Spices Make the Silk Road Come to Life

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Last night, the Museum hosted "Flavorful Journey: A Night of Spices on the Silk Road."

Spices played a major role in the success of the Silk Road and were traded all across social ranks. Treasured as much for their medicinal properties as for their flavor, spices were commonly used in religious practices, cosmetics, aphrodisiacs, and drugs, from India to Persia to China.

I worked with our culinary team create a menu that was immersive and helped guests access a significant time in human history. We chose to focus on turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon. In true spice vendor fashion, Patrick Hartnett, the Museum's executive chef, led several cooking demonstrations using each of the spices, explaining their complexities and tastes along the way. I talked about the neuroscience and what spices bring to flavor.

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After the cooking demonstration, and getting a dose of the spices in traditional foods, we had guests participate in a tasting to learn more about the roles of orthonasal olfaction, taste, retronasal olfaction (the aha! Moment!!), and chemesthesis in how we experience flavor. The take home lesson, "spicy is not a taste."

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The experiment really gave guests a first hand experience of how neuroscience plays a role in flavor and brought a new appreciation to the role spices play in food.

Want to do some more experimenting with spices at home? You can make the night's menu using the recipes below.

Pineapple and Ginger Fried Rice
4 cups rice
1 cup peas
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced pineapple
½ ounce minced ginger
½ ounce minced garlic
3 tbsp. soy sauce
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tbsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. black and white sesame seeds

1. Cook rice according to directions on package and set aside.
2. Scramble eggs in a large sauté pan and set aside.
3. In a large sauté pan, heat vegetable oil and add garlic and ginger, cooking lightly.
4. Add carrots, peas, and pineapple and toss to mix.
5. Add cooked rice and toss to mix.
6. Fold in eggs and toss to mix.
7. Season with soy sauce, salt and pepper, sesame seeds, and sesame oil. Once again toss to mix.

Cinnamon Chicken Marinade
2 cups vegetable oil
2 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. ground black pepper
1 tbsp. dried oregano

1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend.

Harissa sauce
1 red pepper
½ tsp. coriander seeds
½ tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. caraway seeds
1 ½ tbsp. olive oil
1 small red onion, coarsely chopped (scant 2/3 cup / 90 g in total)
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3 hot red chiles, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ tsp. salt

2. Place the pepper under a very hot broiler, turning occasionally for about 25 minutes, until blackened on the outside and completely soft. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to cool. Peel the pepper and discard its skin and seeds. Place a dry frying pan over low heat and lightly toast the coriander, cumin, and caraway seeds for 2 minutes. Remove them to a mortar and use a pestle to grind to a powder. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, and fry the onion, garlic, and chiles for 10 to 12 minutes, until a dark smoky color forms and it is almost caramelized. Now use a blender or a food processor to blend together all of the paste ingredients until smooth, adding a little more oil if needed.

Turmeric Couscous Salad
4 cups Israeli couscous, uncooked
3 tbsp. ground turmeric
2 cups currants
1 cup sliced green onions
½ cup chopped parsley
½ cup chopped mint
2 tbsp. Salt
1 tbsp. ground black pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Cook couscous according to directions on package, adding turmeric to the cooking water. Cool and rinse.
2. Combine with remaining ingredients.

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