, oil, salt, pepper and chili pepper. Do not use a food processor; the filling will become too liquid. Set aside.
To fill the boulani, have ready a small bowl of water and a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place the wrappers on a flat surface and cover with a clean towel. Working 1 at a time, place 2 heaping tablespoons of filling near 1 of the corners of the wrapper. Lightly moisten the edge of the wrapper and fold it over the filling and onto itself to form a triangle. Using your fingertips, pinch and crimp the edges. Transfer to the baking sheet, cover with a clean towel and refrigerate until ready to cook. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.
To fry the boulani, in a large, deep nonstick skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat 1/4 cup oil until it reaches about 350 degrees. You may need additional oil; it should reach a depth of at least halfway up the side of the boulani. Add a few boulani to the oil, being careful not to crowd them. Fry, turning once, until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain; repeat with the remaining boulani. Serve right away with the yogurt sauce on the side.
Per serving: 150 calories, 6 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 488 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Chinese Tofu Dumplings
(6 servings, about 32 dumplings)
For the dipping sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 scallion, finely chopped
For the dumplings:
1 pound firm tofu
1 head napa cabbage, shredded
2 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
1/4-inch ginger root, peeled and shredded
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1 egg, lightly beaten
11/2 teaspoons chili paste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions (white and green parts)
11/2 teaspoons salt, plus additional for the cabbage
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
36 ready-made dumpling wrappers (circles such as pot stickers or gyoza)
About 1/4 cup corn oil for frying
To make the dipping sauce: In a bowl, combine the soy sauce, vinegar and scallion. Set aside.
To make the dumplings: Shred the tofu, then wrap in several layers of paper towels and set aside for 20 minutes. Squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. Set aside. Shred the cabbage, sprinkle with salt and set aside for 15 minutes. Squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible.
In a bowl, combine the rest of the filling ingredients and mix until a thick paste forms. Cover and refrigerate about 20 minutes.
Have ready a small bowl of water and a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place the wrappers on a flat surface and cover with a clean towel. Working 1 at a time, place 1 heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of a wrapper. Lightly moisten the edge of the wrapper and fold it over the filling and onto itself to form a crescent. Using your fingertips, pinch and crimp to seal. Transfer to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. (May cover tightly and freeze for up to 3 months.)
To cook the dumplings (steam-fried method): You will need to work in batches. In a large nonstick skillet over low heat, heat 1 tablespoon corn oil. Add a single layer of dumplings to the skillet, then add 3/4 cup water. Cover and cook, without disturbing, until the water has evaporated and the dumplings are crisp and brown on the bottom, about 20 minutes. Transfer the dumplings to a warm plate; cover to keep warm. Repeat with the remainder.
To serve, pass with the dipping sauce on the side.
Per serving: 52 calories, 2 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 7 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 224 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Genoese Ravioli With Zucchini Filling and a Herb Butter Sauce
(6 servings, about 24 ravioli)
The zucchini filling in this ravioli, popular throughout Italy, is similar to the one used in my favorite borek from Istanbul. The main differences are that the Turkish borek is made with feta cheese whereas this ravioli is made with a mixture of ricotta salata (a firm salty cheese that can be grated) and Parmigiano-Reggiano and the sauce for the ravioli is made with butter whereas the borek is eaten with a yogurt sauce. Ricotta salata is available at Italian markets and some specialty stores. You may substitute feta cheese.
You can use ready-made lasagna dough to make the ravioli or a homemade dough if you prefer.
For the ravioli:
1 pound zucchini (about 4 medium), unpeeled, grated and patted dry
8 ounces coarsely grated ricotta salata (may substitute feta cheese)
8 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
11/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
Homemade ravioli dough rolled into four 5-by-30-by-1/16-inch sheets, or 1 package ready-made, fresh lasagna sheets
For the sauce:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or leaves from 4 sprigs fresh thyme
2/3 cup (about 3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
To make the ravioli: In a large bowl combine the zucchini, the cheeses, egg, nutmeg, salt, pepper, parsley, thyme, basil and bread crumbs and, using your hands, mix until you have a thick paste. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Have ready a small bowl of water and a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place the pasta dough or lasagna sheets on a flat surface and cover with a clean towel. Working with 1 sheet at a time, place a sheet of dough on a lightly floured work surface with 1 long edge facing you. Place 1-tablespoon mounds of the filling in a row down the near edge about 1 inch inside the long side and about 2 inches apart, leaving enough dough on the far edge to fold over the filling and meet the edge nearest you. Using a brush, lightly moisten the near edge of the dough as well as the dough around the mounds of the filling. Fold the far edge up and over the filling until it joins the near edge. Press firmly to press out any air trapped between the layers. Using a wheel or knife, cut the sheet into squares of ravioli. Using a fork, seal the edges. Transfer to the baking sheet and cover with a clean towel. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.
To cook the ravioli, bring 3 quarts (12 cups) water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil in a large pot. Add a total of 12 ravioli, 1 at a time, and stir gently to prevent them from sticking together. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer just until the edges are tender, 6 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the ravioli to a serving platter and cover to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining ravioli.
To make the sauce, melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the thyme and keep warm.
To serve, drizzle the melted butter over the ravioli, sprinkle with cheese and freshly ground pepper to taste and serve immediately.
Per serving: 522 calories, 30 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 41 gm fat, 153 mg cholesterol, 26 gm saturated fat, 1,989 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber