For this Test Kitchen, we are going a bit further afield, to China’s Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 CE). Founded by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, the Yuan Dynasty was the successor to the great Mongol Empire founded by Genghis. Our recipe comes from a dietary menu, the Yinshan Zhengyao (“Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink”), written by Hu Sihui, a 14th-century dietary physician who served under several of Kublai Khan’s descendants.
Like its Mongolian predecessor, Yuan China was a cosmopolitan civilization. At its zenith, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Sea of Japan to Eastern Europe, bringing together the many diverse cultural elements—and cuisines—that fell within its realm. Indeed, many recipes from Sihui’s text show Near Eastern influences, including these meat cakes, which are very similar to kofta, a dish still popular in the Middle East today. The Mongol’s nomadic way of life, however, permeated Yuan society, and so ingredients typical to the Eurasian steppe were introduced to the recipe.
Two of these ingredients—asafoetida (kasni) and long pepper—are hard to find in most grocery stores today but are readily available from Indian or southeast Asian grocers or online. Asafoetida is a strong spice with a unique odor (its nickname is “devil’s dung”) but it adds a special umami flavor that is hard to replicate; as an alternative, you can add a clove of minced garlic and a pinch of onion powder. Long pepper is from the same family as black and white peppers (think peppercorns, not spicy peppers), so you can substitute with black or white pepper if needed, though the recipe will lose some of its earthy flavor.
For BAR’s recipe, we took Hu Sihui’s ancient version, but added some elements of modern kofta. These delicious Mongolian meat cakes are best when served with hummus and pita, and would be a welcome addition to any gathering! Enjoy!—J.D.
Mongolian Meat Cakes
“Select mutton (10 jin; remove the fat, membrane, and sinew. Mash into a paste), kasni (three qian), black pepper (two liang), long pepper (one liang), finely ground coriander (one liang). [For] ingredients, use salt. Adjust flavors evenly. Use the fingers to make ‘cakes.’ Put into vegetable oil and fry.”
 From Paul D. Buell and Eugene N. Anderson, A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, Sir Henry Wellcome Asian Series, Vol. 9 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p. 297.
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