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.
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.
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).
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.

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.
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.
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


Beijing, 12 March 2013

My wife and I often lament the homogenizing effect globalization is having on our world. One of our common comments here in Beijing is: “Look at those young people. They dress just like our children!” [or children from the UK, or Italy, or the US, depending on the context]. We have an Ikea just up the road, which is thronged with young – and not so young – Chinese families buying the exact same things we were buying from our local Ikea in Vienna. And of course we can dine, if we wish to (which we sometimes do, I will admit), in that icon of globalization MacDonalds, which serves the same burger absolutely everywhere – it is so uniform that the Economist has created the Big Mac Index, which uses the cost of the Big Mac worldwide to check if currencies are at their right exchange level. And we can wash down our burger with a cappuccino in a Starbucks which looks and tastes exactly like a cappuccino in the Starbucks round the corner from our daughter’s place.

But for me the strangest aspect of globalization is … store mannequins. Often, when we are walking around in Beijing or anywhere else in China, I will come nose-to-nose with a store mannequin which is obviously European.


Why on earth would Chinese women (I presume they are the ones who are targeted) be more inclined to buy clothes they see on a European mannequin than on a Chinese mannequin? (By the way, I have never seen a Chinese mannequin). I have to assume that the globalization of US movies, of TV shows, of magazines and so on give European women a greater glamour. Either that, or a Chinese company bought (or perhaps “borrowed”) the rights to a mannequin designed in the West somewhere and is turning them out by the millions.

I’m not the only one who has been struck by these European mannequins in China. Here are some photos taken by others which I found after a trawl through the internet.





And it’s not just in China that you find these European mannequins. Here’s one I stumbled across in Laos, rather worse for wear and covered in pseudo-ethnic bling.

laos 068

The internet threw up these photos from other Asian countries.

The Philippines:






Even Iran!:


This presence is so strange that a quilt maker, Robin Schwalb, made this quilt about it (and got a prize for it, too!)


Here’s what Mr. Schwalb has to say about his creation:

“That suit, that hair, that mole; you immediately recognize Chairman Mao. But who – or what – are those pouty women, with their Western features, retro hairdos, and dead-eyed stares? They’re store mannequins, manufactured in China for the Chinese market, never appearing solo, but always arrayed in chorus lines. Perhaps the discordantly comical images have a darker point – if you have that system of government, you get this kind of dehumanized citizen.” [1]

I will pass over the political comment, which is disputable. Let me tell you the strangest thing about all this. This “pouty woman” looks exactly like a colleague of mine in Vienna. It is so odd to suddenly see her staring at me out of a shop window in some corner of China. I have never dared tell her. I don’t think she would appreciate being compared to a store mannequin.


[1] http://www.dairybarn.org/quilt/index.php?section=226&page=280

Mannequin-china-1: my photo
Mannequin-china-2: http://dianepernet.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341c76e453ef0153927b5e38970b-550wi
Mannequin-china-3: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4024/4448484644_653a40a274_z.jpg?zz=1
Mannequin-china-4: http://www.dvafoto.com/wp-content/0011.jpg
Mannequin-china-5: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2243/2129603065_45eaf9420e_z.jpg?zz=1
Mannequin-laos: my photo
Mannequin-philippines: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-IqILwlOYkz4/TqYJjLcRMkI/AAAAAAAAERw/kdYvkh71BvM/s1600/retro_mannequin.jpg
Mannequin-malaysia: http://www.lemonicks.com/photos/Kuala%20Lumpur/P1000852.2.jpg
Mannequin-india: http://www.bminusc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Store-Mannequins1.png
Mannequin-iran: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0120a59ffcee970b-pi
Mannequin-china-quilt: http://www.dairybarn.org/upload_files/images/QN07-Schwalb.jpg


Beijing, 30 November 2012

edited in Bangkok, 29 February 2015

I said in my previous post that I currently lived in a country where everyone had black hair. That is not strictly true. Like everywhere else, Chinese women, young and old, as well as young men, have a fondness for dyeing their hair. The great majority of them have wisely settled for adding reddish tints. This gives them hair-dos with varying shades of red-brown, which goes well with the natural colour of their skin. An unfortunate few have dyed their hair blonde which, with the yellow hues of their skin, simply makes them look ill.

In their colour preferences, Chinese hair-dyers are following what seems to me a broader trend worldwide to add more red to one’s hair. My memory tells me that when I was young, the dyeing colour of choice – at least in Europe – was blonde, but some fifteen years ago the shades definitely shifted into the redder part of the spectrum.

And why not? Naturally red hair is a magnificent sight, and the rarest natural colour in us humans. On average, no more than one or two people in every 100 have red hair. Scotland has the highest proportion, with a little more than one every ten Scotsmen or women having red hair. I remember well being struck by the amount of red-heads around me when I first moved to Edinburgh for University.  Ireland follows close behind. And then there is a scattering of red-heads throughout the rest of Europe.

Let me insert here a little photo gallery of some European read heads (probably Scottish or Irish, at least of descent), a young woman

ginger girla young man with a magnificent red beard

red header with bearda baby, readying himself or herself for a life on the red side

red headed baby

a slightly older man, looking back at a life spent on the red side.

ginger haired old man

I feel I have to complete this photo gallery with a picture of the Fair Prince Harry, who has given redness of hair a good name.

The observant reader will have noticed that most of these wonderful red-heads have blue eyes. The gene mutation which leads to red hair is closely linked to the one which gives rise to blue eyes. Fair, non-tanning skin almost always accompanies red hair, to the distress of red-heads when visiting countries with fierce sunlight:

Freckles are also often their lot:

Europe is not the only place to harbour red-heads. Here, in no particular order, are some red-heads from other parts of the world:



The Berbers of North Africa, represented here by Morocco’s queen (who is a Berber):

and a small child:

Udmurtia, a small provincial backwater in the Ural mountains of Russia famous for its red-heads:



and even Polynesia – this girl is from Tahiti:

Ashkenazi Jews are also well known for their redheads. My representative of this group is Woody Allen; this is a clip from one of his best films, Sleeper:

Nearer to me but also much further back in time are the Tochtarian people who inhabited the Tarim basin of Xingjian Autonomous Region some 4,000 years ago. The bodies of their dead were dessicated and mummified in the desert conditions of the Tarim basin, so many mummies have been unearthed. At least one these, the so-called Beauty of Xiaohe, had what looks like red hair.

Dessicating deserts in Peru have also given the world a share of mummies, some of these being red-heads. These red-headed mummies have had certain archaeologists (notably Thor Heyerdahl) afroth with fancy (and relatively racist) theories of Nordic whites somehow arriving in South America to take the natives in hand. This particular mummy also seems to have been subjected to skull lengthening.

peruvian mummy

Going back even further, from studies of fossil DNA it seems that some of our Neanderthal cousins were also red-heads:

So come join Edinburgh’s annual Ginger Pride Parade! Immerse yourself in a sea of red hair!

ginger pride parade

Ginger girl: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02510/ginger-girl-13_2510537k.jpg (in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/9932654/I-Collect-Gingers-artist-Anthea-Pokroy-photographs-500-red-haired-people.html?frame=2510537)
Red header with beard: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/96/d0/17/96d017f4374dbd877396ca77e2baf638.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/bridgeemelling/bearded-boss/)
Red headed baby: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-rQ0mt43F_48/UXqtfoVyvGI/AAAAAAAAPow/zK3OEOiHiFI/s1600/150421_343259622462322_454686503_n.jpg (in http://klubkotajasna8.blogspot.com/2013_06_01_archive.html)
Ginger haired old man: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/02/36/0b/02360b9c030976e4bc871f810ac4aba7.jpg (in https://br.pinterest.com/pin/499899627364000820/)
Prince Harry: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_tR4bYTcAqeQ/SvI-Hwpk8NI/AAAAAAAABsM/OBj6T465Dlc/s400/princeh.bmp
sunburned boy: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ld4t18EDYN1qfs58no1_500.png
freckled boy: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbjiv5TNfp1qer9yuo1_1280.jpg
Syrian baby: http://i45.tinypic.com/260x2xu.jpg
Turkish young man: http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSBd3GBpDXFhzwdCW99RLJk_znIncX8Uaory6HOjMPNSpP6n1Kvag
Moroccan Queen: http://badrhariboxer.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/moroccan-queen.jpg
Berber girl: http://looklex.com/e.o/slides/berbers02.jpg
Udmurt girls: http://russianpickle.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/udmurt_people_red.jpg
Afghan boy: http://fc04.deviantart.net/fs16/f/2007/122/1/a/Afghan_Redhead_and_boy_by_xerquina.jpg
Indian boy: http://mathildasanthropologyblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/light-indian.jpg
Polynesian girl: http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS9dYzPU1dcELZO1dZOJTMta43zg-fJO2tGxOcwAqHJ7XKp0iIpTAJGjDAAnA
Woody Allen: http://www.nerve.com/files/uploads/scanner/sleeper_0.jpg
Tochtarian mummy: http://images.mirror.co.uk/upl/dailyrecord3/feb2011/0/7/mummy-image-2-601127141.jpg
Peruvian mummy: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/2d/43/e4/2d43e4c46a67385e964b409fe38e229a.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/aprildherbert/creepy-cool/)
Neanderthal: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/601/cache/neanderthal-genome_60159_600x450.jpg
Ginger pride parade: http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Health/images-3/ginger-rally-uk-support.jpg (in http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Health/pages-3/World-misses-prime-opportunity-to-eliminate-gingers-during-pride-parade-Scrape-TV-The-World-on-your-side-2013-08-12.html#.VtRaZEAppEN)


Beijing, 15 November 2012

My wife and I have one fundamental difference: I notice people’s looks and she notices people’s characters. One result of this is that after living in a part of the world where everyone has black hair and dark eyes, I have become intensely aware of differences in hair and eye colouring, whereas my wife is quite indifferent to it. So it was that yesterday, when my wife and I were sitting at our favourite café and we found ourselves sitting across from a European expat, I was transfixed by his blue eyes while she didn’t notice. After spending a suitable moment marvelling at the sight, I began to ask myself some questions. Questions which my wife’s iPad, which I commandeered, and the café’s wifi allowed me to find answers to.

Perhaps the most amazing fact is this. Every person in the world with blue eyes (and the closely linked grey and green eyes) has one single, common ancestor! A mutation occurred in some corner of this person’s DNA and that little mutation has been passed on down the generations ever since. Up to that point, the colour of all humans’ eyes had been dark. And then, some ten thousand years ago somewhere in the north-western part of the Black Sea region (geneticists have managed to pinpoint the source that accurately), someone was born with blue eyes.  Can you imagine what that must have been like? Was the person treated as a wonder or as a dangerous freak, I ask myself? I have to think the former, since this person was able to sire children who passed on the mutation.

I suppose blue eyes are most associated with Europe: blondes or the red-heads with blue eyes.

But actually, according to very recent research, the original Ol’ Blue Eyes was probably dark skinned and dark haired. And in fact blue eyes are found everywhere:

Algeria …

Palestine …

Lebanon …

Syria …

Jordan …

Iran …

Afghanistan …

India …

Central Asia …

Even China! (although more green than blue) …

Even Africa!! …

But most basic of all, why are eyes blue? Because the irises lack melanin. It’s melanin which makes the human eye – and skin, and hair – dark. But why aren’t blue eyes colourless then? Because of the same effect that makes the sky blue: “longer wavelengths of light tend to be absorbed by the dark underlying epithelium, while shorter wavelengths are reflected and undergo Rayleigh scattering in the turbid medium of the stroma. This is the same frequency-dependence of scattering that accounts for the blue appearance of the sky” (1). So eyes are blue because the sky is blue. Now how cool is that …

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_color#Blue

Links for the pix:
Little European blonde girl: http://ts3.mm.bing.net/th?id=I.4963638661679662&pid=1.7&w=237&h=155&c=7&rs=1
Little European red-headed girl: http://ts3.mm.bing.net/th?id=I.4615243792843710&pid=1.7
Algerian old woman: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/algeria-aures-mountains-facial-tattoos-culture-portrait-series
Palestinian man: http://i56.tinypic.com/2vao8av.jpg
Syrian man: http://www.hobotraveler.com/123_07baghdadistanbul/0077.JPG
Jordanian man: http://www.lurvely.com/photo/4259694961/A_face_from_Jordan/
Little Iranian girl: http://www.worldisround.com/articles/73022/photo653.html
Afghan woman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuristani_people
Afghan man: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4041/4696088197_24f3ecf0c4.jpg
Little Indian girl: http://i2.asntown.net/h3/fun/12/beautiful-eyes/asian-people-with-blue-eyes05.jpg
Indian woman in Sari and Indian boy: http://www.asiafinest.com/forum/lofiversion/index.php/t8178-100.html
Indian man with green eyes: http://i.images.cdn.fotopedia.com/flickr-4833454489-hd/Countries_of_the_World/Asia/Portrait-Asia-Demographics_of_Asia-Demographics_of_India-Human-India-Portrait_photography-Rajasthan-Rajasthani_people-hd.jpg
Central Asian man: http://anthrocivitas.net/forum/showthread.php?t=7853
Chinese woman: http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=I.4981686084830908&pid=1.7
African girl: http://korraisnottan.tumblr.com/post/21640006035/anonymous-asked-korra-is-not-tan-korra-is-not