Fruits, vegetables, grains, spices, and other seasonings passed from region to region along the Silk Roads, via both land and sea, and in each new location integrated into and transformed existing foods and dishes to create new local specialties. In fact, many the species of fruits and vegetables we enjoy today have, historically, been on huge journeys across the Silk Roads.
Whilst China had a wide variety of local fruit produce including peaches, plums, apricots, and persimmons, they also carefully cultivated new produce arriving from the Silk Roads including figs, dates, cherries, melons, pomegranates, grapes, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, caraway, coriander and sugar cane. Equally, many economically important fruit crops originated in the lowland forests of eastern Central Asia. For example, modern cultivated apples originated in the Tien Shan mountain range (as wild apples) in what is today south-eastern Kazakhstan, whilst pistachios originated in southern Central Asia.
In some cases, new species of fruits either originated along the Silk Roads or were greatly shaped by the exchanges occurring along it. A good example is the modern cultivated apple (different varieties of the species Malus domestica), with its origins lying in the movement of people along the Silk Roads of Central Asia in multiple directions. The apples we know today, varieties of the species Malus domestica, are descended from a species of wild apple from Central Asia, known as Malus sieversii. However, two separate populations of Malus sieversii exist, one local to Xinjiang, China and the other growing to the west of the Tian Shan mountain range in what is today Kazakhstan. The modern cultivated apple developed from the apple population native to Kazakhstan as these trees were on the side of the mountain range favourable for the fruit being easily transported further west. On the other hand, the variety of apple from Xinjiang was never cultivated.
As traders and people travelling along the Silk Roads ate these apples, they either planted the seeds deliberately or left the apple cores discarded along the land routes. The apple trees which grew along the Silk Roads from the discarded or planted apple cores and seeds did not grow in isolation but cross pollinated with wild species in the area, in particular with the European crab-apple, a smaller and sharper tasting fruit. Research suggests about 46% of the genes of a modern domestic apple is likely passed down from the Malus sieversii apples originating in Kazakhstan and then spread along the Silk Roads, and 21% from the European crab-apples they mixed with resulting in the domesticated apple varieties we enjoy today which have a mixture of characteristics.
Furthermore, much like all travel along the Silk Roads, the modern apple did not develop based on movement in one direction. Apples from Kazakhstan were also carried eastwards to China where they picked up contributions from other wild apples, resulting in the smaller, softer and sweeter Chinese dessert apples. Eventually, humans began to deliberately cultivate apples for certain flavours and traits, leading to 7,500 types of apples, some best for baking and desserts, others to be eaten fresh.
Indeed, a number of the most familiar fruits in our kitchens today were cultivated in Central Asia over a millennium ago from crops that were an important part of the diet and the commerce existing along the Silk Roads. The apple remains important locally, with Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, deriving its name from the Kazakh word for ‘apple’ in reference to the surrounding forests of Malus sieversii.