Edward Schafer and Berthold Laufer

The Golden Peaches of Samarkand
Chronicles of the Silk Road — Tang Dynasty

Crystallized Ginger

“Without coriander, saffron, mint, ginger and oregano, the foods of the Middle East and China wold be bland indeed.” — Kathie Webber [1]

Kathie Webber is right.  Who could imagine Sichuan cooking without hot red peppers?  And yet they are a fairly recent addition to the Sichuan kitchen.

Chinese eggplant, watermelon, winter melon, and bitter melon — things we think of as typically Chinese foods — all have their origin in other parts of the world, and traveled to China in ancient times.

Chinese jade chopsticks, Qing

Jade Chopsticks collected by Berthold Laufer

The picture is similar in other parts of Asia, perhaps most strikingly in the Philippines, at the crossroads of the routes across the Pacific. This archipelago is the place where Chinese and Spanish influences would merge in the unique cuisine of that nation.

Who can imagine Lumpia without its special Agrodolce sauce? Without tomatoes — a Spanish import from the New World — this sauce and dish would not be possible.

Edward Schafer and Berthold Laufer were not actually Master Chefs in the usual sense.  We don’t know much about what they cooked or ate, but they helped write our menus and cookbooks, in a way providing footnotes to along list of ingredients that are key to Pacific Rim cuisines.

We don’t have a category for Master Philologists or Master Anthropologists, so Schafer and Laufer will have to fit into this Master Chef category.  Just don’t look for any recipes associated with these gentlemen.  They wrote a lot about the ingredient lists in the recipes of the region.

Three Trade Routes: Thee were three major trade routes in the ancient and early modern times that moved the recipe ingredients — and some of the recipes — from East to West and back again.  These two men helped explore the routes.  Let’s take a look at them.

The Silk Road — Camels and Oases: The main pathway between East and West over the deserts and wilderness of Central Asia, was what we call the Silk Road.  It was an important trade route for centuries and carried many of the recipe items we know today from their original homelands to other places.

Tang Dynasty Camel
From the Silk Road, 8th Century

Edward Schafer, a professor of Chinese at the University of California, was fascinated by the trade along this route, especially in Tang Dynasty China (from 618 to about 908, and devoted many years to finding out what moved where along the old main Silk Road.

Schafer was an avid student of the movement of things and ideas along the Silk Roads or Spice Routes, as some people call them.  Schafer, expert in Chinese language and literature, combed numerous ancient Chinese encyclopedias, cookbooks, travel journals and other records of the movements along the ancient trade routes.

Schafer gives the background on the travels of many important ingredients between East and West including —

Spinach — Kohlrabi — Leeks — Sugar Beets — Pine Nuts — Dill —  Black Pepper — Sugar

“The best of modern Chinese cooking has developed in relatively recent times…under the influence of foreign taste and customs.” — Edward Schafer [2]

Schafer dedicated his major work — The Golden Peaches of Samarkand — to the memory of anthropologist and Asia scholar Berthold Laufer.

Laufer and Asia: The two men possibly never met.

Laufer was a German-born anthropologist with wide knowledge of many Asian languages.  He was a major scholar of Chinese and Tibetan cultures, and also explored in depth the trade routes in goods, ideas and technology between ancient China and Iran. [3

Anthropologist Berthold Laufer

Berthold Laufer
Explorer of the Silk Road

Laufer wrote a long series of articles and monographs on Asian anthropology that covered cultural exchanges between East and West in ancient times — covering topics such as ostriches, myrobalans — the East Indian tree whose fruits are used for dyestuffs and inks — turquoise and jade.  Laufer wrote about Asian theatricals, the history of felt and asbestos, and the concept of the giraffe in China and the ancient Roman Empire.

In 1910, in the final months of the Qing Dynasty — which ended in 1911 — Laufer led an important expedition to China and Tibet.  In the turmoil of these days he was able to buy a huge trove of artistic and anthropological treasures, including a hoard of incomparable jade objects now in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum.

Imperial Chinese Jade Censer
Collected by Berthold Laufer

Between the two of them, Laufer and Schafer were far-reaching travelers on the Silk Road trade routes.  They uncovered the background and history of many of the foods now a part of the Chinese and other Pacific Rim menus, tracing the migration of many of today’s Asian foods and spices along the Eurasian land mass.

In addition to the main Silk Road, there were a couple of other major trade routes which ingredients moved along — we’ll look at them ina separate article.

For Further Information:

[1] Kathie Webber, Cooking with Unusual Foods (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1981).
[2] Edward Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand; A Study of T’ang Exotics University of California, ) —  http://www.amazon.com/Golden-Peaches-Samarkand-Study-Exotics/dp/0520054628
[3] “Berthold Laufer,” article, Wikipedia —   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berthold_Laufer


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