A culinary journey along the Silk Road, by Sabrina Ghayour and Peter Frankopan

British historian, Peter Frankopan and culinary author, Sabrina Ghayour explore how the historic trade route has shaped the way different cultures consume food

Sirocco, the title of Persian author Sabrina Ghayour’s much-loved culinary guide, is infused with meaning. Named for the Mediterranean wind that blows from East to West, from the Saharan desert to the European basin, it is symbolic of the a natural merging of culture and cuisine across the ancient Silk Road network.

Food is a great connector of people when it is readily available, a common denominator that binds us all together, she says, speaking at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in a session called ‘The Journeys of Food: A Supper Club Discussion’, alongside Peter Frankopan, a British historian and Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.

It was Frankopan’s book that helped Tehran-born Ghayour put into context how produce such as hers were traded back and forth historically along the fabled cultural highways across Arabia, Persia, India and China.  “It helped me get a real sense that the East had truly thrived in a way we perhaps didn't previously fully appreciate or recall in the West”, she says.  

Exotic spices, particularly cloves, cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, and vegetables and crops like sugar and rice were extensively traded. “You can still see, smell, taste the impact of the legacy of ancient culture and diversity in our world, from food and trade to travel and the way we eat and live; this is part of what made us who we are today.”

Frankopan, described in The New Statesman as the ‘history rock star du jour’ rather fittingly wrote his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, while experimenting with Sabrina’s recipes from her debut cookbook Persiana. Digging into the plentiful, perfumed dishes of saffron stew, lamb and sour cherry meatballs, lemon tagine and blood orange and radicchio salads celebrated in the book for their fluid cultural associations, was perfect sustenance for Frankopan’s written exploration of trade and cultural exchange.

Peter Frankopan and Sabrina Ghayour at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2017
Peter Frankopan (right) and Sabrina Ghayour at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Tasting history

Though the historian agrees with Ghayour that the concept of breaking bread with someone in our language is a way of bringing people together, it was also an exchange of power along the ‘axis on which the world spun’ – the route taking in Asia Minor, Central Asia, The Caucasus, China and the Middle East that harks back to the Han dynasty, he says.

“Spices are a status symbol, a driver of global trade. Historically, exotic foods were brought in from all over the world. We talk about how we’re in an era of globalisation, but global trade has been happening for centuries, particularly with spices in food and medicine, such as nutmeg oil and cardamom oil – it’s the speed of globalisation that is new.”

As a consequence, food not only has the power to traverse natural borders and frontiers, such as deserts and mountains, but to break geographical or administrative boundaries that are imposed by human beings ultimately interested in creating hierarchies and identities.

“These frontiers are hugely complex but we are humans and we like to categorise, and we like to break things down and create labels to make them easy to understand,” Frankopan says. “The most exciting thing for me to understand is how people create tolerance, how they become prosperous, what’s required to enable growth and make decisions that will enable them to play down differences.”

For Ghayour, it is the proud understanding that “when in the Middle East, every meal is a feast” that enables this prosperity, tolerance and democracy. “People can say whatever they want about the Middle East,” she says, “but they can’t say we aren’t hospitable. They can’t say we don’t do good food.”