Jul 182018
 

Today is the birthday (1811) of William Makepeace Thackeray who in the 19th century was considered second only to Dickens in the British literary world. These days he is mostly forgotten except for Vanity Fair, a staple of Eng. Lit. classes. Thackeray was an only child, born in Calcutta in British India, to Richmond Thackeray (1781 – 1815), secretary to the Board of Revenue in the British East India Company, and Anne Becher (1792–1864), the second daughter of Harriet Becher and John Harman Becher, who was also a secretary for the East India Company.

His father died in 1815, which caused his mother to send him son to England in 1816, while she remained in British India. The ship on which he travelled made a short stopover at Saint Helena, where the imprisoned Napoleon was pointed out to him. Once in England he was educated at schools in Southampton and Chiswick, and then at Charterhouse School, where he became a close friend of John Leech. Thackeray disliked Charterhouse, and parodied it in his fiction as “Slaughterhouse”. Nevertheless, Thackeray was honored in the Charterhouse Chapel with a monument after his death. Illness in his last year there, during which he reportedly grew to his full height of six foot three, postponed his matriculation at Trinity College, Cambridge, until February 1829. Thackery was indifferent to academic studies and so left Cambridge in 1830. However, some of his earliest published writing appeared in two university periodicals, The Snob and The Gownsman.

Thackeray then traveled for some time on the continent, visiting Paris and Weimar, where he met Goethe. He returned to England and began to study law at the Middle Temple, but soon gave that up. On reaching the age of 21 he came into his inheritance from his father, but he squandered much of it on gambling and on funding two unsuccessful newspapers, The National Standard and The Constitutional, for which he had hoped to write. He also lost a good part of his inheritance in the collapse of two Indian banks. He was thus forced to consider a profession to support himself, turning first to art, which he studied in Paris, but did not pursue it directly. In later years he did produce illustrations for some of his own novels and other writings. He married 1836, Isabella Gethin Shawe (1816–1894) in 1836, second daughter of Isabella Creagh Shawe and Matthew Shawe, a colonel who had died after distinguished service, primarily in India. They had three children, all girls: Anne Isabella (1837–1919), Jane (who died at eight months old) and Harriet Marian (1840–1875), who married Sir Leslie Stephen, editor, biographer and philosopher (and Virginia Woolf’s father by a different wife).

Isabella

After marriage, Thackeray began “writing for his life”, as he put it, turning to journalism in an effort to support his young family. He primarily worked for Fraser’s Magazine, a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued conservative publication for which he produced art criticism, short fictional sketches, and two longer fictional works, Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Between 1837 and 1840 he also reviewed books for The Times. He was also a regular contributor to The Morning Chronicle and The Foreign Quarterly Review. Later, through his connection to his school pal, John Leech, he began writing for the newly created magazine Punch, in which he published The Snob Papers, later collected as The Book of Snobs. This work popularized the modern meaning of the word “snob”. Thackeray was a regular contributor to Punch between 1843 and 1854.

Self caricature

Thackeray’s wife, Isabella, succumbed to depression after the birth of their third child, in 1840. Finding that he could get no work done at home, he spent more and more time away until September 1840, when he realized how grave his wife’s condition was. Struck by guilt, he set out with his wife to Ireland. During the crossing she threw herself from a water-closet into the sea, but she was pulled from the waters. They fled back home after a four-week battle with her mother. From November 1840 to February 1842 Isabella was in and out of professional care, as her condition waxed and waned. She eventually deteriorated into a permanent state of detachment from reality. Thackeray desperately sought cures for her, but nothing worked, and she ended up in two different asylums in or near Paris until 1845, after which Thackeray took her back to England, where he installed her with a Mrs Bakewell at Camberwell. Isabella outlived her husband by 30 years, in the end being cared for by a family named Thompson in Leigh-on-Sea at Southend until her death in 1894.

In the early 1840s Thackeray had some success with two travel books, The Paris Sketch Book and The Irish Sketch Book, the latter marked by hostility to Irish Catholics. However, as the book appealed to British prejudices, Thackeray was given the job of being Punch‘s Irish expert, often under the pseudonym Hibernis Hibernior. It was Thackeray, in other words, who was chiefly responsible for Punch‘s notoriously hostile and condescending depictions of the Irish during the Irish Famine (1845–51).

Thackeray achieved more recognition with his Snob Papers (serialized 1846/7, published in book form in 1848), but the work that really established his fame was the novel Vanity Fair, which first appeared in serialized instalments beginning in January 1847. Even before Vanity Fair completed its serial run Thackeray had become a celebrity, sought after by the very lords and ladies whom he satirized. They hailed him as the equal of Dickens.

He remained “at the top of the tree”, as he put it, for the rest of his life, during which he produced several long novels, notably Pendennis, The Newcomes and The History of Henry Esmond, despite various illnesses, including a near-fatal one that struck him in 1849 in the middle of writing Pendennis. He twice visited the United States on lecture tours during this period. Thackeray also gave lectures in London on the English humorists of the 18th century, and on the first four Hanoverian monarchs. The latter series was published in book form as The Four Georges. In Oxford he stood unsuccessfully as an independent for Parliament. He was narrowly beaten by Cardwell, who received 1,070 votes, as against 1,005 for Thackeray.

In 1860 Thackeray became editor of the newly established Cornhill Magazine, but he was never comfortable in the role, preferring to contribute to the magazine as the writer of a column called “Roundabout Papers”. Thackeray’s health worsened during the 1850s and he was plagued by a recurring stricture of the urethra that laid him up for days at a time. He also felt that he had lost much of his creative impetus. He worsened matters by excessive eating and drinking, and avoiding exercise, though he enjoyed riding (he kept a horse). He has been described as “the greatest literary glutton who ever lived” (which is certainly hyperbole – there have been many). His main activity apart from writing was “guttling and gorging.”

On 23rd December 1863, after returning from dining out and before dressing for bed, he suffered a stroke. He was found dead in his bed the following morning. His death at the age of fifty-two was entirely unexpected, and shocked his family, his friends and the reading public. An estimated 7,000 people attended his funeral at Kensington Gardens. He was buried on 29th December at Kensal Green Cemetery, and a memorial bust sculpted by Marochetti was placed in Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a few memorable quotes:

To love and win is the best thing. To love and lose, the next best.

Good humor may be said to be one of the very best articles of dress one can wear in society.

If a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relative to do the business.

People hate as they love: unreasonably.

There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.

The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief which the very virtuous do?

And now a rather longer quote from Vanity Fair leading to our recipe du jour.

“Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear,” said Mr. Sedley, laughing. Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. “Do you find it as good as everything else from India?” said Mr. Sedley. “Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper. “Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested. “A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried.

Hot curry it is then. You may indulge in “guttling and gorging” if you wish — or not. You can take your pick of recipes I have already given, or make a vindaloo, which is often the hottest curry you can get in South Asian restaurants in Britain. Lamb vindaloo is my favorite, although it is commonly made with pork in Goa where it originates. I have had it made with duck and chicken as well. In this recipe I will list “meat” for the ingredient, and you can take your pick. Just remember that cooking times will vary depending on the meat you choose. The masala paste is the key to the dish. It gives it the pungent and fiery taste. Use brown sugar for the dish if you cannot get jaggery.

Vindaloo

Ingredients

75 ml cider vinegar
700 gm meat, cut into chunks
4 tbsp ghee
500 gm finely sliced onions
60 gm tamarind pulp
10 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
5 cm length of ginger, peeled and cut into slim matchsticks
4 ripe tomatoes, diced
2-4 small hot peppers
10 curry leaves
1 tbsp jaggery
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black mustard seeds

For the masala

2 tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder or paprika
Seeds of 8 cardamom pods
1 tsp black peppercorns
8 cloves
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp turmeric
5 cm cinnamon stick

Instructions

Grind to a coarse powder all the ingredients for the masala, then stir in the vinegar. Rub the mixture into the meat and leave it to sit for three to four hours.

Heat the ghee in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat, and fry the onions until they are soft and golden. Take your time with this step, stirring periodically to make sure the onions are evenly caramelized. Meanwhile, soak the tamarind pulp in 120 ml of hot water for 15 minutes, then gently rub any remaining pulp from the seeds and strain off the liquid, discarding the solids.

Stir the garlic and ginger into the onions and cook, stirring, for another five minutes, then add the tomatoes, hot peppers and curry leaves, and cook until the tomatoes start to break down.

Add the pork and the masala rub to the pan and turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir well, add the jaggery, salt and mustard seeds, followed by the tamarind liquid. Bring to a simmer, cover tightly, turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and cook for one hour.

Partially remove the lid and cook for another 30 minutes, until the meat is very tender and the sauce has thickened.

Serve with your choice of Indian flatbreads, Basmati rice, and a dish of dahl (at minimum).

Feb 042014
 

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Today is Independence Day in Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, an island country in the northern Indian Ocean off the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent in South Asia; known until 1972 as Ceylon. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest.

Sri Lanka has a long documented history that spans over 3000 years, and a much longer one in the archeological record. Its geographic location and deep harbors made it of great strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II. Sri Lanka is a diverse country, home to many religions, ethnicities, and languages. It is the land of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Moors, Indian Tamils, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs, and the aboriginal Vedda. Sri Lanka has a rich Buddhist heritage, and the first known Buddhist writings were composed on the island. The country’s recent history has been marred by a thirty-year civil war which decisively, but controversially, ended in a military victory in 2009.

Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a presidential system. The capital, Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte, is a suburb of the largest city, Colombo. Sri Lanka is a major world producer of tea, coffee, gemstones, coconuts, rubber, and native cinnamon. Sri Lanka is sometimes known as “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean” because of its natural beauty. Sri Lanka has also been called the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” because of its shape and location. The island contains tropical forests and diverse landscapes with high biodiversity.

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In antiquity, Sri Lanka was known to travelers by a variety of names. Known in India as Lanka or Sinhala, ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobane, and Arabs referred to it as Serendib (the origin of the word “serendipity”). Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese when they arrived in 1505, was transliterated into English as Ceylon. As a British crown colony, the island was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948.

In Sinhala the country is known as  ?r? la?k?, and the island itself as la?k?va. In Tamil they are both ila?kai. In 1972 the name was changed to Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka. In 1978 it was changed to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. While the name Ceylon still appears in the names of a number of organizations, in 2011 the Sri Lankan government announced a plan to rename all those over which it has authority.

The pre-history of Sri Lanka goes back 125,000 years and possibly even as far back as 500,000 years.The era spans the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and early Iron Ages. Among the Paleolithic human settlements discovered in Sri Lanka, Pahiyangala (named after the Chinese traveler ­monk Faxian), which dates back to 37,000 BP, Batadombalena (28,500 BP) and Belilena (12,000 BP) are the most important. In these caves, paleontologists have found the remains of anatomically modern humans which they have named Balangoda Man, and other evidence suggesting that they may have engaged in agriculture and kept domestic dogs for driving game.

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One of the first written references to the island is found in the Indian epic Ramayana, which mentions a kingdom named Lanka that was created by the divine sculptor Vishwakarma for Kubera, the Lord of Wealth. Kubera was overthrown by his demon stepbrother Ravana, the powerful emperor who built a mythical flying machine named Dandu Monara. The modern city of Wariyapola is described as Ravana’s airport.

Early inhabitants of Sri Lanka were probably the ancestors of the Vedda people, an indigenous people numbering approximately 2,500 living in modern-day Sri Lanka. Irish historian James Emerson Tennent theorized that Galle, a southern city in Sri Lanka, was the ancient seaport of Tarshish from which King Solomon is said to have drawn ivory, peacocks, and other valuables.

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According to the Mah?vamsa, a chronicle written in the P?li language, the ancient period of Sri Lanka begins in 543 BCE with the landing of Vijaya, a semi-legendary prince who sailed with 700 followers on eight ships 860 nautical miles to Sri Lanka from the southwest coast of what is now the Rarh region of West Bengal. He established the Kingdom of Tambapanni, near modern day Mannar. Vijaya is the first of the approximately 189 native monarchs of Sri Lanka described in chronicles such as the Dipavamsa, Mah?vamsa, Chulavamsa, and R?j?valiya. Sri Lankan dynastic history spanned a period of 2,359 years from 543 BCE to 1815, when the land became part of the British Empire.

The seat of the kingdom of Sri Lanka moved to Anuradhapura in 380 BCE, during the reign of Pandukabhaya. Thereafter, Anuradhapura served as the capital of the country for nearly 1,400 years. Ancient Sri Lankans excelled at building certain types of structures such as tanks, dagobas (burial mounds), and palaces. The society underwent a major transformation during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa, with the arrival of Buddhism from India. In 250 BC, Bhikkhu Mahinda, the son of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka arrived in Mihintale, carrying the message of Buddhism. His mission won over the monarch, who embraced the faith and spread it throughout the Sinhalese population. Succeeding kingdoms of Sri Lanka maintained a large number of Buddhist schools and monasteries and supported the spread of Buddhism into other countries in Southeast Asia. Sri Lankan bhikkhus (ordained monks) studied in India’s famous ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda which was destroyed by Mohammed Kilji. It is probable that many of the scriptures from Nalanda are preserved in Sri Lanka’s many monasteries. In 245 BCE, bhikkhuni Sangamitta arrived with the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, which is considered to be a sapling from the historical Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha became enlightened. It is reckoned to be the oldest human-planted tree (with a continuous historical record) in the world.

Sri Lanka first experienced a foreign invasion during the reign of Suratissa, who was defeated by two horse traders named Sena and Guttika from South India. The next invasion came immediately in 205 BCE by a Chola king named Elara, who overthrew Asela and ruled the country for 44 years. Dutugemunu, the eldest son of the southern regional sub-king, Kavan Tissa, defeated Elara in the Battle of Vijithapura. He built Ruwanwelisaya, the second dogaba in ancient Sri Lanka, and the Lovamahapaya. During its two and a half millennia of existence, the Kingdom of Sri Lanka was invaded at least eight times by neighboring South Asian dynasties such as the Chola, Pandya, Chera, and Pallava. These invaders were all subsequently driven back. There also were incursions by the kingdoms of Kalinga (modern Odisha) and from the Malay Peninsula. Kala Wewa and the Avukana Buddha statue were built during the reign of Dhatusena.

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Sri Lanka was the first Asian country to have a female ruler, Queen Anula, who reigned during 47–42 BCE. Sri Lankan monarchs completed some remarkable constructions like Sigiriya, the so-called “Fortress in the Sky,” built during the reign of Kashyapa I. Sigiriya is a rock fortress surrounded by an extensive network of ramparts, moats, gardens, reservoirs, and other structures. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning in the world. The fifth-century palace is also renowned for its frescoes on rock surfaces. It has been declared by UNESCO as one of the seven World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.

sri3 rock fort

Among other structures, large reservoirs, important for conserving water in a climate with rainy and dry seasons, and elaborate aqueducts, some with a slope as finely calibrated as one inch to the mile, are most notable. Biso Kotuwa, a peculiar construction inside a dam, is a technological marvel based on precise mathematics that allows water to flow outside the dam, keeping pressure on the dam to a minimum.

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Ancient Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to establish a dedicated hospital, in Mihintale in the 4th century. It was also the leading exporter of cinnamon in the ancient world. It maintained close ties with European civilizations including the Roman Empire. For example, King Bhatikabhaya (22 BC—AD 7) sent an envoy to Rome who brought back red coral which was used to make an elaborate netlike adornment for the Ruwanwelisaya. In addition, Sri Lankan male dancers witnessed the assassination of Caligula. When Queen Cleopatra sent her son Caesarion into hiding, he was headed to Sri Lanka. Bhikkhuni Devas?ra and ten other fully ordained bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka went to China and established the bhikkhuni s?sana there in AD 429.

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The early modern period of Sri Lanka begins with the arrival of Portuguese soldier and explorer Lourenço de Almeida, the son of Francisco de Almeida, in 1505. In 1517, the Portuguese built a fort at the port city of Colombo and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592, after decades of intermittent warfare with the Portuguese, Vimaladharmasuriya I moved his kingdom to the inland city of Kandy, a location he thought more secure from attack. In 1619, succumbing to attacks by the Portuguese, the independent existence of Jaffna kingdom came to an end.

During the reign of the Rajasinghe II, Dutch explorers arrived on the island. In 1638, the king signed a treaty with the Dutch East India Company to get rid of the Portuguese who ruled most of the coastal areas. The following Dutch–Portuguese War resulted in a Dutch victory, with Colombo falling into Dutch hands by 1656. The Dutch remained in the areas they had captured, thereby violating the treaty they had signed in 1638. An ethnic group named Burgher people emerged in Sri Lankan society as a result of Dutch rule.

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The Kingdom of Kandy was the last independent monarchy of Sri Lanka. In 1595, Vimaladharmasurya brought the sacred Tooth Relic – the traditional symbol of royal and religious authority amongst the Sinhalese – to Kandy, and built the Temple of the Tooth. In spite of on-going intermittent warfare with Europeans, the kingdom survived. Later, a crisis of succession emerged in Kandy upon king Vira Narendrasinha’s death in 1739. He was married to a Telugu-speaking Nayakkar princess from South India and was childless by her. Eventually, with the support of bhikku Weliwita Sarankara, the crown passed to the brother of one of Narendrasinha’s princesses, overlooking the right of “Unambuwe Bandara”, Narendrasinha’s own son by a Sinhalese concubine. The new king was crowned Sri Vijaya Rajasinha later that year. Kings of the Nayakkar dynasty launched several attacks on Dutch controlled areas, which proved to be unsuccessful.

During the Napoleonic Wars, fearing that French control of the Netherlands might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, Great Britain occupied the coastal areas of the island (which they called Ceylon) with little difficulty in 1796. Two years later, in 1798, Rajadhi Rajasinha, third of the four Nayakkar kings of Sri Lanka, died of a fever. Following his death, a nephew of Rajadhi Rajasinha, eighteen-year-old Kannasamy, was crowned.The young king, now named Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, faced a British invasion in 1803 but successfully retaliated. By then, the entire coastal area was under the British East India Company as a result of the Treaty of Amiens. But on 14 February 1815, Kandy was occupied by the British in the second Kandyan War, finally ending Sri Lanka’s independence. Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last native monarch of Sri Lanka, was exiled to India. The Kandyan Convention formally ceded the entire country to the British Empire. Attempts by Sri Lankan noblemen to undermine British power in 1818 during the Uva Rebellion were thwarted by Governor Robert Brownrigg.

The beginning of the modern period of Sri Lanka is marked by the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1833. They introduced a utilitarian and liberal political culture to the country based on the rule of law and amalgamated the Kandyan and maritime provinces as a single unit of government. An Executive Council and a Legislative Council were established, later becoming the foundation of a representative legislature. By this time, experiments with coffee plantation were largely successful. Soon coffee became the primary commodity export of the country. Falling coffee prices as a result of the depression of 1847 stalled economic development and prompted the governor to introduce a series of taxes on firearms, dogs, shops, boats, etc., and to reintroduce a form of rajakariya, requiring six days free labor on roads or payment of a cash equivalent. These harsh measures antagonized the locals, and another rebellion broke out in 1848. A devastating leaf disease, Hemileia vastatrix, struck the coffee plantations in 1869, destroying the entire industry within fifteen years. The British quickly found a replacement: abandoning coffee, they began cultivating tea instead. Tea production in Sri Lanka thrived in the following decades. Large-scale rubber plantations began in the early 20th century.

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By the end of the 19th century, a new educated social class transcending race and caste arose through British attempts to staff the Ceylon Civil Service and the legal, educational, and medical professions. New leaders represented the various ethnic groups of the population in the Ceylon Legislative Council on a communal basis. Buddhist and Hindu revivalism reacted against Christian missionary activities. The first two decades of the 20th century are noted by the unique harmony among Sinhalese and Tamil political leadership, which has since been lost. In 1919, major Sinhalese and Tamil political organizations united to form the Ceylon National Congress, under the leadership of Ponnambalam Arunachalam, pressing colonial masters for more constitutional reforms. But without massive popular support, and with the governor’s encouragement for “communal representation” by creating a “Colombo seat” that dangled between Sinhalese and Tamils, the Congress lost momentum towards the mid-1920s. The Donoughmore reforms of 1931 repudiated the communal representation and introduced universal adult franchise (the franchise stood at 4% before the reforms). This step was strongly criticized by the Tamil political leadership, who realized that they would be reduced to a minority in the newly created State Council of Ceylon, which succeeded the legislative council. In 1937, Tamil leader G. G. Ponnambalam demanded a 50–50 representation (50% for the Sinhalese and 50% for other ethnic groups) in the State Council. However, this demand was not met by the Soulbury reforms of 1944-45. The Soulbury constitution ushered in Dominion status, with independence proclaimed on 4 February 1948.

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Sri Lanka has long been renowned for its spices. Since ancient times, traders from all over the world who came to Sri Lanka brought their native cuisines to the island, resulting in a rich diversity of cooking styles and techniques. The island nation’s cuisine mainly consists of boiled or steamed rice served with curry. This usually consists of a “main curry” of fish, chicken, pork, mutton or goat, as well as several other dishes made with vegetables, lentils and even fruit. Side-dishes include pickles, chutneys and “sambols”. The most famous of these is the coconut sambol, made of ground coconut mixed with chile peppers, dried Maldive, fish and lime juice. This is ground to a paste and eaten with rice.

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Coconut milk is used in most Sri Lankan dishes to give the cuisine its unique flavor. Sri Lankans use spices liberally in their dishes and typically do not follow an exact recipe: thus, every cook’s curry will taste slightly different. Furthermore, people from different regions of the island (for instance, hill-country dwellers versus coastal dwellers) traditionally cook in different ways while people of different ethnic and religious groups tend to prepare dishes according to their customs. Although Sri Lankan food appears similar to South Indian cuisine in its use of chile, cardamom, cumin, coriander and other spices, it has a distinctive taste, and uses ingredients like dried Maldive fish which are local to the area.

Sri Lankan food is generally equivalent in terms of spiciness to South Indian cuisine, yet many spicy Sri Lankan preparations are believed to be among the world’s hottest in terms of chile content. There is a liberal use of different varieties of scorching hot chiles such as amu miris, kochchi miris, and maalu miris.

There are mountains of Sri Lankan recipes that are wonderful.  I’ve picked a version of the side dish, dahl, lentils with spices to give you. A meal without dahl is unthinkable. In south Asian restaurants in the West the dahls tend to be rather dull – watery concoctions of bland, cooked lentils. Throughout south Asia they are rich and complex.  They are almost always cooked in two parts – the lentils themselves and then an added component, called “temper” in Sri Lanka, which is cooked separately and added to the lentils towards the end.  Red lentils are much easier to cook than brown ones and are very commonly used.  They reduce to a light brown mush in 25 minutes or less. Maldive dried fish may be hard to come by, but you can substitute most Asian dried fish. Use Sri Lankan cinnamon if you can find it.  It is more aromatic then the cinnamon you find in supermarkets.  It’s easy to find online.

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Sri Lankan Dahl

250 g (1¼ cups) red lentils, rinsed, drained
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp Maldive fish pieces
1 tsp Sri Lankan curry powder
6 fresh curry leaves
1 long green chile, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
500 ml (2 cups) coconut milk
60 ml (¼ cup) coconut cream

Temper

80 ml olive oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced
5 fresh curry leaves
1 tsp dried chile flakes

Instructions

Place all the main ingredients except the coconut cream in a saucepan with 250 ml water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, for 25 minutes or until lentils are tender and broken down; add more water if necessary. Season with salt.

Meanwhile, to cook the temper for the dhal, heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat, then add the temper ingredients and cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 minutes or until onions are soft and browned. Remove from the heat and set aside until the lentils are ready.

Stir the temper into the lentils, then add the coconut cream, stirring to combine. Serve with rice,  sambols, and curry.  Sri Lankans typically mix the rice, dahl, and curry all together.

Aug 062013
 

prometheus2  prometheus4

On this date in 1964 the oldest known unitary organism, Prometheus, a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree (Pinus longaeva) growing near the tree line on Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada was cut down by a graduate student and United States Forest Service personnel for research purposes. The tree was at least 4862 years old and possibly more than 5000 years. The people involved supposedly did not know of its world-record age before the cutting. However, the circumstances and decision-making process leading to the felling of the tree remain controversial; not all of the basic facts are agreed upon by all involved. The name of the tree refers to the mythological figure Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. The designation WPN-114 was given by the original researcher, Donald Rusk Currey, and refers to the 114th tree sampled by him for his research in Nevada’s White Pine County.

Currey originally aged the tree at, minimally, 4844 years. A few years later, this was increased to 4862 years by Donald Graybill of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. However, these ring counts were done via borings on a trunk cross section taken about 2.5 m (8 feet) above the original germination point of the tree, because the innermost rings were missing below that point. Adjusting Graybill’s figure of 4862 by adding in the estimated number of years required to reach this height, plus a correction for the estimated number of missing rings (which are not uncommon in trees growing at the tree line), it is probable that the tree was at least 5000 years old when felled. This makes it the oldest unitary organism ever discovered, exceeding even the Methuselah tree of the White Mountains’ Schulman Grove, in California by two to three hundred years.  Methuselah, thankfully, is still alive and its location is kept secret to prevent harm caused by tourism.

Whether Prometheus should be considered the oldest organism ever known depends on the definition of “oldest” and “organism.” Certain sprouting (clonal) organisms, such as the creosote bush or aspen, may have older representatives if the entire clonal organism is considered. Under this standard, the oldest living organism is a grove of quaking aspens in Utah known as Pando, at perhaps as much as 80,000 years old. However, in a clonal organism the individual clonal stems are nowhere near as old, and no part of the organism at any given point in time is particularly old. Prometheus was thus the oldest non-clonal organism yet discovered.

Very old trees can be very useful to archeologists and climate historians. Dendochronologists (tree ring experts), use the fact that the widths of tree rings vary year by year, depending on weather conditions during each growing season, to build up chronological linear tree ring profiles (that look something like bar codes).  By matching these base profiles with ring patterns on wooden components in buildings from archeological sites, they can determine the age of these structures very precisely – much more accurately than by any other method, such as carbon 14 dating.  Climate historians can use those same patterns to track long terms changes in weather. Thus, for research purposes, the older the tree the better.

California Redwood

California Redwood

A tree does not have to be cut down in order to get an accurate ring profile.  It is possible to take core samples by boring into the tree and then examining the rings under a microscope. But in the earlier part of the 20th century there were fewer qualms than nowadays about felling a giant old tree.  In fact it was considered an act of triumph as shown here.

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In the 1950s dendrochronologists were making active efforts at finding the oldest living tree species, in order to use the analysis of the rings for various research purposes.  Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California and elsewhere were found by Edward Schulman to be older than any species yet discovered. This spurred interest in finding very old bristlecones, possibly older than the Methuselah tree, aged by Schulman in 1957 at over 4700 years.

Donald R. Currey was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying the climate dynamics of the Little Ice Age using dendrochronology techniques. In 1963 he became aware of the bristlecone populations in the Snake Range in general, and on Wheeler Peak in particular. Based on the size, growth rate and growth forms of some of the trees he became convinced that some very old specimens existed on the mountain, cored some of them, and found trees exceeding 3,000 years old. However, Currey was not able to obtain a continuous series of overlapping cores from WPN-114. Here, stories diverge. It is not clear whether Currey requested, or Forest Service personnel suggested, that he cut down and section the tree in lieu of being able to core it. There is also some uncertainty as to why a core sample could not be obtained. One version has it that he broke or lodged his only long increment borer and could not obtain another before the end of the field season, another claims he broke two of them, while another suggests that a core sample was too difficult to obtain and also would not provide as much definitive information as a full cross section of the tree would.

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Edward Schulman

Edward Schulman

In addition, there are conflicting views over whether at the time of felling, Prometheus  was known to be unique in the Wheeler Peak grove. It is reported that Currey and/or the Forest Service personnel who authorized the cutting believed the tree was just one of many large, very old trees in the grove. Others, at least one of whom was involved in the decision-making and tree cutting, believed that the tree was clearly unique — obviously older than other trees in the area. Some people involved have said that Currey knew this to be true at the time, although there is no known admission from Currey himself that he knew this, and others have disputed that the tree, based on observation alone, was obviously much older than the others.

Another uncertainty is that it is not clear why the felling of such an old tree was necessary given the topic Currey was studying. Since the Little Ice Age started no more than 600 years ago, many trees could presumably have provided the information he was seeking for that time period. However, in Currey’s original report in the journal Ecology (1965) he refers to the Little Ice Age as encompassing the period from 2000 BCE to the present, thus defining the Age over a much longer time period than is currently accepted. Whether this was the common sentiment at the time is not known. In the article, Currey indicates that he sectioned the tree as much to resolve the question of whether the oldest bristlecones were necessarily confined to California’s White Mountains (as some dendrochronologists had been claiming), as to determine its usefulness in regard to studies of the Little Ice Age.

Whatever the rationale, the tree was cut down and sectioned in August 1964, and several pieces of the sections hauled out to be processed and analyzed, first by Currey, then by others in later years. Sections, or pieces of sections, have ended up in various places, some of which are publicly accessible, including the Great Basin National Park visitor center (Baker, Nevada), the Ely Convention Center (Ely, Nevada), the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (Tucson, Arizona), and the US Forest Service’s Institute of Forest Genetics (Placerville, California).  You will note that the cross sections of Prometheus that are preserved are quite small for a tree so old. Bristlecone pines live in such marginal zones that they grow very little year by year. There was considerable fallout when the general public got wind of the fact that Prometheus had been cut down, especially because it was done so cavalierly. It was one of several events that helped ignite the environmental movement.

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I don’t know of any suitable 5,000 year old recipes to “celebrate” this dubious anniversary, so instead I have created a dish using only ingredients that were already domesticated and being used in cooking when Prometheus was a sapling. All of these ingredients have been found in archeological sites in India more than 5,000 years ago, so I have designed a simple curry based on chicken (found in India 6,000 BCE) and turmeric (found in the Indus Valley 3,000 BCE). I suppose I could have called it “Currey’s Curry” after the protagonist here. Instead I will honor his victim.

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Prometheus  Chicken

Ingredients:

8 chicken thighs
1 onion coarse chopped
2 tsps turmeric
1 tsp ground pepper
1 tsp ground mustard seed
½ cup bitter orange juice (or lemon juice)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ cup chicken stock

Instructions:

Mix the bitter orange juice, onion, and spices in a non-reactive bowl.  Add the chicken, mix well, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Putting all the ingredients in a zip top bag, closing the top except for a small hole, squeezing out the air, and then sealing completely is the best way to marinate.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and brown, turning once.

Add the marinade and the chicken stock to the skillet and cook covered over medium-high heat for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced and thickened. If the liquid has not reduced enough by the time the chicken is cooked, remove the chicken and reduce the liquid over high heat, then pour the sauce over the chicken.

Serve with boiled rice, puréed lentils, and flatbread.

Serves 4.