Bangkok, 25 October 2015

A few weeks ago now, my wife and I were greeted with this site when we came out for breakfast on our balcony overlooking the Chao Phraya River



Huge mats – small islands, almost – of water hyacinth were floating by, on their way to the Gulf of Thailand. So big were they that they were interfering with the water buses as they zig-zagged across the river from pier to pier. They had to slowly push their way through the mats, rather like ice-breakers, to reach the piers and let off their passengers. As the days went by the mats got smaller, and now there are only clumps moving to and fro with the tide, some with a white egret perched on them going along for the ride. A flotilla of yellow boats went by yesterday morning loaded up with baskets full of water hyacinth.


They must be part of some collection system. Given the amount of the stuff floating in the river, it seems a doomed effort, more a way for the government to give jobs to the boys than to really clear up the river’s water hyacinth problem.

When we first arrived here a year ago, these mats of water hyacinth floating by were one of the things which had struck us about the river. Then, over the months, they had disappeared. We had almost forgotten about them when those huge mats greeted us at breakfast that morning of a few weeks ago. I suppose the seasonal rains had filled canals and reservoirs upstream enough for someone to open dykes and dams to relieve the pressure and in the process clear out the water hyacinths which had been quietly growing there all year.

Water hyacinth has a beautiful flower

Water hyacinth flower

which is why someone (or someones) took it out of its original habitat, the Amazon basin, and carried it off to botanical and private gardens around the world. But from there, the plant somehow made it out into the big wide world and happily colonized waterways which had never known it and had no biological weapons to combat it. It grows very rapidly and soon was choking up waterways, beautifully of course, but still choking the life out of them.

water hyacinth in flower in canal

Water hyacinth is considered an invasive species, that is to say, a species which is not native to a specific location and which has a tendency to spread in that new location to such a degree that it causes damage to the environment, to human health, and/or to the economy. That certainly describes the water hyacinth. It invaded the waterways of Louisiana and Florida in the late 19th Century, choking them up. In Africa, it’s invaded many places. It’s invaded the Nile, all the way from Sudan to Egypt. It invaded Lake Victoria in the 1980s (it was brought to Rwanda by Belgian colonists, who wished to beautify their properties, and then escaped into River Kagera, which led it to the lake). This is Kisumu harbour on the lake.

Kisumu Harbour Lake Victoria

In India, it has invaded the Kerala backwaters.

Kerala Backwaters

In South-East Asia, apart from the Chao Phraya River and many, many other places, it has invaded Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia, a lake with a very unique ecology.

tonle sap

If you don’t control it, water hyacinth will cover lakes and ponds entirely, as these pictures show. This dramatically impacts water flow, it blocks sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants, and it starves the water of oxygen, often killing aquatic species. The mats are also create great places for mosquitos to live, as well as a species of snail known to host a parasitic flatworm which causes schistosomiasis.

I am reminded of a beautiful but evil woman: shall we say Julia Roberts as Snow Queen?

julia roberts evil queenOK, to be gender-neutral let me also suggest a handsome but evil man: shall we say Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight?

Edward Cullen in Twilight

To be fair to water hyacinth, it is not the only invasive species by any manner of means. There must be hundreds if not thousands of species which are considered invasive in some corner of the globe. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has come up with a list of the 100 worst invasive species, confessing that it had great difficulty in squeezing the list down to a mere hundred (although water hyacinth did make it onto the list). Reading the list is eye-opening and depressing. Let me make a relatively random selection of a few of them. Kudzu, which has been receiving a lot of bad press as an invasive species, is on the list, and if this picture of a house smothered by kudzu is anything to go by, with good reason.


Originally from China, it was introduced to Japan, and from there to the US as an ornamental. Then during the 1930s farmers were paid to plant kudzu to combat soil erosion. Then it went crazy.

The brown tree snake, which has also received a lot of bad press as an invasive, is on the list too.

brown tree snake

Originally from northern Australia, New Guinea, and some of the nearby islands, it was accidentally introduced into the island of Guam in the late forties-early fifties, maybe by crawling into the landing gear of an aeroplane, maybe as a stowaway on a ship. Once on the island, it went crazy, decimating, and in some cases completely eliminating, certain species of birds and rodents. Since Guam is a big transport node, it’s highly possible that the snake will get carried to other islands in the Pacific.

The fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd as it is known, is also there.

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis

This little bugger has been wiping out frog populations all over the world, down to extinction in some cases. Only discovered in 1998, it’s thought that Bd originated in Africa and subsequently spread to other parts of the world by trade in the African clawed frog. Another fungus on the list is Ophiostoma ulmi sensu lato, better known as the fungus that causes Dutch Elm Disease. Originally from Asia, it somehow got into Europe in the early 1900s, probably in a shipment of Asian elm, but it was a mild form and was contained. From the Netherlands, it got into the US in the 1920s, through New York, where it has slowly but surely been killing off the North American elms. A much more virulent strain came back into Europe from the US in the late 1960s, probably in some infected wood, and has been killing off European elms ever since. This view of Salisbury Cathedral, for instance, painted by John Constable in 1820, is no more; the magnificent elms to the left have all died.

john constable salisbury cathedral

Closer to home, did you know that the cat is an invasive species?


Well, it is in certain parts of the world like New Zealand or Australia, or even the US. European colonists brought them, they have gone feral – or they just hunt for the fun of it – and have decimated, if not obliterated, certain bird species, and continue to do so. It’s so bad that it has made in onto the list of the 100 worst.

Staying with the familiar, the goat – an aggressive “eating machine” – is on the list, as are the rabbit, the red deer, the fox, the starling, and the rainbow trout, all introduced into new habitats by European colonists to make the colonies more like home, and all causing damage to the new ecosystems they found themselves in .

Going small again, I pick a mollusk from the list, the cannibal snail.

cannibal snail

I pick it because it teaches us an important lesson in the fight against invasive species. The snail is an invasive in Hawaii, where it was originally introduced to try to eliminate another invasive species, the giant African land snail. Our friend is a fast and voracious predator, hunting and eating other snails and slugs, which gives it its pretty nickname. So the hope was that it would go after the giant African land snail. But instead, it went after the indigenous O’ahu tree snail species. And it went after them so enthusiastically that many of the species were extinct within a year. This is the risk with introducing a new predator to prey on an invasive species. There are chances that the predator will find other, indigenous, prey more yummy or simply easier to hunt, and you now find yourself with two invasives on your hands rather than one. Stoats, also on the list, fall into this category. Introduced into New Zealand to control the invasive rabbits and hares, it went after the indigenous birds instead, so now New Zealanders are left with trying to get rid of the stoat as well as the rabbit and hare.

For another plant on the list, the prickly pear, I refer the reader to an earlier post which I wrote about it. I’ll finish with a small tree, the cedar tree.

cedar tree

I add it simply because my French grandmother had one in her garden, and I loved climbing it when I was small. It was OK for her to have it, it is native to Europe and Asia. But when this tree, with its lovely pink flowers and feathery leaves, was introduced into the Southwestern US it was a disaster.

I invite readers to look at the list. It is quite sobering. In fact, as I study it, it occurs to me that there is one horribly invasive species that is not on it: homo sapiens sapiens.

human familyThis species left its original home in Africa 70,000 years ago and slowly spread all over the world. In at least three places, Australia, North America, and much later New Zealand, its arrival seems to have triggered a massive die-off of the bigger indigenous fauna, probably because they didn’t have sufficient defences against its clever hunting habits. About two hundred and fifty years ago, the species started the so-called scientific and industrial revolutions, which have resulted in it now having unprecedented power over all other species. It has, for its amusement or to make money or to protect one of its enslaved species (its agricultural crops and its livestock) from predatory attack or simply by mistake, moved species around the world, creating all the ecological catastrophes I’ve touched on above. And because it is taking living space away from all other species, crowding them out much more effectively than the kudzu pictured above is, it has set off the greatest die-off of species that the planet has seen in the last 66 million years.

I really think it should be on the list. I must write to the IUCN suggesting it.


Water hyacinth on the Chao Phraya River: my photos
Water hyacinth flower: (in
Water hyacinth in flower in canal: (in
Kisumu harbor, Lake Victoria: (in
Kerala backwaters: (in
Tonlé Sap: (in
Julia Roberts snow queen: (in daily mail; exact site is blocked by the Thai Ministry of Information)
Edward Cullen in Twilight: (in
Kudzu: (in
Brown tree snake: (in
Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis: (in
John Constable Salisbury Cathedral: (in
Cat: (in
Cannibal snail: (in
Cedar tree: (in
Human family: (in


Bangkok, 19 October 2015

One of the interesting side-effects of living in Bangkok is that I can carry out a comprehensive study of feet. The climate here is such that the wearing of open footwear is exceedingly widespread, so I can examine – surreptitiously, of course – a very large number of feet as I walk around, sit in public places, or – as was the case when I started this post – sit in buses stuck in Bangkok’s perennially dreadful traffic. Since so many foreigners come to Bangkok, the study is very cross-cultural: I study not only the feet of the Thai, but also – judging from the shards of phrases I overhear as the foreigners walk by – Australians, Europeans of all stripes, North Americans, some Latin Americans, quite a number of Middle Easterners, a sprinkling of Africans, and of course Asians from every corner of Asia. I am now ready to report back on the findings of my study.

Let us first set the benchmark against which I can compare the feet I see. This would be a foot in its natural state, that is to say a foot that is perennially shoeless. This photo, which I’ve used before, gives an excellent example. What we have here is a band of Amazonian Indians who are coming into contact with the modern world for the first time. Their astonished and somewhat fearful faces upturned towards the helicopter (I guess) are fascinating, but I would invite the reader to focus on their feet, feet which have never been shod.

amazonian Indian feet

As the readers will quickly agree, these feet are in the state that most human feet have been in for 99.99% of the time we have inhabited this planet.

I throw in here an older photo, taken – no doubt by some amateur anthropologist – to deliberately show a natural foot. And of course it has to be an old photo, because wearing shoes is probably now the norm rather than the exception. Finding a foot nowadays which has never been shod must indeed be hard.

natural and baby feet

Note the way the toes in the natural foot, especially the big toe, are splayed out. A minute’s thought will show that of course this is the way it should be. By spreading out like that, toes are giving the foot a wider footprint and therefore making it easier for the person on top of those feet to balance.

In this photo of a baby’s feet, the reader will notice that they naturally take this splayed form

baby feet

Only later, through imprisonment in shoes, do the toes come closer together

feet with toes close

sometimes too close together.

toes too close

I am reminded of TS Eliot’s poem Animula, which tracks the evolution of a person’s soul from birth to adulthood, but which actually describes very well the fate of our feet: “‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’ …Issues from the hand of time, the simple soul … misshapen, lame, unable to fare forward …”.

But back to the matter in hand. Having set the benchmark, I can now report the results of my pseudo-sociological field experiment in the streets and other public spaces of Bangkok.

Generally speaking, the feet of Thai people look in considerably better shape than those of foreigners from “civilized” countries. A good number have quite splayed toes, fruit no doubt of hardly ever wearing shoes at home. In fact, it’s quite common to see their little toes falling off their flip-flops or sandals. Clearly, the basic “chassis design”, if I can put it that way, adopted by shoe manufacturers simply ignores the natural form of the foot with splayed toes. Shoe manufacturers take as their starting point an already somewhat malformed foot. Well they would, wouldn’t they? After all, it is their products which have malformed out feet in the first place. Other Thais have moderately straightened toes, fruit of some level of constriction by shoes.

thai girl's feet

I detect a social element here. It is clear from their dress and occupation that the Thai owners of feet whose toes are splayed come from the poorer strata of society, while those with feet with straight toes come from the richer ones. And I also detect a gender element. Young Thai women show more evidence of constricted toes than do the men. I will come back to this in a minute.

As for the feet of the foreigners, those of people from more developed, richer, more “civilized” countries show toes much more tightly squeezed together

white feet in flip flops

along with more extreme signs of foot distress: bunions


hammer toes

hammer toes

calluses and corns.

Like in the case of the Thai, women’s feet seem more malformed than men’s. Which gets us of course to the cause of all these foot problems: canons of accepted (feminine) beauty.

Let’s face it, for hundreds if not thousands of years, there has been this insidious idea that those members of society who are more civilized, more refined – and richer – have delicate (for women) or well proportioned (for men) limbs and features. Hands, of course, have always been a particular object of this odious social creed, because having big hands, and especially having big fingers, meant that you were poor and so did a lot of manual labour.

If you were rich, on the other hand, you could pay people to do your manual labour for you, leaving your hands and fingers slim.

slim hands

With feet, it must have been a little different. Like grand clothes, the fact that you wore shoes showed that you had money to burn, not like that bum on the street who had to run around in his bare feet all day. And of course, slim, petite, shoes (that is to say, narrow, horribly constricting, shoes) showed (or pretended to show, since your feet were actually squashed into the shoe) that you had slim, petite, feet, not broad feet like that bum on the street etc.


This last pair of shoes, with their modest heels, allows me to segue smoothly into that terrible habit of wearing high-heeled shoes. As we all know, it’s mostly women who wear them, but men do too, depending on the state of fashion. I am ready to reveal at this time that when I was young and foolish I went through a phase of wearing platform boots, one black pair and one brown, which looked like this.

platform shoes

Apart from feeling pretty cool as I walked around Uni, I found a most satisfying side-effect to be that I was taller. No doubt that’s one reason why women do this to their feet

high heels

which when you strip away the shoe looks like this.

foot in high heel position

Modest heels I could understand. I mean, I fell for them. But why subject yourself to the pain of excessively high heels, not only a pain that comes today but also a pain that dogs you for years to come? Because men still rule the world, and they like to see the accentuated swish in a woman’s gait caused by walking in high heels, or maybe they like the fact that her legs look longer, or that her feet look smaller, or her toes shorter, when wearing heels. Or maybe it makes women take smaller steps, to avoid falling over (my wife still remembers her father exhorting her to take small steps, because that was more ladylike and refined). Or maybe because it makes men feel strong to see women tottering around on heels, not able to walk very far before complaining of sore feet and needing help.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But consider this. For nearly one thousand years, from early in the Song dynasty, about 1000 AD, to the early 20th Century, many Chinese women were subjected to the unbearably painful process of foot binding. To appreciate the full horror of this practice, let me give the readers a quick summary of what girls were subjected to. The process was started when girls were between the ages of 4 and 9, that is, before the arches of their feet had had a chance to develop fully. First, after softening the feet and cutting back the toenails, the toes of each foot were curled under and then pressed with great force into the sole of the foot until – the – toes – broke. But it didn’t finish there. While the broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot, the arch of the foot was also broken so that the foot could be drawn down straight with the leg. So you basically smashed the little girl’s feet. Then you started the binding. The idea was to pull the ball of the foot ever closer to the heel, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath the sole.

As the readers can imagine, a girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention if she was not to die from this process; it is estimated that 10% of girls died from gangrene and other infections due to foot binding. So their feet were regularly unbound, they were washed, the toes unfolded and checked for injury, and the nails carefully trimmed. The broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl’s feet beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. Then the poor girl’s broken toes were folded back under and the feet rebound. Every time the feet were rebound, the bindings were pulled even tighter. The ideal was to end up with a “foot” no more than 10 cm long.

The Chinese are nothing if not eminently practical. Recognizing that mothers might well be too sympathetic to their daughters’ pain, it was generally an older female member of the family or a professional foot binder who carried all this out. Oh, and the process was usually started during the winter time since girls’ feet were more likely to be numb from the cold, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme. How nice of them.

This was the result:

crushed bound foot

Chinese lady with bound feet

Of course, no-one except the persons caring for the feet ever saw this. What they saw was this, these oh-so dainty little shoes.

Lotus-ShoesAnd why were Chinese women subjected to this horrible procedure for a thousand years? For beauty, of course. Men ruled China (they still do), and crazy as it might sound to the modern reader, men considered bound feet to enhance a woman’s beauty by making her movements more dainty and “ladylike”. As readers can imagine, it was difficult to walk on broken feet. Women with bound feet tended to walk predominantly on their heels. As a result, they walked with a cautious, unsteady gait, taking tiny, swaying steps. And, of course, that most important thing where women were concerned, well bound feet helped her parents contract a good marriage for her. It could also be that it was found to be an effective way of forcing women to be housebound and completely reliant on men. In this view, traditional societies forbid women from leaving the house; the Chinese simply broke their feet.

So what is the moral of all this? Look after your feet! Stop obsessing about narrow, dainty feet. Celebrate splayed toes. Go to the office in flip-flops and take off your shoes the moment you sit at your desk (which is what most Thais do). Put on sandals until the dead of winter; our feet can tolerate quite a lot of cold. Throw away all your high-heeled shoes. And if a man ever asks you to wear high heels, cut him mercilessly out of your life; he is clearly a swine.


Amazonian Indian feet:×540.jpg?mtime=1386261566 (in
Natural human feet: (in
Baby feet: (in
Feet with toes close: (in
Feet with toes too close: (in
Thai girl’s feet: (in
White feet in flip-flops: (in
Bunions: (in
Hammer toes: (in
Working hands: (in
Slim hands: (in
Woman’s shoes 1770:’s_silk_brocade_shoes_1770s.jpg (in
Platform boots: (in
High heels: (in
Women in high heel position: (in
Crushed bound foot: (in
Chinese lady with bound feet: (in
Lotus shoes: (in


Bangkok, 11th October 2015

A little while back, my wife, bored with the usual round of cooking in the tiny, stuffy, hot kitchen of our apartment and longing to spice things up a bit with some change, espied a fresh herb in the vegetable section of our local supermarket which turned out to be mint. She brought it back and for several weeks now, we have been trying chicken à la mint, pork à la mint, fresh mint in green salad, and – the subject of this post – mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta.

Let me interject here that a basic difference between me and my wife is that she is adventurous, ready to try new things, and I am timorous, fearful of the new and comfortable with the true and the tried. This is as true for food as it is for any other sphere of life. I therefore approached these experiments in our usual cuisine with some diffidence if not suspicion. Actually, apart from the fresh mint in green salad, which I forcefully suggested we not try again, it worked rather well. In the case of mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta, it worked really well. The mint added a sweet overtone to the acidity of the tomato which did wonders to the palate. I have graciously allowed this variation on a theme to be added to our culinary repertoire. It’s very easy to prepare, by the way: replace basil leaves with mint, et voilà! (or you can just add the mint to the basil leaves)

A quick whip around the internet shows me that my wife is not the only one to have stumbled onto this use of mint. Martha Stewart, no less, offers a recipe where the tomato sauce contains mint. I throw in a picture from another recipe – readers are going to have to take it on faith that the little green bits in the sauce are finely chopped mint leaves.

tomato-mint sauce

One thread in these posts of mine has been to salute the humbler ingredients in our food, those which never get much publicity but are actually the ones that make each of our dishes so special. I’ve written on lemongrass recently, and capers and anise a while back (and, at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve written very disapprovingly about the use of hot spices). So I will use this occasion to also sing the praises of mint, reviewing some of its better uses in food.

As I usually do, I began surfing around the internet to see what I could find. I was surprised to not come across a huge use of mint, at least in my part of Europe (Western Europe, to use the Cold War parlance). Of course, there is that most English of dishes, mint sauce, a wonderful, wonderful sauce to put on lamb chops. But this dish has already been the subject (or one of the subjects) of a previous post, in which I sing the praises of the sweet-and-salt combination, so I don’t feel I can go on about it again. I will leave readers to refer to that post and move on – but not before throwing in a picture of mint sauce with lamb chops.

lamb sauce and lamb

In my electronic wanderings, I stumbled across the following dish, which also seems incredibly English – at least, it involves peas, and since peas are in my mind as English as Big Ben or HM the Queen (one of the veggies in every meat and two veggies which I had in my youth seemed to be peas), I include it. We are talking of pea soup with mint (I give thumbnail recipes for this and other dishes that I mention at the end of the post).

pea and mint soup

I have a feeling that this soup would be good chilled, like gazpacho.

I also want to add here another dish that I came across as I went around raising electronic rocks to see what was hidden below them. It’s actually an eggplant dish from 16th Century Italy. I add it because I think it’s kind of cool to look at what our ancestors were eating. But it’s also an intriguing dish because it looks to be an ancestor of the modern dish we know as eggplant parmigiana. The big difference between the two is the absence of a tomato-based sauce in the old recipe. I suppose this difference reflects the fact that tomatoes were not yet current in Italian cuisine in the 16th Century. Instead, a mix of herbs (mint, sweet marjoram, salad Burnet, parsley, fresh fennel tips), crushed garlic, a couple of spices (cinnamon and cloves), pepper, and salt, are spread over the eggplant, and the whole is splashed with verjuice (I will let readers look that one up, as I had to) and sprinkled with sugar. Then, like eggplant parmigiana, cheese is spread over the whole. Here’s what it looks like, and the thumbnail recipe is at the end.

pomi sdegnosi

It was at this point that luck came to the rescue. As I was surfing disconsolately around the internet, I came across an interesting article entitled “Mints in Ethnic Cuisines”, written by two ladies from Texas, Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay. I am indebted to them for much of what follows. It was they, for instance, who taught me that Greek cuisine bucks the (modern?) European trend of using little mint. It seems that Greeks use mint with wild abandon in their cuisine. The two authors mention several dishes in particular: keftedes meatballs, the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce, the bean stew gigantes plaki, dolmas (stuffed grape vine leaves), hortopita, which is a vegetable and rice pie; even that best known of Greek dishes, moussaka, has mint in it! I give thumbnail recipes of all these dishes at the end, but here I will only post pictures of keftedes meatballs


which can be served with the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce as a dip


I chose to put pictures of these two dishes with the hope that my wife (and I) can try to make them …

I now leave Europe behind, skimming over the waves of the Aegean Sea to the land of Lebanon, because I want to raise a cheer for that most Lebanese of dishes, tabouleh.


I have very fond memories of eating tabouleh in Beijing – yes, Beijing. There was a little Lebanese restaurant down the road from where we lived, run by a small, tubby Lebanese man with a twinkle in his eye. When Spring came rolling round, it was incredibly pleasant for my wife and I to sit outside the restaurant, under the barely budding trees, in the tepid heat of the midday sun, slowly working our way through a plate of tabouleh. I must say, though, I’m a little surprised that not only chopped parsley but also chopped mint is added. I’m not sure that our tubby Lebanese restaurateur was putting mint in his tabouleh. I will need to hunt down a restaurant which serves tabouleh with both mint and parsley. While I’m at it, I will also see if it serves Arab or Middle-East salad.

arabic-saladLemon segments, diced cucumber and tomatoes, the whole mixed with chopped onions, mint, and parsley. Sounds sooooo good …

I now want to arc over to the Indian subcontinent, but not before pausing for a minute in modern-day Iraq. I’m actually stopping here for Iraq’s Babylonian past. Like any self-respecting university, Yale University has a collection of cuneiform tablets, some of which, like this one, list recipes.


These have been translated by a Frenchman, Jean Botéro (this immediately makes me think of the Egyptologist, Professor Philémon Siclone, in the Tintin album “Les Cigares du Pharaön”


but I digress).

One of these, Recipe XXIII, contains mint, to whit: “Leg (of mutton) (?) meat is used. Prepare water; [add] fat […] samidu, coriander (?), cumin (?), and kanašû. Assemble (all the ingredients in the cooking vessel) and sprinkle with crushed garlic. (After cooking,) blend into the pot šuhutinnû and mint […]” As you can see, words are missing, the translation of some of the ingredients is unknown, and to make matters worse the recipe is exceedingly brief compared to our modern ones, leaving much to the skill – and imagination – of the cook. Nevertheless, Laura Kelley and a band of hardy cooks have been piecing together these telegraphic recipes from 4,000 years ago and trying them out. Many of the results are described on the web site “The Silk Road Gourmet”  I post here the picture of a modern take on Recipe XXIII, after someone concluded that šuhutinnû is probably carrot or possibly parsnip, and samidu is barley:

babylonian lamb and mint

I have added the modern version of the recipe to the thumbnail recipes below, for those who might want to try connecting gastronomically with our remote Babylonian ancestors.

After that pit stop in the fertile crescent, we go on to the Indian subcontinent, the land of chutneys – not so much the fruit-based chutneys which the colonial Brits brought back to the UK, but more vegetable-based chutneys. Here is a chutney, mint-coriander chutney, where mint takes pride of place.

mint-coriander chutney

One of the recipes I perused helpfully informs the reader that this chutney can be served with pakoras, samosas, chaat, chole, or even potato chips.

This chutney allows me to segue smoothly into another popular dish from that part of the world, raita, a cold yogurt condiment served to cut the heat of spicy dishes. And here I will throw in a picture of a cucumber-mint raita (with thumbnail recipe at the end).

cucumber-mint raita

Being based on yoghurt (or strictly speaking curds) and looking at how raitas are made, I have to think that they are (perhaps not so) distant cousins of the Greek tzatziki (which itself is part of a broader family of yoghurt-based dishes to be found from the Balkans to the Caucasus). Maybe one day I should write a post on yoghurt …

After this, I soar over the Bay of Bengal back to Thailand. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay say that mint is a very popular ingredient in Thai cuisine and in South-East Asian cuisine more generally. Certainly, I recently had a taste of a common use of mint here, where it joins a number of fresh vegetables being served as a side dish to be added to noodle dishes or just eaten along with other main dishes.

side dish fresh vegetables

We were saying bye-bye to a colleague and had lunch together in the office. The food was ordered from outside. My Thai colleagues informed me that most of the dishes I was trying were from the north of the country. I found it interesting to eat fresh mint leaves with some of the spicier dishes. This side dish of fresh vegetables is also common in Vietnam, and I suspect throughout South-East Asia.

I’ll finish with a dish from Thailand, yam nang mu (pork skin salad). This is actually one of many Thai “salads” in which various cuts of meat or offal are sliced small, seasoned with spicy/sour/sweet sauces, and then mixed with herbs of one variety or another. In this particular case, you season boiled, defatted pork skin (there is a cousin to this dish using pig’s ears) with fish and shrimp sauce, lime juice, sugar, and mix it all with a large amount of mint leaves, some lemongrass, some roasted rice, and a number of other ingredients (thumbnail recipe at the end).

pork skin salad

Well, that brings me to the end of my world tour following the trace of mint. There are a lot of dishes which use mint that I’ve not mentioned. I’ve also not touched on the use mint in drinks, for instance Moroccan mint tea with its spectacular pouring technique

moroccan mint tea

or the somewhat more alcoholic mint julep, a favourite of the Kentucky Derby.

mint julep

But I’ll leave these for another day. Right now, my wife is looking at her watch and at the door. Time to go.


Pea and mint soup: Soften some onions in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add peas, reduce heat, and simmer gently until tender. Add chopped mint leaves (and parsley if you want). Add more broth. Purée in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Pomi sdegnosi, or braised eggplant: Slice the eggplant lengthwise and let them steep in in lukewarm water for 30 minutes. Rinse. Submerge the eggplant slices in boiling water for about 8 minutes. Remove and drain. Dredge the eggplant slices in flour and layer the bottom of an oiled dish. Chop all of the herbs – fresh mint, marjoram, parsley, salad Burnet, fennel tips – and mix them with minced garlic, spices – cinnamon, cloves, pepper – salt, sugar, and verjuice (for which lemon juice can be substituted). Cover the eggplant with breadcrumbs, drizzle with olive oil, cover with herb/spice mixture and then with provatura cheese (mozzarella, another pulled cheese, can be substituted). Repeat for each layer of eggplant. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. (Adapted from

Keftedes: Combine ground beef, bread dunked in milk, minced onion, minced garlic, finely chopped mint and oregano, some vinegar, some beaten eggs, a small amount of grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and mix well. Roll the mixture into balls. Dust the balls with flour. Put them in hot oil in a pan. Brown on all sides.

Tzatziki: Peel cucumbers and dice. To draw out their water, sprinkle them with salt and let them sit for 30 minutes. Drain well. Put them in a blender, along with minced garlic, some lemon juice, some chopped mint (and some chopped dill if you wish), and a little ground black pepper. Process until well blended. Stir the result into Greek yogurt. Salt to taste. Let it stand for at least two hours before serving so flavours can blend.

Gigantes Plaki: Soak gigantes beans (giant butter beans) overnight. Cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are just tender. In parallel, gently soften chopped onions and garlic for a few minutes. Then stir in some sweet paprika, tinned tomatoes, 100ml water. Salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer for half an hour. Stir in sea kale or dandelion leaves (or chard as an alternative). Mix the cooked beans with the sauce, adding some more olive oil and chopped mint and parsley. Transfer to a casserole pan, and bake for half an hour or so until the beans are tender and the sauce thickened and bubbling. Can be served hot, warm or at room temperature.

Dolmas: In a little broth, mix ground beef and lamb with uncooked rice, minced onion and garlic, some pine nuts, chopped mint and parsley. Place rinsed grape leaves on a work surface. Place a dollop of the mixture at the center of each leaf. Tuck in the ends and roll tightly toward the leaf point. Layer the wrapped leaves in a large saucepan Cover them with broth mixed with lemon juice. Cook over low heat for three-quarters of an hour.

Moussaka: Place minced lamb, minced onions, crushed garlic, chopped mint and oregano, a couple of bay leaves and a cinnamon stick in a large frying pan and cook over a medium heat for a quarter of an hour. Stir in some flour. Add a glass of wine, canned tomatoes, some tomato purée, and bring to a simmer. Cook for half an hour, until the lamb is tender and the sauce has thickened. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Set aside this meat sauce. Fry eggplant slices for a couple of minutes. Set them aside. Cook potatoes in boiling water for five minutes, then cool under running water. Prepare a white sauce as follows. Melt butter in a saucepan, stir in some flour. Cook for a few seconds, then gradually stir in milk. Add some grated parmesan and grated nutmeg. Simmer the sauce gently for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in a beaten egg. Spoon some of the meat sauce into a shallow dish. Cover with a layer of potatoes and a layer of eggplant. Repeat the layers twice more, finishing with the eggplant. Pour over the white sauce to cover the whole in a thick, even layer. Sprinkle with a bit more parmesan. Bake in the oven until deep golden-brown and bubbling.

Hortopita: Peel, seed, and shred some pumpkin. Weight it to drain its liquid. Cook it in a skillet until it wilts and most or all of its liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a bowl. Cook in the same skillet a chopped leek and onion until also wilted. Transfer to the bowl with the pumpkin. Cook chopped chard and spinach until wilted; add to the bowl. Add the herbs – mint, sorrel, hartwort, chervil, dill, fennel leaves, parsley, and oregano – to the bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roll out a first phyllo dough ball and place it inside an oiled roasting pan. Brush with olive oil. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Spread the filling evenly over the dough. Repeat with a third sheet of dough, placing it over the filling. Brush with olive oil. Roll out the last piece of dough to a slightly smaller piece, and place it over the surface of the pie. Join the bottom and top layers of dough. Brush the top of the pie generously with olive oil. Bake until the pastry is golden and crisp. Remove and serve warm or at room temperature.

Tabouleh: Stir together some bulgur and olive oil. Pour boiling water over, and let stand for a quarter of an hour. Drain well. Toss with finely chopped mint and parsley, a couple of chopped tomatoes, half a cucumber, several tablespoons of lemon and of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Arab salad: Cut segments from half of lemon free from membranes and transfer segments to a cutting board, then squeeze juice from the remaining half a lemon into bowl. Put a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice in a bowl. Add finely chopped segments of lemon. Add salt, pepper, and several tablespoons of olive oil. Whisk to combine. Stir in the remaining ingredients: diced cucumber and tomatoes, finely chopped onion, finely chopped mint and parsley.

Babylonian lamb with barley and mint: Marinate lamb steaks in soy sauce for half an hour. Sauté in oil, along with the trimmings. Remove, leaving the trimmings in the pan. Stir barley into the oil and toast for a few moments. Add cumin, coriander, and chopped garlic. Simmer until the barley is cooked. Place the lamb steaks in the pan and cook the desired degree. Add finely sliced carrots and chopped mint for a few minutes. Remove the lamb and slice. Place the carrots in a serving dish, spoon the barley over carrots, add the sliced lamb, and spoon over with the sauce. (adapted from

Mint-coriander chutney: In a blender, grind together chopped mint leaves, chopped coriander, a chopped green chili (personally, I would cut out the chili, but can it be Indian without it?), a piece of ginger, a small amount of cumin, and some lemon juice, until smooth, using a little water if necessary. Salt to taste.

Cucumber-mint raita: Coarsely grate a cucumber. Squeeze dry. Whisk curds (yogurt can substitute), chopped mint, a little cumin, even less cayenne pepper in medium bowl to blend. Add cucumbers and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yam nang mu (Pork skin salad): Boil pork skin until soft. Cool. Remove any fat from the skin. Slice the skin into thin, short slices. Mix well with a large handful of chopped mint leaves, finely minced lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and ground roasted rice.


Tomato-mint sauce: (in
Mint sauce and lamb: (in
Pea and mint soup: (in
Pomi sdegnosi: (in
Keftedes: (in
Tzatziki:×350-174210.jpg (in
Tabouleh: (in
Arabic salad: (in
Cuneiform tablet YBC 4644: (in
Egyptologist in Tintin: (in
Babylonian lamb and mint: (in
Mint-coriander chutney (in
Cucumber-mint raita: (in
Side dish fresh vegetables: (in
Pork skin salad: (in
Moroccan mint tea: (in
Mint julep: (in


Bangkok, 5 October 2015

For reasons too long to explain, I was recently involved in discussions about the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the several Conventions emanating from that Declaration: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, for instance, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to name but two. At some point, we got into a vivacious discussion about two issues. The first was the rights of future generations: specifically, do we, today’s generations, have the right to use up all the Earth’s resources and poison the Planet, thus taking away from future generations their right to a dignified life? The answer was fuzzy, the problem being that the Conventions deal only with the rights of existing human beings; the unborn, it would seem, have no rights. But how do we square this with international commitments to sustainable development, whose very definition recognizes the rights of future generations? This conundrum was left unresolved. The second, and to my mind much more fundamental, issue we discussed was the rights of other species: do they have any rights, or are they merely goods and chattel which we humans can dispose of as we wish? The answer was even fuzzier, with the sense in the room being that they did not (yet) have internationally recognized rights, although many countries have enacted legislation recognizing that other species do have certain rights – the prohibitions on cruelty to animals fall into this category.

Fast forward to the visit my wife and I made to the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the Sun Bear Sanctuary in Sepilok, on the last day of our visit to Sabah. Both centres receive a steady stream of orphaned baby apes and bear cubs, whose mothers were either killed deliberately to make pets of their babies or died as a side effect of the steady deforestation going on in this part of the world. They also receive adult bears and apes marooned in vanishing islands of jungle. They do stirling work of trying to reinsert their charges back into the wild, or at least giving them a life of dignity if they cannot go back. They, along with the many other rehabilitation centres around the world doing the same thing with other species, deserve our thanks for this work of love.

But as I sat there, listening to what these centres do and watching their charges on the feeding platforms

or sunning themselves in enclosures
I was brought to meditate on that essential question which I had recently debated: do other species have rights, like we do? Specifically, do they have the right to life? Personally, I think they do. Of course, this right, like every right, is not absolute. I mean, if a lion jumps on me, or my wife, or my kids, then I have a right to kill that lion (as I do if it were a member of our own species who attacked us). And to eat, I need to kill species, that’s the way our biology works. This holds true even if I were vegan (carrots, just to take one vegetable, are also a species and so have the same rights as a chicken).

We could go on at length about how rights play out in real life: how about this situation? how about that situation? But the thing is, accepting that other species have rights changes the context of the discussion radically. Just to take the right to life, it’s no longer that it would be nice if we didn’t kill orang utans or sun bears, it’s that we have a duty not to kill them. And if that is the case, then we have to ask ourselves if the people of Sabah have the right, for instance, to undertake large-scale destruction of the orang utan’s and sun bear’s habitat so as to be able to plant oil palm in its place.

But this brings us on a collision course with another right, the right of the people of Sabah “to an adequate standard of living … and to the continuous improvement of living conditions” (I am quoting the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Is there a way out? Yes there is, at two levels. First, Sabah has to change its model of economic development; the province’s natural habitat must be viewed as an economic asset and not as a nuisance to be swept aside to make place for other economic activities. Sustainable (but truly sustainable) tourism is one possible way of making money from jungle. Sustainable (but truly sustainable) harvesting of forest products is another. Second, and much more fundamentally, Sabah, like just about every other territory on Earth, has to drastically reduce its human population. There are simply too many of us on this planet. I find the following graph one of the most frightening I know.

It shows the growth in the human population over the last nine thousand years. Note the huge, and hugely rapid, jump in our population since the start of the scientific and industrial revolutions (you have to see it on this scale because this is closer to the scales at which evolution works). The result of this growth has been that we are brutally shoving all the other species on this planet into a corner, a corner which is getting rapidly smaller and smaller. They cannot survive these huge shocks to their ecosystems. At this point, then, the right to life of other species trumps our right to create new human life. Many have criticized the Chinese Government for its one-child policy. But not me. We should all have one-child policies until the human population falls to much more acceptable levels, not more than 1 billion (and better 500 million). Yes, we will have old populations. Yes, we will have a problem of spoiled children, the princelings as the Chinese call them. Yes, we will have deflationary economies. Yes, house prices will drop. But our duty to respect the right to life of all species tells us that these are problems we simply have to accept and deal with.

I suppose I’m not painting a pretty picture of our immediate future, but I think it’s better for our species to suffer a little for a little while in the quest for a longer-term happiness than to go on as we are currently doing, destroying everything, which will ultimately destroy us too – because we actually need jungles and all the species in it for our own survival.


Orang utan at rehabilitation centre:
Borneo bear:
Population chart: