Jun 062017
 

On this date in 913 the Byzantine emperor Alexander III died of exhaustion after a game of tzykanion, the Greek name for polo, allegedly fulfilling his brother’s prophecy that he would reign for 13 months only. Seems like as good a reason as any to talk about the history of the game. Alexander, on the other hand, is scarcely worth a mention; historians variously describe him as drunk, cruel, lecherous, and malignant.

Polo originated in ancient Persia. Its creation is dated variously from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE. Like football, there were probably various ball games played on horseback throughout the east dating into antiquity. The first properly authenticated reference states that the Persian Emperor Shapur II learnt to play polo when he was 7 years old in 316 CE. The game was picked up by the neighboring Byzantine Empire not long after. A tzykanisterion (stadium for playing tzykanion) was built by emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450) inside the Great Palace of Constantinople.

Qutubuddin Aibak, a Turkic slave from Central Asia who later became the Sultan of Delhi in Northern India, ruled as a Sultan for only four years, from 1206 to 1210, but died accidentally in 1210 while he was playing a game of polo. His horse fell and Aibak was impaled on the pommel of his saddle.

After the Muslim conquests of Egypt and the Levant, creating the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties, their elites favored polo above all other sports in those regions. Notable sultans such as Saladin (1137 – 1193) and Baybars (1223 – 1277), are known to have played polo and encouraged it in their court. Polo sticks was one of the four suits in the deck of the Mameluke precursor to modern day playing cards.

Around the 15th and 16th centuries polo migrated outward from the Persian empire to other parts of Asia including the Indian subcontinent, especially in the northern areas of present-day Pakistan (notably Gilgit, Chitral, Hunza and Baltistan), and China, where it was popular in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, where is was played by women as well as men. Many Tang dynasty tomb figures of female players survive. Polo was considered valuable for training cavalry, which accounts for its migration from Constantinople all the way to Japan by the late Middle Ages.  The name polo is said to have been derived from the Balti (Tibetic) word “pulu”, meaning ball.

The modern game of polo evolved from the game as it was played in Manipur, India, in the 19th century, where the game was known variously as ‘Sagol Kangjei’, ‘Kanjai-bazee’, or ‘Pulu’. The origins of the game in Manipur are traced to early precursors of Sagol Kangjei. This was one of three forms of hockey in Manipur, the other ones being field hockey (Khong Kangjei) and wrestling-hockey (Mukna Kangjei). I don’t want to know what wrestling hockey is. Local rituals such as those connected to the Marjing, the Winged-Pony God of Polo, and the creation-ritual episodes of the Lai Haraoba festival enacting the life of his son, Khori-Phaba, the polo-playing god of sports may indicate an origin earlier than the historical records of Manipur. Later, according to Chaitharol-Kumbaba, a Royal Chronicle of the Manipur king Kangba who ruled Manipur much earlier than Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33 CE) introduced Sagol Kangjei (Kangjei on horseback). However, it was the first Mughal emperor, Babur (1483 – 1530), who popularized the sport in India, and regular playing of this game commenced in 1605 during the reign of King Khagemba under newly framed rules.

In Manipur, polo was, and is, traditionally played with seven players to a side. The players are mounted on the indigenous Manipuri pony, which stands less than 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm). There are no goal posts, and a player scores simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players strike the ball with the long side of the mallet head, not the end. Players are not permitted to carry the ball, although blocking the ball with any part of the body except the open hand is permitted. The sticks are made of cane, and the balls are made from the roots of bamboo. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their saddles and girths.

In Manipur, the game was originally played by anyone who owned a pony, including commoners. The kings of Manipur had a royal polo ground within the ramparts of their Kangla Fort called Manung Kangjei Bung (literally, “Inner Polo Ground”). Public games were held, as they are still today, at the Mapan Kangjei Bung (literally “Outer Polo Ground”), a polo ground just outside the Kangla. Weekly games called Hapta Kangjei (Weekly Polo) were also played in a polo ground outside the current Palace.

The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground in Manipur State. The history of this polo ground is contained in the royal chronicle Cheitharol Kumbaba (c. 33 CE). Lieutenant (later Major General) Joseph Ford Sherer visited Maripur and played on this polo ground in the 1850s. In 1862 the oldest polo club still in existence, Calcutta Polo Club, was established by Sherer and Captain Robert Stewart. Later they spread the game to their peers in England. The British are credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The game’s governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal British rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence.

This version of polo played in the 19th century was different from the faster form that was played in Manipur. The early British game was slow and methodical, with little passing between players and only a few set plays that required specific movements by participants without the ball. Neither players nor horses were trained to play a fast, nonstop game. This form of polo lacked the aggressive methods and equestrian skills to play. In consequence teams representing Indian principalities dominated the international polo scene.

Meanwhile, British settlers in the Argentine pampas started practicing polo during their free time. Among them, David Shennan is credited with having organized the first formal polo game in the country in 1875, at Estancia El Negrete, located in the province of Buenos Aires. The sport spread quickly among the gauchos, who were skillful horsemen (and proud of it), and several clubs opened in the following years in Venado Tuerto, Cañada de Gómez, Quilmes, and Flores. In 1892 The River Plate Polo Association was founded and constituted the basis for the current Asociación Argentina de Polo. In the Olympic Games held in Paris in 1924 an Argentine team took the gold medal (the country’s first Olympic gold) and repeated in Berlin in 1936. Argentina is credited globally as the mecca of polo, mainly because Argentina is the country historically with the largest number of 10-goal handicap players in the world – ever. Polo players are rated on a scale from minus-2 to 10. Minus-2 indicates a novice player, while a player rated at 10 goals has the highest handicap possible. It is so difficult to attain a 10-goal handicap that there are fewer than two dozen in the world, and about two-thirds of all players handicapped are rated at two goals or less. All living ten-goal handicappers are Argentinos, with the exception of David Stirling who was born in Uruguay but plays in Argentina.

I am spoilt for choice when it comes to recipes.  Persian? Indian? British? Argentino? Horse meat stew would be a bit morbidly ironic, I guess, although horse meat is popular in northern Italy. I’ll go with Manipur, since that’s probably the immediate home of modern polo.  Eromba is a classic dish of the Meitei community of Manipur. It is simple yet delicious, largely because of the local vegetable ingredients. Eromba can be prepared with just about any seasonal vegetables that are considered compatible, hence can vary across regions and seasons. The word “eromba” comes from eeru taana lonba, meaning “mixing stirring watery” which when pronounced quickly becomes eromba or eronba.

You don’t stand the remotest chance of getting the right ingredients, so I’ll give you the basic idea only. Eromba is a vegetable soup which can also have a non-vegetarian option (containing fermented fish, not meat). The main seasoning is the local chile, so it is hot. Vegetables that are considered compatible to be used in any combination are:

Taro(Colocasia esculenta)
Foxnut seeds (Euryale ferox)
Stink bean (Parkia speciosa)
East Indian arrowroot (Curcuma angustifolia)
Potato
Fermented bamboo shoot
Okra
Water mimosa (Neptunia oleracea)
Broad bean

Seasoning can include ngari (fermented fish) for the non-vegetarian version, plus hot green or red ghost chile, green onion, Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata), and chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata).

You know the drill by now. If you want the taste of Manipur, buy a ticket.  I’ll see you there.  I’m heading to Mandalay in a few weeks for a teaching job, which is right across the border from Manipur.

May 272016
 

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Today is Don’t Fry Day in the United States – an unofficial celebration which is not quite what it seems. In this case “fry” is not about food, but concerns your skin. The day is promoted by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention, and occurs on the Friday (i.e. “Fry Day”) before Memorial Day because Memorial Day launches the summer season in the U.S. Their basic mantra is, “That ‘healthy tan’ is killing you.” I grew up in Australia which has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. My U.S. dermatologist used to want to see me every 6 months, and each time he took off bits of my skin for analysis. Always benign, but you can never be too careful. Nowadays I use sunscreen, wear a hat, and walk on the shady side of the street.

So, that’s the overt reason for Don’t Fry Day. There are also dangers associated with fried foods.  Most of these are common knowledge: increased fat intake, the dangers of trans fats etc. No need to dwell on them. But there is one possible danger that is less well known – acrylamide.  Acrylamide has many industrial uses including wastewater treatment, the production of polymers, plastics and paper, and mineral processing. It was discovered in foods in 2002 by Eritrean scientist Eden Tareke in Sweden when she found the chemical in starchy foods, such as potato chips (potato crisps), French fries (chips), and bread that had been heated higher than 120 °C (248 °F). It was not found in food that had been boiled or in foods that were not heated. Acrylamide levels appear to rise as food is heated for longer periods of time. Although researchers are still unsure of the precise mechanisms by which acrylamide forms in foods; many believe it is a byproduct of the Maillard reaction. Later studies have found acrylamide in black olives, prunes, dried pears, and coffee. The FDA has analyzed a variety of U.S. food products for levels of acrylamide since 2002.

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Although acrylamide has known toxic effects on the nervous system and on fertility, a June 2002 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization concluded that the intake level required to observe neuropathy (0.5 mg/kg body weight/day) was 500 times higher than the average dietary intake of acrylamide (1 μg/kg body weight/day). For effects on fertility, the level is 2,000 times higher than the average intake. From this, they concluded acrylamide levels in food were safe in terms of neuropathy, but raised concerns over human carcinogenicity based on known carcinogenicity in laboratory animals. According to the American Cancer Society it is not clear, as of 2013, whether acrylamide consumption affects people’s risk of developing cancer.

The Heat-generated Food Toxicants (HEATOX) Project was a European Commission-funded multidisciplinary research project running from late 2003 to early 2007. Its objectives were to “estimate health risks that may be associated with hazardous compounds in heat-treated food, and to find cooking/processing methods that minimize the amounts of these compounds, thereby providing safe, nutritious, and high-quality food-stuffs.” While it found that “the evidence of acrylamide posing a cancer risk for humans has been strengthened,” it also pointed out that home-cooked food tends to contribute far less to overall acrylamide levels than food that was industrially prepared, and that avoiding overcooking is one of the best ways to minimize exposure at home.

I see this all as reasonably good news. I rarely buy commercially produced foods and I don’t fry or eat fried foods that are high in carbohydrates very often. Furthermore, I don’t prepare every recipe that I give here on the day that I give it. Otherwise I’d look like a blimp. I do test most of them, of course, but my eating habits are much more Spartan. In particular I am partial to salads, and so for Don’t Fry Day I’ll focus on them.

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I don’t mind making salads containing proteins such as meat, eggs, or cheese, but they are not my favorites. I like my proteins served separately. The standard salad in Argentina is lettuce, tomato, and onion, chopped and mixed together, and drizzled with a little olive oil. That’s all right as a side dish, but not very exciting as a main course (plus, I don’t like raw onions and lettuce much). I prefer something more complex. My main thing is that I don’t like “dressings” whether commercial or home made. I’ll happily eat a salad with nothing on it all, or with a little olive oil. Here’s a brief list of my usual ingredients:

Lettuce. My least favorite salad ingredient. I used to grow my own varieties of leaf lettuce which were very flavorful. Store-bought lettuce can be dull, and I am not interested in fillers. Most important thing to remember is to tear the leaves (as you should with all leafy greens). Cut edges often turn brown.

Spinach. By contrast, my favorite leafy green component. I grew spinach too when I had a garden and would choose small, young leaves for salads.

Belgian endive. Adds some crunch and visual appeal.

Mushrooms. Regular commercial agarics (white mushrooms) will do in a pinch and I like them raw. But I’ve been spoilt in recent years in China and Italy by the seemingly endless variety of wild mushrooms. As with leafy greens I break them in pieces rather than cut them.

Tomatoes. I like whole cherry tomatoes in a salad. If I use bigger varieties I cut them small and remove the seeds and centers to avoid getting the salad soggy.

Onions. Here I’ll include the whole onion family – chives, leeks, shallots, etc. Generally, I find raw Spanish onions to be a trifle strong in salads, but I’ll normally add something from the family such as scallions or green onions. I like chive flowers too when I can get them.

Zucchini. I prefer sliced young zucchini over cucumber because it’s less watery and crunchier. The flowers are good too – very popular in Italy. Zucchini with tender edible flowers tend to be small.

Avocado. A perennial standby of mine, but they must be perfectly ripe, and added right at the end just before serving with a good sprinkling of lemon or lime juice to prevent browning.

Carrots.  Can’t stand them in salads.

Herbs. In Medieval cooking parlance a “herb” was any leafy annual. Lettuce was as much of an herb as basil or parsley. I don’t use flavored dressings, but when I can I will use fresh herbs right in the salad. One has to be sparing, though. I used to grow 18 varieties of mint, which were wonderful, but very strong. Sage and tarragon are also good.

I’m not the arbiter here.  Pick what suits your palate. I make salads with what I have on hand, so mine vary a lot. I’ll generally chill a salad before serving, but not for very long. The cooling process is a mixed blessing: it makes the salad refreshing on a hot day, but diminishes the flavor.