VINEGAR

Vienna, 13 September 2020

A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.

It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).

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I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.

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A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).

Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.

Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.

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The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).

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The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.

But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.

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A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).

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The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?

The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.

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I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.

I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.

It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.

The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facitposca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.

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Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.

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By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.

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The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).

For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.

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But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.

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It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).

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It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.

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For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.

For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.

I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.

The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.

Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us the word “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.

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Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!

This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.

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My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation.  In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.

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Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:

“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”

Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.

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And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)

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Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.

Stay safe!

KETCHUP

Vienna, 9 August 2020

A few posts ago, while I was describing the origins of Lea & Perrins sauce, I mentioned in passing that the story of tomato ketchup was an equally fascinating tale and thought that its telling could be the subject of one of my posts. Well, that moment has come!

I find the story of tomato ketchup worth telling because it intertwines two themes which I am passionate about and which have been the subject of a number of my posts in the past: the rich history of the humble, mundane articles which we have surrounded ourselves with, and the role which global trade has played in spreading such articles around the planet – for better or for worse. The story of tomato ketchup serves up both of these themes in spades.

Tomato ketchup is of course primarily associated with the United States, and indeed it is there that we have seen the greatest growth in the consumption of ketchup. But the roots of ketchup are buried in a land far, far away, on the other side of the world, in southern China.

The word ketchup is an Anglicisation of the Hokkien word kôe-chiap (as written in its Romanised form; 鮭汁 in Chinese characters). The homeland of Hokkien speakers, the Hoklo, is southern Fujian, although Hoklo communities also exist in Guangdong and Hainan. In southern Fujian, they live cheek by jowl with other groups like the Hakka (I only mention the latter because my wife has never forgiven me for visiting the typical Hakka roundhouses near Xiamen without her). Hokkien is only one of a mass of different languages and dialects that are found in China.

Kôe-chiap means “brine of pickled fish or shell-fish”. We have the Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (now called Xiamen), published in 1873, to thank for this explanation; I throw in a picture of the dictionary’s title page, along with the relevant entry in the dictionary.

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“Brine of pickled fish” basically means a sauce made by fermenting fish in salt and collecting the liquid which is so created. So we can consider kôe-chiap to be a fermented fish sauce. The same sauce is still made in southern China, although it’s now often called yu lu (which translates as “fish dew” – such a poetic name! especially since the sauce probably smells strongly …). Here is a picture of a modern version.

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In its most elemental form, as simply the liquid which oozes from brined fermenting fish, this kind of sauce is found in all the cultures in South-East Asia. So we have nuoc-mam in Viet Nam, naam-plaa in Thailand, tuk-trey in Cambodia, padaek in Laos, patis in the Philippines, budu in Malaysia, ngapi in Myanmar, and – very importantly for our story – kechap ikan in Indonesia. It’s also found in Japan (shottu kuru), Korea (aek jeot) to the east, Iran (mahyawa) and Italy (colatura di alici) to the west. In fact, until the 18th Century or thereabouts, fermented fish sauce was common in the UK and throughout the rest of Europe, after which its use died out (and it was incredibly popular in Roman times, when it was known as garum; the Romans put it in just about everything). To show the sauce’s ubiquity, I throw in a photo of the cover of a cookery book dedicated to recipes from around the world which use fish sauce.

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I would ask my readers to make a mental note of the fact that fermented fish sauces also existed in Europe and in particular in the UK, because I will come back to this point later. But right now, I want to focus on how the Hoklo version of fermented fish sauce, kôe-chiap, spread throughout South-East Asia, because it is almost certainly there and not in southern Fujian that English traders and sailors came across it and liked it so much that they brought it back to the UK.

The Hoklo were intrepid traders. They traded throughout South East Asia and beyond. They also emigrated to all the polities making up South East Asia. They did this even though successive Chinese dynasties blew hot and sometimes very cold about their subjects trading overseas and emigrating, going so far in some moments as to declare that Chinese who emigrated were no longer worthy of being considered Chinese. The Hoklo were no doubt firm believers in the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn, meaning “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (a proverb which is still relevant in China today; I heard it uttered quite a few times in my time there): Beijing (or whatever was the Imperial capital of the moment) was far away and communications were difficult, so they could safely ignore emperors’ fulminations. I hasten to add that they were not the only southern Chinese people to trade and emigrate. Other peoples from the south, like the Cantonese and the Hakka, did the same. But the Hoklo people seem to have done it more than any other group, so they are now the largest (Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, southern Thailand) or one of the largest (Malaysia, Viet Nam, Myanmar) groups in the various Chinese diasporas in South East Asia. For the most part, the Hoklo settled in the bigger trading ports in these countries.

As emigrants from all parts of the world have done in all times, the Hoklo no doubt took their foodstuffs with them, and that will have included their fermented fish sauce. At least in Indonesia, it looks like the local population took to the sauce with such enthusiasm that the word kôe-chiap entered the Indonesian language as kechap (or kicap, or kecap, or ketjap; I presume there is some difficulty in finding a satisfactory Romanised form of the Indonesian word). This seems to be another example of Indonesians’ enthusiasm for adopting foreign words, something I have written an earlier post about. Over time, the meaning of kechap has evolved to cover just about any type of sauce, which is why the modern Indonesian name for fermented fish sauce is kecap ikan (“ikan” meaning fish in Indonesian); they now have to specify that the sauce is fish-based.

So by the 1500s (the relevance of this date will become clear in a minute), kôe-chiap was probably present throughout South-East Asia, particularly in the region’s trading ports, thanks to Hoklo traders settling in these ports. What happened next?

Well, by the early 1500s, European ships finally began to arrive in South-East Asia, having managed to make it around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. They were after eastern spices, especially pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves. These spices had always arrived in Europe via India and the Middle East, and European traders wanted to go direct to the source, thus cutting out all the middlemen and making themselves huge fortunes in the process (just to give readers an idea of the size of the profits, in 1620 a cargo of 250,000 pounds of pepper, bought for ₤26,401 in the “East Indies”, was sold for ₤208,333 in London, a profit of 690%; in the same period, a cargo of 150,000 pounds of cloves, bought for ₤5,126, was sold in London for ₤45,000, a profit of 780%). The Portuguese arrived first, followed by Spaniards (who actually arrived the other way, finding a route around the tip of South America and sailing across the Pacific). The Portuguese ruled the roost for about a hundred years; the Spaniards contented themselves with the Philippines and left the rest of South-East Asia alone. Then the Dutch and English arrived on the scene (as did the French, but they quickly disappeared). The Dutch eventually strong-armed the Portuguese out of the way. As for the English, they were actually quite modest players. They managed to do some trading and to set up a few “factories” (which in this case meant warehouses where they could store their spices and other merchandise and hold markets with the locals) in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra; these islands were at the very centre of the spice trade. But the Dutch squeezed them out by the 1600s (so the English focused on India instead, as a consolation prize; they ended up controlling the whole of the subcontinent and used that as a stepping stone to the foundation of a global Empire – what an irony).

Just for the fun of it, I throw in here a painting of a factory – it is actually a Dutch factory, in India, but I think it rather nicely gives the idea of what the factories looked like.

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And for the hell of it, I add a print of Batavia, modern-day Jakarta, which was the centre of Dutch power in South-East Asia, as the town looked like in 1754.

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Of course, even as they were busy trading and fighting one another, the European sailors and traders had to fill their stomachs. In their idle moments in the various South-East Asian ports they visited, or during their down time in the factories, they must have been sampling local cuisine, as modern tourists do today. Certainly in the case of the English, this included a sauce which they variously spelled as catchup, katchup, ketchup, kitchup, and maybe in a few more ways. They really liked it! In the case of sailors, it was certainly sufficiently part of their lives that a dictionary of slang used by British sailors, the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1698, had an entry for catchup (as it is spelled), where it is described simply as “A high East-India Sauce”. I include a photo of the relevant page of the dictionary (the relevant word is highlighted).

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(by “high”, the writers of the dictionary were no doubt referring to the fact that the fermented fish in the sauce made it smell “off” or quite strong)

At this point, then, this ketchup sauce made the jump from South East Asia to England, as traders or sailors or both brought it back home. Once it arrived in England, it caught on big time. But now we have to ask ourselves what exactly was this sauce that English sailors and traders got so excited about? I cannot believe that it was just plain fermented fish sauce. As I said earlier, that already existed in the UK, where it was known as fish pickle and was made much in the same way as kôe-chiap was. Why would English sailors and traders get enthusiastic about a sauce they already knew, and more importantly why would they bother to bring it home? And why would people in England get excited about it? I have to think that as kôe-chiap moved around South-East Asia in the trunks of Hoklo traders and emigrants, other ingredients began to be added to the original sauce. My money would be on this having happened most in Indonesia. After all, many different kinds of kechap sauce began to be made there, to the point where the word kechap simply came to mean any sauce (and interestingly enough, it seems that until the 1950s the Chinese community in Indonesia, the majority of whom were Hoklo, made most of the different kechaps consumed in the country). So in my romantic mind’s eye, I see English traders and sailors in their Javan and Sumatran factories, or in some port somewhere in those islands, tasting the local kechap and saying “Yum! Must bring this back to Blighty”.

But what ingredients might have been added? Unfortunately, no-one in the 1600s, when the sauce caught on with the English, thought of publishing the recipe somewhere (or if they did, I haven’t found it). From the recipes which appeared in English cookery books, examples of which I give below, my guess is that a lot of spices – that pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves which the Europeans had sailed to South-East Asia to find – were added.

In any event, English cooks began to try to copy this kechap sauce which appeared on their shores, with locally available ingredients. Here, for instance, is the earliest published recipe for katchup (as it was spelled) in an English cookery book. The book in question is The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, written by Eliza Smith and published in 1727. I love the book’s frontispiece, so I’ll throw it in here.

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And here is the recipe.

To Make English Katchup.

Take a wide-mouth’d bottle, put therein a pint of the best white-wine vinegar ; then put in ten or twelve cloves of eschalot peeled and just bruised ; then take a pint of the best Langoon white-wine [a French white wine], boil it a little, and put to it twelve or fourteen [salted] anchovies wash’d and shred, and dissolve them in the wine, and when cold put them in the bottle ; then take a quarter of a pint more of white-wine, and put in it mace, ginger sliced, a few cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper just bruised, let them boil all a little ; when near cold, slice in almost a whole nutmeg, and some lemon-peel, and likewise put in two or three spoonfuls of horse-radish ; then stop it close, and for a week shake it once or twice a day ; then use it: T’is good to put into fish sauce, or any savoury dish of meat ; you may add to it the clear liquor that comes from mushrooms.

So we have the fish (although not in the form of fish sauce but rather as the fish itself) and the spices from South-East Asia (now readily available thanks to those brave English sailors), to which some local spices have been added (horse radish and shallots). Interestingly, alcohol, in the form of wine in this case (beer was used in other recipes), has been added; I suspect alcohol was not present in the original kechap.

Quite quickly, mushrooms – or rather the liquid extracted from mushrooms – which was mentioned almost as an afterthought in Eliza Smith’s recipe, started playing a more important role. In fact, in some recipes the fish disappeared completely, to be replaced by mushrooms. An example is a recipe from the cookery book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747. Before giving the recipe, let me show the book’s frontispiece, another wonderful piece of minor art.

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And now the recipe.

To make Ketchup.

Take the large Flaps of Mushrooms, pick nothing but the Straws and Dirt from it, then lay them in a broad earthen Pan, strew a good deal of Salt over them, let them lie till next Morning, then with your Hand brake them, put them into a Stew-pan, let them boil a Minute or two, then strain them thro’ a coarse Cloth, and wring it hard. Take out all the Juice, let it stand to settle, then pour it off clear, run it thro’ a thick Flannel Bag, (some filter it thro’ brown Paper, but that is a very tedious Way) then boil it, to a Quart of the Liquor put a quarter of an Ounce of whole Ginger, and half a quarter of an Ounce of whole Pepper, boil it briskly a quarter of an Hour, then strain it, and when it is cold, put it into Pint Bottles ; in each Bottle put four or five Blades of Mace, and six Cloves, cork it tight, and it will keep two Years. This gives the best Flavour of the Mushrooms to any Sauce. If you put to a pint of this Ketchup a pint of Mum [Beer], it will taste like foreign Ketchup.

In fact, as far as the UK was concerned mushroom ketchup became the norm. It was in common use until some 30 years ago. It’s rather disappeared from view now, although you can still buy it online, as “Geo. Watkins Mushroom Ketchup”.

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I suppose cooks are infinitely curious and will try all sorts of variations to true and tried recipes. Certainly, once people got over their diffidence about eating tomatoes (for a long while, it was thought they were poisonous), cooks tried making a ketchup with tomatoes. And here it is time to finally bring in the United States. At about the same time as English sailors and traders were going east to search for spices, they were also going west, to the newly discovered continent of America. Emigrants were going too and eventually set up the American colonies. The English colonists tended to look back to the Mother Country for their cooking habits and recipes. Both The Compleat Housewife and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy were published in the American colonies. On both sides of the Atlantic, cooks were experimenting with tomatoes. It seems that the prize for First Published Recipe for Tomato Ketchup goes to an American, a certain James Mease. In his book Archives of Useful Knowledge, published in 1812, he gave the following recipe for a tomato ketchup (he called tomatoes love apples, an early name for them):

Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.

Mease had already dropped the fish (a recipe for “tomata catsup”, in the cookery book Apicius Redivivus, or the Cook’s Oracle, published in the UK in 1817, is quite similar to Mease’s but still includes the fish) and considerably reduced the spices. It sounds more like what I would call a tomato sauce. A recipe for “tomato catsup”, given in The Virginia Housewife, written by Mary Randolph (Thomas Jefferson’s cousin) and first published in 1824, is even more like a tomato sauce, with the brandy now dropped.

TOMATO CATSUP

Gather a peck of tomatoes, pick out the stems, and wash them; put them on the fire without water, sprinkle on a few spoonfuls of salt, let them boil steadily an hour, stirring them frequently; strain through a colander, and then through a sieve; put the liquid on the fire with half a pint of chopped onions, half a quarter of an ounce of mace broke into small pieces; and if not sufficiently salt, add a little more — one table-spoonful of whole black pepper; boil all together until just enough to fill two bottles; cork it tight. Make it in August, in dry weather.

At some point, Americans began adding sugar to their tomato ketchup. By the time, Mr. Henry J. Heinz began making his tomato ketchup in the mid 1870s, sugar was standard. Here is a handwritten description of the recipe Heinz was using in 1895.

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It’s a little difficult to read and the picture doesn’t have the whole write-up, but it seems to say the following:

100 gals of thin tomato pulp
8 oz Ambonia cloves broken
7 oz Garden Allspice
6 oz broken Saigon cinnamon
4½ oz broken Penang mace
1½ oz powd Cayenne pepper
3 oz fresh chopped garlic
4½ lbs fresh chopped onions
This is all put into a 250 gal capacity kettle and boiled fast. After a while, add 4 gals of 10 %[?] vgr [vinegar] and cook, again for a while, when having almost the proper thickness add 38 lbs sugar … [I cannot read the rest]

Heinz seems to have stayed with the spicier types of ketchups. According to those who have recreated this sauce, this is a sauce with some punch to it, much more than the “timid smooth sauce” of today.  But in 1895, hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries weren’t where tomato ketchup was mainly being used. No doubt the spiciness has had to be toned down.

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In any event, Heinz’s tomato ketchup was a huge success and continues to be so. The company caught the wave of women no longer wanting to slave over the stoves to make their sauces at home when they could buy perfectly good ready-made sauces in the shops and then the supermarkets.

So there we have it. By the twists and turns of history, what started out as a sauce oozing out of fermenting fish ended up as a thickish sweet tomato-sugar-vinegar-based sauce, changing as different cultures met, swapped foodstuffs, and people carried new foodstuffs home and modified them to meet their needs.

JASMINE

Sori, 6 June 2020

All the walks my wife and I do around Lake Como (and now Lake Maggiore, to change a bit) start in an urban setting. We take trains, or buses, or boats, to get to our starting points and we are perforce dropped off in small towns or villages. In the last couple of weeks, as we have walked up through the back roads of these towns or villages to get to the woods and meadows above them, we have noticed a marvelous thing: whole walls of the sweetest smelling jasmine.

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This person has even made a tunnel covered in jasmine (I’m guessing it’s the garage).

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The scent of so much jasmine has quite gone to my head and my fingers have automatically begun doing a little research on the flower.

Truth to tell, I already did a little research on jasmine for an earlier post, when I researched the only perfume of my wife’s which I have ever liked: Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel. One of its ingredients is jasmine oil.

As I noted in that post, there are a large number of different species of jasmine. Some 200 have been catalogued, and who knows how many more are out there waiting to be discovered. My guess, though, is that those walls of jasmine which we have been passing are Jasminum officinale, the common, or white, or summer, or poet’s jasmine (and that’s just the English names).

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The logic for my choice is simple: it’s the most common jasmine in Europe.

But it’s not native to Europe. In fact, there is only one species of jasmine which is native to Europe, and only the Mediterranean part of Europe at that, the common yellow jasmine.

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Even in this case it’s difficult to say it’s a European flower. Its range stretches all the way to northern Iran.

The biggest “hotspot” of jasmine species is actually in South and Southeast Asia, although the west of China, especially Yunnan, hosts quite a few species. A number of species are present in Central Asia, but I suspect they may have been carried there from the Indian subcontinent. Australia is home to a few species, I suppose as a southward extension of their presence in Southeast Asia. And then there’s a good dozen species in Africa, especially southern Africa. To complete this world tour, no jasmine species are native to the Americas, alas.

If the jasmine my wife and I are seeing is not native to Europe, how did it get here? It seems that common jasmine, along with a couple of other jasmine species – sambac (or Arabian) jasmine, and Spanish (or Royal, or Catalan) jasmine – originally entered Europe via Sicily and Spain, when these were Arabian kingdoms: common and sambac jasmines through Sicily, and Spanish jasmine through (appropriately enough) Spain. Since I inserted a picture of the common jasmine earlier, I feel I owe it to these two other species to insert a picture of them too:
sambac jasmine

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Spanish jasmine

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But none of these jasmines were native to the Arabian-dominated lands either. The Arabs had discovered them even further to the east and had brought the flowers back to their homelands. They brought common jasmine back from Persia after they conquered it (a similar post-conquest westward transfer occurred with the lilac, as I narrated in an earlier post). In fact, the European name “jasmine” is a corruption of the flower’s Arabic name, which is itself a corruption of the Persian name for the flower, Yasameen, which means “gift from God” (such poets, the Persians!). And it’s possible that the Persians had come across the flower further east still. As for sambac and Spanish jasmines, it seems that trade, not conquest, brought them westwards, in the holds of the ships of Arab traders doing business with the Indian subcontinent.

Jasmines didn’t just ride westwards on trade routes. Common jasmine and sambac jasmine also rode on them out to the east, into China (another result of the ancient trade routes across the Eurasian continent – the “Silk Roads” – about which I’ve written previously). Here, too, the Chinese adopted the Persian name: Yeh-hsi-ming.

It’s interesting that the Chinese felt the need to import jasmines, given that they had quite a few of their own. Perhaps it was the pure white colour of these imported jasmines which attracted the Chinese – many of their jasmines are yellow as far as I can tell; I throw in a photo of one of the more common Chinese jasmines, winter jasmine.

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By the way, it’s called winter jasmine because it actually flowers from November to March. In fact, its Chinese name, Yingchun, means “the flower that welcomes Spring” (the Chinese, too, can be quite poetic). This quirk has meant that winter jasmine has now also been carried off to many a corner of the world.

But coming back to the jasmines imported into China, no doubt their heady scent helped too; perhaps they had a stronger scent than the native species. Or perhaps it was these jasmines’ close links with Buddhist ritual (something which the early Indian Buddhists had no doubt picked up from the Hindus). Anyone who has been to a Buddhist (or Hindu) temple in South and South-East Asia will have noticed the liberal use they make of jasmine flowers.

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By this reasoning, the use of these jasmines entered into China along with Buddhism, something else which was transported along trade routes (I have written earlier about a slightly different botanical story, the cooption by Chinese Buddhists of the ginkgo tree as a replacement for the bo-tree tree so beloved of South Asian Buddhists).

No doubt the Arabs were attracted by the colour of the jasmines (white seems to symbolise purity in so many cultures). But they were assuredly also attracted by their scent (which, I have to say, is indeed sublime). The name “sambac” points to this. It is a corruption of the Medieval Arabic term “zanbaq”, which means jasmine oil. As attested by the perfume Chance Eau Fraîche, which I mentioned earlier, the modern thirst for jasmine oil in perfumery is as great as it was in the Arabian kingdoms – actually far greater, since there are so many billions more of us on this planet now. Here is a field of  jasmine flowers in Grasse, in the south of France, waiting for their oils to be extracted (a field owned, by the way, by Chanel).

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But there is so little oil in each flower! As many as 8,000 flowers will have perished to produce this little, 1ml vial of jasmine oil (jasmine absolute, in the jargon of perfumery).

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Perhaps the way the Chinese use jasmine to scent tea is a little more “humane”. I watched a no-nonsense Chinese video on the making of jasmine tea. Cutting out all the marketing bla-bla, they mix together about an equal measure of tea (usually green tea) and jasmine buds (common or sambac), they let the mixture sit for a while so that the tea leaves get impregnated with the jasmine’s scent, and then they dry it. The result looks something like this.

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In truth, I’m not a great fan of jasmine tea. I like the scent of the flower on the air, but the scent of it in tea I find rather sickly. But perhaps this is because I have never had a really high-quality jasmine tea. I am ready to be pleasantly surprised one day.

Is it possible that such lovely flowers with such a delightful scent could have an evil side? Alas, it is possible: some species of jasmine have been declared invasive species in a couple of countries and are subject to eradication programmes. It is not the fault of the jasmines. It is our desire to fill our gardens with foreign flowers that is to blame. Take Brazilian jasmine, a lovely member of the family.

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For starters, it’s not Brazilian at all. It’s one of the African jasmines, no doubt taken to Brazil from one of Portugal’s African colonies (remember that the Americas have no native jasmines; perhaps a colonial administrator wanted to enliven his garden in Brazil). In the 1920s, the “Brazilian” jasmine was imported into Florida. Initially, it was planted in people’s gardens, but inevitably – as I’ve recounted in other posts in the case of other invasive species – the “Brazilian” jasmine “jumped over” the garden fence and began to spread. It has now invaded intact, undisturbed hardwood forests in the south of Florida, where it can climb high into the tree canopy, completely enshrouding native vegetation and reducing native plant diversity. Here is a picture of this jasmine at work in the forests of Florida.

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I was thinking about this this afternoon as my wife and I were walking high up in the hills. We were surrounded by beautiful wild flowers of all descriptions. Why do gardeners have to fill their gardens with foreign flowers when there are so many beautiful ones right on their doorstep? Another mystery to be solved one day.

Well, the evening is drawing in. It’s time for me to get ready to test something. I’ve read that the jasmine flower opens at night, so the scent is most powerful then. I shall persuade my wife to accompany me on a hunt for a wall – or just a modest bush – of jasmine, to see if this is true. I shall report back.

 

KEBABS AND GEOPOLITICS

Milan, 22 December 2019

One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire

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and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.

Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.

Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.

So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).

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It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.

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They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).

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I think we can even throw in grilled fish.

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Yes, all most delicious!

But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.

What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of  one of these döner kebab shops.

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For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.

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When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.

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They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.

I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance.  Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.

I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.

Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.

This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.

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And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.


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The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.

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The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.

New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.

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But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.

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But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.

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And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.

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So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)

The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.

Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).

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According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.

Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.

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As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of  skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.

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And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.

Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.

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As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.

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(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)

On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.

But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.

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Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.

But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.

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The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.

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I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.

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But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).

Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots.  It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.

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Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.

Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …

ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

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Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html

RINGING BELLS

Milan, 13 September 2016

It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
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for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”

It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity.  The noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
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Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.

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We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
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Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
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These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
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In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.

There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
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Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.

Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.

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Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.

Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.

_______________________
San Giorgio: http://www.milano24ore.net/cityinfo/churches/church_of_san_giorgio.php
Fire crackers: http://yourenotfromaroundhere.com/blog/firecrackers-evil-spirit-beijing-china/
Chinese New Year: http://chinesenewyearblog.com/cny-fireworks-victoria-harbor-hong-kong/
Sellers of fireworks: http://iainmasterton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000OGZzPAzdPPM
Mosque Masjid chakrabongse?: http://zlynn17.blogspot.it/2010/02/halal-food-in-banglamphoo.html
Buddhist monks chanting: https://monotonundminimal.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/day-240-bling-bling-bangkok/
Thais venerating the king: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/asia/thailand-king-bhumibol-gallbladder/
Aerobic class Phra Sumen Park: http://www.iamwannee.com/a-nice-walking-path-from-tha-phra-chan-to-tha-phra-athit/

TAMARIND IN THE KITCHEN

Milan, 5 September 2016

So my wife and I have finally left Thailand, after having spent two years there – we lifted off one last time from Bangkok international airport six days ago.

What memories of things typically Thai do I take with me?

Well, there’s tamarind.

Readers may find that a little odd, but tamarind is actually a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. In fact, it was animatedly discussed at the goodbye party my staff gave me. It’s a fruit I had never actually come across until I arrived in Thailand. I had heard of it, but it existed as an exotica on the far periphery of my knowledge, rather like those strange beings which Medieval Europeans imagined lived on the far edges of the world.
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I was introduced to tamarind by the kind lady who brought me my morning coffee in the office. She was in the habit of also bringing me any of the fruits which Thai colleagues had brought in for sharing. I was conversant with the other fruits she served with my coffee, but this large pod-like thing had me stumped.
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I had to go down the hall to ask colleagues explanations of what it was and how to eat it (split open the brittle shell, extract the pasty fruit from its stringy support and eat, making sure not to crack your teeth on the small, very hard seeds buried inside the sticky pulp).
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Thai cooks will extract the pasty fruit and use it as an ingredient in many of their dishes. I mention only two here, Pad Thai and Kaeng Som.

As probably every foreigner knows, since every foreigner coming to Thailand seems to eat it, Pad Thai is at base a dish of rice noodles, these having then been stir-fried with a whole bunch of things: shrimp, both fresh and dried (other meats are used but it’s not very Thai), shrimp paste in oil, soybean sprouts, firm tofu, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, sliced shallots, sliced Chinese chives, sliced preserved radishes, minced garlic, sliced chilies, and I don’t know what else. What foreigners probably don’t know, because it’s not obvious in the final dish placed before them, is that a tamarind-based sauce has also been added to the mix during the stir-fry. This sauce is a blend of sour-sweet tamarind paste, salty fish sauce, spicy chili sauce, and sweet palm sugar; the particular balance to strike between these four tastes gives rise to much passionate debate in the Thai recipe world.

My wife was particularly fond of Pad Thai, but it is as popular with Thais as it is with foreigners. In our wanderings around Bangkok, we discovered a Pad Thai joint a little south of the Golden Mount, where the people patiently waiting in the long lines outside (which we quickly joined) were primarily Thai.

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Pad Thai may seem very typically Thai, but actually in its present form it is quite a recent dish, having been invented only in the 1930s as a move by the-then military dictator to promote Thai nationalism. I suspect that Kaeng Som has a much longer culinary pedigree, since it has speciated, with every region of Thailand having its own variant. The variant I describe here is from Central Thailand, this being dominant in Bangkok. It seems that every street food stall sells Kaeng Som, although cognoscenti mutter that this is rat’s piss (my words) compared to the Real Thing. I wouldn’t know; I avoided street food stalls like the plague, desirous of avoiding seriously upset stomachs and consequent absences from work.

Kaeng Som is really a curry base to which you then add other ingredients. You will first grind and pound together, preferably in a stone mortar, chilies, salt, shrimp paste, sliced shallots, and meat of a freshwater fish stripped off the bones, until you have a smooth paste. You will add this to a simmering fish stock (preferably made with the remains of the fish), followed by tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Once again, the sour-salt-spicy-sweet tastes have been brought together, and you will fuss around at this point trying to get the “right” balance.

Now you are ready to add the remaining ingredients. Vegetables dominate, and it seems that Kaeng Som will marry well with a large number of different vegetables. I report, in no particular order, the suggestions given in the blog of Thai cuisine SheSimmers: morning glory, water mimosa, summer squash, cauliflower, green beans, daikon, Napa cabbage, green papaya, chayote, and watermelon rinds. This last interests me greatly, since I have always wondered, as I have thrown away the rinds after a good watermelon binge, what if anything could be done with them in the kitchen. I now have an answer. The same blog warns against the use of certain other vegetables: eggplants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, starchy root vegetables, and green leafy vegetables such as collard greens. Vegetables as an added ingredient seem quite enough, but if you want you can also add shrimps or pieces of fish.
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At this point, I have to confess to one major unpleasant memory I bring back from Thailand, and that is the (super-)abundant use of chilies in Thai cuisine. As I have reported elsewhere, I very much dislike chili and its ‘hot’ spicy cousins. This has been a major difficulty for me in eating – and enjoying – these or any other Thai dishes. I have also reported elsewhere how I made another popular Thai dish, Tom Yum soup, without chili and found that for me at least it worked perfectly well. If I can find a source of tamarind paste in Milan, I can try making Kaeng Som without the chilies and see what it’s like.

My dislike of hot spices also cuts me off from properly enjoying the use of tamarind in Indian cuisine. The use of tamarind is very popular in India, where the tree is widespread. Unfortunately, every Indian recipe using tamarind also seems to use chilies or something equally spicy. So I guess I will have to make do with Lea & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce, a small bottle of which graces the condiments section in our kitchen in Milan; as every aficionado of L&P sauce knows, it contains tamarind extract.
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Legend also has it that this sauce has its roots in India. It is said that Messrs Lea and Perrins, pharmacists in Worcester, created their sauce back in the 1830s on the basis of a recipe brought back from Bengal by a certain Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the county. Although I suspect that this story is a bunch of bull, I’m quite happy to believe it, because it allows me to pretend that I am enjoying an Indian sauce, suitably adapted to English tastes, in particular with the use of chilies eliminated. This is yet more support for my argument that chilies are simply not necessary in cooking.

I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. I really should spearhead a movement to eliminate chili and its evil cousins from the kitchen. Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, this is my chance to walk the talk. Chili growers beware!

___________________________
Monpods and others: https://sfcdt.wordpress.com/2010/08/page/2/
Unshelled tamarind: http://nutritiousfoods.blogspot.it/2014/10/why-dr-mantena-satyanarayana-raju-says.html
Shelled tamarind: http://lxia.dvrlists.com/tamarind/
Pad Thai: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pad_Thai
Pad Thai restaurant: https://ohmyfoodcoma.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/legendary-pad-thai-at-bangkoks-thip-samai/
Kaeng Som: http://shesimmers.com/2011/06/thai-sour-curry-kaeng-som-แกงส้ม.html
Lea & Perrins sauce: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lea_%26_Perrins

BAGAN, MYANMAR

Bangkok, 13 July 2016

My wife and I have just returned from a short visit to Bagan, in Myanmar. Back when Harold Godwinson received an arrow in his eye, losing his life and his English throne to William, Duke of Normandy
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the kings of Pagan (as the kingdom was then known) had consolidated their hold on the valley of the Irrawaddy River, swallowing up their neighbouring city-states, and had created the first Burmese kingdom. The kingdom grew rich on trade but also on agriculture, harnessing irrigation for the first time in this dry region of Myanmar. As befits the capital of a prosperous kingdom, the population of Pagan swelled. The kings and the richer citizens, anxious to gain merit for their next reincarnation, used their wealth to heavily sprinkle the city and the surrounding plain with stupas, temples, monasteries, and other religious edifices. At the height of this building frenzy, more than 10,000 such edifices covered an area of some 100 square kilometres.

Alas, this well-meaning search for merit undermined the edifice of state. More and more land was donated to the Buddhist monkhood, land which then became exempt from tax, thereby gradually emptying the state coffers. The resulting internal strife weakened the kingdom, and invasions of its borderlands by the Mongol dynasty of China finished her off. By 1287, the kingdom of Pagan was no more, and its capital city had shrunk to the size of a very modest town. Sun, wind, and rain began their work. The plaster moldings with which all the religious edifices had been covered peeled off, and the exposed brick began crumbling away to mud and dust. Trees and bushes did their part, inserting roots between brick and brick and slowly leveraging them apart. Earthquakes played their part too, toppling walls and cracking open stupas. And so the religious edifices so lovingly erected by earlier generations slowly slumped back into the earth from whence they had sprung.

A score of temples and stupas, which continued to be sites of pilgrimage, were maintained, often with infelicitous results as frescoes were painted or whitewashed over and badly crafted statues took the place of the originals. In the last century, conservation work was carried out – haphazardly – under successive military regimes. This has halted, or at least slowed, the dissolution, but even so only some 2,000 edifices remain standing, more or less, today.

But 2,000 is still a big number. Climb, as we did, the Shwesandaw stupa, and you will find yourself gazing out over flat, wooded farmland thickly sprinkled with red-brick stupas and temples of every size and state of disrepair.
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Get off the paved roads, as we did, and take the dirt roads and paths which crisscross this farmland, and you will come across lonely stupas brooding by the side of fields
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where the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi come to mind:

The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars
An owl hoots in the towers of Samarkand

(it is said that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II murmured these lines as he visited the desolate ruins of the imperial palace after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453)

It comes spontaneous to compare Bagan to other places. Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia is often cited, but the comparison doesn’t hold. Angkor has edifices which are splendid in their art and architecture.
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The edifices of Bagan, on the other hand, now have little if any intrinsic merit. My wife and I saw nothing superlative in any of the stupas or temples we visited. Pleasant, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to take one’s breath away.
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No, it is the overall landscape that makes Bagan noteworthy, and it is to landscapes that we must turn for comparisons. Since many of the edifices in Bagan are funerary in nature, my wife felt a certain affinity between the Italian cemeteries of her youth and Bagan, with the latter of course being on a much larger scale.
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In such a comparison, I would perhaps lean towards the abandoned part of Vienna’s biggest cemetery, the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, which contains many of the tombs of Vienna’s Jewish community, wiped out in the Nazi concentration camps.
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I myself favour a comparison with Ancient Rome, not the Ancient Rome of today, swallowed up in the concrete and bitumen of the modern city, but the Ancient Rome that was the subject of many a painting in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is Claude Lorrain
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this, Piranesi
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this, Palmer
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and this, Lear
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In these paintings I see an echo of the Bagan I looked out on from the heights of the Shwesandaw stupa.

As the lines I cite above show, the melancholy of ruins has always excited the imagination of poets. Rome’s ruins are no exception, with reams of poems written about them. I quote one here, by Alexander Pope.

See the wild waste of all-devouring years!
How Rome her own sad sepulchre appears,
With nodding arches, broken temples spread!
The very tombs now vanished like their dead!
Imperial wonders raised on nations spoiled,
Where mixed with slaves the groaning martyr toiled:
Huge theatres, that now unpeopled woods,
Now drained a distant country of her floods:
Fanes, which admiring gods with pride survey,
Statues of men, scarce less alive than they!
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Some hostile fury, some religious rage.
Barbarian blindness, Christian zeal conspire,
And papal piety, and Gothic fire.
Perhaps, by its own ruins saved from flame,
Some buried marble half preserves a name;
That name the learned with fierce dispute pursue,
And give to Titus old Vespasian’s Due.

But this poem is far too frothy, as are all the poems about Rome’s ruins. I prefer the fragments of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the 8th Century, part of an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems in the library of Exeter Cathedral, whose subject is not Rome but the Roman ruins of Bath.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,

For those of my no doubt many readers who, like me, are not conversant with Anglo-Saxon, let me continue with a translation by Siân Echard, of the University of British Columbia, with some modifications on my part.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,

Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,

Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …

(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment itself has suffered badly from the passage of time)

Indeed, the high arches, now fallen, of Bagan have witnessed the passing of many reigns, the last being but a few months ago, when the decades-long military government in Myanmar finally gave way to a democratically-elected civilian government. Knowing the history of neighbouring Thailand, where military meddling is a way of life, I offered a silent prayer in the Ananda temple
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that this would be the last of the military governments in this beautiful country, which has suffered so much and deserves so much better.

________________
Photos of Bagan: ours
Harold hit by the arrow: http://www.dot-domesday.me.uk/arrow.htm
Angkor Wat-1: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-2: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-3: http://rwethereyetrwethereyet.typepad.com/arewethereyet/2008/04/take-your-kids.html
Cimitero monumentale, Milan: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d243431-i28163413-Monumental_Cemetery-Milan_Lombardy.html
Jewish section, Vienna Zentralfriedhof: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/lastingimages/2924629401/
Roman ruins:http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/Galleries/Gallery_5/g5notes.htm
– Claude Lorrain
– Giovanni Battista Piranesi
– Samuel Palmer
– Edward Lear

THUNDER

Bangkok, 4 July 2016

It’s the rainy season in Bangkok. The normal schedule sees the day start dry with perhaps some cloud cover, which then builds up into impressively nasty-looking, black, whorly cloud piles by late afternoon.

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At that point, lightning rips the sky from cloud to ground
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followed moments later by thunder. And what thunder it is! The air itself seems to crack and splinter, the clouds angrily boom and hammer, over and over again as lightning keeps bursting out of the clouds. Instinctively, my wife and I step back, retreating into the safety of the apartment, and murmur comments to each other about the elemental son et lumière playing outside our windows. And then the rain starts, so dense that the other side of Chaophraya River, normally perfectly visible from our terrace, is blotted out.

At moments like these, I feel pity for our early ancestors cowering in their rock caves or flimsy huts watching the same grand spectacle. With the benefit of science, I can rationalize what I am seeing: why, thunder is just the noise of the sonic shock wave created by the very sudden expansion of air caused by the almost instant increase in pressure and temperature brought about by the passage of a lightning bolt! That’s all … But they did not have this intellectual crutch to lean on. They must have found such dramatic displays by nature very frightening. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that all the early religions had a god of thunder, who no doubt had to be ritually appeased.

What I do find surprising, though, after a quick zip around the Internet, is how decorously many of these gods of thunder have been portrayed in art. If I were cowering in my cave 50,000 years ago, or even in my flimsy hut 5,000 years ago, listening to all that tearing, splintering, and booming mayhem going on outside, I think it would come naturally to me to depict the god of thunder as a mean, nasty, angry son of a bitch. Some portrayals do seem to go in this direction. For instance, those of Tawhirimatea, the Maori’s god of thunder

make him look satisfyingly nasty. So do portrayals of Raijin, Japan’s god of thunder
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who to my eyes looks apoplectic. Chaac, the Mayan god of thunder also looks suitably nasty
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although as in so much Mesoamerican art he looks gruesomely nasty – they really seemed to have a need for downright disgusting-looking gods, the Mesoamericans did. I think Thailand’s own god of thunder, Ramasura, could perhaps be added to the list. I suspect he has a nasty monster’s face, but the nastiness of it is offset by the graceful balletic poses he is depicted in, a pose common to any flying spirit in Thai art.
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After that, it gets difficult to find angry-looking gods of thunder. Take Zeus, for instance, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. The angriest depiction I could find was this one, on a vase, where frankly he just looks a little snippy rather than rip-roaring mad.
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His usual mode of representation seems to be that typically Greek one of Olympian calm and good muscle tone, like this magnificent statue of him in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (the lightning bolt which he is, calmly, throwing has gone missing).
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A rapid whizz through the pantheon of thunder gods in the Middle East gave me nothing better than this representation of Teshub, the Assyrian and Babylonian god of thunder
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who, let’s face it, is looking petulant rather than angry as he wields his axe and lightning bolt.

I was hoping that the Norsemen, who after all seemed to spend most of their time stoving in their enemies’ skulls and drinking mead from those they hadn’t stoved in, would come up with a suitably horrible portrayal of Thor, their god of thunder. Not a bit of it! The best I could find was this
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which, let’s face it, is a really pathetic representation of this god, who, if I’m to believe the Icelandic sagas, was testosterone-fueled and badly in need of anger management classes. Marvel Comics have done a much better job at depicting him
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(and, by the way, have done a much better job of depicting Zeus too)
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What to make of all this? Perhaps that the trick of our ancestors was to personalize these frightening phenomena. By personalizing them, they could clothe them with known and understandable personality traits, thus rendering the unfamiliar familiar. And/or maybe the ruling classes who arose out of the early agrarian societies and needed the acquiescence of the masses to their rule, if necessary through force, rather liked the idea of the masses equating their power to that of natural forces like thunder and lightning – but also wanted that power to look regal rather than just plain nasty; the fist of iron in the velvet glove, as it were.

Well, that’s my two-cent’s worth of pop-anthropological musings. My wife and I can now go back to watching the spectacle through our apartment windows – but from two steps back; you never know.

____________________
Thunder clouds over Bangkok: https://paulandsarahinthailand.wordpress.com/author/artyfooty/page/5/
Thunder clouds over Bangkok-2: http://2bangkok.com/2bangkok-weather-index.html
Lightning over Bangkok: http://www.digitalphotographytipsonline.com/my-image-gallery.html
Tawhirimatea, NZ: http://auckland-west.co.nz/2011/08/09/twhirimatea/
Raijin, Japan: http://www.esamskriti.com/print.aspx?topicid=969&chapter=1
Chaac, Mayan God of rain: http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/a/Mayan-Rain-God-Chaac.htm
Ramasura: http://www.thaifolk.com/doc/mekkala_e.htm
Zeus on pottery: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K1.1.html
Artemisium Zeus statue: http://www.crystalinks.com/zeus.html
Teshub, Assyrian-Babylonian: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/12525705192076524/
Thor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyrarland_Statue
Thor comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_(Marvel_Comics)
Thor and Zeus comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeus_(Marvel_Comics)

CORAL REEFS AROUND SURIN ISLAND

Kuraburi, 18 April 2016

It was a few minutes before we turned back to the boat that my wife and I spotted them, a school of pale lemon yellow fish, browsing on the bottom of the reef. Much internet surfing suggests that we saw yellow runner fish.

Yellow runner school fish in Similan, Thailand

As we watched, another school of fish, light blue this time, floated by, pulled by some unseen current. They were fusilier fish, I think
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During our two-day snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands National Park, just north of Phuket, we saw much more besides on the four or five reefs we visited.

The last time I’d snorkeled was half a century ago, in the shallow waters of a bay near Buea, Cameroon. My father had some work to do there, and he had brought me along. An English family living in Buea had taken me with them on an afternoon outing, and so it was that after a merry hour spent sinking up to my thighs in the micro-quicksands which dotted the bay, I spent another hour floating on my stomach, watching with fascination the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish darting back and forth across the black sand, fruit of the nearby volcano, Mt. Cameroon. A badly burned back was the result of this excessive curiosity. Still remembering the pain of that red and peeling back, I snorkeled this time with a shirt on. Alas! In the intervening five decades, my hair has thinned so I found afterwards that my scalp was burned from floating face down in the water (my wife instead got burned just below her swimsuit, on what our personal trainer calls the glutes).

All of which has not taken away one jot from the pleasure we derived from the wonderful sights we took in as we paddled slowly hand-in-hand along the reefs, with no sound but our breathing, witnessing a riot of colour as fish swam into our line of sight and then disappeared, intent on their business. Below is an incomplete catalogue of our sightings:

Powder blue surgeonfish
imageRainbow parrotfish
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The wonderfully named Moorish idol

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Lined surgeonfish
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Black surgeonfish
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Emperor angelfish
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Triggerfish
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Melon butterfly fish

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Blue lined grouper

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We saw other denizens of the reefs too:

A powder-blue starfish

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The aptly named crown-of-thorns starfish

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Squamose giant clams, which would snap shut as we floated over them
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Magnificent sea anemone, whose green tentacles would wave this way and that, revealing a wonderful blue-mauve body beneath

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And of course there were the corals, around which all these other species revolved:
Staghorn coral, whose tips seemed to glow phosphorescently
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Table coral

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Mushroom coral
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But really, although it was fun to point out to each other new species that we spotted, it was the reef communities as a whole that were most fascinating

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those tens of species all working in and around a coral mount which surged up from the bottom towards the light.

I suppose we’re lucky to have seen this. As we were floating over the reefs around Surin Island, an article appeared in the Guardian about massive coral bleaching going on at the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The immediate cause is El Niño, which is leading to much warmer waters than usual; coral dies if the water is too warm, and all you are left with are the bleached bones of coral, devoid of that blizzard of life with which it would normally be surrounded.

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But behind this latest episode is climate change, which is making El Niño events ever longer and more intense. Two days before this article appeared, the Guardian had another announcing that the month of March had been the hottest on record.
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But so had February. And so had January. And so had 2015 as a whole.

One of the many, many – many – impacts of climate change will be the die-off of coral reefs the world over. Coral reefs everywhere are showing signs of increasing strain. And with that die-off will come a steep decline in fish species: coral reefs are home to an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s fish species. That favourite cartoon character, Nemo, will lose his real-life counterpart.
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Can we really let this happen? Surely we humans can collectively take on our responsibilities for controlling climate change. Let’s not destroy this beautiful planet we inhabit.

_________________
Yellow runner fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_24661711_yellow-runner-school-fish-in-similan-thailand.html
Fusilier fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_16881582_blue-and-gold-fusilier-fish-at-surin-national-park.html
Powder blue surgeonfish: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/acanthurus.html
Rainbow parrotfish: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/303922674822811295/
Moorish idol: http://diveadvisor.com/sub2o/the-moorish-idol
Lined surgeonfish: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acanthurus_lineatus
Black surgeonfish: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/wallpaper/surgeonfish-laman_pod_image.html
Emperor angelfish: https://cococares.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/maldives-emperor-angelfish-at-3-different-stages-of-life/
Triggerfish: http://www.seafocus.com/species_triggerfish.html
Melon butterfly fish: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thailandbeach/3568555120
Blue lined grouper: http://www.aquariumdomain.com/viewSpeciesMarine.php?id=49
Blue starfish: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-3387803/stock-photo-blue-starfish-close-up-similan-islands.html
Crown of thorns starfish: http://www.bubblevision.com/underwater-pictures/racha-noi/pages/crown-of-thorns.htm
Squamose giant clam: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Magnificent sea anemone: http://www.shutterstock.com/video/search/heteractis
Magnificent sea anemone: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Staghorn coral: https://www.fau.edu/facilities/ehs/info/elkhorn_staghorn_corals.php
Table coral: http://adamjadhav.com/2010/
Mushroom coral: http://www.messersmith.name/wordpress/tag/mushroom-coral/
Reef life: https://www.govoyagin.com/activities/thailand-phuket-snorkel-and-see-sea-turtles-and-sharks-in-phi-phi/2039
Bleached coral reef: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/17/great-barrier-reef-worst-destruction
March global temperatures: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/15/march-temperature-smashes-100-year-global-record
Clownfish: https://prezi.com/m/m7zrpx-gkdqs/life-cycle-of-a-clown-fish/