Sips of the Silk Road highlight legacy of traders

By Mike Peters | China Daily | Updated: 2017-05-16 07:34

The dates are from present-day Pakistan, the roasted cumin from Xinjiang.

"It's a drink that captures the essence of the Silk Road," says Beijing's amiable barman Badr Benjelloun of one of his favorite cocktails, From Kashgar with Love. Kashgar, an oasis city in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, is the westernmost Chinese city and it has become virtually synonymous with the ancient trade route.

The routes are much more than a chapter for history books - they represent a cultural legacy that lives on today, even in food and drink.

Moroccan native Benjelloun is well-versed in the lore of the Silk Road - his countryman Ibn Battuta arrived in the year 1345 at Quanzhou in China's Fujian province, and journals recording his journeys in the Middle East and Asia are among the most colorful lore of the old traders' era.

Sips of the Silk Road highlight legacy of traders

People would travel for a long time, sometimes years to move spices, tea and other goods from one end of the known world to the other.

"Of course, they needed to eat," says Benjelloun, and his Kashgar-themed cocktail reflects foods that came to be found from one end of the Silk Road to the other.

The result is blend of Spanish gin, fresh-squeeze apple juice, crushed date, grapefruit bitters and freshly roasted cumin - that final touch sprinkled on top "to put the desert on your palate", he says with a smile.

He debated which liquor to use for the base and settled on gin, which he calls "the traveler's liquor".

"There is actually a cocktail called Silk Road - it's gin and grapefruit basically," he muses. "Citrus appears a lot in Silk Road recipes, old and new, which is a little odd considering that not much citrus grows along the route."

Perhaps that's while it was coveted.

Apples originally came to China from what is modern-day Kazakhstan, but by the peak of the ancient traders' era, Benjelloun notes, the fruit was known from Italy to China.

"From color to flavor," he says, "the whole package captures the aura of the Silk Road. It's mellow and easy to drink, with flavors that would keep me in Kashgar."

Inspired by Benjelloun, China Daily checked in at some other hip bars around China to see how Silk Road flavors have inspired today's cocktail shakers.

1 Gluhwein Flip

Creator: Sunny Sun, Mercedes Me, Beijing

Poached fig adds richness to a blend of red wine, five-spice powder, cacao amaro, egg white. 75 yuan

Silk Road fun fact: "Figs probably first traveled east to China along the Silk Road after the Islamic conquests," K.E. Carr writes in her History of Figs, "as the first time we hear about figs in China is about 700 AD ..., and then people in China called figs by their Arabic name, tin.

2 Persian Julab

Creator: Daniel An, Taste Buds, Shanghai

A throwback to the original Arabic julab that later got tweaked by Kentucky horse racing fans in the US. Musky and aromatic, An's cocktail is made with rum, rose syrup, lime juice, Aperol and sparkling purple rose powder, and it arrives in a sumptuous brass mug with a long braided handle. 88 yuan.

Silk Road fun fact: Traders blended or infused China's famed pu'er leaves with rose petals to create a fragrant and relaxing black tea.

2/F, 368 Wukang Lu, near Hunan Lu; 138-1802-1597.

3 Sunday Morning

Creator: Kelvin Wood, Lotus Lounge, Guangzhou

Pisco brandy, violet, thyme, apple and red chili come together in a global meld of flavors that mirrors the spirit of the Silk Road itself. 108 yuan

Silk Road fun fact: Apples first came to China from present-day Kazakhstan. Chili peppers came to India from the New World in the 15th century, and from there spread quickly across Asia.

107 No 7 Bldg Xingshen Road, Zhujian New Town, Tianhe district, Guangzhou; 131 4372 2245

4 Siam Laksa

Creator: Frankie Zou, Botany, Beijing

New on the bar's summer menu, this southern concoction delivers a touch of the tropics, with Diplomatico blanco rum, mushroom vermouth, coconut, chili spice, curry leaf and chia seeds.

Silk Road fun fact: Curry leaves are the source of confusion due to a general misunderstanding about the word "curry." In this case, the word comes from kadhi or kari, Indian names for the plant, and has no direct connection to yellow curry powder or to any particular style of curry dish. The leaves do give some Indian curries a distinctive lemony and faintly bitter flavor.

Apt 1209, Building 2, Yongli International Building, Chaoyang district, 010-6463-6091.

5 Gold Martini

Creator: Frederick Ma, The Black Moth, Beijing

A martini to make James Bond whimper, the use of saffron gin and gold makes this one worthy of any Persian ruler's banquet.

Silk Road fun fact: Highly valued as a drug and aphrodisiac, saffron was used by Alexander the Great to heal his battle wounds, Laura Kelley writer in The Silk Road Gourmet. From Fertile Crescent and Persian roots, saffron's golden hues and rich blanket of gentle flavor has been used as an ingredient in wine, rice, curries and stews for millennia.

6 Tomato and Cheese

Creator: Jackael He, Portman's bar, Shanghai

The namesake Italian imports blossom in a mix of Capano Punt e Mens vermouth, the aromatized wine Lillet blanc, and tomato water with a few drops of celery bitters - "a fresh, long and easy aperitif drink people can have before dinner".

Silk Road fun fact: The ground seeds of cumin for centuries have been a staple in traditional spice powders, from Indian garam masala to some Chinese five-spice mixtures. In ancient times, they were used to pay taxes in Rome, but the Chinese never used them for that purpose.

7 Hazaki Fizz

Creator: Sami Mersel for O'Hara's bar at The Astor Hotel, Tianjin

Shiso leaf-infused gin, fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup, vanilla extract and lemonade make a great summer refresher.

Silk Road fun facts: The native origins of the pungent shiso leaf (perilla) are said to be the mountainous terrains of India and China. It spread throughout China centuries ago, and was introduced to Japan in the eighth or ninth century. Sweet vanilla, meanwhile, was introduced to Madagascar in the 19th century, when French colonialists brought vanilla pod-producing orchids from Mexico. A recent influx of Chinese investors has led to increased productivity to meet rising international demand.


Sips of the Silk Road highlight legacy of traders

Beijing's Tiki Lounge was recently forced to close in the wake of a hutong demolition, but fans of the well-executed concept eagerly await its resurrection in a new location. Meanwhile, Hawaiian-shirted barman Phil Tory shares this recipe for one of his signature cocktails.

Silk Road fun fact: Fresh litchi was in such demand at China's imperial court that the fastest horses available were dispatched to deliver the fruits from Guangdong province. Powdered litchi fruits from China's tropical areas have long been mixed with tea to make a sweet and flavorful brew that is said to be good for the skin.


.25 oz simple syrup

.5 oz lime juice

.75 oz orange juice

1 oz litchi juice

1.5 oz Anejo rum

.5 oz Bye Joe Dragon Fire baijiu

3 drops almond extract

Lemon, lime wheel, speared fresh red chili garnish.

One reason for the name Goodbai Fu Manchu, says Tiki's Oliver Davies, is that the fictional archvillain was a nasty character, and a lot of Chinese beliefs are centered around shooing away bad luck and bad spirits and welcoming in good spirits. The good spirits, naturally, are in the glass.

(China Daily 05/16/2017 page8)

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