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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


(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.


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.


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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Bangkok, 20 August 2015

One of the things I always do when I go to a new country is to inspect the vegetable section of the local markets or supermarkets, to see what fruits and vegetables they have on display which I have never seen before, and then I try to figure out how the locals eat them. I also play this game with fish, where one can see interesting variations around the world. I normally don’t bother with meats, since there is much less variety here. Chicken, pork, and beef probably cover more than 95% of all meat products sold over the counter. Throw in a few other fowl, like turkey and goose, and you’re probably up at 99%. I’ve never seen meat aisles where you can buy camel or llama or hamster or dog (although I was once in a place where I could have bought kangaroo).

In any event, I played the game when we arrived here in Thailand, and one of the things that immediately jumped out from the vegetable aisles was lemongrass – it’s not a vegetable really, more a spice, but it tends to sit alongside the vegetables, so that’s where I saw it.

lemongrass bunch

Anyone who has lived in Thailand for more than a couple of months will quickly realize that lemongrass plays an important role in Thai cuisine. I’ve mentioned in a previous post one Thai dish in which lemongrass plays a not unimportant role, Tom Yum soup.

tom yum soup

There are other Thai soups which have lemongrass in their recipe, lemongrass coconut noodle soup for instance.

Coconut Lemongrass Noodle Soup

It also finds its place in the green and yellow curries which are omnipresent in Thailand and which Thais will eat with various meats and vegetables. Here they are accompanying chicken.

chicken green currychicken yellow curry

Lemongrass also plays an important role in various sauces, in this case as a coconut and lemongrass sauce accompanying mussels.

mussels in coconut and lemongrass sauce

In truth, it is not only in Thai cuisine that lemongrass finds a role. It is common to much South-East Asian cuisine. In Viet Nam, for instance, in pork meatballs the meat is mixed with lemongrass and other herbs.

Vietnamese Lemongrass Pork Meatballs

Or there is Indonesia’s beef rendang, where beef is cooked slowly in a mix of spices which includes lemongrass.

Indonesian beef-rendang

In Cambodia, there’s the national spice-mix paste called Kroeung, which almost always includes lemongrass, and which is used in many dishes, for instance in the fish-based Amok trey

cambodian fish amok trey

For Laos, I cite stuffed lemongrass, the one dish where lemongrass plays a star role.

Laotian stuffed lemongrass

Myanmar gives us as one among many examples Mont Di soup, from Rakhine state

Myanmar Mon Di soup

And let’s not forget the Philippines, from which I’ll cite Lechon Cebu. Lechon, a national dish, is a whole roasted pig. Among its many regional variations there is Cebus’s, where the pig is stuffed with a mix of spices and herbs which includes lemongrass.

Philippine lechon cebu

This enthusiasm for lemongrass is not surprising really. The two forms of the plant which are edible, C. citratus and C. flexuosus, both have their tap root buried deep in this part of the world. Anyway, it’s super for me because I have a great fondness for lemongrass. This affection goes back a long way; I first came across the plant some 50 years ago, as a ten, eleven year-old child. It was in Cameroon, in West Africa. My father had moved there after his stint in Eritrea. One afternoon, at tea time at someone else’s place, I was served this delicious pale yellow infusion, which smelled and tasted softly lemon-like.

lemongrass infusion

After I’d oohed and aahed about it for a bit, I was shown the plant, a rather spiky big grass

Lemongrass Plant

whose leaves gave off this wonderful lemon scent when you rubbed them between your fingers.

I did not consume lemongrass in any other form while in Cameroon, nor did I ever consume it any other way until I came to Thailand. In fact, an exhaustive search on the internet has led me to conclude that nowhere between Cameroon and S-E Asia does any traditional cuisine include lemongrass (I stress traditional cuisine; with the globalization of cuisines many people are now trying S-E Asian recipes, either straight or fusing it with their own cuisines). Everywhere in the world, there is much enthusiasm to consume lemongrass but only in the form of infusions. I had high hopes to find traces of lemongrass in the Berber regions of North Africa, where their traditional form of cooking, the tajine, is very much a form of stewing, which is quite close to the way lemongrass is used in this part of the world.


But no, I found no trace of cooking with lemongrass in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. Not even in India have I found any trace of lemongrass being used in traditional cuisine, even though the subcontinent shares many culinary traits with S-E Asia – curries being the obvious one

south indian curry

and even though the lemongrass plant grows well there (to the extent that C. citratus is known as West Indian lemongrass while C. flexuosus is known as East Indian lemongrass).

I was somewhat astonished by this finding, but also rather disappointed – I had been looking forward to showing pictures of yummy dishes from around the world in which lemongrass plays a role. My first thought was that the consumption of lemongrass infusions the world over was a result of colonialism. In this narrative (a favourite word these days among the chattering classes), Europeans would have discovered the lemongrass infusion (I suspect in India, given the name we Europeans gave the plant)

english lady drinking tea in India

and carried the plant off around the world and hooked our colonial subjects on the drink (the plant’s anti-mosquito properties may also have helped in this diffusion; more on this in a minute).

english lady serving west indians tea

(OK, my pictures show the imbibing of the even more famous herbal infusion, tea, but the general process would have been the same.)

This tidy narrative of mine got a rude shock, however, when I picked up another, insistent, narrative on the internet, which held that already 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians, and through them later the Ancient Greeks and Romans, were familiar with the plant. And there was a big difference. The Egyptians did not eat it, they used it for incense mixes. Incense was big business in Egypt (as it was indeed in all ancient religions). We have here, for instance, Ramses I burning incense as a ritual offering

Rmases I burning incense

and what the Pharaoh did, every man, woman, and probably child, did the length of the country (the country did not have much breadth).

If the Egyptians used lemongrass for incense, I suspect they also used it for their perfumes and perfumed oils. After all, this is also how lemongrass is used today, especially by our friends the aromatherapists.

lemongrass oilI couldn’t find an Egyptian mural showing someone using oils or perfumes, so instead I throw in a picture of ladies using cosmetics more generally.

ancient egyptians using cosmetics

But now the question is, if the Ancient Egyptians were indeed using lemongrass, how did they get it from its place of origin, S-E Asia? I have to think that the answer lies in the spice trade, which was already flourishing in the time of the Pharaohs. Spices like cinnamon and cassia were finding their way to Egypt from Sri Lanka, so it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that lemongrass and other spices were being picked up in S-E Asia and shipped westwards, eventually coming up the Red Sea.

egyptian ship

My personal view is that contrary to many spices, where the product and never the plant was shipped (the plant being treated almost like a state secret), the live plant also eventually made its way to Egypt, perhaps overland through India and Iran, along the Fertile Crescent, and then down into Egypt (and from there I would guess eventually along the coast of North Africa). I say this, because lemongrass has another very valuable use, one which I alluded to earlier, and that is as a deterrent to mosquitoes. The little buggers don’t seem to like the odour given off by the plant, and a strategy still in common use today is to plant lemongrass around a house to keep them away.

lemongrass with mosquito

Where does that leave us? Well, with a gigantic culinary opportunity. The S-E Asian countries should plunge in and promote the use of lemongrass in cooking everywhere where the plant is now growing, which is just about anywhere where there is no frost (the plant is not frost hardy). I’ll be happy to help out, throwing lemongrass into anything I find cooking.


Lemongrass bunch: (in
Tom yum soup: (in
Coconut lemongrass noodle soup: (in
Chicken green curry:×500.jpg (in
Chicken yellow curry: (in
Mussels in a coconut and lemongrass soup: (in
Vietnamese meatballs with lemongrass: (in
Indonesian beef rending: (in
Cambodian Amok Trey: (in
Laotian stuffed lemongrass: (in
Myanmar Mont Di soup: (in
Philippine Lechon Cebu: (in
Lemongrass infusion: 5240254223_8f0879e852_z.jpg (in
Lemongrass plant: (in
Tajine: (in
South Indian curry: (in
English lady drinking tea in India: (in
English lady serving West Indians tea: (in
Ramses I burning incense: (in
Lemongrass oil: (in
Egyptian ladies using cosmetics: (in
Egyptian ship: (in
Lemongrass with mosquito: (in


Beijing, 26 February 2014

As we drove and walked around during our week in central Java, my wife and I couldn’t help noticing the many loanwords from European languages (presumably mostly Dutch, with more modern loanwords coming from English) liberally sprinkled among the Indonesian words on signs and billboards. I cite a few here: klinik (clinic, or maybe hospital), notaris (lawyer), parkir (parking), bisinis (business),  apotek (drug store, pharmacy, chemist)


asesori (accessories – seen in a shoe shop, for a shelf devoted to shoe polish and the like), oli (oil), bensin (gasoline), gratis (free), buka (book), and – what has to be my favourite – elpiji (LPG)


Indonesians certainly don’t seem to have a problem with borrowing words from a different language when they need them to describe things or ideas.  A little research showed me that each wave of foreigners who have passed through the region for trade or conquest – or both – has dropped words into the language.

Here are a couple of examples from Portuguese, who formed the wave immediately before the Dutch: gereja (church – from the portuguese igreja)


and sepatu (shoes – from sapato). I can understand Indonesians borrowing the Portuguese word for “church” since they had none before the Portuguese arrived, but I’m surprised they borrowed the word for shoes. Did they not wear shoes before the Portuguese appeared over the horizon? Perhaps not, the climate certainly doesn’t require them.

Before the Portuguese came the Arabs. For a country which is 87% Muslim, I suppose it’s not surprising that a number of the Arab loanwords have to do with religion, for instance jumat (Friday – from al-jumʿa)


or kitab (book, primarily religious book – from kitāb), but there is also salam (from the universal Arabic greeting, salām).

As for the Chinese, who arrived a little before the Arabs, they have mostly left loanwords which are about very Chinese things, like noodles. Interestingly, rather than from Mandarin, many of the loanwords came from Hokkien, a dialect from southern Fujian, which reflects the Fujianese’s enterprising spirit. Many of the Chinese found throughout South-East Asia originally came from Fujian. So we have mie (noodles – from ), lunpia (spring roll – from lūn-piá)


teko (teapot – from teh-ko). But we also have, surprisingly, the widely used slang terms gua and lu (I/ me and you – from goa and lu/li). I say surprisingly because normally these are words which come from the mother language and are not borrowed.

And finally in the distant past, there were intense relations with India, with the main royal families being either Hindu or Buddhist. This brought many Sanskrit words into Indonesian: raja (king), pura (city/temple/place), mantra (words/ poet/spiritual prayers), but also kaca (glass, mirror), istri (wife/woman) and bahasa (language), as in Bahasa Indonesian.


(if I understood the article accompanying this photo correctly, these students are demonstrating against the fact that some classes at their University are not in Bahasa Indonesian; intolerance of the foreign or genuine problem?)

I suppose this seemingly painless adoption of words from other languages has to do with the fact that Indonesian, whose roots are a variant of Malay from Sumatra or Malacca, originally developed as a lingua franca spoken by the traders who roved throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The need for a lingua franca becomes obvious when you think that the archipelago was a thick tapestry of languages. As it is,  some 700 languages are spoken today in the archipelago; probably more were spoken in the past when communities were more isolated. All of the peoples whose languages loaned words to Indonesian originally arrived in the archipelago for trade, so they were communicating with Indonesians who were already open to the idea of using foreign words – as long as it made trade easier, why not?

Java Map

Personally, I’m very sympathetic to the idea of a language being open to any word that comes along and is useful in helping communication, and I cheer the Indonesian on in their liberal word borrowing (we’ll skip over the fact that many of the words entered in periods of colonialism from the colonialists’ language – was their language also “colonized”?). My paternal language, English, is currently busily lending all sorts of words to every other language in the world, but originally it was the other way around. The English were quite happy to borrow foreign words – often mangling them in the process, but that’s OK. Why, English even borrowed from Indonesian/Malay. I list here the ones where I went “really? from Indonesian? how about that!”: cockatoo (from kakatua), gecko (actually from the Javanese tokek), orangutan (this one I knew), bamboo (from bambu), paddy (from padi), rattan (from rotan), sago (from sagu), sarong (from sarung), gong (from gong), junk (from jong), Mata Hari (from matahari = sun), amok, as in “running amok”, from amuk, and finally, last but definitely not least, ketchup (from kecap, which is actually a soy sauce, not a tomato sauce; somewhere along the line tomato must have been added to, and eventually substituted for, the soy).

On the other hand, I am quite irritated by the French, holders of my maternal language, and their silly desire to stop the language being contaminated by foreign words. These old fogies, members of the prestigious (or elitist?) Académie Française (and among whom I recognize an ex-French President whose electoral defenestration I was proud to be present at)


sit in this rather nice palace on the banks of the River Seine in Paris


and pronounce linguistic fatwa (an Arabic word which I rather like to use) against English (and presumably other foreign) words which have crept into the French language.  If they feel it necessary, they will coin a new French word as a substitute. Thus, they came up with “courriel” to replace “email”. Ridiculous! Let the people decide the words they want to use! Chuck the old fogies into the Seine! (the origin, by the way, of the word fogy is unknown; its first known use is in 1780 … just thought my readers might want to know).


Apotek: [in
Elpiji: [in
Gereja: [in
Jumat: [in
Lumpia: [in
Bahasa: [in
Java map: [in
Académie Française members: [in
Académie Française building: [in!/items/flickr-870543298%5D


Beijing, 26 February 2014

A major reason why we came to this part of Indonesia was to visit Borobudur, Prambanan, and other smaller Buddhist and Hindu temples scattered around the Kedu plain, north of Yogyakarta. Well, Mt. Kelud’s eruption put paid to that plan! With equal indifference the volcano covered all temples, Buddhist and Hindu alike, with a layer of ash. Result: all the sites were closed to visitors while clean-up crews moved in to wash off the ash.

What to do, what to do? Well, hope springs eternal, as they say. We kept telling each other that surely they would reopen the temples quickly, within a few days, maximum! I mean, all those disappointed tourists milling around! All their money not being spent on entry tickets and ancillaries! So on the first day, we walked down to Borobudur to check out the situation. Not brilliant.  It would be a long time before the temple itself would be reopened, we were informed, although the grounds might be re-opened in a few days. The locals helpfully guided us to a spot on a side road from which one could see the temple quite well. They were right, with the foreground of tender green rice shoots being particularly appealing.
Borobodur across rice paddies 002
We then decided to go to a hotel abutting the temple grounds to have a late lunch, and discovered to our astonishment an excellent view of the temple from the back of the hotel.
Borobodur from Manohara 002
So, sitting on some steps I read out to my wife a description of all the things we were missing: the 2,760 bas-reliefs, “exquisite, considered to be the most elegant and graceful in the ancient Buddhist world”, as well as the 461 Buddha statues circling the middle and upper levels of the temple. Rather masochistic reading, I grant you, but I wasn’t having me carry that heavy guidebook all the way to Indonesia for nothing. And anyway, we kept telling each other, we might get closer still when they opened the park later in the week.

The next day, a local guide took us up to Dieng Plateau, which was a very pleasant drive up to 2,100m. After visiting a smoking solfatara (the plateau is an ancient volcanic caldera complex) and a volcanic lake, we visited a series of small Hindu temples, “the oldest known standing stone structures in Java”, so the guidebook informed us. Here, Mt. Kelud’s ash had not reached, so we could visit them no problem.

Dieng plateau temples 000
Dieng plateau temples 002

This was the closest we ever got to bas-reliefs

Dieng plateau temples 006

Intriguing. Each temple was rather small, with very dark interiors. It wasn’t clear to us why anyone would expend all that effort and stone for such a small inner space. We had to be missing something, and the heavy guidebook did not enlighten us.

The next day, hope as I say springing eternal, we again walked down to Borobdur, to check if the park was open (yes) and if we could get any closer to the temple (no). Giving up on Borobudur, we went to visit Yogyakarta for the day (where we had the delicious fried chicken I have previously mentioned).

We now put our faith in our local guide, who said that he might, just might, get us into Prambanan. He also said we should have no problem visiting the smaller temples in the surroundings; the guards there were more relaxed. So, with hope springing etc., we set out the next day to visit Prambanan and a series of smaller temples. Alas, our guide was too optimistic. At Prambanan, we could go into the grounds but couldn’t get close at all to the main temples, so we decided to forget it. And as for the other temples, the universal answer was no, we couldn’t enter, the boss might come and it wasn’t worth their while risking it (after hearing this for the fourth time, we started asking ourselves who was this boss who seemed omni-present and ever so fierce?). We contented ourselves with looking at the temples from the fences, except in the case of Prambanan where we sneaked through an open unguarded gate around the back and were rewarded with a great view of the temple ensemble.

So here are the photos we took:

Mendut temple 003
Plaosan temple 004
Sewuu temple 001
Prambanan temple 002

Ijo temple 001

high, high, on a hill
Ijo temple-view of surroundings
Sari temple 001
being cleaned by crazy cleaners – no safety harness, no ropes, nothing!

Sari temple 005

Kalasan temple 001
being cleaned by even crazier cleaners

Kalasan temple 009

and finally Sambisari
Sambisari temple 002
an odd temple, this one, seemingly sunken 5m below ground level but actually completely buried long ago during a volcanic eruption. This must have been a Pompeii-like event.

Actually, you know, this wasn’t such a bad way of seeing the temples, just an overview as it were. The drives between the temple alone were worth it – it’s really a lovely part of the world. And seeing all these temples with no other tourists around was definitely a plus. My only regret was not being able to see the bas-reliefs from closer up. But I take the Buddhist precept to heart that desire is the ultimate source of all unhappiness, and I will not let myself desire to see the bas-reliefs. Anyway, I’m sure their pictures are all on the internet …


All pictures ours, except:

Dieng plateau temples overview: [in


Beijing, 25 February 2014

Within five minutes of moving into our hotel cabin, we had our first visitor: a chicken.
chicken becassine 003
Naively, I thought the chicken was a friendly thing and wanted company. I decided to call her Bécassine. For those readers who may not know her, Bécassine is the heroine of an old French comic strip. She is what Parisians of the early 1900s would have considered the typically foolish girl from the remote French provinces.
The name fits my chicken well; it’s gross racial typing, of course, but I’ve always thought that chickens are rather foolish birds.

In any event, I was soon disabused of the comforting thought that Bécassine was searching out my company. The way she set her beady eye on anything I was putting in my mouth made me realize that she was just there for the food scraps. I suspect that previous guests staying at the cabin had spoiled Bécassine by feeding her yummy things like bread crumbs. She rushed at the mandarin pips I threw to her but spat them out immediately, fixing me reprovingly with that beady eye of hers.

Apart from these character issues, Bécassine was really a very handsome chicken. One thing I particularly admired about her were her long, graceful legs. Really quite model-like, I felt. And her plumage, though modest compared to some other chickens we saw in the surrounding villages:

kampong chicken 001

chickens on walk 003
(this one reminds me of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady)
audrey hepburn
her plumage, as I say, was sleek and smooth. A very far cry indeed from the battery chickens which we have been reduced to breeding in the richer countries
battery chicken
so that we can have dirt-cheap eggs and dirt-cheap chicken meat and eventually all look like this.
obese couple
In fact, Bécassine is a free-range chicken, what they call here a kampong, or village, chicken. And indeed every village we walked through had dozens of kampong chickens, many of the hens with a brood of chicks in tow, ranging through the village and into the fields beyond. With their long legs and rich plumage, they really were very handsome. I do believe that they are not very distant genetically from their wild progenitor, the Red Junglefowl, whose range extends from northern India through South-East Asia and into southern China.
red junglefowl-1
Indeed, the domestication of the chicken took place somewhere around here about 5,000 years ago.

Being free range, Bécassine will no doubt be very good to eat. We didn’t eat her, but in Yogyakarta we had lunch at a restaurant which served typical Indonesian food. One of these was Ayam Goreng Kremes, a fried kampong chicken with fried, flaked salam leaves.

ayam goreng kremes

Fingurr-lickin’ good, as the Colonel would say!

Sorry, Bécassine, it’s been good to know you, but you have to follow your destiny. Someone, some day, will have the great pleasure of eating you.


Becassine hen: our picture
Becassine: [inécassine%5D
kampong chickens: our pictures
Audrey Hepburn: [in
Battery chicken: [in
Obese people: [in
Red junglefowl:,_red_jungle_fowl,I_TS604.jpg [in
Ayam Goreng Kremes: [in


Beijing, 24 February 2014

I left us in the last post sitting on the hotel terrace sipping our welcoming drink. We were sitting there again as night drew in. And as night drew in, we began to hear a strange medley of sounds rising from the surrounding villages. It was the calls to evening prayer. The loudspeakers of every village mosque blared out the call – and there seemed to be a lot of mosques in the area …
local mosques 002

local mosques 001

I said it was a strange medley; actually, it was a disagreeable cacophony. Each muezzin started at a slightly different moment, and each chanted a different tune. The result grated on the ears. It was rather like the noise coming from an orchestra when the players are warming up and tuning their instruments before they start. A million miles from a magical moment which my wife and I once shared in Istanbul, in Sultan Ahmet square in front of the Blue Mosque. We were sitting down having a rest when the mosque’s muezzin suddenly started up. He chanted a line or two and paused. And behind us, faintly, we heard the muezzin of Süleymaniye Mosque respond with his couple of lines. To which the muezzin of the Blue Mosque in turn responded. And so they duetted back and forth for fully five minutes while we sat there holding our breath.

Back on the hotel terrace, my wife and I listened until the chanting died away, and then we turned in. After our adventures in getting here, we were glad to go to bed early. We slept like logs – until dawn, when we were awakened by the dawn call to prayer. As I have done so many times in darkened hotel rooms, from Morocco in the far west of the Muslim lands, to Java now in the far east, and at many points in between, I lay there letting the song flow over me:

God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
Prayer is better than sleep.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.

And as I always do before drifting back to sleep, I thought to myself what a pity it was that there is no God out there to receive their, or anyone else’s, prayers.


Pics: mine


Beijing, 23 February 2014

Our trip to Indonesia to celebrate my wife’s birthday started with a bang – literally. Two days before we were leaving, Mt. Kelud erupted

Mount Kelud eruption-1

Mount Kelud eruption-2

covering a good portion of Central Java with a fine layer of ash.

ash covering village

My wife and I were stunned. This was where we were meant to be going! Our plan was to visit the Buddhist temple Borobudur, a UNESCO World Heritage site
borobudur temple
and other old temples dotting the landscape north of Yogyakarta. From the moment we heard about the eruption to the minute our flight took off from Beijing for Jakarta, we anxiously scanned the net for the latest news. Our immediate concern was the onward flight to Yogyakarta. We read that the airport there, along with two other airports in the region, had been closed because of the ash-fall.
yogyakarta airport-1
But surely, we said to each other, the airport will be open by the time we arrive in Jakarta. Surely it will.

It was not. In fact, ground staff at Jakarta told us that it would be a couple of days before they could clear the ash enough for it to reopen. The only way to get to Yogyakarta was by rail (7 hours) or by road (15 hours). We were marooned …

Luckily, though, one of the ground staff mentioned that Semarang’s airport had been re-opened. It had also suffered from ash-fall, but they had managed to clean it up quite quickly. We had only the haziest notion of where Semarang was but if the ground staff thought it was a good alternative that was good enough for us. We got the ticket changed to a flight to Semarang which left very early the next morning. Since the thought of spending the night at Jakarta airport didn’t appeal, we also put ourselves down on the waiting list for a flight leaving that evening for Semarang. We were warned that there was very, very little chance, but in the end we got on the flight and there were still free seats behind us. The local guide who was meant to pick us up at Yogyakarta recommended a hotel in Semarang, and we agreed with him that he would come to get us there the next day.

So, by the afternoon, but 24 hours late, we were sitting on the terrace of our hotel, on chairs and at a table which had been vigorously scrubbed to get rid of the insidious volcanic ash, sipping a ginger-lemon grass welcoming drink, and looking over at Borobodur temple faintly picked out on the horizon, framed by trees whose leaves were all still thickly covered in ash.
Borobodur from hotel terrace-1
The hazards of travel … although this is the first time for us that a volcano has got in the way.

Surely Yogyakarta airport will be open again by the time we leave. Surely it will.


PS: It was. I am posting this from the comfort of my dining room table in Beijing, where we got in this morning.


Mount Kelud eruption-1: [in
Mount Kelud eruption-2: [in
Ash covering village: [in
Yogyakarta airport: [in
Borobudur temple: [in
Borobudur temple from the hotel terrace: our picture