Is it possible that an exotic date-filled confection offers insights into the secret origins of Christianity? Well, while it remains a fringe theory, researchers have suggested that during Jesus Christ’s so-called “Lost Years” — between the ages of 12 and 30 — he may have traveled east along the Silk Road, studying Zoroastrianism in Persia and then immersing himself in Buddhism and Hinduism in India. These spiritual practices would become the bedrock of his teachings upon his return to Israel.
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Implausible, you say? Perhaps. But if you’re looking for clues, you’re less likely to find them in decaying documents or a secret trove of relics than in a delicious Iranian pastry known as koloocheh, the round, doughy delicacy that I discovered while browsing the aisles of my favorite Iranian market in Irvine, Calif. Like a cross between the Fig Newton and the German Jewish Purim pastry hamantaschen, koloocheh have the distinctly Eastern twist of sugary dates, perfumed rose water and cardamom. Intrigued, I decided to re-create them for my Persian cookbook.
Cookie as Cultural Connector
Little did I know when I started to research koloocheh that they would reveal a bridge between diverse peoples and vast distances stretching back millennia. As it turns out, similar filled round cakes form a part of the holiday traditions of virtually all cultures whose paths have crossed the ancient Silk Road trade routes. In India, fried gujia pastries with coconut, dried fruit, and nuts, are eaten during Holi, the Hindu festival of colors that marks the start of spring. Further east, in China, the mid-autumn harvest festival ushers in the season of moon cakes, pastries pressed in elaborate molds and stuffed with fillings both sweet and savory. Heading west, in Eastern Europe, the yeasted buns known as kolachy or kalacs hold jam, poppy seeds and walnut fillings, and are meticulously prepared at Easter. Round, stuffed sweets are also an iconic part of Slavic cooking, where the name kolache is derived from the Old Slavonic word kolo, for “circle” or “wheel.”
To the south of Iran, in the Arabic world, ma’amoul are formed in intricately patterned wooden molds, then stuffed with dates and walnuts. Ma’amoul are eaten by Muslims at Eid, Christians at Easter, and Lebanese and Egyptian Jews at Purim, while their fried, honey-soaked counterparts, known as makroud in Tunisia, are a part of North African Eid celebrations. There is evidence of similar filled confections as far back as Sumer, now modern-day Iraq, one of the ancient world’s most sophisticated civilizations.
Silk Road Influence
If Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims all celebrate holy days with similar foods, it hardly seems outrageous to suggest that their spiritual rituals might also share a common foundation. Indeed, this is why koloocheh goes to the very heart of what my book, “The New Persian Kitchen,” is all about: how the Silk Road’s rich synthesis of ideas formed the unique culinary treasure that is Iranian food. It became crucial to me that a recipe for koloocheh, such an emblematic sweet, be a standout among the book’s recipes.
After several different approaches, I finally created a cookie that was simple to make and beautiful to behold. The key lay in making a buttery dough rendered flexible with the addition of an egg. Formed into disks, the dough is topped with a spoonful of date-walnut filling, then pinched closed and molded into a puck shape. A sprinkling of walnuts serves as decoration, and any imperfections are covered by a snowy layer of powdered sugar. The cookies are flaky and moist, not too sweet, and ideal with a cup of hot tea, which is how they would typically be served in Iran.
My cookie conundrum served as a lesson about the role recipes play in human evolution. They are mobile nuggets of knowledge reshaped by their adopted cultures and eras, living documents of history. I don’t know if koloocheh came to Iran via the east or the west, and I don’t know if Jesus took Buddhist ideas back with him from India to Israel. But it’s clear that the diverse societies along the Silk Road strongly influenced one another, and I need only look as far as koloocheh to see — and taste — the truth of that theory. Just think: Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East have been reimagining and integrating each other’s ideas since before the time of either Buddhism or Christianity. The ancient conversation continues as recipes evolve in the New World.
Top photo: Louisa Shafia (in front of a monitor also featuring her). Credit: James Rotondi