The Road That Changed the Way You Eat

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A boy carries bread in a market in Uzbekistan, the modern-day home of several ancient Silk Road routes. Photo credit: Getty

Perhaps you’ve heard the whimsical tale of how 13th–century trader Marco Polo first brought noodles to Italy from China via the Silk Road, an ancient series of trading routes that once criss-crossed the length of Europe and Asia. Turns out the legend may be little more than romantic fantasy, but it’s an excellent illustration of how the Silk Road facilitated an epic mingling of cuisines and cultures. 

Now, new findings suggest that the Silk Road was changing history long before we ever suspected—and the evidence can be traced back to a few preserved grains of domesticated millet and wheat.

But let’s back up a bit. Until recently, researchers believed the many trails that made up the Silk Road began forming around 1,000 B.C. That was right around when King David became ruler of the Israelites, rice cultivation began in ancient Japan, and the Phoenician alphabet was invented. So we already knew the Silk Road was old. But we didn’t realize how old.

In a study published in the most recent issue of the journal “Proceedings B” (from the United Kingdom’s Royal Society), researchers at Washington University in St. Louis were surprised to discover that charred bits of domesticated wheat and broomcorn millet found at four ancient campsites in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were nearly 5,000 years old. That’s 2,000 years older than they’d expected.

Broomcorn millet originated in farflung eastern reaches of the Silk Road spiderweb, and wheat on its western end. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, however, are smack dab in the middle of the trading routes, which means that the grains were carried by peoples who traversed the distance long before the Silk Road was thought to have existed.

The interactions are “almost like a series of pool balls, bumping into each other,” explained study co-author Michael Frachetti. ”If you connect the dots, you basically get a trail that goes right over the Silk Road.”

Such exchanges had far-reaching consequences that still affect the cuisine today. Although wheat was used to make bread in the Westernmost Mediterranean regions, in Asian cultures it was transformed into noodles and dumplings—already-popular dishes previously made with other grains, including millet. ”It’s interesting that when wheat is introduced to China, [the dish] does not come into China with the ingredient,” said another co-author, Robert Spengler. 

"It’s the same in reverse when millet [came] from central Asia," Spengler said. "You don’t see the [same] noodle technology moving [there]." Millet, a hearty grain with a slightly nutty taste, was used to make noodles in the East. But in the West, it was used to make bread-like dishes.

Of course, none of this happened overnight. “It takes centuries for seeds to transfer, and then [people] have to figure out how to grow them and turn them into tasty foods,” Frachetti said. “[But] once that happens, you see a launch of [these] whole new sorts of cuisine.”

So the next time you order Chinese takeout, remember that those steamed dumplings came a long way to reach you. Tip accordingly.