When broomcorn millet swept along the Silk Road…

Fruit from the sands: The Silk Road origins of the food we eat by Robert N Spengler III, 2019. University of California Press.

In the UK we are blessed with a wide variety and ready availability of fruits all year round in our shops. So commonplace and taken-for-granted is that, I suspect we rarely give much – or any! – thought to where those foods may have come from.* Well, a timely reminder of how we came to have some of those foodstuffs is provided by Robert Spengler III’s Fruits from the sands. But, before we get into my appraisal of this book, we must ask an important question…

What is a Spengler Silk Road fruit?

In Fruits from the sands, the term ‘fruit’ is used by Spengler in several senses. It is used in its botanical sense as the product of fertilisation of flowering plants. In that way it not only includes fruits in the narrow culinary sense such as grapes, apples, melons, peach, apricot, fig, pomegranate, capers, jujube, Russian olives, dates, and cherries, but also covers cereal grains (e.g. rice, wheat, barley), ‘nuts’ such as pistachio, walnuts, and almonds, some spices, and legumes. Furthermore, also included within the umbrella term ‘fruits’ are oils, tea, leafy vegetables, roots and stems, i.e. in the much wider meaning of fruits as ‘edible produce from plants’. In that way, Spengler broadens the book’s scope considerably – and the tale he tells is the better for that.

What is the Silk Road?

For all the exoticism associated with, and images conjured up by, the word silk, Spengler muses that the origins of the Silk Road may lie in the much more mundane ancient routes that supplied remote mining communities. From that unglamorous – if highly practical and necessary – starting point, the Silk Road has been ‘cuisine-mingling’ between East and Central Asia for almost 4000 years until the 14th Century. Impressive in terms of its timescale, it’s also geographically extensive, with a length of 7000 kilometres, and a spread which extends latitudinally between China and Europe, and longitudinally from India into Mongolia, and from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to Siberia.

But, for all this, the Silk Road is not a road, and silk was not its main item of commerce [Indeed, Spengler argues that grape wine was one of the ancient world’s – and this route’s – most important commodities…]. And, not only is the Silk Road not a single road, it’s not even a set of regular paths; instead, it is better thought of as a “dynamic cultural phenomenon”. One which – from the book’s perspective – allowed distant plant species, and wild populations, to come together and allow hybrids to develop. But, in the wider arena of human history, it was a ‘conduit for exchange’, and the Silk Road was important as much for the innovations it transported as the food it carried. Certainly, Silk Road exchange not only had profound effects on cuisine, but also on dissemination of agricultural practices (e.g. crop rotation innovations from Asia), technology and cultural knowledge – all of which were transported and exchanged along this route. According to Spengler, dispersal of organisms along the Silk Road was unmatched until the colonial expansion of European powers, and it was the “greatest trade network the world has seen”.

What sort of book is Fruits from the sands?

Notwithstanding its culinary focus, Fruits from the sands is not a cookery book. Rather, it is very much an academic work – and one that would make a great text for an undergraduate plants-and-people module. But, for all its technical content, it is well-written and eminently readable; it is a scholarly story that is told well.

In terms of scope the book deals with the numerous directional flows of ‘fruits’ along the overland trade routes of the Silk Road. These movements can be summarised in the case of cereals, with wheat and barley travelling from their origin in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East eastwards towards China, and westwards towards Europe, and beyond, and by broomcorn millet and rice journeying eastwards from their centre of domestication in China towards the Islamic world and Europe. And it’s worth making a special mention of the apple and the peach; although both originated in Asia, the former is now the national fruit of England, whilst the latter is the state fruit of the American States of Georgia and Alabama. Or, as the author himself puts it at the end of Chapter 3: “Having roughly laid out the historical and geographic trajectories of the Silk Road, I turn in the following chapters to an examination of the foods that were transported along it in different directions: their places of origin, what we know of their domestication, their spread into new regions along the Silk Road routes, and their subsequent influence on cuisines and cultures.”

But, rather than just present the story as matter-of-factual narrative, Spengler is at pains to not only provide but also to evaluate the evidence for our current understanding of the journeys undertaken by the chosen fruits. It is that careful and thoughtful presentation and sifting through an extensive evidence-base** that makes the book both a fascinating and a challenging ‘forensic food’ account.

Fascinating because it brings in almost everything worth knowing about: history, geography, travellers’ tales, plants, people (and other animals), ancient civilisations, science, languages, ancient texts,*** agriculture, culture, etc. Challenging because Spengler draws upon data and interpretations from numerous multi-disciplinary studies to provide a robust image of the past. Challenging too because the text contains quite a lot of technical material – and some of it with little or no introduction or explanation, e.g. when dealing with broomcorn millet, we have this, “published genetics-based population study, using genetic primers first identified in a larger genomics study” on p. 66. That’s quite a tough read.

Fruits from the sands is also quite mind-boggling in parts; on the one hand we have lots of technical detail about such matters as the development and genetics of ‘wheat’, and on the other we have an almost overwhelming amount of information about ‘exotic’ places [such as Tashkent, Kathmandu, Samarkand, Taklamakan Desert…], iconic people and peoples [e.g. Genghis Khan, Mongol hordes, Alexander the Great, Marco Polo…], dates and dynasties. Not to mention detailed insights into the difficulties in identifying grain domestication events in world history. However, for all its technical content – and maybe mindful of the challenge that may therefore present to the book’s wider audience? – Spengler includes really good conclusions sections at the end of each chapter.

Fruits from the sands is NOT a book you sit down and read in one sitting(!) But, it IS a book that you are likely to turn to again and again for that extra bit of insight into the story behind the food on your plate, which is the true test of great plants-and-people ‘story-telling’.

What did I learn?

Even though I ‘teach’ topics related to plants-and-people, much of the content of Spengler’s book was new to me – and it’s always nice to have new facts to supplement one’s own lectures. So, in the true pedagogic spirit of sharing – but hopefully not to the extent that you feel you needn’t read the book! – here are some of the interesting things I learned from Fruits from the sands:

The term Silk Road – originally as Seidenstraβe – was coined in 1877 by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, an uncle of the Red Baron of World War I aerial combat fame.

Until the 1st millennium BC much of central Asia was lush expanses of short, shrubby forest.

Broomcorn millet was the most influential crop of the ancient world. Or, as Spengler puts it, “Millets have fed far more of the world than the familiar long-grained cereals such as wheat”.

A new word: alphitomancy, a means of identifying the perpetrator of a crime using bread made from barley.

Diffusion of Triticum [‘wheat’] into China had its own ‘wheat road’, which was the same route along which millet left China…

Another new word: Tsiologists, those engaged in the scientific study of tea.

The southern Silk Road was also called the Tea Horse Road because horses were often traded for tea along this route. [You’ll have to read the book to find out the exchange rate of tea to horse!]

The qualities of tea changed during the long journey from China to its final destination. For example, the trip to central Asia on the backs of sweaty camels added its own characteristics, which gave rise to ‘camel’s breath tea’…

An important reminder that, like the weapon of choice of some of the more violent of the Silk Road’s travellers, improvement in crop productivity is a ‘double-edged sword’. Yes, increases in grain yield – and in particular the role of crop-rotation cycles in achieving that – were largely a good thing. For instance, they not only nourished hungry people, but surpluses helped to sustain population growth which ultimately led to diversification of jobs in society, fuelling the development of art and crafts and leisure, i.e. directly contributing to the creation of society and civilisation. But, and at the same time, those agricultural surpluses came at the expense of oppression of agricultural workers, and permitted increased militarization which led to wars, and provided the calories that were key to the expansion of Silk Road Empires****.

What today is considered to be traditional Italian cuisine has really only been ‘traditional’ for the last few hundred years – long after tomatoes were introduced to Europe from the New World. And even then, Spengler makes a most persuasive point that pizza – arguably, the most iconic Italian food item – is largely an introduction from … the East (!).

A quibble…

There is much to admire and like about Fruits from the sands, and few genuine negatives. But, I do have one real gripe. For all its scholarship and erudition, the Index bizarrely doesn’t include scientific names of the plants – although Spengler is careful to include them in the body of the text(!)


Much has been written about the Columbian Exchange [e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4] and the introduction of ‘exotic’ foodstuffs from the West to the rest of the world that resulted from opening up of the Americas at the end of the 15th century – and rightly so. But in Europe we are generally much more poorly aware of the influence on our cuisines of foodstuffs from the East. In Fruits from the sands, Robert Spengler redresses that imbalance so that the food debt the West owes the East is rightly showcased, and celebrated. Should anybody require a single sentence, sound-bite summary of the book, I offer this: “Fruits from the sands, where food meets forensics”.

* These words were written before any post-BREXIT issues or concerns about the continued widespread availability of fresh fruits in the UK

** There is a good deal of mention of ancient texts for evidence of the food plants exploited along the Silk Road. In particular Spengler highlights the important role of recipe books as evidence for the prevalence of various foodstuffs at different times throughout history. And use is made too of linguistic references to the names of ‘fruits’, which often betray their geographical origin. Yet, for all of the evidence used, Spengler acknowledges areas where doubts remain or the situation is complicated and not well understood: This is a story that is still incomplete.

*** in-text citations are indicated by numbers, which takes the reader to an extensive set of c. 35 pages of References – over 140 of which are dated 2010 or more recent [the academic field of ‘Silk Road studies’ is very much still alive!]. However, the one statement that cries out for a Reference – but for which none is provided – is the last sentence of the 1st paragraph on p. 89: “Today rice provides a staple food source for nearly half the world’s population”. It’s such a quotable fact one would dearly love to know the source, to be able to quote it with confidence…

**** For more on the various legacies of the Silk Road, you might consider reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads. And for something on the ‘new Silk Road’, China’s 21st Century Belt and Road Initiative, look here, here, and here

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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