KEDGEREE

Beijing, 14 November 2013

I was doing my favourite thing two Sundays ago, which is to be with my wife, sipping a cappuccino, and reading the weekend section of the Financial Times. My eyes fell on the cookery section, where Rowley Leigh was explaining how to prepare kedgeree.

Kedgeree …

My mind whirled back 50 years, and suddenly I am a boy again, staying with my English grandmother in London. She is having some guests over to dinner and has prepared kedgeree, one of her signature dishes. She is allowing me to take part in the dinner, and amid the chatter of grown-up conversation around me, I dig into this new dish for me. Ah, the softness of the rice with its buttery taste, overlain by the flavour of strong tasting smoked haddock merging with mild tasting hard-boiled egg. Mmmm …
Kedgeree-2
I once asked my sister if she had ever persuaded my grandmother to hand over her kedgeree recipe (my sister is the cook of the family). She had, and she sent it to me by return of electronic post. I printed it off and slipped the sheet into one of my wife’s cookery books, with the intention of trying it one day. Alas, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.  That piece of paper has never been used and is now lying, along with the cookery book, in a storage space in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

After receiving the recipe from my sister, my curiosity was piqued and I started to do some research on kedgeree. The first thing I discovered was that its culinary roots are in India!  For some reason, I think because my grandmother was always going on about her Norwegian roots (she was half Norwegian) and because the dish had fish in it (the Norwegians are a sea-faring nation, aren’t they? They must all eat fish), it had to be originally Norwegian, with a name like kåjorø or something.

viking_longship

Of course, the rice should have warned me that Norwegian roots were doubtful, but I wasn’t that sagacious when I was young.  Apart from the rice, my grandmother had eliminated all other references to India. For instance, all recipes mention a sauce in which to cook the rice. There is a good deal of disagreement about what should go into this sauce, but they all agree on at least two ingredients. There should be onions, and there should be curry. Well there you go! My grandmother disliked onions – she didn’t like the smell and I think they disagreed with her digestion (as they do with mine and as they did with my father’s – the mystery of genes; I wonder which part of our DNA helix has problems with onions). In addition, my grandmother really, really disliked curry and all spicy spices. It looks like there too I inherited her bit of anti-spice DNA. So it’s not surprising that she ruthlessly eliminated the onions and the curry from her version of kedgeree, along with the medley of other spices which various sources suggest: cardamom, turmeric, cumin, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, … the Spice Islands unfurl before the eyes. So maybe I wasn’t that wrong all those years ago. My grandmother’s kedgeree may not have come from Norway, but it sure ended up looking and tasting Norwegian.

The fascinating thing is to look at the Indian ancestor of kedgeree. The sources all seem to agree on khichdi as the ultimate source, or khichuri to give it what I think is its Bengali pronunciation. A typical recipe goes like this. First, throw out the fish and egg. This seems to have been a British addition (Wikipedia suggests that Bengalis eat their khichuri with fish and/or eggs, but I was able to find no reference to this in other recipes). Second, add lentils to the mix. Because basically, as far as I can make out what we have here is a dal mixed with rice. Third, add vegetables like cauliflower and peas. Cook the lentils, the rice, and the vegetable in the sauce, et voilà! (more or less; I’m cutting details).

moong-mogar-dal-khichdi

How did this Indian dish mutate into its pale British imitation? I construct the following hypothetical journey – a complete fabrication, I’m sure, but it satisfies my sense of the romantic. I take as true the Wikipedian claim that Bengalis added fish and eggs to their khichuri. So I imagine that khichuri started its journey to kedgeree in Calcutta, among the men of the East India Company.

East-India-Company

At the beginning, there were few British women in India to feed the men their British meat and potatoes, and since the men did not cook (of course) their diet went native. So far so good. But here I have recourse to another aspect of khichuri, that it is fed to those who are recovering from sickness or are otherwise generally feeble. And so I imagine that the Indian servants fed khichuri to their East India Company masters who had been felled by one of the many diseases of the Indian subcontinent to which their British constitution was not used and against which they had no defence, natural or pharmaceutical.  Since the British were very often sick (the death rate among the British at the beginning of their rule in India was alarmingly high), they were very often fed khichuri by their Indian servants. Thus was born a love of khichuri among the British men of India.

sick_man_24338_md

Now we have to move on some decades, to when sanitary conditions got better and medicines more effective, travel to India quicker, and racist theories about the superiority of the British over the Indians grew stronger. This last factor led from an earlier disapproval of having British women around to a disapproval of having British men – naturally, given the circumstances – consorting with Indian women. British men, it was decreed, should be with British women. The better and quicker travel meant that single (normally dowryless) British women could be brought over by the boatload and married off to the single British men running India. The better sanitary conditions and more effective medicines meant that they didn’t die in droves and had time to set up stable families.

So were born the memsahibs, that army of British women who ran the men who ran India.

memsahibs

They were the keepers of the flame of Britishness.  Everything became more British and the divide between British and Indians widened and deepened.

British family in india

Britification included the cuisine, of course. Meat, two veg, and potatoes, along with soggy deserts, became de rigeur, and all things Indian in the kitchen were determinedly stamped out (except the cook, of course; memsahibs did not cook).

But some Indian dishes survived the onslaught and slipped into the mainstream of British food. Chutney was one, although much of the original Indian spiciness and sourness was stripped out in the transition. When I was young chutney seemed as British as cricket.

Chutney

Mulligatawny soup (Milagu thanni in Tamil) was another, although my Wikipedian sources tell me that the British got confused and gave the name of one soup to the recipe of another; what the Brits eat really should be called Russum soup.

Mulligatawny

And of course there was khichdi /khichuri/kedgeree.

For some reason, in Anglo-India kedgeree became a breakfast dish, perhaps because fish (in the form of kippers) and eggs were typical ingredients of the British breakfast while the idea of eating rice at breakfast made sense in India.

breakfast-british raj

But I have to think that once kedgeree filtered back to the UK proper, the rice content meant that it migrated to the lunch and dinner menus; that’s certainly where my grandmother had it.

Of course, Indian cuisine has had the last laugh. When I was a young, impoverished University student, going to an Indian restaurant was a good option for a night out. The restaurants were slightly dodgy, the sort of places where you weren’t quite sure of the source of the meat on your plate (a story which made the rounds of the student dorms was of an inspection of an Indian restaurant turning up a dead dog in the kitchen’s refrigerator).  But now, as far as I can make out the English themselves are cooking Indian food. My guess is that in another thirty years British cooking won’t exist anymore in Britain. Everyone will eat Indian.

Indian cookery book

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Kedgeree: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b8/Kedgeree.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Indian_cuisine%5D
Viking longship: http://www.celticattic.com/scandinavian/images/viking_longship.jpg [in http://www.celticattic.com/contact_us/norwegian_connection/ships.htm%5D
Kichdi: http://jainrasoi.com/mg/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi-600×450.jpg [in http://jainrasoi.com/khichdi/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi%5D
East India company: http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/files/2012/01/East-India-Company.jpg [in http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/2012/01/12/revisiting-the-east-india-co/%5D
Sick man: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HhdTZia6Bzk/ULac2VucJAI/AAAAAAAAAN0/rCoD3QxO_us/s1600/sick_man_24338_md.gif [in http://storytimehats.blogspot.com/2012/11/sick-to-move.html%5D
Memsahibs: http://s157.photobucket.com/user/dismasdolben/media/memsahibs.jpg.html?t=1176095517 [in http://sanatana-dharma.livejournal.com/106044.html%5D
British family in India: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-JXoJcY6cvfg/T33zjAqxGjI/AAAAAAAAAc4/Ln-30Elvh-8/s1600/British+india.jpg [in http://hkm128.blogspot.com/2012/04/being-dark-skinned-in-india.html%5D
Chutney: http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/data/shop/Madras%20Fruit%20Chutney.jpg [in http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/item.asp?itemid=121%5D
Mulligatawny soup: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Mulligatawny.jpg/800px-Mulligatawny.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulligatawny%5D
Breakfast-British Raj: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-pEIQ5D-CSEU/UCo2tDj8nNI/AAAAAAAAJs8/35DYCGC5zk4/s1600/raj.jpg [in http://marykunzgoldman.com/2012/08/breakfast-of-champions.html%5D
British Indian cookery book: http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FRONT-COVER-NEW-BOOK1.jpg [in http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/2012/05/12/a-review-of-british-indian-restaurant-style-cooking-by-mick-crawford/%5D

RATATOUILLE

Beijing, 20 October 2013

For several months now, I have been going around with an article from the Financial Times carefully folded and tucked away in the back of my wallet. The article describes a recipe for the French dish ratatouille, and is there ready to be whipped out at a moment’s notice in a supermarket so that I can purchase the necessary ingredients.

Truth to tell, I should have whipped it out in the days immediately after the article’s appearance back in mid-August, when the vegetables which form the core of this dish were still in season. But sloth and general laziness got in the way, so now I have to wait until next summer to try out the recipe, by which time the article will, I fear, be frayed and tattered.

After the release back in 2006 of the animated film of the same name

ratatouille

it seems hard to believe that there should be anyone on this planet who doesn’t know the dish, but just in case there are a few dinosaurs out there who, like me, have never seen the film and, unlike me, have never had the pleasure of eating ratatouille, let me quickly explain what this dish consists of.  It is a stew of five vegetables:

onion

red_onions

sweet pepper

sweet pepper

aubergines (eggplants to some)

aubergines

courgettes (zucchine to my wife and 60 million other Italians)

FD ZUCCHINI 080806

and tomatoes.

tomato

Voilà!

Ratatouille connoisseurs will immediately roll their eyes and cry out oh, la, la, it is not voilà, there is much more to it than that! They are right of course. For instance, you cannot just mix all the vegetables together and stew them, non, non! Each vegetable must be cooked separately, and then put together – in a certain order, messieurs-dames! – to stew gently. And not just any oil can be used to cook them, it must be olive oil. And the stewing must be gentle and long, to impart a creamy texture to the vegetables and an intensity to the sauce. And we have not even started talking about the minor ingredients: the garlic, the basil, the thyme, the saffron …. Yes, yes, all of this is true. But still, when all is said and done, it is a vegetable stew – or a ragout, if you prefer to remain French.

ratatouille-1

My wife asks me what I see in ratatouille. It’s OK, she says, but after all it’s just – well, a vegetable stew (or ragout).   It’s the tomatoes, I reply, and some of my readers may immediately understand this. In previous posts, I have unveiled an unfeigned passion for this vegetable (and even for its wastes). OK, she responds, but in Italy we have a very similar dish, capponata, and I’ve never heard you going on about that. She’s absolutely right, of course (as she always is), and indeed to complete the catalogue several Mediterranean countries have similar dishes: the Spaniards have the Catalan samfaina, the Majorcan tombet, the Castilian-Manchego pisto; the Maltese have kapunata; the Greeks have briám and tourloú; the Turks also have türlü as well as şakşuka (just the names make me lust to try them). Then the South-Eastern European countries have similar dishes. Even the Philippines has a similar dish!

So I have to confess to a deeper reason for my being fond of ratatouille. I was introduced to the dish when I was a young boy spending my summer holidays with my French grandmother. I still remember with great clarity one lunch where a steaming bowl of ratatouille was put before us with great fanfare and to much ooh, la, la around the table. For this was not a dish from my part of Burgundian France. It hails from Provence, and more specifically from Nice. Its presence on the table reflected my mother’s childhood history. In the mid 1920’s, and in short order, my grandfather’s business went bust and he contracted tuberculosis. The family was destitute and without a bread-winner. In this moment of desperation, my grandmother managed to get a job as secretary to a rich English friend of hers, who with her husband spent the winters in Menton (a stone’s throw away from Nice). The whole coast of Provence pullulated with rich English during this period. It’s not for nothing that Cannes’s main boulevard along the sea – the one the film stars walk along during the festival – is called “Promenade des Anglais”

promenade-de anglais-2

Coming back to the English lady, I suspect it was an act of kindness on her part to hire my grandmother; she had no real need of a secretary. In any event, it meant that until the Second World War the whole family would move south to Provence for the winter and return to Burgundy for the summer when the English lady and her husband went home to England (the family got smaller during the early 1930’s when my grandfather finally died of his tuberculosis). At some moment during these stays in the south my grandmother picked up the recipe for ratatouille. So for me, every forkful of ratatouille reconnects me with my mother’s family history.

I have to thank the kind, rich English lady for more than just ratatouille; I have to thank her for being of this world! When my mother was 18, my grandmother packed her off to stay with the English lady for a couple of months to polish up her English (she was studying English Literature). It was in the lady’s house that she met my father, aged 19, who was studying at the University down the road. The rest, as they say, is (my) history.

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Movie poster: http://www.look.yeah1.com/albums/userpics/234993/poster1.jpg [in http://photo.yeah1.com/showthread.php/39632-My-RatatouilleChuot-Can-Cook-2007.html%5D
Red onions: http://p21chong.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/red_onions.jpg [in http://paulchong.net/2010/05/16/the-magic-healing-power-of-onions/%5D
Sweet pepper: http://www.greeneryuk.com/images/products-feature/920pepper.jpg [in http://www.greeneryuk.com/productsdetails.php?key=p%5D
Aubergines: http://nuestrasfrutasyverduras.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/b/e/berenjena_3_2.jpg [in http://nuestrasfrutasyverduras.com/berenjena%5D
Zucchini: http://www.amyroose.com/wp-content/uploads/zucchini.jpg [in http://www.amyroose.com/tag/zucchini/%5D
Tomato: http://atlantablackstar.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/tomato.jpg [in http://atlantablackstar.com/2013/10/10/tomatoes-may-help-lower-stroke-risk/%5D
Ratatouille: http://www.bonappetit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/grilled-ratatouille-salad-646.jpeg [in http://www.bonappetit.com/drinks/wine/article/the-5-best-wine-pairings-for-tomato-dishes-from-caprese-to-ratatouille-to-blt%5D
Promenade des anglais: http://tonton84.t.o.pic.centerblog.net/do3uxg9p.jpg [in http://tonton84.centerblog.net/rub-CARTES-POSTALES-anciennes-region-PACA–8.html%5D

THE TRACTOR

Beijing, 14 September 2013

In the trip to Xinjiang which I mentioned in my previous post, we were also taken to see a tractor manufacturer. Row upon row of bright new tractors greeted us as we walked into the factory’s yard
tractors outside
but we ignored these, headed as we were for the shed where they assembled the tractors.

It was with some relief that we exchanged the heat and light of the yard for the cool darkness of the shed interior. There, we were introduced to the plant manager, and after a hearty shaking of hands all round he launched into his exposé of all the wonderful things his factory was doing. I let his voice wash over me as I took in a yellow tractor, newly assembled, standing proud and tall before me.

tractors inside

And suddenly I was 14 or 15 again, standing, on a beautiful summer’s day, by the side of a tractor. I was out on the plains of Manitoba, an hour or so’s drive from Winnipeg, on a farm owned by the parents of a friend of my sister’s.  The farmer was asking me if I wanted to try ploughing a field and I was saying yes. Why not? Everything is possible when you are 14 or 15.

So he gave me a quick lesson in tractor driving and ploughing, and sent me off to a distant field. And off I went, my hat cocked at a jaunty angle as I surveyed the surroundings, Lord of everything I beheld.  After 10 minutes, I arrived at the field – the North American plains are very big and tractors are very slow – and there I found myself faced with an unexpected choice: there were actually two fields, one to the left and one to the right, and no fences. Which one? I hesitated, trying to remember my instructions – no mobile phones in those days, no way to check back – and eventually plumped for the field to the right.

So I started ploughing, starting as instructed at the field’s edge and going round in ever-decreasing circles until the middle was reached. By the end of the first circle, I noticed a man standing on the edge of the field. By the end of the second circle, he had walked over and signaled me to stop. He asked me politely what I was doing. Well, I was ploughing the field, I replied lamely. Yes, he responded patiently, but on whose instructions. Well, I said, and here I named my farmer host. Ah, he said, but the fact was that I was ploughing HIS field. Not that he minded, he added quickly, the field was fallow (thank God! I screamed inside of me) and no doubt it would benefit from an extra plough, but still … He pleasantly instructed me to stay still while he phoned his neighbour.

I sat there, on the tractor, with my hat at not quite such a cocky angle now, with a sense of impending doom. And indeed my farmer host came scorching over like a bat out of hell. He covered in 10 seconds in his battered old car what had taken me 10 minutes with the tractor. He bounced out, glared at me, and excused himself profusely with his neighbour, but the offended party was very gracious about it all and the situation resolved itself pleasantly.

My farmer host next turned to me and in that very deliberate and slow tone one reserves for the village idiot told me that I was meant to be ploughing the LEFT field. And to make sure that the village idiot had understood he pointed very insistently at the field in question. Suitably chastened, with my hat drooping about my ears, I headed for said field, and started again.

So there I was, circling the field, spiraling slowly – EVER so slowly; the field was very big – towards its middle.  I have to tell you,  ploughing is pretty boring. After about the fourth circle the novelty of it all had worn off and I was wondering how to pass the time. I tried singing, but the noise of the engine drowned out even the lustiest of my songs. I tried driving with one hand, but that palled after 2 minutes. I tried driving with one leg up on the dashboard, but that was uncomfortable. In a moment of desperation, I even thought of trying to drive sitting backwards but luckily good sense prevailed. So I was reduced to just driving, driving, driving in ever decreasing circles as the sun slowly dropped to the horizon of the endless Manitoban plains.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ploughing the plains may be boring but the plains themselves have a strange beauty. As a boy brought up in undulating landscapes, used to cresting land-waves and finding hills rising up before me, I initially found the plains disorienting. Whenever my parents took us out for drives I never knew which way to look. But after a while I began to appreciate the way the sky was so close to the land, seeming to press down on it and you, and how you could really enjoy cloud formations in the vast, uncluttered sky of the plains. I could never get over those fields of wheat stretching off as far as the eye could see, registering on their waving surface every meander of the passing breeze …
the plains-7
I was nudged, the plant manager had finished his peroration. I came out of my reverie with a smile playing on my lips, which no doubt delighted the man, reinforcing his conviction that what he did was incredibly interesting. With another round of hearty handshakes, we emerged blinking into the strong sunlight and headed for the car and the next factory.

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tractors inside and outside: GUO Li
tractor and the sunset: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4045/4482416778_f1fc6db355_z.jpg
wheat fields: https://farm5[dot]staticflickr.com/4127/4975335245_a2e33916c3_z.jpg

BLUE EYES: PERSONAL MEMORIES

Beijing, 18 November 2012

In my last posting, I did not reveal if I am or not one of the millions who carry that little mutation in my DNA which codes for blue eyes. Well, … I think I do. My mother certainly carried the mutation because she had beautiful baby blue eyes, as did her brother. She once told me that her father also had blue eyes, although I have no direct confirmation of this. He died in the 1930s of tuberculosis. The only indirect confirmation I could have would be from photos. But photos with him in them are black and white and taken from a distance, and all I can see is his illness in his hollowed face. In any event, he must have carried the blue-eye gene, because otherwise my mother could not have had blue eyes. The gene for blue eyes is recessive and must be inherited from both parents to be expressed. So my maternal grandmother must have carried it too, although she definitely did not have blue eyes. As I dig into my memory for her face, I think I see hazel eyes.

My father’s eyes were brown, as were those of his brother and sisters. He inherited the gene for that from his father, although here too I have to depend on indirect evidence: a painting of him that hung in my paternal grandmother’s living room, in which his eyes were definitely brown. He also died in the 1930s, from leptospirosis, which he caught on the Norfolk Broads. From my grandmother my father inherited a blue-eye gene because she had beautiful blue eyes. By the time I knew her they had faded a little and her hair had turned completely white. But as a younger woman, she had dark hair: blue eyes and dark hair, she must have been a striking woman.

So my father had one brown-eye gene and one blue-eye gene, while my mother had two blue-eye genes. One of my sisters inherited my father’s brown-eye gene because her eyes are brown. My two brothers inherited the blue-eye genes from both sides pure and unadulterated, because they both have blue, blue eyes. The rest of my sisters have eyes with varying shades of green: I guess part of their DNA is pushing for some level of melanine in their irises.

As for me, my mother used to say that the colour of my eyes was caca d’oie, or goose poop. Anyone who has looked closely at defecations from geese will immediately recognize the allusion: green with brown streaks.

my eyes