The idea for this post sprung from a run to the store. In 2002, I moved to Detroit Metropolitan and became a frequent visitor to the Arab groceries in the area. On one of my first visits, I encountered ma’amoul, a crumbly pastry with a rich date or nut filling, which reminded me of the mooncakes of my childhood. The wooden mold used to shape the dough also bore an uncanny resemblance to those used for the Chinese product. This inspired me to investigate how much of Chinese cuisine had its roots in the Middle East, and vice versa.
Mooncakes would not be the only Chinese pastry with connections to elsewhere in Eurasia. The Manchus, who ruled China between 1644 and 1911, also liked sweets from further West. They introduced the Chinese to chak chak, a syrup-soaked fritter from Central Asia. Now known by its Manchu name, sachima, the pastry features in celebrations of Chinese New Year’s celebrations.
Last month, I noticed a seventeenth-century recipe for a “fire roasted rose pastry from the palace.” After some fiddling in the kitchen, I was able to reconstruct the pastry. The mixed nuts spoke to culinary influences from the Middle East. So did the aromatic spices and the use of mint.
The rose, the central attraction, is worth lingering over, for it supplies a further connection to the West. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinese were mad about roses. They not only baked decadent pastries with them, but also consumed them as candy. Some cooks pounded rose petals with sugar into a paste, while others deep-fried the fragrant petals or used them to make steamed rice cakes.
According to botanist Shiu-ying Hu, the rose, or Rosa rugosa, is native to northern China. But the Chinese were hardly alone in devising culinary applications for the flower. People in the Middle East and Central Asia have long baked and cooked with roses. During the Crusades, Europeans picked up the habit from the Middle East and brought it to the Americas. Rosewater, in fact, was an American pantry staple, until someone figured out how to manufacture vanilla cheaply in the early nineteenth century.
Unlike Americans, Chinese have never lost their gastronomical appreciation of the flower. Yunnan is famous today for its fresh rose cakes, and rosebud tea remains a popular drink. Oreos even come in rose flavor.
1. All-purpose flour, 1 ¼ cup
2. Sesame oil, 3 T
3. Granulated sugar, 3 T
4. Boiling Water, 3/4 cup
5. Salt, pinch
1. Rose jam or candied roses, chopped
2. ¼ cup melon seeds (these are pricey, so you can substitute raw pumpkin seeds)
3. ½ cup of hazelnuts, blanched almonds, and skinned walnuts, coarsely chopped
4. Fresh mint, 3/4 ounces, stems removed, rinsed, and minced
5. Cardamom, ground, 1 teaspoon
6. Fennel seeds, ground, 1 teaspoon
7. White sesame seeds, ¼ cup
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and oil a baking sheet.
2. Mix dry ingredients for the dough with the sesame oil. Then add and incorporate the boiling water to make a ball. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent drying.
3. Divide the dough into small balls and roll out on a surface dusted with flour. You will want to make thin discs of about 4 inches in diameter.
4. If using rose jam, brush it on the disc in a circle of about 3 inches in diameter. Do not add too much jam (if using), otherwise it will leak out during the baking process.
5. Sprinkle a little of the mint, fennel, and cardamom on the rose jam.
6. Add about ¾-1 tablespoon of the nuts to the area that has been covered with jam. Be careful not to overload the dough.
7. Bring the edges of the pastry together to seal like one would when making mooncakes or a wife’s cake. I place the pastry seam-side down.
8. Flatten the dough a little and sprinkle sesame seeds on both ends.