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Review: Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat

In Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat, Robert N. Spengler III discusses foods with origins in inner Asia that are now commonplace on tables globally. In our current times of globalization, the book debates how global exchange of goods is not a new ...

Published onAug 12, 2020
Review: Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat

Robert N. Spengler III. Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat. University of California Press, 2019. xiv, 392 pp.

IFruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat, Robert N. Spengler III discusses foods with origins in inner Asia that are now commonplace on tables globally. In our current times of globalization, the book debates how global exchange of goods is not a new aspect of human culinary experiences, as global food trade has allowed plants, seeds, and traditions to travel across continents over the last five millennia. Thus, chapter by chapter, the author presents an array of foods such as millet, rice, grains, barley, wheat, legumes, grapes, apples, nuts, vegetables, roots, and stems, spices and oils, concluding with tea and the acquired taste for this drink from China. As the author reconstructs the story of popular foods, we learn that apples originated not in Europe, but in central Asia, an area where the author conducted extensive field research in archaeobotany.

The origins, cultivation, and travel routes for foodstuffs are some of the main research interests for the author, though his project gets reframed to concentrate primarily on foods coming from Asia, with detailed accounts of his archaeobotanical fieldwork. The ways in which trading and cultivating made it possible for people in Europe, Asia, and the Americas to buy and later grow food items that were not originally native to their lands often coincided with colonial expansion and ideologies of exoticism and otherness, an aspect that is not scrutinized in this book. While the name of Silk Road, alongside with the Spices Road, is associated with long travels in the desert, oases, and camels crossing lands, mountains, and deserts, these perspectives came from an elite who could afford to travel and report to their European peers.

Historical evidence from texts and artifacts illustrates how in ancient, medieval, and modern times there have always been culinary adaptations, locally occurring for each civilization in Europe, Asia, and the Americas in order to appreciate the flavors of foods that were exported internationally, coming for instance to Europe from the Persian Empire, the Caliphates, and the Chinese dynasties. Spengler examines local cultivation, trading, and recipes with the ambitious intent of a better understanding of the material culture regarding exported and imported foods, respectively: for instance, how to domesticate crops and food items through political expansion, trade and travel. Historical accounts are numerous, including passages from diaries and travelogues of explorers as well as ancient sources such as Apicius, Columella, and Pliny the Elder.

At the beginning and the end of each chapter, there is a succinct, informative summary of the main results discussed, which is a valuable point of reference to anchor the findings within the field of food studies. Furthermore, a selection of chronological tables, maps, and photographs enrich the book while giving contexts for times of the various civilizations and the extension of their dominions, as well as current trends in food studies. Images are drawn from museums and the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, but also from the author’s personal archive; the juxtaposition of public and personal pictures oftentimes narrates a story, too, as older photographs of markets, vendors, and meals of the Silk Road are matched to those of modern-day Samarkand, for example. The production, sale, and trading modes of food items affected not only cultural encounters among civilizations, but also sociopolitical changes and influence, as becomes clear in Spengler’s account of the historical production of tea in Tibet.

Ranging from botanical facts to the cultural implications that are unique to each civilization producing or adapting particular food items to local diets, readers might see an affinity of research objectives with Michael Pollan’s books, The Botany of Desire[1] and The Omnivore’s Dilemma[2]. Both authors are, indeed, interested in a natural history of the plants, herbs, and fruits that they describe, as well as the various ways for plants, herbs, and seeds to feature in meals based on the dietary and culinary habits of people producing foods, or the adaptations necessary to appreciate new ingredients for those who were purchasing them from abroad. Pollan has a wide-ranging interest in foods, studying the ways in which humans selected and modified crops, and choices related to diets and foods, focusing on the US. Spengler, however, starts from his own archaeological findings of seeds, leaves, and grains to make his arguments. The reconstruction of textual, historical, and artistic sources allows the author to provide a more international cultural history of foods, meals, and culinary habits originating in inner Asia and imported to Europe, America, China, and East Asia.

Spengler’s study facilitates many different views regarding foodstuffs, markets, and meals that will appeal to a wide variety of audiences. The book is a valuable source for readers seeking to learn about archaeobotanical field research from the author’s first-hand experience in central Asia. Classicists will discover that several of Pliny’s accounts are confirmed by archaeobotanical findings, though the remarks by Pliny were previously dismissed as anecdotes. For science studies scholars, the book is a wide-ranging description of the history of plants and the civilizations that cultivated and exported them, accompanied by a useful glossary illustrating the main terms for historical and geographical information. The vocabulary is technical, yet accessible, as the modern English nomenclature for Silk Road items is given alongside with the scientific name in Latin and the local name. Gastronomic readers, too, will find it appealing to discover the history behind popular ingredients, and to learn from the author’s own experience as a food enthusiast, which clearly shows from the description of gastronomic experiences – a soup savored with fresh ingredients picked from a kitchen garden next to a research field, a tea specialty that had become a rarity after the Silk Road became motorized, and the smells and sounds surrounding a traveler at the Samarkand market. The acts of buying, cooking, or studying food are enriched by the historical and scientific background that the author provided after serious consideration of aspects related to botany, history, and geography.


Caterina Agostini is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University Department of Italian, New Brunswick (New Jersey, USA), where she works on early modern science and medical humanities. She has developed and curated Digital Humanities projects on medieval, Renaissance, and early modern science in order to enhance cultural learning, museum pedagogy, and an understanding of data visualization in the humanities.

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