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Category: India

TAMARIND IN THE KITCHEN

Milan, 5 September 2016

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

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

Well, there’s tamarind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

BETEL CHEWING

Bangkok, 27 March 2016

I said in my last post that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In that case, I was talking about citrons. But this homey dictum is that much truer about the subject of this post, betel chewing. To explain what I mean, consider this picture of a betel chewer.

Betel chewer

Now, if I were to meet such a fellow, I would be nervously looking for an escape route, half expecting the man to make a lunge with his pointed canines at my jugular. But in the village where he comes from, where no doubt half the population have red goo drooling from their lips, this man would be seen as a nice, friendly village elder. Perhaps a little less on the extreme side of things, if I were to meet this smiling Indian gentleman

indian betel chewer

my earlier post on teeth would come to mind and I would make a mental note that he badly needed to see a dentist rather than thinking what a lovely smile he had and what a nice man he must be. As I said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I first came across the habit of betel chewing in Delhi. I was there for a meeting of some sort, and after it was over and I was being walked back to my hotel my colleague stopped at a betel stand such as this one

SONY DSC

and ordered himself a betel quid to chew. He asked me if I wished to try one, but I politely declined. I watched with curiosity to see what might happen to him, but nothing untoward did. I did realize, though, that this habit explained his somewhat orange teeth.

I was reminded of this scene from long ago when I was in Myanmar recently and saw the tell-tale signs of betel chewing all around me in Yangon – the orange teeth, the betel stands, and most revolting of all these bright red splotches on the pavements.

spit from betel chewing

Betel chewing generates a lot of saliva, which the chewers either swallow or spit out (which if not done vigorously enough no doubt leads to dribbles on the chin as in the case of the old gentleman with whom we started this post). The fact that these are spit is revolting enough, but their bright red colour further gives the impression that half the population have advanced cases of TB and are coughing their lungs out (my childhood memories have retained stories of older generations with consumption coughing hard into their handkerchiefs and seeing with horror that the handkerchiefs were stained by bright red blood from their lungs; the end was nigh for them).

For those – I hope – many readers who have no idea what is in a betel quid, allow me to elucidate. At its most basic, the betel consists of slices of the “nut” (actually fruit) of the Areca palm

Ripe and Raw Betel Nut Or Areca Nut Palm On Tree

wrapped in leaves of the betel vine

betel leaves

which have been liberally smeared beforehand with slaked lime. Depending on your fancy and which part of the world you come from, your local betel stand holder can add tobacco, spices, and various other ingredients – note the various little pots which our betel stand holder in the picture above has spread out before him.

Since I had first come across the betel chewing habit in India, and since every betel stand holder in Yangon seemed to be of Indian extraction, I sort of assumed that this was an Indian tradition which had been exported elsewhere. Not a bit of it! It’s actually the other way around. Although it’s not yet clear where the Areca palm and the betel vine originated from exactly, there is general agreement that it was in South-East Asia somewhere. But they didn’t originate in the same place. Evidence points to the betel vine and Areca nut being initially consumed separately, their use spreading out from their point of origin until they overlapped, at which point some bright spark had the idea of putting the two together. Early trade between South-East Asia and India brought betel chewing and then the plants to the subcontinent – and migration brought them out to New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, where the dreaded signs of betel chewing are to be found.

PNG betel chewer

But why, some readers may be asking themselves, does anyone bother to chew betel quids in the first place? Because both plants contain mild stimulants: arecoline in the case of the Areca nut, eugenol in the case of the betel leaf. So chewing the quid gives the chewer a mild high. It joins a number of other plants which are chewed for their stimulating (in some cases very stimulating) effects: coca leaves in the Andes,

coca leaf chewing

khat leaves in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula (I remember a colleague once telling me that Djibouti came to a halt on Fridays as everyone waited for the weekly supply of khat to be flown in from Ethiopia)

khat chewing

kola nuts in West Africa.

cola chewing

And then there are the plants that are smoked, those that are swallowed, those that are made into infusions and drunk … Early humans were exceedingly resourceful in figuring out how to get a high from the plants which surrounded them. I wonder, though, how they ever figured out which of the thousands of plants around them gave them highs.

Luckily, the practice of betel chewing seems to be dying out. For instance, Thailand was once a hot-spot of betel chewing, but I have never seen anyone in Bangkok, or anywhere else for that matter, chewing it. Nor have I ever seen anyone chewing betel quids in Cambodia or Laos. I say “luckily”, even though this perhaps betrays a cultural imperialism. I mean, one could argue that if people want to chew betel why shouldn’t they, as long as they don’t kill me or their family or themselves in the process, and don’t become a burden on the public purse because of it. Normally, I would indeed be tolerant of cultural diversity, but for this particular practice I draw the line: people with red mouths and teeth à la Dracula generating bright red spit marks all over pavements are beyond the civilized pale. This should be the new normal, everywhere.

indian lady smiling

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Betel chewer: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Betel.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betel)

Indian betel chewer: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/131025001452-betel-nut-12-horizontal-large-gallery.jpg (in http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/04/world/asia/myanmar-betel-nut-cancer/)

Betel quid seller: http://www.loupiote.com/photos_l/3699347097-man-selling-betel-quids-delhi-india.jpg (in http://www.loupiote.com/photos/3699347097.shtml)

Spit from betel chewing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c8/Spit_from_chewing_Areca_nut_02.JPG/800px-Spit_from_chewing_Areca_nut_02.JPG (in http://tijgercoverlover.blogspot.com/2015_10_01_archive.html)

Areca nuts: http://previews.123rf.com/images/gamjai/gamjai1404/gamjai140400129/27628649-Ripe-and-Raw-Betel-Nut-Or-Areca-Nut-Palm-On-Tree-Stock-Photo.jpg (in http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/areca_nut_palm.html)

Betel leaves: http://freepressjournal.in/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/lead-19.jpg (in http://www.freepressjournal.in/the-ubiquitous-betel-leaf/483947)

PNG betel chewer: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/6b/81/24/6b81245676a7dfacc68d282d1a908b37.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/WorldofBacara/betel-nut-chewing-paraphernalia/)

Coca leaf chewing: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/QFzuYzGkifM3AVIMjeToTuZ6ggFZLzzxh9eltPXpqaGv-Ei41rXq_VzjVByqHC0DuWmLqNQsad-W4bP9p775OicO_XVLhDjLfp19m-1hbGrZnvchpVdklqA_qfma-r3oRTzLVcfIgQ (in http://cocainekillstherainforestoo.blogspot.com/2015_03_01_archive.html)

khat chewing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Qat_man.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat)

kola chewing: http://igboclass.umunagbor.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Kola-.jpg (in http://igboclass.umunagbor.org/the-kola-nut-as-an-igbo-cultural-and-social-symbol/)

Indian lady smiling: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/indian-lady-smiling-14122626.jpg (in http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-indian-lady-smiling-image2316986)

CITRON

Bangkok, 19 March 2016

In the recent trip which my wife and I made to Italy, we managed to squeeze in a visit to our apartment near Genoa, where I was particularly delighted to see so many lemon trees in fruit. It’s wonderful to see trees heavy with lemons peeping over a wall or hanging over a garden fence.

lemons Liguria

Once back in Bangkok, I decided to do some research on the lemon and its history: how did this lovely yellow fruit end up in Liguria? But delving into the lemon’s history inevitably dragged me into the history of the citrus family. It turns out that the lemon does not have a long or distinguished pedigree. It is the citrus equivalent to a mutt, a fairly recent hybrid. In fact, most citrus fruits with which we are familiar are fairly recent hybrids. It seems that the members of this family love to hybridize, and of course humans – being intrusive busybodies by nature – have been only too willing to assist them. The result is a family tree of bewildering complexity.

As I tried to make sense of all this, my attention was diverted by something I read about the citron. I think I need to insert here a few words about the citron, since I’m sure there are many readers who are not familiar with this citrus fruit. It is relatively difficult to find these days since it has little use – except for one very special one, which I will come to in a minute. It looks like a large, warty, lemon

citron

In any event, during a ceremony in the Temple of Jerusalem marking the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot, in one of the years around 100 BC, the Jews pelted the High Priest with citrons and got massacred for doing so. Now that was something worth finding more about! How I would have loved to use citrons, rotten tomatoes, eggs, dog-eared hymn books – anything, really – to pelt the priests with for subjecting me to excruciatingly boring sermons during the Sunday Masses of my childhood! It turns out, though, that the Jews were not horribly bored with what the High Priest was saying, but horrified by what he was doing. It is reported that he deliberately poured the water of libation over his feet rather than over the sacrificial animals. I can’t say that I can get quite as excited about this action as the Jews did, but the fact is that they did, and satisfyingly peppered the High Priest with citrons.

Of course, it does come spontaneously to ask oneself why on earth the Jews were carrying citrons around in the Temple in the first place. It’s certainly not the item that would immediately come to my mind as expecting to see in the hands of Jews within the sacred precincts of the Temple. It turns out that the citron plays an extremely important role in the ceremonies of Sukkot. Every morning of this seven-day Feast, Jews are required to ceremoniously wave the “four species”. Citron is one of these, the other three being the date palm, the myrtle, and the willow. We see here the Tosher Rabbi of Montreal waving the four species.

tosher rabbi of montreal

One can therefore assume that the Jews were carrying their four species when the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet, and in the horror of the moment they blindly grabbed their citrons and threw them at the impious prelate. It seems that they must have also thrown something harder – stones, no doubt – since it is reported that the stone altar was damaged. I can’t really see citrons doing damage to a stone altar.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why the citron ever became one of the four species, because it is not native to the Near East, whereas the other three species are. The citron, like all the original citrus fruits, originated somewhere in the region of South-East Asia-Yunnan in southern China-the Himalayan slopes of India. So how did it end up in the Near East? There is general agreement that the fruit was first cultivated in northern India. From there, it migrated, presumably along trade routes, to Persia. What happened next is a hotly debated issue – at least, in certain circles. One hypothesis has the citron migrating to Egypt, where its essential oils were used in embalming, and from whence the Jews brought it with them to the Promised Land when they escaped from bondage in Egypt. A second hypothesis has the citron being carried from Persia to the Mediterranean basin in the baggage of Alexander the Great’s returning soldiers, who somewhere along the way dropped it off in the Levant. Yet another hypothesis has the citron migrating from Persia to Babylonia, where the Jews came across it during their Babylonian captivity and brought it with them when they came back to Israel.

These are all suppositions, with no real evidence to back them up. A very clever piece of archaeological sleuthing suggests a more concrete hypothesis. We need to first recall that after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiled Jews to return home, Israel was a Persian province for several hundred years. Israeli archaeologists have been excavating a site quite close to Jerusalem which turns out to have been a Persian palace with an extensive garden around it. Here is a reconstruction of the site.

persian palace

The archaeologists wanted to see if they could find evidence of what was planted in this garden. They therefore looked for traces of ancient pollen. None could be found in the earth of the garden – whatever had been there had decomposed long ago. So they decided to try their luck in the plaster with which the walls of an ancient pool in the garden had been coated. The thinking was that pollen grains could have got stuck in the plaster while it was drying and been preserved. They were right – and one of the types of pollen they found was that of the citron. From the other types of pollen found – a number from species not present in Israel – the archaeologists deduced that this was a garden planted with rare plants, designed to show off the wealth and power of the palace’s resident, either a Persian satrap or a Babylonian Jew close to the Persians and sent there to keep an eye on the locals. Perhaps it was here that the Jerusalem Temple elites, coming to pay their respects to the Palace’s resident, first saw the citron and admired this strange and exotic fruit. Maybe it became the rage to have a citron tree in one’s garden in emulation of the Persian masters.

Assuming this is somewhere near correct, how did the chicness of the citron eventually segue into its strong religious symbolism? Here, I shall hazard an explanation which I found written nowhere but which satisfies my fertile imagination. One has to know that the adoption by the Jews of the four species in the rituals of Sukkot derives from a text in the Book of Leviticus, where it is said (in the English translation):

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”

The text specifically names two of the plants: the palm tree and the willow. For the other two, though, it is quite vague. Talmudic tradition eventually settled on the citron as the “fruit of splendid trees” and on myrtle as “boughs of leafy trees”.

The choice of myrtle makes sense to me – it is satisfyingly leafy.

myrtle

But the choice of citron as the fruit of a beautiful tree? That is really quite odd. In no way can the citron tree be considered a beautiful tree. It is low and scrubby, more bush-like.

citron tree

It seems, though, that the Hebrew text is grammatically ambiguous. Although the phrase in Leviticus is typically translated as “fruit of a beautiful tree”, it can also be rendered as “a beautiful fruit of a tree.” At first sight, this doesn’t seem to fit the citron either. As the picture above shows only too well, it is warty and knobbly, really quite ungraceful. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The citron’s name in Persian, turunj, derives from the Sanskrit suranga, “beautifully coloured”. In today’s world, our lives are so saturated in bright colours that it is difficult for us to appreciate the impact on our ancestors of the few naturally brightly coloured things. As the photo above also reveals, the citron does indeed have a lovely yellow colour, and there really aren’t that many fruits that are so beautifully yellow (lemons come to mind, but that doesn’t count because they are a hybrid of the citron). Maybe the Persians, and the Indians before them, and the Jews after them, found the citron’s colour captivating.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, let me suggest another reason. Under proper conditions, the citron is the only tree that can flower and bear fruit throughout the year. Even more distinctively, it can retain its fruit from one year to the next. So the citron tree can have buds, blossoms, and mature fruit all at the same time. This is a unique property, and one which may have aroused awe and reverence in our ancestors.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, how about this one? Both the Greek philosopher, Theophrastos, and the Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, mention the citron in their botanical writings. And both stress the fact that the citron, fruit and leaves, has a very strong scent, that typical scent which you also get from the zest of the lemon. It is so strong, they say, that if the fruit is put among clothes it acts as a moth-repellent. This seems a little weak as a reason for nominating the citron as a “beautiful fruit”, although as every woman knows scent can be an important ingredient in beauty. And maybe the elites of India, Persia, and Israel were particularly receptive to the idea that their magnificent – and expensive – clothes could be protected from those pesky moths by the citron.

Either one of these explanations, or all three, must explain not only why the Jews adopted the citron as a religious symbol but also why anyone bothered to cultivate the citron in the first place and then bothered to carry it along to different parts of the world. From a utilitarian point of view, and our ancestors were nothing if not supremely utilitarian when it came to their natural environment, the citron really does seem a singularly useless plant. As I’ve said, the tree is low, scrubby, and bush-like, so it cannot be used as a shade tree. It is sickly and prone to disease, so is difficult to cultivate. The wood is no good for timber. Even the fruit is not much good to eat. It is mostly pith with hardly any flesh, and what flesh there is, is dry with relatively little juice.

cut citron

Whatever the reason, by the time the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet (no doubt with a sneer on his lips) the practice of using the citron as one of the four species in the ceremonies of Sukkot was fixed.

It was this deliberately offensive act at the altar of the Temple which set me off on this quest to know more about the citron. I can’t stop here, because the continuing history of the citron is equally fascinating. So I hope my readers will bear with me if I take them on a journey into the fruit’s more recent history.

From the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70,  the European history of the citron has been indissolubly bound up with that of the Jewish communities in Europe, so let me switch to using its Hebrew name, etrog (which, by the way, derives from the citron’s Persian name, turunj, via Aramaic, strengthening the idea that somehow it was the Persians who brought it into the lives of the Jews). The Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem, which ended Temple-centred worship for the Jews, meant that the feast of Sukkot began to be celebrated wherever the Jews happened to live. Since the citron was now indispensable in the celebrations of Sukkot, it followed the Jewish diaspora as the latter spread out through the Roman Empire into Greece, Italy, and Spain. With time, more and more attention was given to ensuring that the etrogim used in Sukkot were the most beautiful: after all, they were offerings to the Lord our God and nothing but the most beautiful should be offered. Detailed guidelines were issued about what constituted a “perfect” etrog, and considerable sums of money were paid for the most perfect ones.

All was under control until the Diaspora began to move northwards into parts of Europe where the climate was too cool for the citron to grow. These more northerly Jewish communities therefore urgently needed etrogim to be brought to them from lands further to the south – no other fruit would do since the four species had been prescribed in the Talmud. This brings us back to where this post started, Genoa. Because of its climate, but also presumably because of its flourishing, and ancient, Jewish community, there were citron orchards around Genoa. It also happened to be a dynamic trading port, so it wasn’t long before Genoa dominated the trade in etrogim to northern Europe. With time, Genoa seems to have gotten out of the business of actually growing etrogim. Instead, it picked up etrogim as far south as Calabria, still a source of etrogim for some Jewish communities, and all points in between, as well as in Corsica, a Genoese colony, and shipped them north.

Genoa’s monopoly on the etrog trade began to be undermined when the Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain, filtered eastward across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and discovered the etrogim being grown in Corfu and other Ionian islands, presumably for the very ancient Jewish communities of Greece. These were very beautiful as defined by the guidelines on etrog beauty, and they began to seriously compete with the Genoese etrogim. At first, there was resistance in some of the Ashkenazic communities in northern Europe. To explain why, I have to go back to what started me on this post initially, the lemon. The first substantial cultivation of the lemon in Europe only occurred in the mid-15th Century, in Genoa – Genoa again (the sour or bitter orange arrived earlier, in the 11th Century, while the sweet orange arrived somewhat later, in the early 16th Century). European growers of citrons discovered – or maybe they picked it up from the Arabs – that grafting citrons onto lemon stock gave plants which were much hardier than pure citron trees. But grafting created an enormous problem for the Jews because the mixing of species was non-kosher, and etrogim used in a religious Feast had to be kosher. We now know that grafting doesn’t actually lead to a mixing of genes, or hybridization, although 400 years ago it was quite easy to think that it did; after all, everyone knew that if you crossed a horse and a donkey, you got a hybrid, the mule. Many in the Ashkenazic communities suspected that the Greek etrogim were actually so beautiful because they were grafted onto lemon trees. Various rabbis were prepared to certify that they were not, and anyway the Napoleonic wars cut off the traditional supply of etrogim from Genoa. And the Greek etrogim really were so very beautiful …

So the Greek etrog triumphed and trade from Corfu flourished. Eventually, this got the Greek farmers greedy. They calculated that they had the Jewish communities over a barrel – they needed beautiful etrogim, the etrogim from Corfu were the most beautiful, hence they would pay whatever it took to get them. In 1875, they therefore created a cartel and jacked up the price. They turned out to be wrong. The Jewish communities reacted vigorously and successfully boycotted the Greek etrogim. They bought from Calabria, from Corsica, and more importantly from Israel, to where we now turn.

As more and more European Jews immigrated to Palestine in the 1800s, they discovered a local variety of etrogim. They surmised that these must be descended from the etrogim used in Temple worship before the Temple’s destruction. A number of rabbis therefore decided to promote these etrogim from Palestine, which were surely more authentic than etrogim grown elsewhere. They also thought it would help the poverty-stricken economy of Palestine to be able to export high-priced etrogim to Jewish communities in Europe. The problem was that although these etrogim might be more authentic they weren’t nearly as beautiful as the Greek etrogim. On top of it, Sephardic communities which had immigrated to Palestine brought in seeds of Greek citron trees and started planting orchards of the beautiful Greek etrog there. The stand-off with Corfu helped boost sales in Palestine, both of the original as well as of the Greek etrogim transferred there. However, authentic Palestinian etrogim were suffering from the competition.

Coming back to Corfu, the Greek farmers eventually backed down and brought their prices down again. But they didn’t forget or forgive. Some 15 years later, when the body of an unknown woman was found just outside the Jewish quarter in Corfu, the local etrog growers claimed that the woman had been murdered by Jews. This sparked off a pogrom against the local Jewish community, which left 139 people dead. And then it was discovered that the dead woman was actually Jewish. That finished off the etrogim trade from Corfu.

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, the transplanted Greek etrog was pushing the local variety off the market. Eventually, the Greek etrog, which did not adapt very well to the climate in Israel, began to be grafted onto stock of the original etrog, a graft which is kosher. This was a marriage made in heaven: the beautiful Greek etrog with the original, Temple-era etrog. It is this variety which now dominates the modern etrog market, and is no doubt the one being intensely studied by these Orthodox Jews prior to an eventual purchase.

jews purchasing etrogim

I cannot finish my story of the citron without mentioning the one way of usefully consuming it that was eventually discovered. For this, I have to back up a little and say a few words about the history of cane sugar. Cane sugar, brought west from India by, once again, Alexander the Great’s troops (they seem to have been great collectors of plants …), was first exploited in the Near East. It was the Crusaders, who came across caravans of this “sweet salt”, and who brought sugar to the attention of Europe. Until then, Europeans had only had honey as a sweetener. Genoa’s fiercest rival, Venice, was the first to make sugar available in Europe. It also brought another Arab invention, candying of fruit, to Europe. Not to be outdone by its hated rivals, the Genoese also finally got into the candying business. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of candying the citron, or rather its pith, of which there is so much, as the photo above shows. Leghorn (Livorno) became the centre of production: citrons from the south all the way to Sicily, from Corfu and the other Ionian islands in the east, and from Corsica in the west, were sent, de-pulped and brined, to Leghorn. There, the citron pith was de-brined and steeped in progressively more concentrated solutions of cane sugar. Once dried and chopped into small pieces, it was shipped, no doubt in Genoese ships, all over Europe to be added to cakes, sweet bread loaves, and other patisseries. I have a particular reason to mention all this because the panettone, that glory of my wife’s home town, Milan, was originally made with candied citron pith (as well as candied orange and sultana raisins).

Panettone

More humbly, the original recipes of the English plum pudding of my youth also called for candied citron from Leghorn.

Plum-Pudding

Alas! I believe this market has declined drastically – or perhaps citrons from elsewhere have cornered the candying market. The fact is, Leghorn is no longer a centre for candied citron production, the Calabrian citron hangs on by managing to keep a foot in the etrog market, while the Corsican and Corfu citron production is down almost to nothing; the few which are grown there are only used to make a local liqueur. Here’s the Corsican variety. Somehow, it seems apt that the bottle stands next to one made with myrtle, another of the four species.

cedratine and myrtheLet’s lift a glass to the citron a.k.a. the etrog! Cin-Cin!

_____________________________

Lemons in Liguria: https://i0.wp.com/www.bbfauno.com/wp-content/gallery/amalfi/limoni-amalfi-coast.jpg (in https://misshome.wordpress.com/tag/italian-language/)

Citron: http://whileshenaps.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/6a00d834515cdc69e20133f4767038970b-pi.jpg (in http://whileshenaps.com/2010/09/make-a-paper-mache-etrog.html)

Tosher Rabbi of Montreal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species#/media/File:Fourspecies.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species)

Persian palace: http://www.haaretz.com/polopoly_fs/1.410535.1328143655!/image/3938862120.jpg_gen/derivatives/headline_857x482/3938862120.jpg (in http://www.haaretz.com/jerusalem-dig-uncovers-earliest-evidence-of-local-cultivation-of-etrogs-1.410505#acid)

Myrtle: http://www.polyvore.com/cgi/img-thing?.out=jpg&size=l&tid=65106807 (in http://www.polyvore.com/outdoor_plants/collection?id=3359765)

Citron tree: in gardening.stackexchange.com

Cut citron: http://www.tropcrop.nl/citr02fr.jpg (in http://www.tropcrop.nl/citron.htm)

Orthodox Jews purchasing etrogim: http://pix.avaxnews.com/avaxnews/64/a4/0001a464_medium.jpeg (in http://avax.news/fact/Symbolic_Citrus_Israeli_Jews_Inspect_Fruit_for_Sukkot.html)

Panettone: http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2014/09/Panettone-Vergani-Enrico-Su—-Ummarino.jpg (in http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/tag/panettone/)

Plum pudding: http://cookdiary.net/wp-content/uploads/images/Plum-Pudding_12165.jpg (in http://cookdiary.net/plum-pudding/)

Cédratine and myrthe, Corsica: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/A8WYT4/myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-A8WYT4.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-6963651.html)

INDIGO

Bangkok, 3 February 2016

After reading my last post, my wife asked me a very simple but very penetrating question: “But why are jeans blue?”

One can of course be nit-picking and respond that actually not all jeans are blue. This is undoubtedly true but let’s face it, the huge majority of jeans are dyed some shade of blue. Jeans are not called blue jeans for nothing.

One can also give the trivial answer “because blue dye is used”, which rightfully elicits the riposte “Ha-ha, very funny”. But actually, an interesting tale does hang on the dye used, which I learned while preparing the previous post and which I can’t resist recounting here.

We have to go to Europe for an answer to my wife’s question, because it was from there that the denim material used for blue jeans came to America. So what is the history of blue dye in Europe?

I was delighted to learn that the original blue dye of choice in Europe was extracted from woad. For those – I’m sure many – readers who have no idea what woad is, it is a plant native to many parts of Europe from whose leaves indigo dye can be extracted. I throw in a picture here in case any of my readers might wish to go searching for it.

woad plant

Personally, I must admit that I only knew woad as the stuff which Julius Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, tells us the Britons smeared themselves with: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu”, “In truth, all the Britons stain themselves with woad that occasions a bluish colour, and thereby they have a more terrible appearance in battle”. But I prefer the way it is put in that sublime history of Great Britain, “1066 And All That”: “Julius Caesar advanced energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousand paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, although all well over military age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.” Mel Gibson in Braveheart shows us how it should be done.

mel gibson

Trivia aside, woad was actually economically a very important crop in many parts of Medieval Europe and made some communities very wealthy. In France, for instance, the trade in the dye from woad built many of the more beautiful buildings in Toulouse

Hôtel_d'Assézat,_toulouse_(panorama)

while in Germany woad paid for the University of Erfurt, established back in 1389.

erfurt university

The indigo from woad coloured the best of medieval tapestries.

medieval tapestry

In sum, all seemed to be going swimmingly for the woad sector!

But there was a worm in the rose: the same indigo dye, but extracted from the leaves of another plant, in much larger quantities per leaf, in India.

Indigofera_tinctoria

This stuff was already arriving in small and very costly amounts onto Greek, and later Roman, markets, along those same trade routes which I’ve had cause to mention in earlier posts. Because it was so expensive it was used primarily as a pigment in paint and not as a dye of fabrics. The Greeks called it indikon, the Indian dye. The Romans latinized this to indicum, which eventually gave us our indigo. Once the Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it safely across the Indian Ocean, they could buy the stuff directly from the producers and cut out all the middle men. Nice packets like this began to arrive in Europe in the hold of European ships.

Indian_indigo_dye_lumpThe price in the European market places duly dropped, woad producers saw their livelihoods threatened, and they resorted to the classic weapons of getting pliant governments to forbid its use (it’s called anti-dumping these days) and putting around rumours that using indigo from India severely affected the quality of the fabric. All to no avail. The higher transportation costs from India were more than offset by the much higher productivity of the Indian plant. Transportation and production costs were then further slashed when the Spaniards started growing the Indian plant in their Latin American colonies and the British in their southern American colonies (Carolina and Georgia), both with slave labour.

Indigo Processing Carolinas

The British then went on to use their early stranglehold on Bengal to create vast indigo estates, turning the local farmers into de-facto slaves in the process, which further reduced costs.

indigo processing bengal

Woad was doomed and disappeared from the scene.

But at this moment of triumph for Asian indigo, there was another worm in the rose, this time in the form of the nascent organic chemical industry. In the early 1800s, when woad was fighting its final rearguard actions against Asian indigo, Europe and North America were starting to adopt town gas to light and later heat homes and businesses. Town gas was produced from coal.

town gas manufacture

Its production also created various very nasty wastes, some of which I have stumbled across in my professional career buried in old gasworks sites. One of these wastes was coal tar, a nasty, gooey, stinking waste which looks like this.

coal tar

Chemists started dabbling with coal tar to see what they could extract from it. The breakthrough occurred in 1856 when a young British chemist by the name of Henry Perkin, while trying to make quinine from coal tar, serendipitously produced a purple dye that he later commercialized under the name mauveine.

mauveineIt must have been so thrilling, almost magic, for Mr. Perkin to extract this beautiful colour from that horrible, nasty black gunk. For sure, in the chemistry lab as a boy I found those moments when the liquid in my test tube turned a beautiful colour to be the most memorable. But perhaps Mr. Perkins only saw the commercial possibilities in this lovely mauve.

In any event, the race was on! Chemists piled in to see what other dyes (and later other organic products) they could make by fiddling around with coal tar. The Germans soon dominated the field, accounting for almost 90% of synthetic dye production at the outbreak of World War I. It took a while for synthetic indigo to be produced, because coal tar didn’t contain a suitable “carbon skeleton”. Finally, in the late 1870s, early 1880s, the German chemist Adolf Baeyer managed to find several routes to synthetic indigo. His Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905 was partially based on this work. Chemists at the Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrick (better known to us as BASF) came up with yet another, commercially more viable, route, and BASF marketed its first synthetic indigo in 1897. By the way, just to close the circle, BASF was created in 1865 by one Friedrich Engelhorn, who had established the gasworks for the town of Mannheim in 1861 and saw in Perkin’s discovery of mauveine a way of turning this damned coal tar waste into something useful. As BASF’s name suggests, the company initially focused on aniline-based dyes. This is the original BASF plant at Ludwigshafen in 1866.

BASF_Werk_Ludwigshafen_1866

Natural indigo was doomed. Synthetic indigo’s better quality, the greater reliability of its supplies, and its lower cost all drove natural indigo off the market, despite the usual attempts, which we’ve seen already with woad, by sympathetic governments to try and block the use of synthetic indigo by fair means or foul. In 1897, the year that synthetic indigo first came onto the market, 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced. By 1914, this had plummeted to 1,000 tons and the free fall was not over. Asian indigo followed woad-based indigo into oblivion.

At this moment of triumph for synthetic indigo, there lurked yet another worm ready to devour the rose’s heart: other blue synthetic dyes. Indanthrene Blue RS was patented in 1901, Hydron Blue was developed in 1908, and maybe there were others – the world of textile dyes is bewilderingly complex. I’m not quite sure how these various dyes fought it out for the denim market, but in the 1950s BASF and other indigo producers seriously considered promoting other blue dyes for denim because of indigo’s poor fastness properties. This is jargon for meaning that textiles dyed with indigo tend to fade rather easily. What stopped them was the fact that this very property of fading was what was so earnestly desired by the young owners of blue jeans, the product in which indigo was most used. So indigo was saved and the worm crawled off to devour other roses. Because of the popularity of jeans, indigo is in fact king of the heap. It is the textile dye with the highest production volumes in the world, some 30,000 tons a year (when you think that most of it is used to dye jeans and that it only takes 10 grams of indigo to dye one pair of jeans, readers with good mathematical skills will quickly figure out that literally billions of jeans must be made every year).

But after that tour through the world of dyes and its cut-throat competition, I am afraid to say that I still haven’t properly answered my wife’s question: “why are jeans blue?” Why are they not red or green or black or yellow? Well I think we have established why they are blue today: because of indigo’s quirk of fading in interesting patterns. But why did the Amoskeag Mills in New Hampshire, which initially supplied Levi Strauss with his denim, use indigo dye? Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I suspect it was because by the 1860s, when the mill started supplying Mr. Strauss with his denim, this particular fabric had “always” been dyed with indigo or woad or some other blue dye. “Always” seems to mean at least since the 16th Century. One article I came across says that it was at this time that blue in the UK became the poor’s colour of choice for their clothing. Judging by the paintings of the Master of the Blue Jeans, it was the colour of choice for the poor in Europe more generally.

master of the blue jeans

Why? I don’t know. I have to assume that cost was a factor, but it could also have been simply a fashion trend.

So I’m afraid that I have failed to answer my wife’s question at the deepest level. But I shall keep an eye out, and maybe one day I will come across the answer and be able to update this post. Any leads will be welcome. In the meantime, I invite my readers to enjoy some blue.

Blue Spectrum

_______________________

Woad plant: http://woad.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/6/1576/1436768_orig.jpg (in http://woad.weebly.com/grow.html)

Mel Gibson: http://media-cdn.timesfreepress.com/img/news/tease/2012/11/02/braveheart-3_t1070_h10b97cb70851af7b29a07a4e9321ac5de746798e.jpg (in http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/sports/columns/story/2012/nov/02/5-10-friday-mailbag-dooley-dynasties-defenses-and-/91886/)

Medieval tapestry: http://www.needlenthread.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/wool-tapestry-01.jpg (in http://www.needlenthread.com/2011/09/pins-and-woad-dyeing-of-textiles.html)

Hôtel particulier, Toulouse: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/H%C3%B4tel_d’Ass%C3%A9zat,_toulouse_%28panorama%29.jpg

Erfurt University: http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?binary=internal%3A%2F%2F84cd21ee849566f965b0eeaaf15626e8.jpeg (in http://www.suehnekreuz.de/PHP/ewiki/sk_wiki.php?id=Erfurt)

Indigofera tinctoria: http://s3.amazonaws.com/sagebudphotos/INTI/Indigofera_tinctoria2_600.jpg (in http://sagebud.com/true-indigo-indigofera-tinctoria/)

Packet of natural indigo dye: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigo_dye

Indigo processing Carolinas: https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/images/IndigoProcessingSCMap-lg.jpg (in https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Plantations/plantations/Indigo_Cultivation_and_Processing.htm)

Indigo processing Bengal: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00glossarydata/terms/indigo/iln1869.jpg (in http://eastindiacompany1600-1857.blogspot.com/2015_01_01_archive.html)

Town gas manufacturing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Drawing_the_retorts_at_the_Great_Gas_Establishment_Brick_Lane.png (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_manufactured_gas)

Coal tar: http://www.permastripe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/coal-tar-16.jpg (in http://www.permastripe.com/coal-tar-parking-lot-sealer-is-it-toxic/)

Mauveine: https://lilyabsinthe.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/6233293ca7d59e6c175f596742cba93b.jpg (in http://lilyabsinthe.com/2015/05/14/mauveine/)

Old BASF plant: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7c/BASF_Werk_Ludwigshafen_1866.JPG (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BASF)

Master of the Blue Jeans painting: http://images.artnet.com/images_us/magazine/reviews/karlins/karlins1-26-11-2.jpg (in http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/karlins/master-of-blue-jeans1-25-11.asp)

Blue spectrum: http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Blue-Spectrum-728×455.jpg (in http://pl.wallpapersma.com/wallpaper/blue-spectrum.html)

WORLD TOUR WITH MINT

Bangkok, 11th October 2015

A little while back, my wife, bored with the usual round of cooking in the tiny, stuffy, hot kitchen of our apartment and longing to spice things up a bit with some change, espied a fresh herb in the vegetable section of our local supermarket which turned out to be mint. She brought it back and for several weeks now, we have been trying chicken à la mint, pork à la mint, fresh mint in green salad, and – the subject of this post – mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta.

Let me interject here that a basic difference between me and my wife is that she is adventurous, ready to try new things, and I am timorous, fearful of the new and comfortable with the true and the tried. This is as true for food as it is for any other sphere of life. I therefore approached these experiments in our usual cuisine with some diffidence if not suspicion. Actually, apart from the fresh mint in green salad, which I forcefully suggested we not try again, it worked rather well. In the case of mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta, it worked really well. The mint added a sweet overtone to the acidity of the tomato which did wonders to the palate. I have graciously allowed this variation on a theme to be added to our culinary repertoire. It’s very easy to prepare, by the way: replace basil leaves with mint, et voilà! (or you can just add the mint to the basil leaves)

A quick whip around the internet shows me that my wife is not the only one to have stumbled onto this use of mint. Martha Stewart, no less, offers a recipe where the tomato sauce contains mint. I throw in a picture from another recipe – readers are going to have to take it on faith that the little green bits in the sauce are finely chopped mint leaves.

tomato-mint sauce

One thread in these posts of mine has been to salute the humbler ingredients in our food, those which never get much publicity but are actually the ones that make each of our dishes so special. I’ve written on lemongrass recently, and capers and anise a while back (and, at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve written very disapprovingly about the use of hot spices). So I will use this occasion to also sing the praises of mint, reviewing some of its better uses in food.

As I usually do, I began surfing around the internet to see what I could find. I was surprised to not come across a huge use of mint, at least in my part of Europe (Western Europe, to use the Cold War parlance). Of course, there is that most English of dishes, mint sauce, a wonderful, wonderful sauce to put on lamb chops. But this dish has already been the subject (or one of the subjects) of a previous post, in which I sing the praises of the sweet-and-salt combination, so I don’t feel I can go on and on about it again. I will leave readers to refer to that post and move on – but not before throwing in a picture of mint sauce with lamb chops.

lamb sauce and lamb

In my electronic wanderings, I stumbled across the following dish, which also seems incredibly English – at least, it involves peas, and since peas are in my mind as English as Big Ben or HM the Queen (one of the veggies in every meat and two veggies which I had in my youth seemed to be peas), I include it. We are talking of pea soup with mint (I give thumbnail recipes for this and other dishes that I mention at the end of the post).

pea and mint soup

I have a feeling that this soup would be good chilled, like gazpacho.

I also want to add here another dish that I came across as I went around raising electronic rocks to see what was hidden below them. It’s actually an eggplant dish from 16th Century Italy. I add it because I think it’s kind of cool to look at what our ancestors were eating. But it’s also an intriguing dish because it looks to be an ancestor of the modern dish we know as eggplant parmigiana. The big difference between the two is the absence of a tomato-based sauce in the old recipe. I suppose this difference reflects the fact that tomatoes were not yet current in Italian cuisine in the 16th Century. Instead, a mix of herbs (mint, sweet marjoram, salad Burnet, parsley, fresh fennel tips), crushed garlic, a couple of spices (cinnamon and cloves), pepper, and salt, are spread over the eggplant, and the whole is splashed with verjuice (I will let readers look that one up, as I had to) and sprinkled with sugar. Then, like eggplant parmigiana, cheese is spread over the whole. Here’s what it looks like, and the thumbnail recipe is at the end.

pomi sdegnosi

It was at this point that luck came to the rescue. As I was surfing disconsolately around the internet, I came across an interesting article entitled “Mints in Ethnic Cuisines”, written by two ladies from Texas, Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay. I am indebted to them for much of what follows. It was they, for instance, who taught me that Greek cuisine bucks the (modern?) European trend of using little mint. It seems that Greeks use mint with wild abandon in their cuisine. The two authors mention several dishes in particular: keftedes meatballs, the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce, the bean stew gigantes plaki, dolmas (stuffed grape vine leaves), hortopita, which is a vegetable and rice pie; even that best known of Greek dishes, moussaka, has mint in it! I give thumbnail recipes of all these dishes at the end, but here I will only post pictures of keftedes meatballs

keftedes

which can be served with the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce as a dip

Tzatziki

I chose to put pictures of these two dishes with the hope that my wife (and I) can try to make them …

I now leave Europe behind, skimming over the waves of the Aegean Sea to the land of Lebanon, because I want to raise a cheer for that most Lebanese of dishes, tabouleh.

tabouleh

I have very fond memories of eating tabouleh in Beijing – yes, Beijing. There was a little Lebanese restaurant down the road from where we lived, run by a small, tubby Lebanese man with a twinkle in his eye. When Spring came rolling round, it was incredibly pleasant for my wife and I to sit outside the restaurant, under the barely budding trees, in the tepid heat of the midday sun, slowly working our way through a plate of tabouleh. I must say, though, I’m a little surprised that not only chopped parsley but also chopped mint is added. I’m not sure that our tubby Lebanese restaurateur was putting mint in his tabouleh. I will need to hunt down a restaurant which serves tabouleh with both mint and parsley. While I’m at it, I will also see if it serves Arab or Middle-East salad.

arabic-saladLemon segments, diced cucumber and tomatoes, the whole mixed with chopped onions, mint, and parsley. Sounds sooooo good …

I now want to arc over to the Indian subcontinent, but not before pausing for a minute in modern-day Iraq. I’m actually stopping here for Iraq’s Babylonian past. Like any self-respecting university, Yale University has a collection of cuneiform tablets, some of which, like this one, list recipes.

YBC4644

These have been translated by a Frenchman, Jean Botéro (this immediately makes me think of the Egyptologist, Professor Philémon Siclone, in the Tintin album “Les Cigares du Pharaön”

egyptologue-siclone-jpg

but I digress).

One of these, Recipe XXIII, contains mint, to whit: “Leg (of mutton) (?) meat is used. Prepare water; [add] fat […] samidu, coriander (?), cumin (?), and kanašû. Assemble (all the ingredients in the cooking vessel) and sprinkle with crushed garlic. (After cooking,) blend into the pot šuhutinnû and mint […]” As you can see, words are missing, the translation of some of the ingredients is unknown, and to make matters worse the recipe is exceedingly brief compared to our modern ones, leaving much to the skill – and imagination – of the cook. Nevertheless, Laura Kelley and a band of hardy cooks have been piecing together these telegraphic recipes from 4,000 years ago and trying them out. Many of the results are described on the web site “The Silk Road Gourmet”  I post here the picture of a modern take on Recipe XXIII, after someone concluded that šuhutinnû is probably carrot or possibly parsnip, and samidu is barley:

babylonian lamb and mint

I have added the modern version of the recipe to the thumbnail recipes below, for those who might want to try connecting gastronomically with our remote Babylonian ancestors.

After that pit stop in the fertile crescent, we go on to the Indian subcontinent, the land of chutneys – not so much the fruit-based chutneys which the colonial Brits brought back to the UK, but more vegetable-based chutneys. Here is a chutney, mint-coriander chutney, where mint takes pride of place.

mint-coriander chutney

One of the recipes I perused helpfully informs the reader that this chutney can be served with pakoras, samosas, chaat, chole, or even potato chips.

This chutney allows me to segue smoothly into another popular dish from that part of the world, raita, a cold yogurt condiment served to cut the heat of spicy dishes. And here I will throw in a picture of a cucumber-mint raita (with thumbnail recipe at the end).

cucumber-mint raita

Being based on yoghurt (or strictly speaking curds) and looking at how raitas are made, I have to think that they are (perhaps not so) distant cousins of the Greek tzatziki (which itself is part of a broader family of yoghurt-based dishes to be found from the Balkans to the Caucasus). Maybe one day I should write a post on yoghurt …

After this, I soar over the Bay of Bengal back to Thailand. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay say that mint is a very popular ingredient in Thai cuisine and in South-East Asian cuisine more generally. Certainly, I recently had a taste of a common use of mint here, where it joins a number of fresh vegetables being served as a side dish to be added to noodle dishes or just eaten along with other main dishes.

side dish fresh vegetables

We were saying bye-bye to a colleague and had lunch together in the office. The food was ordered from outside. My Thai colleagues informed me that most of the dishes I was trying were from the north of the country. I found it interesting to eat fresh mint leaves with some of the spicier dishes. This side dish of fresh vegetables is also common in Vietnam, and I suspect throughout South-East Asia.

I’ll finish with a dish from Thailand, yam nang mu (pork skin salad). This is actually one of many Thai “salads” in which various cuts of meat or offal are sliced small, seasoned with spicy/sour/sweet sauces, and then mixed with herbs of one variety or another. In this particular case, you season boiled, defatted pork skin (there is a cousin to this dish using pig’s ears) with fish and shrimp sauce, lime juice, sugar, and mix it all with a large amount of mint leaves, some lemongrass, some roasted rice, and a number of other ingredients (thumbnail recipe at the end).

pork skin salad

Well, that brings me to the end of my world tour following the trace of mint. There are a lot of dishes which use mint that I’ve not mentioned. I’ve also not touched on the use mint in drinks, for instance Moroccan mint tea with its spectacular pouring technique

moroccan mint tea

or the somewhat more alcoholic mint julep, a favourite of the Kentucky Derby.

mint julep

But I’ll leave these for another day. Right now, my wife is looking at her watch and at the door. Time to go.

THUMBNAIL RECIPES

Pea and mint soup: Soften some onions in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add peas, reduce heat, and simmer gently until tender. Add chopped mint leaves (and parsley if you want). Add more broth. Purée in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Pomi sdegnosi, or braised eggplant: Slice the eggplant lengthwise and let them steep in in lukewarm water for 30 minutes. Rinse. Submerge the eggplant slices in boiling water for about 8 minutes. Remove and drain. Dredge the eggplant slices in flour and layer the bottom of an oiled dish. Chop all of the herbs – fresh mint, marjoram, parsley, salad Burnet, fennel tips – and mix them with minced garlic, spices – cinnamon, cloves, pepper – salt, sugar, and verjuice (for which lemon juice can be substituted). Cover the eggplant with breadcrumbs, drizzle with olive oil, cover with herb/spice mixture and then with provatura cheese (mozzarella, another pulled cheese, can be substituted). Repeat for each layer of eggplant. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. (Adapted from http://atasteofhistorywithjoycewhite.blogspot.com/2014/08/to-braise-eggplant-historic-food.html)

Keftedes: Combine ground beef, bread dunked in milk, minced onion, minced garlic, finely chopped mint and oregano, some vinegar, some beaten eggs, a small amount of grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and mix well. Roll the mixture into balls. Dust the balls with flour. Put them in hot oil in a pan. Brown on all sides.

Tzatziki: Peel cucumbers and dice. To draw out their water, sprinkle them with salt and let them sit for 30 minutes. Drain well. Put them in a blender, along with minced garlic, some lemon juice, some chopped mint (and some chopped dill if you wish), and a little ground black pepper. Process until well blended. Stir the result into Greek yogurt. Salt to taste. Let it stand for at least two hours before serving so flavours can blend.

Gigantes Plaki: Soak gigantes beans (giant butter beans) overnight. Cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are just tender. In parallel, gently soften chopped onions and garlic for a few minutes. Then stir in some sweet paprika, tinned tomatoes, 100ml water. Salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer for half an hour. Stir in sea kale or dandelion leaves (or chard as an alternative). Mix the cooked beans with the sauce, adding some more olive oil and chopped mint and parsley. Transfer to a casserole pan, and bake for half an hour or so until the beans are tender and the sauce thickened and bubbling. Can be served hot, warm or at room temperature.

Dolmas: In a little broth, mix ground beef and lamb with uncooked rice, minced onion and garlic, some pine nuts, chopped mint and parsley. Place rinsed grape leaves on a work surface. Place a dollop of the mixture at the center of each leaf. Tuck in the ends and roll tightly toward the leaf point. Layer the wrapped leaves in a large saucepan Cover them with broth mixed with lemon juice. Cook over low heat for three-quarters of an hour.

Moussaka: Place minced lamb, minced onions, crushed garlic, chopped mint and oregano, a couple of bay leaves and a cinnamon stick in a large frying pan and cook over a medium heat for a quarter of an hour. Stir in some flour. Add a glass of wine, canned tomatoes, some tomato purée, and bring to a simmer. Cook for half an hour, until the lamb is tender and the sauce has thickened. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Set aside this meat sauce. Fry eggplant slices for a couple of minutes. Set them aside. Cook potatoes in boiling water for five minutes, then cool under running water. Prepare a white sauce as follows. Melt butter in a saucepan, stir in some flour. Cook for a few seconds, then gradually stir in milk. Add some grated parmesan and grated nutmeg. Simmer the sauce gently for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in a beaten egg. Spoon some of the meat sauce into a shallow dish. Cover with a layer of potatoes and a layer of eggplant. Repeat the layers twice more, finishing with the eggplant. Pour over the white sauce to cover the whole in a thick, even layer. Sprinkle with a bit more parmesan. Bake in the oven until deep golden-brown and bubbling.

Hortopita: Peel, seed, and shred some pumpkin. Weight it to drain its liquid. Cook it in a skillet until it wilts and most or all of its liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a bowl. Cook in the same skillet a chopped leek and onion until also wilted. Transfer to the bowl with the pumpkin. Cook chopped chard and spinach until wilted; add to the bowl. Add the herbs – mint, sorrel, hartwort, chervil, dill, fennel leaves, parsley, and oregano – to the bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roll out a first phyllo dough ball and place it inside an oiled roasting pan. Brush with olive oil. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Spread the filling evenly over the dough. Repeat with a third sheet of dough, placing it over the filling. Brush with olive oil. Roll out the last piece of dough to a slightly smaller piece, and place it over the surface of the pie. Join the bottom and top layers of dough. Brush the top of the pie generously with olive oil. Bake until the pastry is golden and crisp. Remove and serve warm or at room temperature.

Tabouleh: Stir together some bulgur and olive oil. Pour boiling water over, and let stand for a quarter of an hour. Drain well. Toss with finely chopped mint and parsley, a couple of chopped tomatoes, half a cucumber, several tablespoons of lemon and of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Arab salad: Cut segments from half of lemon free from membranes and transfer segments to a cutting board, then squeeze juice from the remaining half a lemon into bowl. Put a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice in a bowl. Add finely chopped segments of lemon. Add salt, pepper, and several tablespoons of olive oil. Whisk to combine. Stir in the remaining ingredients: diced cucumber and tomatoes, finely chopped onion, finely chopped mint and parsley.

Babylonian lamb with barley and mint: Marinate lamb steaks in soy sauce for half an hour. Sauté in oil, along with the trimmings. Remove, leaving the trimmings in the pan. Stir barley into the oil and toast for a few moments. Add cumin, coriander, and chopped garlic. Simmer until the barley is cooked. Place the lamb steaks in the pan and cook the desired degree. Add finely sliced carrots and chopped mint for a few minutes. Remove the lamb and slice. Place the carrots in a serving dish, spoon the barley over carrots, add the sliced lamb, and spoon over with the sauce. (adapted from http://lostpastremembered.blogspot.com/2011/07/onions-onions-everywhere.html)

Mint-coriander chutney: In a blender, grind together chopped mint leaves, chopped coriander, a chopped green chili (personally, I would cut out the chili, but can it be Indian without it?), a piece of ginger, a small amount of cumin, and some lemon juice, until smooth, using a little water if necessary. Salt to taste.

Cucumber-mint raita: Coarsely grate a cucumber. Squeeze dry. Whisk curds (yogurt can substitute), chopped mint, a little cumin, even less cayenne pepper in medium bowl to blend. Add cucumbers and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yam nang mu (Pork skin salad): Boil pork skin until soft. Cool. Remove any fat from the skin. Slice the skin into thin, short slices. Mix well with a large handful of chopped mint leaves, finely minced lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and ground roasted rice.

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Tomato-mint sauce: http://www.seriouseats.com/images/2013/03/20130302-242913-tomato-mint-sauce.jpg (in http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/03/sauced-tomato-mint-sauce.html)

Mint sauce and lamb: http://www.maureenabood.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Grilled-chops-platter-POST.jpg (in http://www.maureenabood.com/2012/03/29/grilled-lamb-lollipops-with-fresh-mint-sauce-chine-on/)

Pea and mint soup: http://www.epicurious.com/images/recipesmenus/2013/2013_april/51154900.jpg (in http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/minty-pea-soup-51154900)

Pomi sdegnosi: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/MgcFEo-S8WI/hqdefault.jpg (in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgcFEo-S8WI)

Keftedes: https://rencooks.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/100_4063.jpg (in http://ediblearia.com/2009/11/05/lamb-keftedes/)

Tzatziki: http://www.cbc.ca/inthekitchen/assets_c/2012/02/Tzatziki4563-thumb-596×350-174210.jpg (in http://www.cbc.ca/inthekitchen/2012/02/tzatziki-sauce.html)

Tabouleh: http://almarahgrill.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/tabouleh.jpg (in http://almarahgrill.com/product/tabouleh/)

Arabic salad: http://suzyeats.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/arabic-salad.jpg (in http://www.snipview.com/q/Arab_salad)

Cuneiform tablet YBC 4644: http://babylonian-collection.yale.edu/sites/default/files/images/New%20Images/YBC4644_OBV_0004.jpg (in http://babylonian-collection.yale.edu/highlights)

Egyptologist in Tintin: http://s1.e-monsite.com/2009/04/06/06/46230270a-siclone-jpg.jpg (in http://univers-tintin.e-monsite.com/pages/les-personnages/philemon-siclone.html)

Babylonian lamb and mint: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-h-K2nSXnfys/TiNFcYNVuzI/AAAAAAAACSI/5JHqnYlNzv4/s400/DSC_2266.JPG (in http://lostpastremembered.blogspot.com/2011/07/onions-onions-everywhere.html)

Mint-coriander chutney http://crumbsandtales.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Hari-Green-Chutney-made-with-cilantro-and-mint-21.jpg (in http://crumbsandtales.com/mint-and-coriander-chutney/)

Cucumber-mint raita: https://familynaturally.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/2012-02-26_19-55-59_782.jpg (in https://familynaturally.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/raita-yogurt-with-cucumber-and-mint/)

Side dish fresh vegetables: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/side-dish-vegetable-thai-restaurants-you-see-serves-hot-spicy-food-e-g-som-tam-green-papaya-salad-34668038.jpg (in http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-side-dish-vegetable-thai-restaurants-you-see-serves-hot-spicy-food-e-g-som-tam-green-papaya-salad-image34668038)

Pork skin salad: https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3038/3047383176_dbdea9103c.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/jakeslagle/3047383176)

Moroccan mint tea: http://lcmt.topdesert.com/content/photos/travel-guide/authentic-culinary-experiences/pouring-your-mint-tea-without-spilling-a-drop//lowcost-morocco-travel-pouring-your-mint-tea-without-spilling-a-drop1.jpg (in http://lcmt.topdesert.com/index.php?ref=ait-ben-haddou-and-ouarzazate-one-day)

Mint julep: http://ccattache.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/k17_18865809.jpg (in http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2015/04/brown-forman-has-kentucky-derby-locked.html)

PÉTANQUE

Bangkok, 29 August 2015

I wrote a post a year or so ago where I listed all things French. One of the things I didn’t list, though, was the game of pétanque. Anyone who has spent any time in France will eventually have come across a scene like this

petanques in France

especially if you’re there for the summer holidays; it seems that it’s all the French do during their summer holidays at the beach.

Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice

In truth, my memory of pétanque leans more in the direction of the following photo, the game on the village square ringed with those poor plane trees that the French love to massacre, with ten times more spectators than players – and all looking so serious!

petanque old photo

So French is pétanque that it played a major role in that magisterial compendium of all that is French, Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix.

Asterix et le tour de Gaule

The scene takes place in Masilia (today’s Marseilles) – a nod to the Provençal roots of the game – where a Roman patrol is threatened with riot, revolution, massacre, war, in brief general catastrophe, if they disrupt a game of pétanque started especially to let our heroes get away.

petanque in asterix

To further slow down the game and impede the Roman patrol from advancing, the classic question is being heatedly debated: “je tire ou je pointe?” Should the bowler try to knock away the adversaries’ bowls close to the cochonnet (jack in English), or should he try to get his bowl even closer than theirs to the cochonnet? Extremely delicate question, which explains the serious expressions of everyone in the black and white photo above. It was also the object of serious fights between my French cousins when we played the game at my grandmother’s house. The games normally finished abruptly with them running after each other through the garden, screaming.

Yes, so French: a Gauloise cigarette in corner of the mouth, a glass of pastis in one hand, a petanque bowl in the other, and the pondering of that existential question: “je tire ou je pointe?”

Imagine, then, my astonishment when, during a visit a few Chinese New Years ago to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, I noticed a group of locals playing a game of pétanque. So astonished was I that I took a photo to memorialize the scene. Alas! I cannot find the photo anymore, but no matter, others have memorialized the playing of pétanque in Laos on the internet.

petanque in Laos

After some thinking, I concluded that perhaps it was not all that surprising that Laotians should play pétanque. After all, they had been a French colony. No doubt they would have watched their colonial masters while away their afternoons playing the game and perhaps played it themselves in the mother country while there on scholarships and plotting revolution. And it’s a great game for a hot climate, no frantic running around under the broiling sun.

But imagine my even greater astonishment when several months ago I noticed a group of Thai playing pétanque, or petaung in Thai (my transliteration of what my office colleagues called it). I was so gobsmacked that I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo, so I throw in here one that I found on the net. As we can see, the players are obviously debating the question, “je tire ou je pointe?”

petanque in Thailand

How did they pick up the game? Could it have come through Laos? Or Cambodia, or even Vietnam, also ex-French colonies and where the game is played? Or was it brought by Frenchmen in the service of the King or Government? Whatever the origin, the fact is they play it well. In preparing this post, I discovered that there is an International Championship of pétanque which has been held every two years since 1959. The French, of course, have dominated the event, with French teams winning 27 golds, 12 silvers, and 14 bronzes. But, surprise, surprise, the Thai have won 3 silvers and 3 bronzes, all this since 1991. They seem to be creeping slowly up the medal tables; gold no doubt awaits them soon.

Thoroughly intrigued, I did a rapid internet zip around the world, and discovered many more places where pétanque is played. Just in Asia, I found traces of it in India

BAKEA9 India, Pondicherry Territory, Pondicherry, French consulate, Petanque game

although I suspect it may be limited to the old French enclave of Pondicherry

Japan

petanque in Kumamoto Japan

the hats are an interesting stylistic addition

China

petanque en chine

although I never saw it being played in my five years there, and if this picture is anything to go by the Government has infiltrated the game and officialized it: where are the villagers playing in the shade of the trees?

I didn’t find a picture of anyone playing pétanque in South Korea although there seems to be national federation of pétanque and bowls. What the Koreans do seem to have done is to invent a video-game of pétanque – it figures, I suppose, given South Koreans’ passion for video-games.

petanque video game screen

A number of my posts have touched on the issue of globalization. I suppose this is another example of that. I wonder if the French have ever tried making pétanque an Olympic sport? They could win a few more gold medals for a while, until the rest of the world beat them at their own game (like the Japanese with judo).

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Pétanque in France: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/zjJAcu2o03U/maxresdefault.jpg (in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjJAcu2o03U)

Petanque on the beach: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c2/Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg/500px-Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pétanque)

Pétanque old photo: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/160702255-albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=GkZZ8bf5zL1ZiijUmxa7QRb3elaikB0wsuIje6LZ5qIlZFwr4Iyt%2bAtEtk63h7vGHw9WDtPuEHn0XScy7CdEvPc6MFA3lWBXE1Yr5pP3Qlg%3d (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-saint-tropez-news-photo/160702255)

Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix: http://www.asterix.com/bd/albs/05frx.jpg (in http://www.asterix.com/la-collection/les-albums/le-tour-de-gaule-d-asterix.html)

Pétanque in Laos: http://blog.uniterre.com/uploads/f/frchazelle/576704.jpg (in http://www.uniterre.com/album-photos-voyage-21819.html)

Pétanque in Thailand: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/9605459/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/de/video/clip-5718971-stock-footage-petanque-sports.html)

Pétanque in Kumamoto Japan: http://blog-imgs-50.fc2.com/a/k/a/akazawamitsuishi/img_1715696_52818299_2.jpg (in http://akazawamitsuishi.blog59.fc2.com/blog-entry-1676.html)

Pétanque in Pondicherry India: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/BAKEA9/india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-BAKEA9.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-23785281.html)

Pétanque in China: http://www.boulistenaute.com/uploads/thumbs/4757.jpg (in http://www.boulistenaute.com/modules/newbb/viewattachment.php?topic_id=24172&post_id=692310&forum=37)

Petanque video-game screen: http://a4.mzstatic.com/eu/r30/Purple6/v4/2d/9a/0d/2d9a0d66-5b26-79d9-7d31-21b3b2e2340c/screen340x340.jpeg (in https://www.apptweak.com/petanque-2012-pro/iphone-ipad/kr/en/app-marketing-app-store-optimization-aso/report/497991055)

 

LET’S DANCE!

Beijing, 24 March 2014

Jean Renoir, son of the French impressionist painter of the same name, was a good film director. In fact, he is considered by some to be among the greatest film directors of all time. He made such classics as La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939). So it was with some anticipation that some years ago my wife and I went to see The River, a film he had made in 1951, on location in India, in English, his first in colour, and which won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The River

Bad, bad mistake! The theme of the film – loss, love lost, love found – had all to hold one. The problem was the actors. They were all, to a man and woman, dogs – it’s the only word to adequately describe the appallingly amateur acting that we were subjected to. To this day, I ask myself what on earth happened in the making of this film. How did Jean Renoir lose control of his creation? Was it lack of money? Loss of talent? – was he getting too old for the job? Was it working far from home and in a foreign language? Mystery …

The worst actor by far was an Indian woman, Radha Burnier by name. She later gained a certain fame by becoming president of the Indian branch of the Theosophical Society (fame defined here as having an entry in Wikipedia). But that was still in the future when she acted in this film. I literally gritted my teeth every time she appeared on-screen and droned out her lines tonelessly. And then, at some point in all this hideousness, she acted out a dream sequence. For some reason which I cannot now recall, this dream required her to dance a classical Indian dance. What a transformation!  This ugly duckling of an actress morphed into a beautiful dancer. We were treated to a powerfully expressive, supremely graceful performance of Indian classical dancing.

I immediately forgave her all her poor acting.

I was forcefully reminded of this episode a few weeks ago when, during a long flight back from the US, I decided to watch An American in Paris, a film also made in 1951, directed by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly in the lead role.

An_American_in_Paris_poster

It was an exceedingly silly film, with the lightest of plots (love lost, love gained, the whole with a papier mâché Paris in the background), but at least the actors could act. It also had a good musical score by George Gershwin. So I smiled indulgently and let myself be carried along on the silly frothiness of it all. At some point, though, Gene Kelly went into a tap dancing routine. My attention suddenly snapped into focus. What a dance! Light-hearted though it was, it was a superb rendition, a wonderful example of what a highly accomplished classical dancer can do with the hypnotic rhythms of clicking shoes.

In a way, I think these two threads of dancing come together in Spanish flamenco dancing – the syncopation of tap dancing fusing with the sinuous, sulphurous eroticism of Indian classical dancing, which also carries its own brand of stressed rhythm with the use of feet bangles. Staying in the film medium, I give here a wonderful example of Spanish flamenco from Carmen, a 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura.

Carmen_by_Saura

It’s a remake in the flamenco style of Bizet’s famous opera of the same name. Here we have love exploding between Carmen and Don José

but alas! it all ends badly

Ah, the madness of jealous love!

I cannot end without bringing in tango, that most sultry of all dances. Which is just as well because that allows me to introduce a final clip from the 2005 film Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé

je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime

in which two lonely people, Jean-Claude and Françoise, find a common love, and love, in tango

Ah, l’amour, l’amour! After a few taps of my toes and a pirouette, I turn in for the night.

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The River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/77/La_Fleuve_1951_film_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(1951_film)%5D

An American in Paris film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_American_in_Paris_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_%28film%29%5D

Carmen film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carmen_by_Saura.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_%281983_film%29%5D

Je ne suis pa la pour etre aime poster: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/imager/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/b/original/2222223/686d/f8df3e30_je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime.jpg [in http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/Event?oid=2222222%5D

KEDGEREE

14 November 2013

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

Kedgeree …

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

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

viking_longship

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

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

moong-mogar-dal-khichdi

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

East-India-Company

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

sick_man_24338_md

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

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

memsahibs

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

British family in india

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

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

Chutney

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

Mulligatawny

And of course there was khichdi /khichuri/kedgeree.

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

breakfast-british raj

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

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

Indian cookery book

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Kedgeree: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b8/Kedgeree.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Indian_cuisine%5D

Viking longship: http://www.celticattic.com/scandinavian/images/viking_longship.jpg [in http://www.celticattic.com/contact_us/norwegian_connection/ships.htm%5D

Kichdi: http://jainrasoi.com/mg/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi-600×450.jpg [in http://jainrasoi.com/khichdi/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi%5D

East India company: http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/files/2012/01/East-India-Company.jpg [in http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/2012/01/12/revisiting-the-east-india-co/%5D

Sick man: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HhdTZia6Bzk/ULac2VucJAI/AAAAAAAAAN0/rCoD3QxO_us/s1600/sick_man_24338_md.gif [in http://storytimehats.blogspot.com/2012/11/sick-to-move.html%5D

Memsahibs: http://s157.photobucket.com/user/dismasdolben/media/memsahibs.jpg.html?t=1176095517 [in http://sanatana-dharma.livejournal.com/106044.html%5D

British family in India: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-JXoJcY6cvfg/T33zjAqxGjI/AAAAAAAAAc4/Ln-30Elvh-8/s1600/British+india.jpg [in http://hkm128.blogspot.com/2012/04/being-dark-skinned-in-india.html%5D

Chutney: http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/data/shop/Madras%20Fruit%20Chutney.jpg [in http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/item.asp?itemid=121%5D

Mulligatawny soup: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Mulligatawny.jpg/800px-Mulligatawny.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulligatawny%5D

Breakfast-British Raj: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-pEIQ5D-CSEU/UCo2tDj8nNI/AAAAAAAAJs8/35DYCGC5zk4/s1600/raj.jpg [in http://marykunzgoldman.com/2012/08/breakfast-of-champions.html%5D

British Indian cookery book: http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FRONT-COVER-NEW-BOOK1.jpg [in http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/2012/05/12/a-review-of-british-indian-restaurant-style-cooking-by-mick-crawford/%5D

LITTLE MARIA

2 November 2013

revised 14 December 2014

So Europe has been abuzz with the story of a little girl – Maria is her name – with the blondest of blonde hair and the bluest of blue eyes, who was found living with a Roma family in Greece. Her sweet little face flashed across all our television screens.

Little-girl-found-in-a-Roma camp

Greek police suspected, based on the lack of physical similarities between her and her supposed parents, that she was not their child.

marias greek so-called parents

Of course, there was a racist element in the whole discussion: how on earth could Romani have blonde children? Everybody knows that Romani are dark and swarthy (and shifty and unreliable and of thievish disposition and, and, and …). The obvious corollary was that the Romani had stolen Maria from a “normal” family. There was a certain level of triumphalism when science came along with DNA tests which proved without a shadow of doubt that the Romani who claimed to be her parents were in fact not her parents. So I had to laugh when DNA tests went on to show that actually Maria is a Roma – but from another Roma family in Bulgaria. And her Bulgarian parents look just as dark and swarthy as the Greek “parents”!

marias bulgarian real parents-2

And to top it all, as the picture shows, they have other equally blonde children!

It seems that the solution of the mystery is simple enough. All this testing has shown that Maria’s father carries the gene for albinism. So Maria and her other white-skinned, blonde-haired children are albinos.

Actually, when we get away from all the fuss and bother of these last few days along with the borderline racism of it all, there is the deeper, fascinating tale of the Roma people themselves. For some 200 years already, scholars have inferred from the Romani’s language that their original home must have been the Indian subcontinent and more specifically somewhere in its northwestern part (I won’t bore you – or myself – with the details, but it has to do with the fact that the Romani language is clearly a New Indo-Aryan language rather than a Middle Indo-Aryan language, with the closest affinities to the Saraiki linguistic group, which is native to southern Punjab, northern Sindh, Southern Khyber Pakhtunkha and northeastern Balochistan provinces of Pakistan). So how come little Maria ended up in Bulgaria?

To answer that question, it would be nice if the Romani had written histories and other documents which would tell us what happened to them after they had left their original home and, after much wandering, ended up in Europe. But like most marginalized peoples, the Romani have little if any written documents. And so we are left with mentions of their passage – mostly disapproving if not downright hostile – in the documents of the countries they crossed, along with the Romani’s own myths and folklore about their past.

And now we also have genetics.

Modern genetics is amazing. Truly, we carry our history in our cells. Scientists can carefully tease out from those millions of chemicals spiraling in our DNAs our story as peoples. As the biotechnology tools and equipment have grown more powerful – and cheaper – more and more historical information about us is being squeezed from our cells. The Romani are no exception. I have just finished reading a scientific article about a large genetic study recently undertaken on the Romani – the latest of a series. It was pretty hard going, I have to tell you. Here is a sample: “we applied the ADMIXTURE clustering method to estimate the membership of each individual to a range of k hypothetical ancestral populations (k = 2 to k = 15, see Figures 2C, S1D, and S1E). At k = 2, a longitudinal gradient on the amount of ancestry of each component is observed from India to Europe (Spearman’s rho = 0.935, p < 10216, after exclusion of European Romani; Figure S1F)”. Aie-aie-aie! But I ploughed through the articles, and this is what I got from it (with some help from a review of the article in Scientific American, I will admit).

We can start with this prettily coloured map.

india map

It shows the strength of affinity between the Romani’s genetic makeup and that of the modern populations of the Indian subcontinent (red, the strongest affinity; blue, the weakest). It tells us that most probably the Romani’s homeland was somewhere in the valley of the Indus River. This fits nicely with the linguistic evidence I mentioned earlier.

I throw in a picture here of one of the modern inhabitants of this part of India, a Punjabi farmer

punjabi farmer

Many of them are now Sikhs, but take away the turban and other Sikh attributes I don’t suppose the first Romani looked very different from this distinguished gentleman.

Genetics also tell us that it was very probably one group of people who left (rather than a number of groups leaving at different times and mingling over the centuries of their wanderings), and that they left in about 500 AD. Genetics can’t tell us why they left, alas, but a look at India’s history books shows that this was the time when the White Huns conquered the northwestern part of India from the Gupta Empire. Perhaps the Romani’s ancestors wanted to get out of the way of the fighting, or they were on the losing side of the fight and had had their lands taken from them.

Quite soon after leaving, genetics goes on to tell us, this so-called “founder group” went through what geneticists euphemistically call a bottleneck, which is another way of saying that the group’s numbers dropped sharply, in this case by half. Perhaps the White Huns caught up with them, perhaps a local population objected to their presence on their territories, perhaps they were decimated by some infectious disease. We’ll probably never know. In any case, genetics tells us that thereafter they moved quite fast through the Caucasus and the Middle East, mixing only moderately with the local populations along the way.

In about 800 AD, they ended up in Bulgaria; genetics tells us that this was their trampoline into Europe. And there they stayed for some three hundred years, according to the genetics, until about 1100 AD, when they started dispersing throughout the rest of Europe. The genetics can tease out two main dispersal streams, one to Western Europe and the other to Eastern Europe. Something bad happened to the Western European group in about 1200-1300 AD; their genes went through another strong “bottleneck”, equivalent to their losing some 30% of their population. Could it have been the Black Death? But why didn’t the Eastern European Group suffer similarly? The plague struck there too (except in the area of what is now mostly Poland). Again, we’ll probably never know.

Be that as it may, the genes also give us an indication of how much the Romani people have mixed their genes with other people’s as they spread through Europe. Overall, the Romani haven’t mixed much; their genes show more evidence of marriage among blood relatives than is the case with the other European populations (an interesting exception are the Welsh Romani, who seem to have mixed quite a bit). But they haven’t kept completely to themselves. And here there is an interesting difference between various groups of Romani. For instance, Romani from Spain and Portugal, but also from Lithuania, seem to have mixed more readily with the local populations in the past than they have recently. The opposite pattern is seen in the genes of the Romani populations from Slovakia and Hungary in Central Europe, and Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, in the Balkans. Here, the Romani kept to themselves for a long time but then more recently have mixed with other populations.

Given our generalized suspicion of Romani and our desire to keep away from them (I remember as a child being told that gypsies would carry you off if you weren’t careful, that you had to keep away from gypsy encampments, etc. etc.), how did any mixing between Roma and non-Roma take place at all? Well, it could have been kidnapping, as was the initial suspicion in the case of Maria. But it could just as well have been a case of Romani women being raped. But more likely it was people who, out of desperation, running away from dire poverty or abuse or some other misery, or out of a love for the open road, joined groups of Romani. And so mixed their genes with those of the Romani.

The urge, or need, to take to the open road is not a monopoly of the Romani. Many local European populations have done so over the ages. In my country, we have the English Travellers, the Highland Travellers, the Welsh Travellers. The Irish have their Travellers.

irish-travellers

The Norwegians have theirs. The Dutch have their Woonwagenbewoners (“caravan residents”). The Germans have their Landfahrer (“country drivers”). Germany and Switzerland (but also parts of France and Austria) have had the Jenische.

Jenische

The Spaniards have their mercheros. And of course there are Show Travellers, all those people who travel around working in circuses, fairgrounds and the like.

fairground

And then we have those who don’t belong to any particular community, who are out on the roads alone, the tramps, who were turned into philosophers by Samuel Beckett in his immortal play Waiting for Godot

waiting-for-godot

Many of these groups formed through poverty and desperation. But fascinatingly enough, the urge to make for the highway hasn’t died down, even in our rich, modern societies. We now have New Age Travellers, who travel between musical festivals and similar happenings.

new-age-travellers

This last photo, with the policeman standing guard, says everything about the relationship us settled people have with the travellers. We view them with suspicion, bordering on fear. These people are shifting, rootless, not only physically but morally. They are dangerous. It was ever so, the relationship between the settled farming communities and the travelling herders of the plains, the grasslands, of the wide-open spaces. Why, even the Bible has its story of this difficult, often violent, relationship between the two peoples, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was the settled farmer, Abel was the wandering shepherd. Cain was jealous of Abel, who seemed to enjoy God’s favour more, and he killed him.

cain and abel

Yes, we fear them and have pushed them further and further to the fringes of our societies. But they despise us. I rather like the term Show Travellers use to describe us settled folk: Flatties. Yes, I suppose our lives are flatter for not being out on the road.

NOTE: I thank Andrew for correcting a fundamental mistake I made in the original post. I had not picked up on the fact that our little Maria is in all probability an albino.

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Little blonde girl found in Roma camp: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499215.1382989726!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/185472147.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D

Maria’s Greek “parents”: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499217.1382989729!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/greece-girl.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D

Maria’s Bulgarian parents: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499220.1382989732!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/roma29n-2-web.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D

Map of India: from the quoted article  (hyperlinked)

Punjabi farmer: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4005/4432639845_00be7b0578_z.jpg?zz=1 [in http://www.flickr.com/photos/gurbirsinghbrar/4432639845/%5D

Irish travelers: http://static1.demotix.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/a_scale_large/700-6/photos/1306505237-irish-travellers-in-the-uk_705916.jpg [in http://www.demotix.com/news/705942/irish-travellers-uk#media-705926%5D

Jenische: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/Jenische_um1890_Muotathal_CHe.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeniche_people%5D

Fairground: http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/images/Honey_Fair_stalls.jpg [in http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/civic_community/honey_fair.html%5D

Waiting for Godot: http://rosariomariocapalbo.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/waiting-for-godot11.jpg [in http://rosariomariocapalbo.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/samuel-beckettwaiting-for-godot/%5D

New Age travelers: http://www.assetstorage.co.uk/AssetStorageService.svc/GetImageFriendly/721206537/700/700/0/0/1/80/ResizeBestFit/0/PressAssociation/F2E18D5B4CC53FE75B4C42D68612D0FF/new-age-travellers-in-winchester.jpg [in http://www.friendsreunited.co.uk/new-age-travellers-in-winchester/Memory/b7746d77-162d-4041-8b82-a00a012a3288%5D

Cain and Abel: http://www.artbible.info/images/kain_abel_grt.jpg [in http://www.artbible.info/art/large/81.html%5D