Tag Archives: spices

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).


Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees’: Medicinal recipes and tree ingredients

By Anne Stobart

As a herbal practitioner, I have long been interested in historical uses of trees from folklore to domestic practices related to health. Recently, I have been looking at early modern medicinal recipes to consider how people might have obtained tree-based ingredients. Here, I briefly overview recipes in several English printed seventeenth-century books, the highly popular Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) [1] and compare with a later publication Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies (1692).[2]

Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.
Figure 1. Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.

Trees can be defined as large woody perennial plants, often self-supporting with a single stem and having branches at some height from the ground. Many medicinal items can be obtained from trees including fruits, flowers, leaves, roots, sap, bark and twigs, and provide ingredients for medicinal recipes. These can be readily distinguished as sourced either from native and naturalised trees in the British Isles or from trees native to other countries and regions. Most native trees are regarded as having considerable folklore use, although the actual records evidencing such uses may be partial.[3 ]

Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).
Figure 2. Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).

In Elizabeth Grey’s Choice Manuall (Figure 1), just under a third of the recipes, 112 altogether, contain ingredients originating from trees. Of these, 19 recipes can be identified as using parts of native trees – mainly ash, elder, hazel, hawthorn, holly, oak (Figure 2). Some recipes are simples, involving a single key ingredient, often based on leaves or fruits that might be available in the hedgerow at certain times of the year. Amongst recipes for bruises is the instruction to ‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees, and put them in paper, roast them, and break them, and drink as much of the powder as will lye upon a sixpence every morning’ (p.77). Another more complex recipe for distillation of ‘Aqua composita for the Collick and Stone’ (p.137) calls for birch leaves and haws, or the fruits of hawthorn (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws
Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws (author’ s photograph)

Some tree-based ingredients, such as bark (often called rind), may have required some effort to obtain. The use of bark dried to a powder appears several times, as in this example:

“For the Strangullion or the Stone.

Take the inner rind of a young ash, between two or three yeares of growth, dry it to pouder, and drinke of it as much at once, as will lye on a sixpence in Ale or White wine, and it will bring present remedie: The partie must be kept warm two hours after it.”(p.88)

Another recipe uses the inner bark of elder seethed with daisy roots in a butter ointment for an inflamed throat (p.90). Obtaining bark, particularly its removal from the tree and preparation, could require tools with sharp edges. If taken from the entire circumference, bark removal would cause the death of the branch or tree. Some tree barks were readily available because they were felled for other purposes such as timber, but they were destined for use in tanning leather. Apart from building needs, trees produced other valuable crops from fuel and fodder for livestock. Although some trees might have been accessible in a hedgerow, many were in woodlands or fields, requiring permission to access their produce, and these rights or ownership could be subject to conflict [4].

However, ingredients from native trees were few in number compared to exotic trees in the Choice Manual recipes. The great majority of tree-based ingredients (83%) were imports derived from tree bark and fruits, such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, as well as resins such as myrrh and frankincense. Other fruits and nuts such as dates and walnuts were included in medicinal broths and syrups. Recipes for external preparations often called for oils deriving from almond or olive trees. These items were generally products to be purchased from an apothecary or spicer.

Such imported ingredients were also popular in the later seventeenth-century recipe book of Robert Boyle’s Medicinal experiments, which included tree-sourced items in fourteen recipes. There were no native trees to be seen, with the exception of oil of juniper which was probably of European origin and purchased. Boyle’s recipe book contained a (relatively) new introduction from North America which was sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Figure 4). The aromatic bark and roots were particularly noted for their medicinal uses, and sassafras appeared in recipes for ‘A Lime water for Obstructions and Consumptions’ and ‘A Stomachical Tincture’ (pp. 12, 88).

Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)
Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)

In comparing these two English recipe books, from mid to late seventeenth century, we see that the popular Choice Manual included a range of native tree items, but such native sources were not included in Medicinal Experiments. However, both books included many exotic tree-derived ingredients, and Boyle’s book of recipes added a new item of sassafras from the Americas. I hope to investigate further how the uses of tree ingredients developed in the early modern period.

[1] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653).

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies, for the Most Part Simple, and Easily Prepared (London: Printed for Sam Smith, 1692).

[3] On folklore see David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004) and Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[4] Nicola Whyte, Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford: Windgather, 2009).

Pilau, eighteenth-century style

To follow Katherine Allen’s post on tobacco: some thoughts on a different colonial import. Researching in recipe books often presents tempting diversions, and this recipe for ‘Pilau after the East Indian manner’ looks pretty tasty.

Sarah Tully [and others], Book of receipts for Cookery and Pastry, eighteenth century. Wellcome Library MS 8687. Image credit: Wellcome Library (author’s own photo).
Boil half a pound of Butter to a pound of Rice & when the Butter is turn’d to Oil put in some Mace Cloves whole pepper & cinnamon together with the Rice and stir it about & let it fry till the Butter is almost dryd & soak’d away, Let a Fowl at the same time be boiling in Mutton Broth till it be enough & then pour as much Broth upon the Rice as will cover it about three Inches & let that boil away without stirring, only raising it now & then from the bottom for fear of its being burnt, then add by degrees a little & little more Broth until the Rice is boiled           th[r]ough and quite Dry, then Dish it, putting the Fowl in the Dish first & pouring the Rice over it with some Salt according to your Taste.

The recipe comes from Sarah Tully’s recipe book which she probably began when she married Sir Richard Hoare, heir to Hoare’s bank and, by 1745, Lord Mayor of London. A portrait of Sarah Tully in the National Trust collection depicts her amid rural scenery, dressed as a shepherdess. Unfortunately, Sarah died only four years after her marriage. She left one son, and other anonymous hands continued her recipe collection.

We have seen in recent posts about chocolate and gingerbread that spices such as cinnamon and cloves were common ingredients in the early modern household, but the Hoare household seemed to have been uncommonly fond of foreign flavours for their time. Recipes include ‘A Loyn of Mutton Kebob’d’, ‘currie powder’ and ‘Indian pickle’, in addition to cosmopolitan European recipes for ‘Parmason cheese’ and ‘Fromage Fondu’. Hoare’s Bank held investments in the South Sea Company, Royal African Company and East India Company. While other investors including Isaac Newton lost a great deal of money when the South Sea bubble burst in 1720, perhaps the fact that Hoare’s Bank made a substantial profit from ‘riding the bubble’, contributed to their culinary as well as financial enthusiasm for the exotic.

Several printed books from the late seventeenth century mention pilau (other spellings include pellow and peelaw). In the 1690s, Simon de La Loubere’s  A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam explained that ‘the Levantines, or Eastern People, do sometimes boil Rice with Flesh and Pepper, and then put some Saffron thereunto, and this Dish they call Pilau’ while Antoine Galland described ‘a great Dish of pilau’, made of rice, and dressed with butter, fat or gravy.

Other writers were less than complimentary; according to Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s Collections of travels through Turky into Persia (1684) the Turks’ use of three pounds of butter to six of rice (the same ratio as in Sarah Tully’s recipe), made the dish ‘so extraordinary fat, that it disgusts, and is nauseous to those who are not accustom’d thereto, and accordingly would rather have the Rice itself simply boyl’d with Water and Salt’. In 1709, William King dismissed Peter Heylin’s suggestion that the inspiration for European silver forks had originally come from China, scoffing that ‘These sticks are of no use but for their sort of meat, which being Pilau, is all boil’d to Rags’.

It is likely that the pilau recipe in Sarah Tully’s book dates from the middle of the eighteenth century; Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contained what seems to have been the first published curry recipe in England as well as a very similar recipe to Tully’s for ‘a pellow the Indian way’–though in Glasse’s recipe the fowl is also accompanied by bacon, half a dozen hard eggs and a dozen onions ‘fried whole and very brown’. By the nineteenth century, ‘curry’ was commonplace in English households – even if the pre-mixed powder commonly used bore little relation to its ‘authentic’ Indian roots.

Dating recipes is one thing, but understanding their meaning in households is another. In Nabobs (2010), Tillman W. Nechtman argues that hookah pipes, turbans and curry powder exposed Britain as ‘an irretrievably imperial nation’, but, as Troy Bickham has commented, it is difficult to find evidence of how items such as recipes were used in practice. This early pilau recipe copied into a private book suggests that recipe collections might be a good source for understanding the changing ways in which the empire was incorporated into the daily routines of British homes.

I’ll admit, I’m still tempted to make this pilau, though maybe I will leave out some of the butter.