The first rumblings of spring have reached the Central Atlantic. The green tips of daffodils and jonquils are pushing through the still firm soil, and in some sunny spots, snowdrops and crocus are already starting to bloom. This means that the early crops of rhubarb should be out soon. Fluorescent pink stems topped with deep green, chard-like leaves will soon fill the market shelves, so it seems a good time to tell some of the Silk Road history of this amazing plant.
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Genetic analysis of plant diversity tells us that rhubarb’s origins are probably on the Tibetan Plateau, but that it spread early into northwestern China and to some of the bordering areas of Central Asia and Mongolia.
The Chinese were the first to document the use rhubarb — as a medicine. The first mention of rhubarb use is in “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,” which is part of a Chinese oral tradition that probably reaches back to the second century B.C. In this work, rhubarb is used to treat malaria, people who have delirious speech with fever, and constipation, among many other maladies.
Trade to the West for medicinal purposes started early. In Greco-Roman culture, rhubarb was used as a general purgative, and was considered useful in combating many diseases. The Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides wrote in his first-century work, “De Materia Medica,” that rhubarb came from, “beyond the Bosporus,” in Turkey while the later Roman writer, Ammianus Marcellinus believed it to come from the “lands of the northern Caucasus near the Volga River inhabited by the Amazons” (Scythians).
Rhubarb’s long road
The reason for this confusion about the origin of rhubarb is because of the patchwork nature of trade on the Silk Road. Only rarely were shipments carried long distances by a single merchant or carrier. Most of the time, goods traded hands many times as they traversed the Old World.
As rhubarb’s reputation as a cure-all spread across continents, so the price of the root rose precipitously, until the finest quality rhubarb was more expensive than cinnamon or saffron.
It is difficult to find European references for rhubarb beyond Byzantium, but medicinal use of the stems and roots is noted by 10th-century “Arab” physicians Yahya ibn Sarafyun (Serapion the Elder) of Syria and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) of Uzbekistan.
These writers use rhubarb as a purgative, but also use it for many urinary tract diseases, and to increase the flow of semen. Interestingly, Marco Polo identified it growing in the 13th century in the mountains of Qinghai and Gansu provinces in northwestern China. So, like many other sources of knowledge that disappeared or were held close in monasteries in Europe’s Dark Ages, Levantine and Muslim scholars may have kept the study and use of medicinal rhubarb current for their times.
By the early 15th century, the vibrant trade of rhubarb from China to Uzbekistan and on to Persia on the Silk Road is documented by the Castilian ambassador to Timur’s court in Samarkand, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo. The 16th-century Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens gives one of the first scientific descriptions of the modern age for rhubarb in his “Cruydeboeck” (“Herbal”) in 1554.
Sweet and savory dishes with rhubarb
In the West, it is generally regarded that the first completely culinary uses of rhubarb (not as a medicinal tonic or potion) began in the late 18th and early 19th century. The earliest recipe I could find was in the 1807 edition of Maria Eliza Rundell’s “A New System of Domestic Cookery.” In the 1824 volume, Rundell has two seemingly delicious recipes for rhubarb tarts, both of which call for copious amounts of cane sugar.
That history aside, I would like to share a Silk Road recipe for rhubarb that probably predates Rundell’s by several centuries if not more. It is a traditional dish in northern Iran, near Mashad, but is also enjoyed in Turkmenistan and other parts of Central Asia where merchants helped naturalize rhubarb during the course of its transport on the Silk Road.
The recipe is for a lamb and rhubarb stew that uses rhubarb as a souring agent to complement the earthy lamb, much as sour plums or sour cherries are used in other recipes. I think that the recipe might be Central Asian in origin, because like many other Central Asian dishes, it also relies on herbs rather than spices for much of its flavor. It’s a great example of the foods that came flooding west from the various Persian conquests of the territories to its north and east, possibly during the Seljuk Dynasty.
Since rhubarb is being rediscovered as a vegetable, it is often available beyond its traditional short season, which allows this recipe to be made almost any time of the year. But with spring on the way, now is the time to make this dish to celebrate the seasonal rebirth that this time brings.
Lamb and Rhubarb Stew
2 tablespoons light sesame or peanut oil
¾ pound lamb cut into cubes
1 large onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
3 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
4 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup water
1 cup beef or chicken stock (or a mixture of both)
1 to 2 teaspoons nutmeg, grated
¼ cup fresh mint, chopped (more to taste)
1 medium bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
1½ tablespoons sugar (more to taste)
3 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1-inch slices (peeled if desired)
1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and when hot, sear lamb cubes over high heat until golden brown around the edges, stirring constantly. When meat is done, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
2. Lower heat to medium and add the onions, sautéing until they start to soften and color. Then add garlic, chili peppers, salt and pepper and stir until the garlic starts to swell and color. When garlic is done, add water and beef or chicken stock and cook to heat. When hot, add lamb back into the pot, add 1 teaspoon of the grated nutmeg to the stew. Cover and cook over medium-low or low for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until lamb becomes tender.
3. When lamb is nearly done, add the chopped mint and stir well. Then add the cilantro and sugar and stir in as well. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes and then add the rhubarb and cook another 3 to 5 minutes or until the rhubarb softens, but is still firm (not soggy). Remove from heat, grate the remainder of the nutmeg in and serve. This dish works best served with barley, but one can use millet or rice as well.
In addition to delicious desserts and savory stews, rhubarb is once again being used as medicine. It has joined the growing list of, “superfoods” because it is packed with vitamins C and K, is high in fiber, and contains calcium. Rhubarb extract is also being investigated as a chemotherapy agent to stop the spread of some cancers and to trigger cell death (apoptosis) in some tumors; as a cholinesterase inhibitor to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia disorders; as an antimicrobial drug; and as an antioxidant. The ancients knew that rhubarb was good for you, they just didn’t know why.
Top photo: Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas