- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

Well before Marco Polo set out looking for spices to liven up European food, commerce and culture moved along the Silk Road from Europe to China and back again. The network of routes through the mountains and deserts of central Asia made rice a staple where none was grown and mingled languages and music and genes and clothing in ways that are still apparent worldwide.
When Polo's entourage got hungry from all that travel, they might have stopped for pizza, or pita or puri. And they might have noticed the similarities and regional differences among hardscrabble civilizations that developed local ways to eat the age-old combination of starch and fat that is the foundation of nearly all the world's diet.
At the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival from June 26 to 30 and July 3 to 7, the National Mall will teem with hundreds of natives of cultures on or near the ancient Silk Road. Nearly 400 participants, most from abroad and many visiting the United States for the first time, will turn Washington into a bazaar of the sounds, colors and flavors of history's most famous crossroads. And in one of the many tents, several local women they are nearly all women will demonstrate cooking methods they learned from mothers, grandmothers, mothers-in-law and family cooks.
In particular, to show both unity and diversity across the cultures, the "Foodways" demonstrators will each cook a bread dish, a rice dish, and a dish of stuffed dough, such as Italian ravioli, Chinese dumplings or Indian samosas. Those who watch the 45-minute sessions will not only pick up cooking tips, but will also catch a glimpse of the family ties and cultural continuity that traditional home cooking has meant for centuries elements increasingly rare in an era of fast food and two-earner households, with less and less time to spend at home eating food prepared with wholesome ingredients, hours of care, and generations of expertise.
Visitors millions of them will also observe traditional artists, artisans, dancers and storytellers. They'll see camels (imported from Texas, not Asia, due to logistic imperatives). They'll witness polo, a game descended from central Asian tourneys in which participants knocked about goat or sheep carcasses. They'll hear music from the Silk Road Ensemble, with likely unscheduled visits from its founder, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Najmieh Batmanglij, a native of Iran who now lives in Georgetown, is the author of four books on Persian cooking. For the Foodways demonstrations, the Smithsonian called on her to recruit, test and organize the other cooks, with cross-cultural connections in mind.
Her upcoming book, "Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey," pegs the central role of cuisine in culture. It includes not only recipes and photographs of modern Silk Road scenes, but also has poetry, stories and other cultural bites. It's an old theme in Persian culture: Texts containing illustrated recipes from the region go back at least 4,000 years.
"Everybody talks about Mediterranean food, but no one talks about where Mediterranean food comes from," she says. "Being Persian, I'm biased, but I think a lot of things came from the ancient cultures. Everything came to Italy, got covered with sauce and became French and Italian cooking."
Every region, every century, every cultural invasion left its mark in each land's kitchens. As one travels from India into central Asia, nuts and fruits like raisins and dates start to appear in the rice. In Afghanistan, a local dish resembling ravioli uses yogurt-based fillings and sauces in contrast to Italy, where tomatoes from the New World began appearing in sauces in the 16th Century.
The Silk Road was so powerful a commercial artery so long ago that rice, for example, became part of nearly every meal even in ancient Persia and landlocked Armenia, where most people lived and died without ever seeing a rice paddy.
For many of the Foodways participants, America, and especially Washington, is a modern-day Silk Road where people from around the world live and share their cultures with one another. Several of the cooks have held on to their cuisine even as politics and religion roiled and they moved among countries, ultimately settling here.

The Foodways cooks use the traditional foods for more than feeding their families.
"When I make a dish for my son, without talking, I'm showing my love and affection," says Batmanglij, who has lived in France and traveled much of the Silk Road. "For me, food is a way of communicating."
"When you cook with love, it's obvious," says Shobha Shah, who hails from the Gujarat state of India and will demonstrate that region's fare. "I really believe it. It shows, it makes a difference."
The cuisine is a part of the culture that lives, handed down, most typically, from mother to daughter. Leda Zenian, who will be demonstrating Armenian cooking, comes from a culinary heritage that has survived the Armenians' history of genocide and diaspora. Her husband, David, a former war correspondent, now travels the world documenting the lives and achievements of Armenians from India to Uzbekistan to Ethiopia, so the family has seen how the cuisine has adapted to local ingredients and lifestyles.
Like most strong traditions, the cuisine comes from lifetime devotion and family ties. And the ancient Persian recipes notwithstanding, cooking has always been an art that occasionally defies capture by the written word.
"There is no recipe it was a pinch of this and a pinch of that," Zenain says of her mother's traditional pilav, a rice dish. "I cook this too, and if you ask me how, I wouldn't even know how to explain."
Some of the tips visitors will pick up are less than obvious. Zenian stirs her rice with a wooden spoon, for example, so as not to break the tender grains. The crimping of ravioli, the stuffing of Indian samosas, the gentle hand-dimpling of the Italian foccaccia these skills can be observed, but are not easily described.
Nahid Javadi, who will be demonstrating Azerbaijani cooking technique, never learned extensive cooking until she left her native Iran (millions of Azerbaijanis live there) for England just after marriage. Her mother-in-law came along and taught her the cuisine from back home. Like many world travelers, some of Javadi's affection for her heritage may have jelled upon her departure from her homeland.
"You go back to the things you grew up with," she says recently as she served a meal in her Bethesda home for family and guests.
"Being in England is reason enough, because the food is so bad," her husband, Hassan, joked.
The visual effect of the dinner she prepares is striking. When she slices into a traditional meat dumpling, made with lentils and plenty of herbs, she reveals a boiled egg and several gleaming fruits and nuts that have cooked within. Color-coordinated herbs, including luscious rose petals, top a cucumber-yogurt side dish so it nearly resembles a flower.
Traditional home cooking, the family agrees, may not be the best food to all; but for those who associate it with their deepest childhood memories, there's nothing like it.

Marco Nocco, executive chef of Galileo Restaurant, also learned cooking at home. When he was a 13-year-old boy living in Sardinia, his family decided at the dinner table, of course to open a restaurant. His grandmother adapted the traditional home cooking for a clientele of hundreds. Mr. Nocco, now 31, did dishes and cleaned the fish (seafood is abundant in Sardinia) in the family restaurant. At age 14, he entered a five-year cooking school.
Would-be Italian cooks will see the traditional dough-kneading techniques, and Mr. Nocco and others from Galileo will probably tell them that there is no substitute for the time and muscle. He'll even explain what the kneading does, breaking the starch and fat in the right way to create the right texture for the flat bread.
"That's what my grandmother taught me," he explains, working the dough. "Mealtime was always one of the most important times of the day growing up."
Although demonstration watchers won't see every step of the process the 45-minute sessions won't allow it Mr. Nocco stays true to his grandmother's lessons, making the chicken stock, for example, by boiling chicken carcasses for hours. He'll bring along a pasta rolling device: Dough goes in one end, Mr. Nocco turns a crank, and the sheet of dough comes out the other end, twice as long and half as thick as before. Then he'll do it again, and again, until the dough is giant flag that, apparently defying the laws of physics, holds together without breaking. When it comes time to dress the dough that becomes foccaccia, he uses a coarse, crystalline salt, which stands up to baking and zeroes in on the surrounding flavors like a laser.
Timing is key in pasta making, because the soft dough dries quickly when exposed to air. Mr. Nocco will lay piles of the ravioli stuffing pre-prepared and cooled like the spicier stuffing of Shah's samozas on one sheet of dough, cover them with another, and use a tool resembling a cookie-cutter to produce the tasty pouches.
It's fancy cooking, and it's served in an upscale Washington restaurant. But to Mr. Nocco, it's a tradition he may pass on some day to another generation. The restaurant, now 17 years old, prides itself on serving traditional dishes even in a culinary world of stylish, cross-cultural one-upmanship.

Nowadays, the demonstrators at Foodways live modern lives, where time is tight and ingredients are abundant. Like all traditions, cuisine adapts and takes shortcuts where needed. Zenian, for example, gets the chicken stock for her rice the same way most people do from a can. It's much easier to buy frozen, ready-made paneer (a soft Indian cheese) than it is to slave over the hot stove cooking down the milk at low heat. Modern ethnic groceries, and even several mainstream supermarkets, provide pre-mixed masalas in jars, canned bean dishes, and exotic deserts for the hurried. The same stores offer other ties to foreign lands, like clothing, CDs, videos and even appliances that run on 220 Volts.
But long ago, there were no shortcuts. The hearth was the center of the home and the women or servants spent all day preparing one meal after another grinding grains, rolling dough, boiling stock.
"When breakfast was over, they started preparing for lunch," says Shah. "When lunch was over, they started preparing for afternoon tea. The housewife or mother was always busy cooking, especially if she did not have modern facilities."
In India, cuisine varies from region to region and even from household to household. Shah says every family has its own recipe for garam masala, a common and characteristically Indian mix of spices.
Shah intends to cook, in addition to the three dishes composing the Foodways theme, several chutneys, the flavorful condiments that accompany Indian food.
The cooks will have only about 45 minutes to prepare their dishes before making way for the next cuisine. With traditions that require so much patience and care, Shah, a veteran cooking demonstrator, will have to take the same kinds of shortcuts the chefs on television cooking show use. The stuffing for the samosas (typically made of potatoes, garbanzo beans, lentils or other vegetables) must be cool before the samosa dough is wrapped around it, so she will have batches pre-prepared. After demonstrating how to make it, she'll switch to the cooled stuff, just like TV cooks.
After years of involvement in Indian-American cultural organizations, Shah today marvels at the abundance of specialty items. She recalls that when she first came to America in 1967, New York's most popular Indian grocer would only give one bunch of fresh coriander to each customer, for fear of running out. Now, the herb is available even at ordinary stores.

Visitors to the Foodways tent at the Folklife Festival might get hungry from the smells and sights before them. But they won't get samples, free or otherwise; the temporary kitchen set up will not be licensed for public food demonstrations. Luckily, several concessionaires will have native specialties available nearby.
The volunteer cooks are on a mission, not just to spread culinary gospel but also to give people a taste of cultures they may know little about. Recent world attention to central Asia is coincidental if happy: The Silk Road theme, orchestrated by the Smithsonian and the Silk Road Project, an organization founded by Mr. Ma, began planning for the event three years ago. According to national tourism associations, the two-weekend annual festival is one of the nation's most popular travel destinations every year. For the participants, the opportunity to demystify a region and share their heritage has never been greater.
"If you're exposed to many cultures, then you become a happy person because you're tolerant of other people," Shah says. "You respect other people's culture and views."

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