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


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: http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/shutterstock_107826104.jpg (in http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/shop/lemongrass-bunch/)
Tom yum soup: http://greenpawpaw.efe.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ctg-amb-128.jpg (in http://greenpawpawthai.com.au/menu/)
Coconut lemongrass noodle soup: http://www.lafujimama.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Bowl-of-Coconut-Lemongrass-Somen-Noodle-Soup.jpg (in http://www.lafujimama.com/2010/09/coconut-lemongrass-somen-noodle-soup/)
Chicken green curry: http://sushibeveren.com/online/image/cache/catalog/05.%20kip-500×500.jpg (in http://sushibeveren.com/online/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=90)
Chicken yellow curry: http://rachelcooksthai.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/yellow-curry-5.jpg (in http://www.rachelcooksthai.com/yellow-curry-with-chicken-and-potato/)
Mussels in a coconut and lemongrass soup: http://www.taste.com.au/images/recipes/nb/2010/09/25589_l.jpg (in http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/25589/mussels+in+coconut+and+lemongrass+broth)
Vietnamese meatballs with lemongrass: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Asn6_ojGAY4/UxzHHvW1oAI/AAAAAAAABLQ/XGg1oUmlMf8/s1600/Vietnamese+Lemongrass+Pork+Meatballs.JPG (in http://alwaysinthekitchen.blogspot.com/2014/03/vietnamese-inspired-lemongrass-pork.html)
Indonesian beef rending: http://cdn.noshon.it/wp-content/uploads/2012-10-17-r-beef-rendang.jpg (in http://noshon.it/recipes/beef-rendang/)
Cambodian Amok Trey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-nWM9m8GUofk/U6r1rqzgBMI/AAAAAAAAPH8/TBOl0hNPnXA/s1600/cambodian+fish+amok+trey+8.jpg (in http://wendyinkk.blogspot.com/2014/06/amok-trey-cambodian-fish-mousse-aff.html)
Laotian stuffed lemongrass: https://gallivance.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/stuffed-lemongrass.jpg (in http://gallivance.net/2012/11/10/a-global-gumbo-ethnic-food-adventures/stuffed-lemongrass/)
Myanmar Mont Di soup: http://www.hsaba.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/rakhine_moti.jpg (in http://www.hsaba.com/recipes/rakhine-moti)
Philippine Lechon Cebu: http://tenminutes.ph/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Cebu-Ayers-Lechon-Order-Online-Manila-Shipping-Contact.jpg (in http://ww90.trafficads10.com/)
Lemongrass infusion: 5240254223_8f0879e852_z.jpg (in https://farm6.staticflickr.com)
Lemongrass plant: http://www.herbalteasonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Lemongrass-Plant.jpg (in http://www.herbalteasonline.com/lemongrass-tea.php)
Tajine: http://blog.zingarate.com/wanderlustt/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/tajine.png (in http://acquisto.acquea.com/s/tajine)
South Indian curry: http://www.chillimix.com/images/stories/easygallery/resized/0/1212337046_meen%20khatta.jpg (in http://www.chillimix.com/indian-recipe/fish-and-sea-food/meen-khatta.html)
English lady drinking tea in India: http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/04/07/vv1190_custom-2fb3f28e67d8197b7555bed3a80833675d5ff748-s900-c85.jpg (in http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire)
English lady serving West Indians tea: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/3228476-21st-september-1944-west-indian-ats-volunteers-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=v9WwiBskt0bjdeMIS%2fO97bO7qBvmTdPLrPrzxlLhIMyq9QGXYV1QZzXet54z3qgP (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/west-indian-ats-volunteers-being-served-tea-at-the-colonial-news-photo/3228476)
Ramses I burning incense: http://cache1.asset-cache.net/gc/112187026-egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=bGR6JCu8pZbf%2b2sqs4ajC3pr1O6j4GFGzEmSgJKUFx%2fwR1Oa4nADTEaQuSTwZMs0 (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/illustration/egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-burning-incense-stock-graphic/112187026)
Lemongrass oil: http://38.media.tumblr.com/c2faea8d8070dc30761b84931745bdbe/tumblr_inline_nifdirPvOm1snpbkm.jpg (in http://blog.massagetablesnow.com/page/3)
Egyptian ladies using cosmetics: http://www.notorious-mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ladies.jpg (in http://www.notorious-mag.com/2015/08/05/beauty-tips-ancient-egypt/)
Egyptian ship: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/98952627-mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-of-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=0njLr93epyP%2fp14uTH5hjWyeKg7%2bNmMNGiew1vRXySmP3uh4n3I9GzP5Xf2kYAzW (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-high-res-stock-photography/98952627)
Lemongrass with mosquito: http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/98a5997abe901c1f53505e529852c4d7.jpg (in http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/2015/08/lifestyle-10-moyens-naturels-pour-eloigner-les-moustiques/)


Bangkok, 6 July 2015

A couple of river-bus stops downriver from where my wife and I live in Bangkok stands the temple Wat Pho, whose main claim to fame is a large reclining Buddha.

wat pho reclining buddha

It is, I read, 46 metres long and 15 metres high, and walking along it certainly is impressive. But I much prefer the soles of the statue’s feet.

wat pho buddhas feet

These soles have been divided into 108 panels each of which contains, in the form of mother-of-pearl inlays, the 108 auspicious symbols by which the Buddha can be identified, like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories.

Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha was the first time I saw this interesting art form. But actually it is quite common for reclining Buddhas to have the soles of their feet so decorated. For instance, I find this particular reclining Buddha in Yangon in Myanmar more naturalistic – certainly the pose of the feet is more pleasing to the eye than those stiff blocks in Wat Pho.


I later learned that the decorations of the feet of Buddha statues are actually a reflection – almost literally – of a much older iconography for depicting the Buddha, that of his footprint. Before anyone made statues of the Buddha, they made his footprints. They were a powerful way to remind the faithful that the Buddha had been present on earth: “the Buddha passed this way”. Quite quickly, the footprints were decorated with some of the symbols used to identify the Buddha. For instance, this footprint of the Buddha made in the 1st Century AD in the kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now the Swat valley in Pakistan, carries the Darmachakra, the “wheel of law”, and the triratna, the “triple gem” of Buddhism: Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dharma (the Teaching), and Sangha (the Community).


As time went on, more and more symbols were squeezed onto the footprints. And then some bright spark came up with the “positive print”, as it were, where the soles of reclining Buddhas carry the symbols of the Buddha.

Buddhism is not the only religion that has used footprints of its religious leaders as iconography, although it surely has used them more than any other (there is an estimate of 3,000 Buddha footprints throughout the Buddhist lands). My wife and I came across a footprint of the Prophet Muhammad in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul

Muhammad footprint

and there is a pair of footprints of Jesus in the Church of Domine Quo Vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”) on the outskirts of Rome.

jesus footprint

It is true to say that footprints are an incredibly powerful symbol of someone passing, of having been close by. One of the best remembered stories in Robinson Crusoe is of his finding a footprint on the beach.

crusoe and footprint

“It happened, one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised, with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an apparition; I listened, I looked round me, I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one, I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the very print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of a foot; how it came thither I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.”

That footprint struck fear in Robinson Crusoe, fear of the unknown, fear of attack, fear of savagery. But I get a thrill when I see the footprints that some 15 people left 2,000 years ago in the ash and mud on the shore of Lake Managua in Nicaragua.

nicaragua footprints

I get goose bumps on seeing the footprints left 1.5 million years ago by Homo erectus near the village of Ileret in Northern Kenya on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana.

homo erectus ileret kenya

The hairs on my neck rise at the sight of footprints left 3.7 million years ago by three members of the species Australopithecus afarensis at Laetoli in Tanzania, which show that already then bipedalism, such a distinctive feature of our species, was in place.

laetoli footprints

I find these footprints a much more powerful reminder of the Family of Man than a piece of jawbone or a tooth. I can imagine my distant, distant ancestors going about their business, as I will go about mine today.

And within the much narrower circuit of my family, my wife and I have two relics, which currently slumber with all our stuff in a warehouse in Vienna but which we will keep preciously until the end of our lives. These are the footprints which the hospital gave us of our children’s feet, made just after they were born; they look like this

newborn footprints

They will forever remind us of the great joy which we experienced when our two children entered our lives and for a few decades walked with us before taking their own path in life.


Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8d/Bangkok_Wat_Pho_reclining_Buddha.jpg/280px-Bangkok_Wat_Pho_reclining_Buddha.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Pho)
Reclining Buddha’s feet: http://s4.perpetualexplorer.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/wat_pho.jpg (in http://perpetualexplorer.com/2013/03/03/buddhist-temples/)
Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon: http://www.heybrian.com/lib/images/travels/myanmar/yangon_reclining_buddha_feet.jpg (in http://www.heybrian.com/travels/myanmar/)
Buddha footprint, 1st century, Gandhāra: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Buddha-Footprint.jpeg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddha_footprint)
Muhammad footprint, Istanbul: http://www.usna.edu/Users/humss/bwheeler/images/footistanbul.jpg (in http://www.usna.edu/Users/humss/bwheeler/footprints_pm.html)
Jesus footprints, church of Domine Quo Vadis: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/I_piedi_del_quo_vadis.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Domine_Quo_Vadis)
Crusoe and the footprint: http://www.bookdrum.com/images/books/92999_m.jpg (in http://www.bookdrum.com/books/the-graveyard-book/16401/bookmark/92998.html)
Nicaragua footprints: http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/eruptions/figures/thumbnails/05_11.jpg (in http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/eruptions/figures.html)
Homo erectus Ileret Kenya: https://nutcrakerman.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/ileret.jpg (in http://nutcrackerman.com/2014/10/14/the-oldest-human-footprints-by-continent/comment-page-1/)
Hominid footprints, Laetoli: http://auth.mhhe.com/socscience/anthropology/image-bank/kottak/chap07/kot37055_0705ta.jpg (in http://auth.mhhe.com/socscience/anthropology/image-bank/kottak/chap07/image7.htm)
Newborn footprints: http://semma.com/Joey/images/Joey/Joey%27s%20Footprints.jpg (in http://semma.com/Joey/photo2.html)


Bangkok, 20 June 2015

The Thais are a handsome race, no doubt about it. They seem to be genetically predisposed to having a gracile body structure, which leads to a race of naturally slim and slender people. Of course, there are Thais who have had a hard life, especially in rural areas, and whose bodies and faces have been marked by it. And given the popularity of fast food and of snacking on processed foods, obesity is on the rise as it is everywhere in the world. But overall, the Thais are pleasing to the eye.
cool thai couple
So it is really very unfortunate that many Thais have this strange habit of going around with an inhaler up their nose, which obviously detracts from their natural comeliness.
women with inhalers
Normally you just see them holding the inhaler to the nose and sniffing away as if they were snorting cocaine or some other such substance, but in extreme cases they will jam the inhaler in their nostrils and walk about with it dangling from their noses.
man with inhaler in nose
man with inhaler in nose-2
(I have even heard of cases of Thais with two inhalers jammed up their noses! But perhaps this is an urban legend)

Quite why they do it is not clear to me. No doubt it has something to do with warding off noxious smells, which indeed can sometimes be a problem in Thailand where open drains are still the rule rather than the exception. But the street smells can be strong even in the absence of open drains: cooking smells, for instance, can be penetrating, which may explain this lady’s use of an inhaler
woman vendor with sniffing stick
Or it could be a way of keeping alert when required, as this photo of an examination room suggests
(the boy with the inhaler is towards the back left and is busily writing while the poor fellow in the front looks like he could do with an inhaler)

But various sites darkly suggest that one can become hooked and simply sniff for the artificial pleasure of it all. Bent on making a scientific examination of the issue, I purchased an inhaler at my local 7-11 – the cheapest, I’m not that dedicated –
and carried out a series of sniff tests …

… Ah yes! That eucalyptus smell that I remember soooo well from the Vicks inhalers that our mothers used to hand us young children when we had a cold
vicks inhaler
and which, together with Vicks vapo rub for our chests and Vicks cough drops for our scratchy throats were used by several generations of anxious mothers for their coughing and sniffling brood.
Yes, yes, one or two sniffs and you could feel the stuffiness in your nose magically disappearing, and the late November fogs lifting – only for stuffiness and fog to reappear after a while – to be chased away again with another sniff or two – and so the cycle went on endlessly, until Spring arrived …

… But behind the astringent, aseptic quality of the eucalyptus there lies a softer smell of mint and peppermint … of the Polo mints of my youth!
“the mint with the hole”, as the ad tag line had it
a taste which has me instinctively grasping out at one of the mint sweets that hotels in this part of the world so thoughtfully place on the check-in counter for incoming guests.

Memories, memories … I suppose I could end up walking down Bangkok’s streets, dreamily sniffing on my inhaler, letting visions of my – really quite pleasant – life unfold before me. Is that what Thailand is, a nation of dreamers? Or are these inhalers just a modern version of the pomander, that ball made of perfumes held in a perforated case, which the rich of the European Middle Ages hung around their necks to ward off the frequent bad smells around them or in the pious hope that it would protect them against the plague?
I will let my gentle readers decide.


Cool Thai couple: http://garbagelapsap.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/GARBAGELAPSAP_STREETSTYLE_BANGKOK_FASHION.jpg (in http://www.elarmarioaj.com/2013_04_01_archive.html)
Women with inhalers: https://jayinthailand.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/960f.jpeg (in https://jayinthailand.wordpress.com/)
Man with inhaler in nose: http://www.mymuaythai.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/inhaler.jpg?7503ae (in http://www.mymuaythai.com/archives/poy-sian-mark-ii/)
Man with inhaler in nose-2: http://pinoyajarn.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/2-Vicks-Inhaler.png (in http://pinoyajarn.com/blog/category/living-in-thailand/)
Woman vendor with sniffing stick: https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4048/4179283228_1a7755aca7_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/adrianbangkok/4179283228/)
Kid with inhaler in nose: https://theheartthrills.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/12926-photo2b1-721216.jpg (in http://nakhontuba.blogspot.com/2011_09_01_archive.html)
Inhaler: http://static07.st-sm.com/07SM/1813-thickbox_default/inhaler-nasal-siang-pure-2cc.jpg (in http://www.st-sm.com/07SM/en/pocket-inhaler/420-inhaler-nasal-siang-pure-2cc-8850109011412.html)
Vicks inhaler: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/26/4c/26/264c2634676f95bb2998ba2b0f4b208e.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/lhollifield123/the-doctor-said/)
Vicks ad: https://img1.etsystatic.com/047/2/9430690/il_570xN.668385061_prsm.jpg (in https://www.etsy.com/listing/207428148/1945-vicks-vaporub-ad-vicks-inhaler)
Polo sweets: http://oi55.tinypic.com/2cffhar.jpg (in http://tinypic.com/view.php?pic=2cffhar&s=7#.VYTky1Ipq-t)
Polo mint ad: http://images.esellerpro.com/2486/I/514/4/polo-mints-postcard.jpg (in http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/NEW-POLO-MINTS-POSTCARD-RETRO-VINTAGE-OPIE-OFFICIAL-IMAGE-MINT-WITH-THE-HOLE-/281202056658)
Pomander: http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/thumbnail/342661/1/Portrait-Of-Jan-Gerritz.-Van-Egmond-Van-De-Dijenborgh,-Bust-Length-Wearing-A-Black-Fur-Trimmed-Coat,-Holding-A-Pomander,-Seen-Within-An-Arched-Decorated-Embrasure,-A-Landscape-Beyond.jpg (in http://eighteenthcenturylit.pbworks.com/w/page/70599154/Smelling%20Salts)


Bangkok, 15 April 2015

Call me a sourpuss, a killjoy, a party-pooper, even an old fart, but I really cannot find anything positive to say about the Songkran festival which is in full swing at the moment here in Thailand. For those of my readers who may not be familiar with Songkran, it is Thailand’s festival of the new year. Actually, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia all celebrate the same festival, even if it has a different name in Myanmar and Cambodia (Thingyan and Chaul Chnam Thmey) – not surprising really, since all these countries follow more or less the same traditional Buddhist calendar.

Thais celebrate Songkran by squirting, spraying, and generally throwing water on everyone and everything, in one vast water party.

Songkran water festival in Bangkok, Thailand



Songkran in Bangkok, Thailand

To cap it all, people slather themselves – and others – with a white paste (shades of Myanmar).

white paste on face-1

white paste on face-2

Those who are young, or who have an infantile sense of humour (aïe, my sourpussedness is coming to the surface), find all this hugely entertaining. Shrieks and laughter echo up and down the streets. Clothes are soaked, but no matter, it’s the hottest time of the year, they will dry out in a flash. And off goes another bucket of water!

Of course, for sourpusses like me, who have to get to meetings with officials in nice clothes or have to go to the office to work and who would prefer not to sit in a puddle at their desk, it is a trial to navigate the streets and dodge the pails of water, the hoses, the water guns. And anyway, it’s just so … damned childish to enjoy throwing water at people! (aïe, my party-poopery is coming to the fore: “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”)

What I find really irritating is that all this water throwing is a stupid, facile, totally post-modern corruption of the original festival. Water has a very important role in Thai society, as it does in many cultures. Clean water is the symbol of purity and peace. At the new year, it is used to wash away the dirt of the old year and allow one to start the new year clean and fresh. During the three days of the festival, clean water is poured over statues of the Buddha to clean them. That same water, in some way sanctified by its contact with the Buddha, is sprinkled over family and friends, again as a symbol of cleansing oneself for the year to come. Part of the tradition has younger people sprinkling water on their elders.

In a variation on this last tradition, yesterday in the office my secretary shyly asked me if I would be willing to take part in a ceremony where my colleagues would sprinkle water on my hands, in my role as the head or “elder” of the office. I was glad to, I announced, feeling that this at least gave some meaning to the silly goings-on outside my window. So at the appointed time, my colleagues solemnly – if somewhat self-consciously – processed into my office. A silver bowl filled with clean water strewn with petals was placed on the table, and one by one – eldest first – they came up, knelt in the Thai fashion, and poured a small cup of water over my hands, while wishing me a happy new year. I wished them and their families a happy and prosperous new year in return.

When I came home for lunch, I noticed that a statue of the Buddha had been set up in the lobby, with a bowl of water nearby. Why not? I thought. I might as well go the whole hog. So I offered the statue a traditional if rather awkward namaste and poured a cupful of water over him.


Water festival-1: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I0000SR1YiamyV8Y/s/750/750/Water-Festival-in-Bangkok-Thailand-29.jpg (in http://aaronjoelsantos.photoshelter.com/image/I0000SR1YiamyV8Y)
Water festival-2: http://www.chiangmai-alacarte.com/sites/default/files/styles/main_col/public/images/songkran_festival_and_tour_in_chiang_mai_thailand2.jpg?itok=KUnw68jO (in http://detaykibris.com/taylandda-su-bayrami-coskuyla-kutlaniyor-191-olu.html)
Water festival-3: http://www.journeymart.com/gifs/holidays-ideas/festivals/songkran-thailand-water-festival.jpg (in http://www.journeymart.com/holidays-ideas/festivals/songkran-thailands-water-festival.aspx)
Water festival-4: http://cdn.lightgalleries.net/4bd5ec1013294/images/Songkran_Water_Festival_Bangkok-2-1.jpg (in http://www.aaronjoelsantos.com/contents/Stories/Waterworld/image-Songkran_Water_Festival_Bangkok-2/)
White paste on face-1: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01615/red-shirts-white-p_1615328i.jpg (in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/picturegalleries/7586439/Songkran-tourists-and-Thais-splash-each-other-with-water-to-celebrate-new-year-in-Thailand.html)
White paste on face-2: http://www.dailytravelphotos.com/images/2011/110425_songkran_white_powder_paste_faces_thai_festival_day_applied_IMG_9676.jpg (in http://www.dailytravelphotos.com/archive/2011/04/25/)


Bangkok, 29 March 2015

In an earlier post, in which I wrote about a short trip my wife and I made to Dubai, I mentioned that we had visited the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. What I didn’t mention – because not pertinent to the subject of that post – was that our guide had exceedingly strong, straight eyebrows. I tried not to stare at her too insistently because that is rude, and I would imagine that staring at women in Muslim countries can also be a dangerous habit. But I did find it quite striking. My surreptitious peeking allowed me to conclude that this was not a gift of nature but a gift of the cosmetics industry. Something like mascara had been applied to our guide’s eyebrows. They looked something like this, although our guide wasn’t quite as glamorous as this lady.
middle eastern lady
In any event, as our guide talked about this, that, and the other, I wondered to myself if this was some sort of new fashion statement in the Middle East. After the tour was over, I was pleased to hear that my wife had also noticed it; I wasn’t imagining things, then.

Our trip completed, we went back to Beijing and I forgot about the eyebrows thing. But I was suddenly confronted again with this fashion statement the moment we arrived in Bangkok. It seemed that every young woman in the city had these exaggeratedly strong eyebrows. I’ve not found a photo on the internet and I haven’t dared to openly take a photo myself of one of these young women, but I guess that advertising on the street is a good indicator of trends. Here’s a photo that I took of billboards in one of the smarter shopping areas of a Bangkok.
bangkok billboard-1
What my internet searches did show up is that the Thai consider such eyebrows to be Korean eyebrows, and this photo of a Korean lady actually nicely captures what I am confronted with every day on the streets of Bangkok.
korean lady
Whose eyebrows the Koreans believe these are is unknown to me – certainly not Japanese; the web-site from which I borrowed the photo above makes a distinction between Korean and Japanese eyebrows, the latter being more arched if I understood correctly. My daughter, who knows more about these things than I do, puts a famous model as the ultimate source.That sounds reasonable. In the old days, Queens and their aristocratic hangers-on were arbiters of fashion; in this more democratic age of ours, models are.

bangkok billboard-3

(the comment below suggests that the model Cara Delevingne is the Ultimate Source – no doubt those below the age of 30 know who this Ms. Delevingne is, and no doubt she is as rich as Queens once used to be)

Talking of Queens, my trawls through the internet also snagged a couple of sites which discussed the history of female eyebrow fashion, one starting from as far back as Nefertiti, who was Queen of Egypt three thousand years ago, and who – if this bust of her in a Berlin museum is to be believed – seems to have favoured more pronounced eyebrows.
queen nefertiti
My own recollection of female eyebrow fashion starts with a time when quite a number of women favoured instead pencil-thin eyebrows, the time in question being, I suppose, the fifties and sixties (although as this photo shows, these eyebrows were already popular several decades earlier).
greta garbo
My wife, I have to say, was among this group when I first met her. Luckily, I managed to dissuade her from continuing the habit, and she has spent the rest of our marriage sporting a fine set of no-nonsense eyebrows.

My wife’s abandonment of pencil-thinness coincided with a general return to thicker eyebrows, but sculpting of the eyebrow was still common. I still remember how much chatter was generated in the late seventies-early eighties by the young Brooke Shields’s thick, apparently unsculpted, eyebrows.
brooke shields
They caused quite some emulation for a while (any reader who is younger than 30 and therefore who probably has never heard of Brooke Shields can go the Wikipedia site on her to read more). I feel that what I am seeing now on the streets of Bangkok is really that style, helped along with a pencil or, if I am to believe the internet, some sort of felt pen. Well, styles go in and out of fashion like Swiss trains go in and out of Alpine tunnels. But I hope never to live to see pencil-thinness again.


Middle-eastern lady with drawn in eyebrows: http://machicon-akihabara.info/2017mimage-middle-eastern-eye-makeup.awp
Billboards in Bangkok: my photos
Korean eyebrows: http://www.tunwalai.com/story/19251/got7-%E2%84%ACad-mafia-%E0%B9%81%E0%B8%AB%E0%B8%81%E0%B8%81%E0%B8%8E%E0%B8%A3%E0%B8%B1%E0%B8%81-%E0%B8%97%E0%B8%94%E0%B8%AA%E0%B8%AD%E0%B8%9A%E0%B9%83%E0%B8%88%E0%B8%A5%E0%B8%B9%E0%B8%81%E0%B8%8A%E0%B8%B2%E0%B8%A2%E0%B8%A1%E0%B8%B2%E0%B9%80%E0%B8%9F%E0%B8%B5%E0%B8%A2-mb
Queen Nefertiti: http://keywordsuggest.org/gallery/18971.html
Pencil thin eyebrows: http://anastil.blogspot.it/
Brooke Shields: https://fashionista.com/2010/10/the-power-brow-is-here-to-stay-we-round-up-the-best-and-boldest


Bangkok, 15 February, 2015

Anyone who has been in Thailand for more than half an hour begins to notice that every building, residential, commercial, governmental, whatever it happens to be, has one or more doll-like houses standing outside it in some corner of the property. To be very visible to one and all, they are set either on a tall pillar or on four somewhat smaller stilts. These, for instance, are the two which grace a corner of the parking lot at our apartment block.
spirit houses-general view-1
spirit house big

spirit house small

And if, finally rendered curious by constantly coming across them, one decides to have a closer look, you will find that they hold little figurines – old people, dancers, horses, elephants, cars, sometimes a Buddha. This, for instance, is a catalogue of what the bigger of our apartment block’s two little houses contains.

spirit house big-horses
spirit house big-elephants
They will often have votive offerings of food and drink as well as burning incense sticks set out in front of them along with fresh flowers

spirit houses-flowers and incense

many of them will have flower garlands draped over them

spirit house big-garland

and – at night – candles are set out or strings of lights turned on to light them up.

spirit house big-night

Quite charming. In fact, when my wife and I came to Bangkok for the first time some seven years ago, we were quite taken by these little houses and considered buying a DIY kit of one, to put up on the landing in front of the door of our then-apartment in Vienna, to house a small ivory Buddha which I had bought a few years before in Sri Lanka. But it was really too bulky, so we abandoned the idea.

But actually, why are these little houses there in the first place? I should have asked myself that the first time I saw them, before seriously considering putting one in front of my door.

A little bit of reading has informed me these houses are put up to propitiate the spirits of the land. This is a core belief of animism, that spirits reside in all the material manifestations of this world – the land, its streams, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, its trees and other plants, all animals, everything really, even man-made objects like bridges. Animism has deep, deep roots in Thailand – actually, in the whole of South-East Asia, from Myanmar down to Indonesia and across to the Philippines; the tradition of spirit houses, for instance, is found throughout the region apart possibly from the Philippines. The arrival of more rational, complex, sophisticated religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity (or ethical systems like Confucianism in Vietnam), did not make the earlier animistic beliefs disappear, although I’m sure the leaders of these new religions tried hard to stamp them out (and at least in Thailand are still trying to, according to what I’ve read) or to absorb them (which is certainly what Buddhism has tried to do).

The sad thing is that these spirits are not nice beings. The purpose of those cute little houses is actually to make sure that the spirits of the land don’t get mad at you because you’re using their land and decide to burn down your house or give you a heart attack or bring Lord knows what other calamity down on your head. So in the house you’ll put figurines of servants to tend to the local land spirit’s every whim,  you’ll put figurines of dancing girls (geishas might be a better descriptor) to keep him happy, you’ll put horses and elephants (and cars for the more sophisticated urbanized spirits) to make sure he can go for a ride whenever he gets bored of sitting at home and watching the dancing girls gyrate, you’ll give him food and drink to make sure he doesn’t go hungry … Reading all this, it occurs to me that these spirits are really just like the mafia in Sicily: if you don’t pay this man the requested pizzo, or protection money

then unfortunately this will happen to your shop.
burning shop
So, these pretty little houses are actually the reflection of a deep existential fear, that all around you are naughty, nasty little spirits who will hurt you if you’re not nice to them. These reflections moved me to dip into “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion” by the Scotsman James George Frazer.
The book, first published in 1890 and republished several times thereafter, attempts to define the shared elements of religious beliefs, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the “dying god”, the “scapegoat”, and many other symbols and practices. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king (among other places, his ideas take a central role in T.S. Elliot’s poem, “The Wasteland”, which I have had cause to mention 100 posts ago and which was the reason why I originally read “The Golden Bough”). I’m sure modern anthropologists would dispute Frazer’s basic thesis, but in writing the book Frazer collected accounts from around the world of magical, animistic beliefs, which are fascinating in themselves. Here are three excerpts which he cites from other sources on the belief in spirits in South-East Asia.

“Thus the life of the Thay seems regulated down to its smallest details by custom founded on his belief in the spirits. Spirits perpetually watch him, ready to punish for his negligences, and he is afraid. Fear is for him not only the beginning of wisdom, it is the whole of his wisdom. Love has only a very moderate place in it. Even the respect in which he holds his dead, and the honours which he pays them on various occasions, seem to be dominated by a superstitious fear. It seems that the sacrifices which he offers to them aim rather at averting from himself the evils which he dreads than at honouring worthily the memory of his deceased kinsfolk and at paying them the tribute of his affection and gratitude.”

“Independently of the demons who are in hell, the Siamese recognize another sort of devils diffused in the air: they call them phi; they are, they say, the demons who do harm to men and who appear sometimes in horrible shapes. They put down to these malign spirits all the calamities which happen in this world. If the mother has lost a child, it is the phi who has done the ill turn; if a sick man is given over, it is a phi that is at the bottom of it. To appease him, they invoke him and make him offerings which they hang in desert places.”

“The desire to propitiate the good spirits and exorcise the bad ones is the prevailing influence upon the life of the Laotians. With phis to the right of him, to the left of him, in front of him, behind him, all round him, his mind is haunted with a perpetual desire to make terms with them, and to ensure the assistance of the great Buddha, so that he may preserve both body and soul from the hands of the spirit.”

The first two excerpts, written in 1907 and 1831 respectively, come from books written by French missionaries, the third from a book written by an Englishman in 1884. The first two no doubt had religious axes to grind, wishing to show how the Thai (Siamese being the old name for the Thai) were poor, benighted folk in need of Christian redemption. But even accounting for a certain amount of exaggeration, the picture which these excerpts paint is bleak indeed: a constant, haunting fear at every step.

Of course, before we shake our heads and smile and take another sip of our coffee, we should remind ourselves (as Frazer reminds us in his book) that Europe, just to take my part of the world, was also the home of naughty, nasty little spirits. Anyone like me who had to suffer through Latin and Greek in their education will remember the Roman and Greek nymphs who haunted the sacred groves and streams, and who had to be propitiated. And what about all those leprechauns, and trolls, and sprites, and ogres, who populate children’s books and popular stories? Remember Rumplestiltskin, that nasty little imp who saves the miller’s daughter from the wrath of the king by spinning straw into gold for her, but on condition that she give him her first-born child?
Or that “shrewd and knavish sprite” Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, who at the behest of his master Oberon, King of the fairies, wreaks mayhem in the Athenian woods?

Or the ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk, who on sensing that little Jack is hiding in his house, intones

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
ogre jack and the beanstalk

Even Tinkerbell in Disney’s sucrose version of “Peter Pan” is not a particularly nice person.
I suppose Christianity managed to reduce the strength of animistic beliefs in Europe – I won’t say stamp out, because otherwise we wouldn’t have the children’s stories – but only to replace them by another existential fear, that of suffering in hell for ever and ever.
Luckily, science has come to the rescue and driven out all the religious claptrap. There is no supernatural world, it tells us, only the natural world around us. And with that, all those spirits disappear in a flash.

But now that I know all this, would I still buy a spirit house kit to assemble on the landing in front of my apartment door in Europe? Do I want to be seen, if only to myself, to believe in naughty, nasty spirits? After giving some thought to the matter, I have concluded that yes, I would, but for a very different reason. One of the houses whose photo I give at the beginning of the post is the house of the ancestral spirits of the place, the spirits – or ghosts I suppose – of the people who lived there before you. In fact this house contains figurines of old people.
spirit house small-old people
Unfortunately, these spirits also require propitiation in Thailand, since they too can turn nasty (jeez louise, what a world view!). But I would use the house differently. I would use it to house the memory of my parents and my wife’s parents. For my parents, I would have a very tall figurine stand in for my father and a very small figurine for my mother, for that indeed is how they were; one of my abiding memories of them is the two dancing together, he very tall, she very small, slowly circling the dance floor. For my wife’s parents, I would have a large figurine stand in for my mother-in-law, for she was indeed of a stout disposition. For my father-in-law, I’m not sure, I hardly knew him. I’ve mentioned before his fondness for wearing a Basque beret, so perhaps a figurine of a man with such a beret would do? But I would leave this for my wife to decide. And I would move the house into the apartment, so that their memory could be with us, rather than left out in the dark like the dog. I feel that this would be a better way of remembering them, of keeping their memory alive, than going on infrequent visits to the graveyard, and a useful complement to looking at old photos and reminiscing. And I would hope that one day my children would also have a spirit house to which they could add little figurines of us once that day arrives. As it surely will.


Spirit houses: my pictures
Mafia man: https://solo3d.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/mafia-man-by-siamak-roshani-1.jpg (in https://solo3d.wordpress.com/scenes/portraits/mafia-man/)
Burning shop: http://www.newsbiscuit.com/images/845.jpg (in http://www.newsbiscuit.com/2007/09/05/fire-brigade-turned-up-late-to-burning-pizza-shop-as-satirical-statement/)
“The Golden Bough” cover: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-KNKUm2qVFeo/URmCSeqWMuI/AAAAAAAAMKQ/YNPwXF5oY7s/s1600/The_Golden_Bough.jpg (in http://38is.blogspot.com/2013_02_01_archive.html)
Rumplestitskin: http://www.artsycraftsy.com/goble/wg_rumplestiltskin.jpg (in http://www.artsycraftsy.com/goble/goble_rumplestiltskin.html)
Puck: http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large/a-midsummer-nights-dream-ht-green.jpg (in http://fineartamerica.com/featured/a-midsummer-nights-dream-ht-green.html)
Ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Jack_and_the_Beanstalk_Giant_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17034.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_and_the_Beanstalk)
Tinkerbell: http://cdn.hellogiggles.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/22/Walt-Disney-Screencaps-Peter-Pan-Wendy-Darling-Tinker-Bell-walt-disney-characters-34385876-4326-3237.jpg (in http://hellogiggles.com/real-life-disney-romance/walt-disney-screencaps-peter-pan-wendy-darling-tinker-bell-walt-disney-characters-34385876-4326-3237)
Hell: https://36.media.tumblr.com/20721aba85e8475adb529816d4e40a10/tumblr_n1kmegRkqx1qm5yeno1_500.jpg (in https://www.tumblr.com/search/art%20history%20hell)


Bangkok, 9 December 2014

We have just finished celebrating H.M. the King’s birthday here in Bangkok. Truth to tell, “celebrating” may be a little of an overstatement. My wife and I found it quite a muted affair. For instance, the fireworks in the evening were really quite brief and modest, while a drive-by of high officials, which we just happened to find ourselves witnesses to, was greeted with silence by the folk lining the road side. What was out in full force, though, were the yellow shirts. They had already been popping up with greater and greater insistence in the days running up to the great day. But on the birthday itself the pavements were a sea of yellow.
Many were wearing yellow T-shirts made specifically for the purpose, but many others (who didn’t get included in the official photos) gave the impression of having grabbed the first yellow, or near-yellow, shirt or blouse they could find in their wardrobe. So the palette of yellows went all the way from pastel yellow through to citrine. Given the recent history of Thailand, one began to wonder if the choice of hue was a political statement of some sort. That man with the orange shirt, for instance, was it just the closest thing he had to yellow in his drawer, or was it actually the closest he dared get to the dreaded colour red? Or that woman over there with the pastel yellow blouse, had she simply been caught short without anything really yellow in her closet, or was she actually signalling her lack of enthusiasm for the whole exercise? Or what about the few people without yellow shirts? What, if anything, was their message? That student, for example, with the green shirt, what was he trying to tell us?

Thus are the seeds of paranoia sown ….

(By the way, for those of you who may be interested, the King’s colour is yellow because he was born on a Monday. Based on Hindu mythology, Thai (and Khmer) tradition assigns different colours to each day. For those of you who may be fascinated by this arcane point, I recommend you visit the following site on Wikipedia)

Colours have been recruited to support political quarrels since time immemorial. When I was young, red was the colour of Marxism in all its forms (Social-Democratic, Socialist, Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, Vietminh, Khmer Rouge, …). We have the French Jacobins
to thank for this association of red with the left of the political spectrum. For reasons which are too complicated to explain here, the Jacobins adopted the red flag as their own during the French Revolution, and the tradition continued in the European Left thereafter. I suppose we are all aware of the red symbols of the Left: the flags, the official art, the scarves, the buttons. But my preferred symbol of redness are the Garibaldini, those 1,000 or so red-shirted volunteers who, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, sailed away in 1860 from Genoa to Sicily and in a few short months of fighting completed the unification of Italy.
I have to add here a painting of the Great Man himself, whose statue graces at least one square, and whose name graces at least one street, in every village, town, and city of Italy.


I like Garibaldi, I’ve liked him ever since as a teenager I studied the unification of Italy for my O level History. By way of introduction to Garibaldi, our teacher told us about his earlier exploits in South America. The only thing that sticks in my mind about these worthy endeavors is our teacher’s description of how Garibaldi met his wife. He was on a boat on the Río de la Plata, where he was inspecting something or other through a telescope. He noticed his future wife on the bank, washing clothes or some such. After one look at her, he said (and here the teacher put on a thick Italian accent and struck an operatic pose), “Brring me to herr!”

But back to colours and politics. In the interwar years the red of the Socialists and Communists was violently opposed by various other colours. It was the black-shirted Fascists in Italy, seen here in the March on Rome in 1922
and the black-shirted Fascists in Spain, seen here jubilating at the fall of Irun during the Spanish Civil War.
In Germany, it was the brown-shirted Nazis.
From here my memory leaves coloured shirts and vaults back some 500 years or so to the gardens at the Inner Temple in London, where – at least, according to Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part I – the Lords of Court chose which side to be on in the upcoming War of the Roses, by plucking either a white rose (the Yorkists) or a red rose (the Lancastrians) from rose bushes growing in the garden. Colours again, defining which side you would be taking in the looming political struggle. The scene is caught in this much romanticized painting from the 1870s.

The Lancastrian Red Roses and the Yorkist White Roses fought it out for 30 years until Richard III was unhorsed and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and Henry VII was crowned in his place. As a symbol of a once-more unified country, Henry devised a new badge for his dynasty, a mixed red-and-white rose now called the Tudor Rose.
A very clever piece of political manipulation through colour …

Talking of using colours for political purposes, we can fast-forward 300 years to the French Revolution and watch the storming of the Bastille.
The Paris militia played a prominent role in the attack. To distinguish themselves from other groups taking part, they wore a blue and red cockade in their hats, Paris’s traditional colours.


The people of Paris were elated by this victory. But the more moderate – more aristocratic – elements of the revolutionary camp were alarmed by what they saw as rampaging – and armed – mobs. It was decided to create a National Guard out of the Paris militia under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate revolutionary with military experience (gained during the American Revolution) and with the trust of King Louis XVI. Lafayette proposed to add white to the militia’s blue and red cockade. His argument was that this would turn what was mainly a Parisian militia into a national force: white was then the national colour.
imageBut in a political system where all things national were the King’s, this was also a way of saying “revolutionaries yes, but still loyal to the King”. Well, things didn’t quite work out that way, but thus was born the red, white, and blue cockade, which even King Louis gracefully accepted to wear – at least for a little while.


The cockade morphed into the flag, which became a symbol of hope for some

and the dread of many more as French troops unfurled like a tsunami over much of Europe.


Rampaging mobs makes my mind spin back more than a thousand years to Constantinople and to its hippodrome, home of the city’s chariot races. Chariot racing was to the Romans and the Byzantines what soccer is today to many people the world over, a mania, a fixation. All over the Roman world, there were four factions, the Greens, the Blues, the Whites, and the Reds, and all chariots in a race belonged to one of these four factions. The charioteers, as well as the fans, wore the colours of their faction, like in this mosaic in Lyon.


Like soccer players today, charioteers could and did change faction, but like soccer fans today the fans never did. If you chose to follow the Greens, you were a Green for life. Like soccer today, the enthusiasm of the fans inside the hippodrome often turned into hooliganism and gang warfare outside it. Like soccer today in some parts of the world where there is no recognized outlet for political and social frustrations, factional fighting became a way to vent political anger and score political points.

So it was in Constantinople in 532 AD, when Justinian I was Emperor. By now, there were only really two chariot factions that counted, the Blues and the Greens. Justinian supported the Blues so his enemies at court naturally supported the Greens. Justinian was in the midst of negotiating a badly-needed peace settlement with the Persians, and he had to have peace on the home front. But the people of Constantinople were angry: taxes were crushingly high. There had been politically motivated rioting after some earlier chariot races and a number of rioters had been hanged. But this did not calm excited spirits. For some strange reason, Justinian thought another day of chariot races would pour oil over troubled waters. The races started alright, with Blues and Greens vociferously supporting their teams, even though they also hurled insults at the Emperor, sitting – no doubt a bit nervously – in the imperial box. By the end, though, the two factions united in a common roar of “Nika! Conquer!” With that, the spectators burst out of the hippodrome and assaulted the palace, which conveniently abutted the hippodrome. For the next five days, they laid siege to it, demanding reductions in taxes and the dismissal of the prefect responsible for collecting the taxes and the quaestor responsible for rewriting the tax code. For good measure, they declared Justinian deposed and raised a new Emperor in his place. In the resulting mayhem, fires broke out which eventually burned down half the city.

Initially, Justinian panicked and was looking to scarper. But his wife Theodora was made of sterner stuff and stiffened his spine. Once his funk had passed, Justinian reverted to a true-and-tried method: gold. He got his eunuch Narses to go into the hippodrome, where the Greens and Blues were about to crown the new Emperor, with a large bag of gold. Narses quietly joined the heads of the Blue faction. He reminded them that Justinian was a Blue and that he had always supported them, he pointed out that the new Emperor was a Green and they could surely imagine what would happen to them under him, and then he distributed the gold. The faction leaders held a quiet conference, then spread the word among their followers. In the middle of the coronation, the Blues suddenly all stormed out of the hippodrome, leaving the Greens sitting stunned in their seats. At which point, imperial troops under trusted generals burst into the hippodrome and massacred all and sundry. It is reported that thirty thousand people died that day.

All in the name of colours …

Colours have been hitched to the wagon of many other political causes. Green has morphed from the colour of Byzantine charioteering factions to the colour of modern environmental factions, and we now hear of Deep Green and Light Green factions, each trading barbed – and not so barbed – insults about the depth of their commitment to the cause. We have Hindu fanatics cladding themselves in the colour saffron, a colour with deep religious connotations in Hinduism, and going on rampages against non-Hindus. And on and on … Readers who are interested in the topic can do no worse than go to this Wikipedia site.

But, misquoting Elton John, all I want to say is “Don’t shoot me, I’m only a colour”.

Yellow-shirts celebrating the King’s birthday: http://www.bangkokpost.com/multimedia/photo/447447/king-birthday
Meeting of a Jacobin club: http://www.larousse.fr/encyclopedie/data/images/1004994-Club_des_Jacobins.jpg (in http://www.larousse.fr/encyclopedie/divers/club_des_Jacobins/125450)
Garibaldini fighting: http://www.ondadelsud.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Marsala-1860-Sbarco-dei-Mille.jpg (in http://www.ondadelsud.it/?p=4664)
Garibaldi: http://www.museotorino.it/images/86/94/ce/b0/8694ceb03de848108691d55482fd1c40-1.jpg?VSCL=100 (in http://www.museotorino.it/view/s/238dcc0376d444d2b6decf0378c13e6c)
The March on Rome: http://www.history.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/mussolini-march-on-rome.jpg (in http://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-mussolini)
Spanish fascists in Irun: http://pix.avaxnews.com/avaxnews/6a/1d/00001d6a_medium.jpeg (in http://avaxnews.net/educative/Spanish_Civil_War_2.html)
Brown shirts marching: http://img2.blog.zdn.vn/37516513.jpg (in http://me.zing.vn/zb/dt/toyotasolara/17039283?from=my)
Scene in the Temple Garden: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/images/paintings/warg/large/nml_warg_wag_2712_large.jpg (in http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/scene-in-the-temple-garden-98909)
Henry VII and Tudor rose: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Admin/BkFill/Default_image_group/2012/3/1/1330616510280/Henry-VII-001.jpg (in http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/02/tudors-henry-vii-wars-roses)
Storming of the Bastille: http://media-1.web.britannica.com/eb-media/98/90498-004-CEB880DC.jpg (in http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/55622/Bastille)
Arms of Paris: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/ca/Blason_paris_75.svg/931px-Blason_paris_75.svg.png ( in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blason_paris_75.svg)
Royal standard of France: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Standard_of_France#/image/File:Pavillon_royal_de_France.svg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Standard_of_France#Middle_Ages)
Louis XVI: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Louis_le_dernier.jpg (in http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louis_le_dernier.jpg)
Liberty guiding the People: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/cc/Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg/967px-Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg (in http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg)
Revolution as ogre: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/cruikshank14.jpg (in http://pixgood.com/french-revolution-political-cartoon.html)
Mosaic of chariot race: http://travellingman.jalbum.net/Lyon%202011/slides/P1120092.JPG (in http://travellingman.jalbum.net/Lyon%202011/slides/P1120092.html)


Bangkok, 23 November 2014

I must say, I am feeling very pleased with myself. When my wife and I first arrived in Bangkok, we did the time-honored thing of scouting out local culinary delicacies to taste. One that intrigued me was Tom Yum soup. It is described as a “clear spicy and sour soup”. It was the sour part that interested me. Sour soup …. What a fascinating concept, I had to try that. But the spicy part made me hesitate. As I have pointed out forcefully in a previous post, I hate spices, or at least hot spices like chilli. But my desire to experience the sour part trumped my distaste of the spicy part. And so I tried it.

Delicious, absolutely delicious! OK, with every spoonful I was making strange rasping sounds at the back of my throat to counteract the chillies, which after a while had my wife drumming her fingers on the table, and I had to drink iced water by the gallon to calm the fires in my mouth. But behind all this mayhem, I could sense the wonderful sourness of the soup. How was this done? I started scouring the web. The answer is: fish sauce meets lime (fruit and leaf), supported by lemongrass. As usual, different recipes add various other bits and pieces, the most common of which are shrimps, tomatoes, mushrooms, galangal (a sort of root like ginger), and coriander (as a final garnish). And of course, always, without fail, chillies.

I took a momentous decision. I was going to make Tom Yum soup WITHOUT chillies. I was going to show the correctness of a fundamental belief of mine, that hot spices actually add nothing to dishes, that food can be enjoyed quite as much without these terrible ingredients.

Today was the day. Yesterday, my wife took me to an upscale supermarket to find the necessary ingredients. I knew I was on the right track when we found that the supermarket helpfully offered packets of the core ingredients. The remaining ingredients were quickly rounded up.

This morning, after a good night’s rest, I got to work. After reviewing a number of recipes again, I decided on the course I would take, to whit:
1. Boil the water.
2. Cut several stalks of lemongrass into short segments. Bruise them so that they more easily exuded their lemony oils. Cut a few slices of galangal. Destalk the lime leaves and cut them up a bit. Squeeze the limes and collect the juice.
3. Ostentatiously throw away the chillies, the ones that the supermarket had added to the pre-packed set of ingredients.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce to the boiling water. Add the juice of 2 squeezed limes. Add the lemongrass segments, the slices of galangal, the lime leaves. Bring to a boil. let simmer for a while.
5. Add the mushrooms and the tomatoes. Bring back to a boil and let simmer a bit.
6. Taste. Feel the panic rise because the soup is not nearly sour enough. Add 3 more tablespoons of fish sauce and the juice of 2 more limes. Let simmer. Taste again. Better, but not there yet. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and 1 more lime. Simmer. Taste. That’s better! Now we have that sourness!
7. Add half a dozen shrimps, cook briefly.
8. Serve, spreading chopped coriander on the surface as garnish.

We ate it with a side-dish of rice my wife made.

My wife was the official taster. She pronounced the soup to be absolutely delicious, and declared that the chillies weren’t missed at all. She concluded that henceforth I could be considered the official family provider of (chilliless) Tom Yum soup, along with mashed potatoes (my speciality). My breast swelled with pride.

Now that a few hours have passed and I have reflected on the experience, I would say a few things. First and foremost, I was right: you don’t need chillies! I will now attack various other dishes which I would like very much were it not for the spices that cooks insist on adding (maybe I should make a web-site of this culinary crusade of mine). Second, I think I panicked and made the soup too sour. It was really good at the first spoonful but beginning to get too much by the last. A lighter touch would have carried me through effortlessly to the end. Third, I wonder if something other than shrimps could be used. Their taste really gets lost in the sourness. I have to think about this one a bit. Fourth, I think I have to adopt the European habit of putting the ingredients you won’t eat in a muslin bag. It kind of takes away from the pleasure of eating to have to pile up the lemongrass segments, galangal slices, and lime leaves on the table cloth as you go along. Fifth, I think I should go easy on the coriander the next time. In fact, I might try parsley instead. Sixth and lastly, when I get back to Europe what am I going to use instead of limes? Lemon? Mandarin? Orange? I’m going to have to think about this one too.

Oh, in all the excitement, I haven’t added a photo of the soup. In our haste to try it, neither my wife nor I took a photo of my creation. And I hesitate to take one from the web, because they all are of soups made with chillies. But what the hell, here is a photo.


Also, one day I will write a post on how I make mashed potatoes. Promised.


Tom Yum soup: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-oRNilG7HYh8/T7-q1Kg0suI/AAAAAAAAA_k/Z8gykr2ZYtU/s1600/tom-yam-soup-chef-duminda-2012.jpg (in http://cook-with-chef-duminda.blogspot.com/2012/05/tom-yam-soup.html)


Bangkok, 8 November 2014

We were up in the north of Thailand two weekends ago, very close to the border with Myanmar, up in the high hills (or low mountains?) behind the town of Mae Hong Son. Lovely, really lovely … We stayed in the small village of Mok Cham Pae, perched on a hillside overlooking a small river and its bottom lands. In the UK they would have been turned into hay meadows. Here, they had become a patchwork of rice paddies.


Around Mae Hong Son, the rice was already ripening. But up in Mok Cham Pae it was relatively cooler, so the rice was still green, that intense green which you only get with rice paddies.


But rice paddies, for all their beauty, are a monoculture, where all other species are kept at bay. After walking around the edge of the paddy fields, seeing only some banana trees marking the edge of “rice country”


and some very smelly pigs (which turned out to be owned by our hostess), we ventured out along a dirt road which wound its way up the river valley.


The paddies narrowed down to a strip along the water, for a while vegetables took their place, and then finally what was left of the forest straggled down to the road’s edge.


We saw no elephants browsing in the forest, or tigers moving in for the kill (my memories of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli are getting the better of me). But what we did see in profusion were butterflies, fluttering in and out of the bedraggled forest, chasing each other around, or settling on the road close to water. On that walk, which was no more than two hours long, I swear we saw at least 20 different species of butterfly. In Europe now, you’re lucky if you see three different species in a whole day. There were never that many species to begin with, and intensive ploughing, pesticides, and the tearing up of hedgerows have put paid to the few there were. I’ve had a look at various web sites dedicated to Thai butterflies to identify the ones we saw, but it’s hopeless. Did we see a Common Grass Yellow or a Tree Yellow? Was that one by the bush a Gram Blue or a Plains Cupid? Or maybe a Forget-me-not?? In the end, who cares? They were just lovely. I invite readers to visit the following flickr site to get a taste of what awaits you in this part of the world, butterfly-wise.

And I choose just two to represent the class


I chose these two very deliberately, because they each bring back to me two distinct butterfly-related memories.

The first is from Mexico. It was some 35 years ago, my wife and I – and mother-in-law – were travelling around the country. We mostly took buses and the occasional train. But in Yucatan, we decided to hire a car. We got a Volkswagen beetle – I remember it well, they had recently been phased out in Europe – and drove from one Mayan temple to the next. And along the road we drove through these clouds, these drifts, of green-yellow butterflies. I was in agony at the butterfly holocaust I was causing, but what could I do? They were just sitting there on the road, sunning themselves.

I feel particularly bad about killing butterflies because – and this brings us to the second photo – I have a very vivid memory of when I was a child – six years old, I would guess – in our garden in Africa. It was full of butterflies, and like all children I liked chasing them. But this time, one, of about the color in the photo, had settled on the ground and was sunning itself. I crouched down, picked it up, and slowly – pulled – its – wings – off. Yes, I did that. Even as I write about it, I feel a strong sense of guilt at such a casual act of gratuitous cruelty. Perhaps the rest of my life as an environmental engineer has been an act of atonement for it.

Tree yellow: http://www.vireos.com/Thailand/html/photoFrameset.html
Orange lacewing: http://www.pbase.com/glazemaker/image/130569578

all other photos: ours