Just a quick ride on the el or a short drive to University City, lies the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. The Penn Museum is home to about 1 -million artifacts covering existence anywhere from Ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire, Native American tribes and everywhere in between. Though the most intriguing items are viewable to the public behind glass cases, Museum researchers and scholars are involved with research projects all over the globe that could, literally, dig up something new for the Penn Museum visitors.
In addition to the intriguing permanent collections, the museum regularly features special exhibits. Until March 28th, the exclusive, and highly anticipated, Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit is open to the public. Through artifacts, relics, and even well-preserved mummies, the exhibit tells the story of life in the Tarim Basin desert, located in Central Asia. Spanning from Europe to Eastern China, the Silk Road is a network of trade routes connected through this region, responsible for modern trade, cross cultural exchanges and the growth of many items we still use today.
The Penn Museum has designed interactive components for visitors of all ages, further exploring the language and textiles of those who lived in the Tarim Basin region. Additionally, visitors can experience the Silk Road from the perspective of a princess, merchant, entertainer, or horseman of that time period by participating in an activity provided at the beginning of the exhibit; with a paper map in hand, participants discover more about their chosen character by unlocking answers with a decoder throughout the exhibit.
The interactive nature of the exhibit continues with lunch at The Pepper Mill Café, inside the museum. Until June, menus focus on a specific country along the Silk Road, rotating weekly. From China to Vietnam, to India and Greece, the catering staff spent two months researching and developing traditional foods of the region. The exhibit itself shows visitors what the people in the Tarim Basin ate; displays include an ancient, excavated wonton, spring roll and fried dough. Free recipes available inside the exhibit allow visitors to experience the Secrets of the Silk Road at home. This recipe, for wontons filled with pork, probably tastes a little bit better than its thousands-of-years-old version in the exhibit.
Ancient Wonton Recipe
Courtesy of The Pepper Mill Café at the Penn Museum
¾ tsp. salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 – ½ cup of water, as needed
Extra flour as needed
Lightly beat the egg with the salt. Add ¼ cup water. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the middle and add the egg and water mixture. Mix in with the flour. Add as much of the remaining water as necessary to form a dough (add more water than the recipe calls for if the dough is too dry). Form the dough into a ball and knead for about 5 minutes, or until it forms a smooth, workable dough. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out until very thin, and cut in 3 ½- inch squares. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.
1 cup finely chopped Napa or Savoy cabbage
12 oz. ground pork, not all lean
6 scallions, finely chopped
2 Tbsp finely chopped, peeled fresh ginger
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
In a medium bowl, toss cabbage with ½ tsp. salt. Let stand 10 minutes. Wrap cabbage in a double layer of paper towels; firmly squeeze out excess liquid. Return cabbage to bowl; add pork, scallions, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Mix well with a fork. Reserve.
Beat one egg into small bowl. Lay out wonton wrapper on a cutting board, corners facing north, south, east and west. Place one half Tbsp. of filling into center of wrapper. Brush edges of wonton skin with egg wash. Folding bottom to top, begin to seal wonton in triangle shape. Cook in broth for soup or deep-fry, until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.
Though seemingly time consuming, this recipe didn’t take as long as I expected, and I was able to enjoy wontons (two ways) for dinner. The dough is tough and not as elastic as a traditional pasta dough or buttery puff pastry dough, so expect to use some muscle and patience when rolling it out. The ground pork filling was absolutely delicious, accented by the aromatic Asian flavors of fresh ginger and scallions and seasoned with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil. Thankfully, I have some leftover to make into meatballs and serve with ramen noodles. I cooked a few wontons in chicken broth and added extra scallions and a touch of rice vinegar to make wonton soup. The remaining wontons were boiled in water, then seared in a frying pan to crisp the outside. Served with store bought plum sauce, they were better than anything you could find on a Chinese menu.
The exhibit has something for everyone and is appealing to visitors of all ages. The fun doesn’t stop in University City, with free recipes you can take home and try with your family and friends. After visiting the exhibit, you can even impress them with your new knowledge of the Silk Road and the people of the Tarim Basin. For more information about the Penn Museum and the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit, check out the museum’s website at www.penn.museum (you are reading that correctly…no “.com”)