This doughnut's an 1,100-year-old Silk Road treat

Posted: March 10, 2011

In your years of spring cleaning, no doubt you've unearthed a strange something or two from the depths of your pantry or fridge.

But that's nothing compared to the jaw-dropping food finds archaeologists discovered in recent years along the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road.

Three kinds of cookies, a twisted doughnut, a spring roll, and a wonton, some dating back 2,500 years, are on display now through June 5 as part of the "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibition at the Penn Museum.

Take a moment to digest this idea:

A fried pastry in the shape of a chrysanthemum flower, entombed sometime between the fifth and third century B.C. to nourish the dead in the afterlife, looks only slightly stale.

A Plum Blossom pastry dating from the seventh to ninth century A.D. is missing only the dollop of preserves that would have been in its hollow center.

The twisted doughnut in the exhibition, dating from the Tang Dynasty, resembles a Shrinky Dink version of the same pastry available today in the museum's Pepper Mill Cafe.

How can this be?

"The extremely dry climate in the Tarim Basin," in Central Asia, southwest of the Gobi Desert, "preserved this food," according to E.N. Anderson, an anthropologist at the University of California, Riverside.

The wonton and the spring roll, Anderson writes in the museum's Expedition magazine, undoubtedly had fillings, but the contents are long dried out now and impossible to identify.

Still, these artifacts are not that far afield in appearance from the wontons and spring rolls that we eat today and call Chinese food.

The landmark Silk Road exhibition, making its only East Coast appearance at the Penn Museum, has been much publicized because it features two rare mummies; it gleaned tremendous attention when the Chinese government initially refused to let the museum display the mummies. China relented, though, and the real mummies can be seen now through Tuesday.

The rest of the Silk Road artifacts, along with the food finds, are in place for the duration. (For information on the exhibition, including hours and ticket prices, go to www.penn.museum.)

To emphasize the presence of these culinary relics, the museum cafe, now run by Wolfgang Puck Catering, is offering an extended menu with a mix of fresh "re-creations" of the preserved foods, some much sought-after Chinese and Indian teas, and a full roster of Silk Road-inspired regional dishes.

Fresh re-creations of the sweet Fried Dough Twists, Plum Blossom pastries, and wontons in the exhibit halls are available daily in the cafe at $2 to $4.

Among the teas are China Chrysanthemum, Tranquility Mao Feng, and Keemun Hairpoint, first grade, priced at $2 to $3.50.

Lunch platters ($5 to $7) include soup, entree, side dishes, and dessert, and spotlight recipes from countries along the trade route.

From Thailand, for example, Steamed Mussels in Lemongrass With Thai Basil and Chili Coconut Juice; Tibetan Dumplings and Himalayan Salty Butter Tea from Nepal; Tandoori Cauliflower from Sri Lanka; Baked Chicken With Lime and Cumin from Pakistan; Tamarind Ginger Potatoes from Afghanistan; Pistachio Soup with Pomegranates from Iran.

And more: stuffed grape leaves; lamb gyro; fried bananas with ginger ice cream; baklava. You'll have to remind yourself that you came to see the museum exhibition.

Still, all the offerings at the Pepper Mill Cafe are online at www.penn.museum/eat-at-the-museum.html, so you can plan your trip on the basis of what's cooking.


Ancient Wontons

Makes 6-8 servings

One beaten egg

For the wrappers:

1 egg

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 to 1/2 cup water, as needed

For the filling:

1 cup finely chopped Napa or Savoy cabbage

Coarse salt

12 ounces ground pork, not all lean

6 scallions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

2 teaspoons superior soy sauce

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1. To begin preparing the wrappers, lightly beat the egg with the salt. Add 1/4 cup water. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the middle and add the egg and water mixture. Mix in with the flour. Add as much of the remaining water as necessary to form a dough (add more water than the recipe calls for if the dough is too dry). Form the dough into a ball and knead for about five minutes, or until it forms a smooth, workable dough. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.

2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out until very thin, and cut into 3 1/2-inch squares. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.

3. To begin preparing the filling, in a medium bowl, toss the cabbage with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let stand 10 minutes. Wrap cabbage in a double layer of paper towels and firmly squeeze out excess liquid. Return cabbage to bowl. Add pork, scallions, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Mix well with a fork. Reserve.

4. To assemble, lay out a wonton wrapper on a cutting board, corners facing north, south, east, and west. Place 1/2 tablespoon of filling into center of wrapper. Brush edges of wonton skin with egg wash. Folding bottom to top, begin to seal wonton in triangle shape. Cook in broth for soup or deep-fry, until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.

- From chef Chris Stevens, Pepper Mill Cafe, Penn Museum

Per serving (based on 8): 262 calories, 12 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 12 grams fat, 83 milligrams cholesterol, 296 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Ancient Honey Sesame Crisps

Makes 6-8 servings

2 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup honey

2 eggs

1/2 cup sesame seeds

1. In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.

2. In another bowl, combine butter, honey, and eggs with an electric mixer until well combined. Gradually beat in the flour mixture. Cover and chill the dough for one hour or until firm.

3. Preheat oven to 375. Grease two baking sheets. Form chilled dough into 1-inch balls and place balls on prepared baking sheets. Flatten each ball slightly. Bake 10 minutes or until golden brown.

4. Remove cookies from baking sheets, brush tops with melted butter, and roll in sesame seeds while still warm. Cool on a wire rack.

- Courtesy of chef Chris Stevens, Pepper Mill Cafe at the Penn Museum

Per serving: 376 calories, 7 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 77 milligrams cholesterol, 193 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://www.philly.com/diannamarder.

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