May 282018
 

Today is Republic Day in Nepal commemorating the creation of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal on May 28th, 2008. The establishment of the republic put an end to civil strife that had lasted for years. For some reason, today is (or was) a republican holiday in many nations. I’ve posted about 2 of them already:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/first-republic-armenia/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/azerbaijan-republic-day/

Modern Nepal was created in 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Kathmandu Valley and formed a unified country from a number of small independent states (which continue to maintain separate ethnicities). In 1846, maharaja Jung Bahadur Rana founded the Rana dynasty that ruled the country until 1951. Prime Minister and other government positions were made hereditary and the monarch had no real power. Dissatisfaction with the Rana regime led to the 1951 revolution which ended the Rana oligarchy. Initially Nepal was a constitutional monarchy, but in 1960 King Mahendra suspended the constitution and became an absolute monarch. When his son Birendra ascended to the throne, he carried out some democratic reforms.

In 1991, the first elected government of Nepal in 32 years was formed. However, the new government’s policy led to an economic crisis. Civil strife of the early 1990s eventually transformed into a full-scale civil war. As a result of the war, Nepal was proclaimed a republic on May 28, 2008. This put an end to the 240-year-old monarchy.

To mark this day the government of Nepal declared the day a public holiday. The main Republic Day celebration is held in the national capital, Kathmandu, at the Sainik Manch in Tudikhel. There are parades and dancing, and the president gives a speech celebrating Nepal’s unity in diversity and rich cultural heritage.

I visited Nepal earlier this month and did take in the fact that it is an extraordinarily diverse nation in many key respects. It is a predominantly Hindu country, but there are plenty of Buddhist shrines and temples, as well as a sprinkling of mosques. I did not see any Christian churches, but I am sure they exist. The people I spoke to were perfectly tolerant of all religious views. They were equally proud of the ethnic diversity of the country, which may not seem especially obvious to tourists. It was obvious to me in the manner in which the people dressed (especially the women) which was quite markedly different from region to region, and also in regional foods (which was a key element of my visit). You can’t really speak of Nepali cuisine because it is so regionally diverse, and because there are many influences from other cultures. There is a great deal of overlap between the dishes of Nepal and both Tibet and northern India, for example. Here’s a small gallery of some of the dishes I had:

The most widespread dish throughout Nepal is dal baht (lentil-rice) Dal bhat is a staple in India, where it originates, and at its most basic is steamed rice and thick lentil soup — served separately, but you pour the lentils over the rice. Although the name is universal, it is certainly not one dish. The dal (lentils) can be cooked with onion, garlic, ginger, hot pepper, tomatoes, or tamarind, and it may contain herbs and spices such as coriander, garam masala, cumin, and turmeric. Recipes vary by season, locality, ethnic group and family. In some regions, dal bhat is served with roti or chapatis (flatbread). Dal bhat is often served with vegetable tarkari or torkari (तरकारी in Nepali), with yogurt, or with a curry made of chicken, goat meat or fish. You can expect a small portion of pickle (achar) as well. When I ate dal bhat in little local restaurants, I got whatever accompaniments were on hand at the time.

The trick here is to cook the lentils in Nepali style, which, itself is impossible to generalize about. However, I will say that Nepali lentils are commonly cooked with fewer spices than in India. Turmeric is very common, as are garlic, ginger, and onions. More pungent spices are less common, but I was always asked if I wanted my dal “spicy” (that is, with red peppers).

Feb 172018
 

Today is Random Acts of Kindness Day in the US. In fact, the second full week of February is designated as Random Acts of Kindness week. It is celebrated on different days across the world. For example, it is celebrated on September 1 in New Zealand, and November 13 in many other countries. The phrase “random acts of kindness” comes from the longer, now famous, phrase “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” written by Anne Herbert on a placemat in Sausalito, California in 1982. It was meant as an antonym to the common news phrases “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty.” I do want to celebrate the notion, but I’ll add a small qualification or two.

First, I do not like designating ONE day (or one week) as the time to do good stuff, so that you can be a selfish jerk for the other 364. When I was married, my late wife and I NEVER did anything special on St Valentine’s Day. Our reasoning was that if you love someone you do loving things for that person whenever you feel like it. I have given chocolates, flowers, jewelry, to girlfriends on random days of the year because I feel like it. I do not need ONE day as permission to do it. I do think that the word “random” is important, however. The essence is to be kind to strangers, or to be kind for no reason. I like that. When Jesus said “love your enemies” he was making a somewhat similar point because he added, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5). If we are kind to people who are kind to us, there is no real merit to the kindness. If you are kind for absolutely no reason, you are doing something far greater. The world needs that sort of kindness.

Second, it is important not to practice random acts of kindness because you expect thanks. Some of the random acts of kindness discussed on websites are expressly anonymous so that the recipient cannot thank you because that person does not even know who you are. For example, in Naples there used to be a custom called caffè sospeso (literally “suspended coffee”) In the working-class cafés of Naples, when a person had experienced good luck he/she would pay for two coffees, but drink only one. The second payment was left until a person enquired later whether a sospeso was available. That means that if you were broke that day and could not afford to buy even a cup of coffee, you might benefit from the kindness of a stranger. I like it.

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (RAK) was founded in 1995 in the US. It is a nonprofit headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Its website is: https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/

Anne Herbert, originator of the phrase, put out a book called Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty 1993 detailing true stories of acts of kindness.

Some special days are difficult for me to find recipes for. Searching the internet was not very helpful. Several sites suggested sharing your favorite recipe, but I have already shared numerous favorites. In looking around, though, I found a recipe for ground beef and rice that reminded me of a dish I concocted back in my student days when I was just learning how to cook. I do not remember how I hit upon it, but I used to make it all the time. I never measured anything, and I dumped in what I had most of the time, but here’s the basics.

© Tío Juan’s Ground Beef and Rice

Ingredients

1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 bell pepper, cored, seeded, and sliced.
½ lb ground beef
1 cup long grain rice
beef stock
dried oregano
fresh parsley, chopped
vegetable oil

Instructions

Grease a heavy skillet lightly. Sauté the onion and pepper over medium heat until they soften. Add the ground beef and brown, stirring frequently.

Add the rice to the beef and vegetable mixture and stir to coat with oil. Add beef stock to cover and bring to a steady simmer. Add oregano and parsley to taste.

Keep a pot of stock simmering separately.

Continue simmering the beef and rice, and as the rice absorbs the stock add a little more from the spare pot.

After about 20 minutes, check the rice to see if it is cooked. You are trying to balance things so that when the rice is fully cooked the mixture does not have excess stock. By being vigilant you will know when to stop adding stock.

Serve hot from the skillet.

NOTES: You can add pretty much any vegetables you have on hand such as peas, tomatoes, green beans, or zucchini. When I was broke I always had something on hand to add for variety.

Jan 152018
 

Today is the second day of the Tamil Pongal festival, a harvest festival dedicated to the Sun. It is a four-day festival which is usually celebrated from the 14th to 17th of January. Today is known as Thai Pongal, one of the most important festivals celebrated by Tamil people in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry, and the country of Sri Lanka, as well as Tamils worldwide, including those in Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, United States, Singapore, Canada, Myanmar, and the UK. Thai Pongal corresponds to Makara Sankranthi, the harvest festival celebrated throughout India. The day marks the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards (the Uttaraayanam). This also corresponds to the Indic solstice when the sun purportedly enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Makara or Capricorn.

Thai Pongal is mainly celebrated to convey appreciation to the Sun God for a successful harvest. Part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the Sun – the Surya Maangalyam. Many other special events take place in Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu during Pongal, such as Chennai Book Fair and Lit for Life. From 1916 to 1952, annual cricket matches between Indians and Europeans called Madras Presidency Matches were held during Pongal.

The Thai Pongal festival may date to more than 1000 years ago. Epigraphic evidence suggests there was a festival called Puthiyeedu during the Medieval Chola empire, which is believed to have been a celebration of the first harvest of the year. “Thai” refers to the name of the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, Thai (தை). “Pongal” generally means festivity or celebration, but literally means “boiling over” or “overflow.” Pongal is also the name of a sweetened dish of rice boiled with lentils that is eaten on this day as well as presented as an offering. Symbolically the dish supposedly signifies the gradual heating of the earth as the Sun travels northward toward the equinox.

The day preceding Thai Pongal is called Bhogi. On this day people discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. The disposal of worn-out items is similar to the traditions of Holika in North India. The people assemble at dawn in Tamil Nadu to light a bonfire in order to burn the discards. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. The horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in villages. In Tamil Nadu farmers keep medicinal herbs (neem, avram, sankranti) in the northeast corner of each of their fields, to protect crops from diseases and pests.

The main event, Thai Pongal, takes place on the second of the four days of Pongal. During the festival, milk is cooked in a vessel. When it starts to bubble and overflows out of the vessel, freshly harvested rice grains are added to the pot. At the same time other participants blow a conch called the sanggu and shout “Pongalo Pongal!” They also recite “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum” (“the commencement of Thai paves the way for new opportunities”). This is repeated frequently during the Pongal festival. The Pongal dish is then served to everyone in the house along with savories and sweets such as vadai, murukku, paayasam.

Tamils decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the floor with decorative patterns drawn using rice flour and kolams/rangolis are drawn on doorsteps. Family elders present gifts to the young. The Sun represents “Pratyaksha Brahman” — the manifest God, who symbolizes the one, non-dual, self-effulgent, glorious divinity blessing one and all tirelessly. The Sun is the one who transcends time and also the one who rotates the proverbial wheel of time.

There are many kinds of Pongal but the two commonest at the Thai Pongal festival are Chakkara (or Sakkarai) Pongal and Venn Pongal, with Chakkara Pongal predominating. Chakkara Pongal (literally, sweet pongal) is generally prepared in temples as a prasadam, (an offering made to a deity). Ingredients include rice, coconut, and mung beans. It is traditionally sweetened with jaggery, which gives the Pongal a brown color, though it can be sweetened with white sugar instead. Here’s a video:

May 312017
 

Today is the start of Gawai Dayak, an annual festival celebrated by the Dayak people in Sarawak, Malaysia and West Kalimantan, Indonesia. It is a public holiday in Sarawak and is both a religious and a social occasion initiated in 1957. Gawai Dayak was the concept of the radio producers Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, and taken up by the Dayak community. The British colonial government refused to recognize Dayak Day until 1962. Instead, they called it Sarawak Day to include all Sarawakians as a national day, regardless of ethnic origin. Gawai Dayak comes from “Gawai” meaning festival and “Dayak” a collective name for the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the interior of Borneo. The population estimate is 2 to 4 million. The Dayaks, previously known as the Sea Dayak are mostly Iban people. Other ethnic groups such as the Bidayuh people (Land Dayak and Orang Ulu) are included. The Orang Ulu include the Kayans, Kenyahs and Lun Bawangs. There are over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups in the region. Although these peoples have common traits, each has its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture. Dayak languages are generally categorized as Austronesian languages. Originally Dayaks observed various forms of animism or pantheism, but since the 19th century times, many have converted to Islam or Christianity.

On 1 June 1963, Datuk Michael Buma, a Betong, hosted the celebrations of the first Gawai Dayak at his home at Siol Kandis, Kuching. On 25 September 1964, Sarawak Day was gazetted as a public holiday acknowledging the Sarawak part in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. The holiday was first celebrated on 1 June 1965 and it became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community. It is an integral part of Dayak social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking a bountiful harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or other endeavors ahead. The mode of celebration of Gawai Dayak varies greatly from place to place and preparations begin early.

In those villages were longhouses are the norm, the longhouse is cleaned, repaired and repainted through co-operation amongst its residents. Timber and wooden materials for repairs are obtained from nearby reserve forests (“pulau galau, pulau ban”) or purchased in towns. A “pantar” (long chair) may be built along the upper area of the ruai (gallery). The seat is raised and the tanju (verandah wall) is used as the back rest. Some old wooden longhouses (“rumah kayu”) are renovated with concrete and bricks to make a terraced structure (“rumah batu”). The inside walls of the longhouse are decorated with “ukir” murals portraying tree and wild animal motifs. Men with decorating skills make split bamboo designs. The Orang Ulu are famous for their colorful paintings of the tree of life on their house walls and their house posts are elaborately carved. Highly decorated shields are displayed near the family room door. Heirloom jars and old human skulls obtained during headhunting raids, if still kept, are cleaned and displayed. Deer horns may be secured on the longhouse posts in order to secure highly decorated swords and other household items.

In preparation people gather sago, aping, sawit or coconut palm shoots which are used for making soup. Vegetables such as wild miding fern, fiddlehead fern, bamboo shoots, tapioca leaves and Dayak round brinjals from nearby jungle, farms or gardens are also gathered. After the gathering of plants and vegetables early in the morning, the poultry is slaughtered. Enough meat is cooked in aged thin-walled bamboo logs to make a traditional dish called “pansoh” (or “lulun” in the Iban language). The meat is first mixed with traditional herbs like lemon grass, ginger, bungkang leaves and salt. Any remaining meat is preserved in salt. Animal heads are roasted over an open fire to be served hot with tuak. Wooden cooking implements are made from small tree logs.

Some glutinous rice is cooked in bamboo logs to soak up the bamboo aroma. Normal rice will be cooked in pots at the kitchen hearth. The addition of pandan leaves gives a special aroma. Smoke from the fire wood also gives a distinctive aroma. Some Dayaks, especially Orang Ulu, will wrap rice in long green leaves before steaming it inside a pot. Rice may also cooked using a gas stove or rice cooker.

Highly decorated mats for guests to sit on are laid out on the longhouse gallery which runs the entire length of the building. The Dayaks make various types of traditional hand-woven mats. There are reed mats woven with colourful designs, lampit rattan mats, bidai tree bark mats and peradani mats. The walls of most family rooms and galleries are decorated with traditional blankets such as the woven Pua Kumbu and the tied cloth (kain kebat) blankets which are made with unique Dayak designs. During the festival, women are keen to display their skills and hard work at mat-making and hand-weaving. Some traditional baskets are also seen.

Men and women may wear “ngepan”, the traditional costume, especially when guests are arriving. The traditional dress of men is a loincloth (sirat or cawat), animal skin coat (gagong), peacock and hornbill feathers (lelanjang) headware, chains over the neck (marik), silver armlets and anklelets along with a shield, sword and spear. Men are decorated with tribal tattoos (kalingai or pantang in Iban) which signify their life experience and journey. A frog design on the front of the man’s neck and or tegulun designs on the backs of the hand indicate the wearer has chopped off a human head or killed a man in military combat. However, some designs are based on marine life which are meant for protection and rescue of the wearers when on the water.

Women wear a hand-woven cloth (kain betating) worn around the waist, a rattan and brass ring high corset around the upper body, selampai (a long piece of scalp) worn over the shoulders, a woven bead chain over the neck and shoulders (marik empang), a decorated high-comb (sugu tinggi) over the hair lump (sanggul), a silver belt (lampit), armlet, anklet and orb fruit purse.

Celebrations begin on the evening of 31 May with a ceremony to cast away the spirit of greed (Muai Antu Rua). Two children or men, each dragging a winnowing basket (chapan) will pass by each family’s room. Every family will throw some unwanted article into the basket. The unwanted articles will then be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse. At dusk, a ritual offering ceremony (miring or bedara) will take place at every family room, one after the other. Before the ceremony, ritual music called gendang rayah is performed. Old ceramic plates, tabak (big brass chalices) or containers made of split bamboo skins (kelingkang) are offered to the deities.

The Iban Dayaks believe in seven deities: Sengalang Burong (the god of war which is represented by the brahminy kite in this world); Biku Bunsu Petara (the great priest’s second in command), Menjaya Manang (the first shaman and god of medicine), Sempulang Gana with Semerugah (the god of agriculture and land), Selampadai (the god of creation and procreativity), Ini Inee/Andan (the god of justice) and Anda Mara (the god of wealth). Iban Dayaks also call upon the legendary and mythical people of Panggau Libau and Gelong, and some good helpful spirits or ghosts to attend the feast.

Offerings to the deities are placed at the four corners of each family room, in the kitchen, at the rice jar, in the gallery, the tanju and the farm. Other highly prized possessions such as precious old jars and modern items like rice milling engines, boat engines or a car may also be used as offerings. Any pengaroh (charm) will be brought out for this ceremony to ensure its continuous effectiveness and to avoid madness afflicting the owner. Wallets are placed among the offerings to increase the tuah or fortune of the owners.

Each set of offerings usually contains seven traditional items: the cigarette nipah leaves and tobacco, betel nut and sireh leaves, glutinous rice in a hand-woven leave container (senupat), rice cakes (tumpi), sungki (glutinous rice cooked in buwan leaves), glutinuous rice cooked in bamboo logs (asi pulut lulun), penganan iri (cakes of glutinous rice flour mixed with nipah sugar), ant nest cakes and moulded cakes, poprice (made from glutinous paddy grains heated in a wok or pot), hard-boiled chicken eggs and tuak rice wine poured over or contained in a small bamboo cup.

After all the offering sets are completed, the chief of the festival thanks the gods for a good harvest, and asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel over the offerings (bebiau). The cockerel is sacrificed by slicing its neck. Its wing feathers are pulled out and brushed on to its bleeding neck after which each feather is placed as a sacrifice (genselan) on to each of the offering sets. The offerings are then placed at the designated locations.

When a longhouse agrees to host Gawai Dayak, they may need to plant extra paddy and organise labour (“bedurok”). Rice may be purchased from the towns if the festival is in a place where paddy farming is absent or insufficient. The traditional Dayak liquor is rice wine called tuak. It is brewed at least one month before the Gawai Dayak. The drink is brewed from the glutinous rice from a recent harvest mixed with home-made yeast. Traditionally, tuak was made with rice milk only but is now cut with sugar and water in a process called ciping. A stronger alcoholic beverage made by the Ibans is “langkau” (called arak tonok” (burnt spirit) by the bidayuhs). This drink is made by distilling tuak over a fire.

Traditional cake delicacies are prepared from glutinous rice flour mixed with sugar. The cakes include sarang semut (ant nest cake), cuwan (molded cake) and kui sepit (twisted cake). The cakes can last well whilst kept inside a jar because they are deep-fried until hardened. Penganan iri (a discus-shaped cake) are made just prior to the festival day because they do not keep well. This is because the cake is lifted from the hot frying oil while not fully hardened. The sugar used can be the brown nipah sugar or cane sugar.

Before the eve of Gawai Dayak, the longhouse residents may organize a hunting or fishing trip to gather wild meats and fish. Both can be preserved with salt in a jar or smoked over a firewood platform above the hearth. Any wild animal parts like the horns, teeth and claws, and feathers are used to decorate and repair traditional costumes.

Contemporary city-dwelling Dayak who are Christian or Muslim hold a much more Western-style celebration, but it still involves traditional foods. Unless you have a wood fire, green bamboo stems, banana leaves and Sarawakan herbs and spices to hand, not to mention vegetables, I suggest taking an Indonesian trip if you want to sample Dayak food.  Here’s a video to give you an idea:

Dec 102016
 

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Today is Human Rights Day celebrating the proclamation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, in clear language, the fundamental human rights that are to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages. Sadly, the resolution was non-binding, making the United Nations a rather toothless tiger. But it was a start for a fledgling world body to come together under a common banner with a common goal. The full text of the declaration is here: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

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Ancient cultures had complex legal systems, but, despite spurious claims by some scholars that documents such as the Cyrus Cylinder are declarations of human rights, the concept as it is understood now, was not formulated until the development of humanist thinking and Protestant ideology in the West beginning with what we now call the Renaissance and the Reformation. Its ideals crested in Enlightenment philosophy in the 17th century and in key documents such as the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution (1791).  Preceding documents such as the Constitution of Medina (622), Al-Risalah al-Huquq (659-713), Magna Carta (1215), etc., all contains germs of the idea, but the notion that a person is born with inalienable rights regardless of gender, color, creed, or religion does not emerge full blown until the late 17th century. However, even the documents I have cited are equivocal. The U.S. Bill of Rights, for example, was passed by slave holders, but it put the principles in place.

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The word “Man” is troublesome. The documents cited seem to be a bit vague in this regard. Are they using the word “Man” to mean Homo sapiens, or just men (and not women)? You can waffle all you like; they meant men, and the word when used now is still sexist, even if unintentionally. I don’t use the word to mean humans; I use the word “human” – end of story. These are HUMAN rights, not the Rights of Man. It’s not difficult to say “human” rather than “man” or “humankind” rather than “mankind.” A few extra letters won’t hurt you. If you need convincing look at these sentences:

In prehistoric times man was a hunter.

Man is the only species that menstruates on a 28-day cycle but is receptive to sex all the time.

The first sentence seems all right, but the second one looks odd. Why? Both show gender bias, but the first gets a free pass and the second gets a question mark. The first is fair enough in that both men and women have participated in hunting historically, but . . . hunting is (and was) predominantly a male activity in forager societies. Thus “Man the Hunter” seems all right and has been used as the name of a classic text in anthropology. “Man the Menstruator” doesn’t sit well.  Case closed. Talk about HUMAN rights.

It would be nice if traditional musicians would get the memo. The “Rights of Man” is a classic Irish hornpipe that is very popular at music sessions. Irish tunes in general have catchy titles that have nothing to do with the music. That said, I will rename this the Human Rights Hornpipe:

There is a basic human right to food.  This is subsumed under the basic human right to life. Food, water, and shelter are the most basic of human needs to support life. What form food comes in is not relevant as long as it is free from harmful contaminants and is plentiful enough to avoid hunger or malnutrition. This means that there is no human right to banquets or fancy dishes. In fact there are a lot of people (and cultures) in the world that are not interested in diversity in food. I don’t understand people who want the same food all the time, but I respect their habits. The domestication of plants led to cereals being primary staples worldwide with wheat, barley, corn, and rice topping the list. In many world languages the word for the local staple is also the general word for food. The Lord’s Prayer asks: “Give us each day our daily bread.”  The word “bread” here means food, and “daily bread” means enough food for the day. The basic character in Chinese, 饭, is pronounced fan (4th tone), and can mean rice in particular, or a meal in general.

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So, frankly, I don’t know what to present as a recipe du jour. The times in my life when I have had almost no money to live on (too many for comfort), I’ve usually resorted to a bowl of rice per day. It’s a bit bleak but I’ve always found ways to dress up plain rice. Stalls that sell bowls of rice in Asia always have condiments of some sort – sauces or pickles. I usually opt for a fiery hot sauce and some pickles.

Sep 242016
 

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I usually reserve the dates of people’s death as days of celebration for saints whose feast days are the days they died, because in Christian tradition this date marks their ascendance to heaven – a day to rejoice. Today I am changing gears for once. I want to celebrate the life of Pete Bellamy on this, the day of his death, for important reasons.

Peter Franklyn Bellamy (8 September 1944 – 24 September 1991) was an English singer, musician, and composer who was very well known in folk circles in the 1960s through to the 1980s when his popularity began to wane. I believe that his rise and fall in popularity in Britain had more to do with public tastes than anything he was responsible for. He, and Young Tradition (the a capella trio he sang with), rose to international prominence in the 1960s when traditional music was in its heyday in Britain and the United States, ousting the beat generation. The 1970s saw increased interest, by which time Pete was performing solo and starting to write his own music and songs, as well as setting many of Kipling’s poems to music. By the late 1980s popular tastes had shifted considerably, and traditional music hit a low point. Consequently Pete’s career suffered, as did that of so many others. I’ll call him Pete here, because that’s how I knew him. He was not a close friend, but he was a friend.

Pete was born in Bournemouth but spent his formative years in Norfolk, living in the village of Warham and attending Fakenham Grammar School in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His father worked as a farm bailiff. He studied at Norwich School of Art, and later at Maidenhead Art College, under Peter Blake, and decades later still retained something of the flamboyant art student image, being described as looking like a latter-day Andy Warhol, with blond hair often worn in a ponytail and tied back with a ribbon, a scarlet jacket and florally patterned trousers which he made himself from furnishing fabric.

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Pete dropped out of college in 1965 to further his singing career, among other things. He started working as a duo with Royston Wood, their voices (Pete, tenor, Royston, bass). Worked well together. Both had distinctive voices. Here they are together on the album “Galleries” which came out around the time the Young Tradition broke up.

Pete and Royston worked at odd jobs during the day, and sang at night. Heather Wood (no relation to Royston) attended their events and, as is common in folk clubs, always sang heartily in harmony in the choruses. So they invited her to join them and Young Tradition was born. I’m not clear on all the details because I was not around at the time, and got this second hand from Royston. It is a great curiosity that they all have distinctive voices, but they blend well together.

Pete’s voice had a strong high nasal vibrato that earned him the nickname “the singing sheep” in folk circles. In the “Borfolk” cartoon in the October 1980 edition of The Southern Rag, commenting on an event at Cecil Sharp House hosted by Pete, he was given the anagrammatical name Elmer P Bleaty.” Pete later obtained, framed, and hung the original of the cartoon in his home.

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The Young Tradition recorded three albums together plus a collaboration with Shirley Collins called “The Holly Bears The Crown.” Although recorded in 1969, this was not released in full until the 1990s. They were immensely successful during their brief career together in both Britain and the United States, and are still remembered fondly in folk circles as pioneers in one branch of English traditional singing. They were influenced by the likes of the Watersons and the Copper Family, and, in turn, influenced a generation of singers.  The Young Tradition’s final concert was at Cecil Sharp House in October 1969, after which they split up because of divergent interests. At the time Heather and Royston had developed eclectic musical tastes, specifically in Medieval music, while Pete wanted to concentrate on traditional English music. The three continued to sing together occasionally, along with other musicians, but Pete’s solo career took priority.

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Pete’s first solo album “Mainly Norfolk” (1968) indicated his desire to promote the traditional music of the part of England he called home. It drew heavily on the repertoire of Harry Cox, still alive at that time, who was the most famous traditional singer of Norfolk songs. On the album, Bellamy sang all songs unaccompanied. Beginning on his second album, “Fair England’s Shore” (1968), he began to accompany himself on the Anglo concertina. Still later, he occasionally recorded with guitar and in private he preferred the guitar over the concertina. If you put him up at your house, you’d be woken by him playing bottleneck blues in the morning

It wasn’t until Pete’s eighth album in 1975 that he recorded any of his own compositions. In the same year he recorded a collection of Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. Kipling was a great inspiration for Pete. He started with songs he created poems from Kipling’s Children’s books, (Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies) from which he produced two albums, Oak Ash and Thorn (1970) and Merlyn’s Isle of Gramarye (1972). Here’s the title cut from the first:

Puck is a fantasy compilation playing on 19th century notions that British calendar customs derive from mystical pagan times (which longtime readers know I abhor). Pete’s setting of Oak, Ash, and Thorn is a standard among folkies now, and this version features Royston and Heather, plus Barry Dransfield whose light in the folk world was dimming at that time, on the chorus.

Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads were published in 1892, and Pete started setting them to music in 1973. He was struck by people’s ideas about Kipling, who many perceived as (in Bellamy’s words) “one of the reactionary old guard, and therefore obviously a writer of no merit whatsoever.” Pete believed that Kipling captured the spirit of the common soldier who was sent off to war to die, rather than being a champion of the colonial spirit. Therefore, his poems ought to be showcased rather than discarded as old fashioned. I both agree and disagree. On the one hand, Kipling is highly sympathetic to “Tommy,” no question:

It’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!”

But the underlying colonial ethnocentrism is still there. One of Pete’s classics is his setting of Kipling’s “Mandalay.” In a very popular setting published in 1907 by Oley Speaks and made famous by Peter Dawson’s recording, Kipling’s poem is reduced to three verses that emphasize the colonial themes in the poem.

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Pete picked a different tune and set the entire poem to it in its original, rather than in extracts where the words are also modified:

It’s true that the poem highlights the plight of the “ten year soldier” sent to fight in foreign lands and then dumped back in foggy, crowded London to rot. But . . . its vision of Burma (Myanmar) is partly nostalgic and graceful and partly dismissive. Sure, the soldier thinks a Burma girl is preferable to London ones, but he refers to statues of Buddha as filthy idols – and suggests that kissing a British soldier is much better than worshiping Buddha. I’d call that colonial ethnocentrism.

When devising the musical settings for Kipling’s poetry, Pete followed a common theory that highly metrical poets like Kipling used song tunes to keep their poems flowing properly. Some of Kipling’s contemporaries confirm that he was in the habit of humming and whistling as he composed. It has, for example, been claimed that in The Loot, there is a “hidden” tune being worked to, and that nothing else can explain the strange refrains. Pete became engaged by the idea when the line in Dutch in the Medway “our ships in every harbour….” reminded him of the line in the song Cupid’s Garden “Twas down in Portsmouth Harbour…”. This observation suggested the tune for the Kipling poem and made him wonder whether Kipling had actually composed to that tune, it being a common folk song in the 19th  century. It has also been suggested that Kipling’s “My name is O’Kelly, I’ve heard the reveille…” was written to the common Irish song and Army marching tune Lillibullero. Pete used a different tune but agreed that Lillibullero was more likely to have been on Kipling’s mind at the time of composition.

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After putting new words to traditional songs, and his own words to traditional tunes, Pete wrote a ballad-opera, The Transports, in 1973, but it took him 4 years to find a company willing to produce it. It then became the folk record of the year for 1977 vindicating his long wait and many efforts to get it released. Many prominent names in the folk scene collaborated on the project Dolly Collins (sister of Shirley Collins), Martin Carthy, Mike Waterson, Norma Waterson, June Tabor, Nic Jones, A.L. Lloyd, Cyril Tawney and Dave Swarbrick. It told the true story of the first transport ship to land in Australia and the first couple, Henry and Susannah Cable (or Kabel), to marry on Australian soil, based on a story Pete found in the local newspaper in Norfolk and followed by his research into the details at the city museum and library. Descendants of the Kabel family still live in Sydney and became friends of Peter. In 2004 it was re-released together with a new production involving Simon Nicol and Fairport Convention. In 1986 Sid Kipper and others devised a ballad opera called “Crab Wars”. It was partly a parody of “The Transports,” but Pete took it in good humor and even sang the role of narrator.

Another of Pete’s ambitious projects, “The Maritime Suite”, was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 but never issued on record. The economics of folk singing meant that Pete sold his own limited edition cassettes at folk clubs, and many performances exist only as pirated tapes.

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Pete committed suicide on 24 September 1991, a little over a year after Royston Wood died as the result of a freak car accident. I’ve often wondered if Royston’s death played a part in it, but it would have been a small part. In the years before his death several of his close friends had found him depressed at the way his folk club bookings had unaccountably fallen away after the respect with which The Transports had been received. Folk-music journalist and critic Michael Grosvenor Myer, one of those who had named The Transports his record of the year in The Guardian, where he was subsequently to write his obituary, relates how Pete showed him an empty engagement book, saying, in sad and puzzled tones, “The Transports was a runaway success, since when my career has gone ppppffff! ”

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Similarly from fellow folksinger Brian Peters: “The saddest Bellamy moment arose after I’d complimented him on a barnstorming performance the last time I’d seen him. With a wan smile, he picked up his diary and, holding it up for me to see, leafed through empty page after empty page, without saying a word.” US folksinger Lisa Null, a longtime friend, wrote “He was broke, unable to find gigs, unable to adapt. He complained so much about this, many of us kind of got used to it — a bad mistake. He was sending out warning signs.” Another singer, Nick Dow, adds, “In respect of his empty gig diary, we were chatting on the phone, and he asked me ‘Nick how do you get so much work?’ I answered that it was because I was a persuasive bastard and wasn’t averse to making a nuisance of myself. He replied that he couldn’t easily ring up and ask for a gig, he found it so embarrassing. He was a singer and performer, not a businessman in any shape or form. Peter needed our help, and the oxygen of the appreciation of his art.”

There it is in stark terms. There are things you should watch out for in friends who are depressed. If you need more information, go here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-suicide-prevention-day/  We all should do more to prevent suicide. The late 1980s and 1990s were slow times for the folk music scene in England, but things turned around eventually. Who knows what might have happened if he’d lived?

Pete and I had a memorable weekend at my shared house in Oxford when he played a gig at the Oxford University folk club. On the morning after the gig, plus late night drinking in North Oxford, I made us a breakfast of smoked haddock and boiled eggs from a great chunk of fish that a friend of mine, who was a fishmonger, had given me and was sitting idle in my refrigerator. In the US, and elsewhere, everyone knows about smoked salmon, but regular smoked fish is not so popular, especially nowadays. Once upon a time you could get just about any fish you want in smoked form – trout, hake, haddock, mackerel, etc. It keeps well and makes a great breakfast dish. You can add rice and curry spices and make a kedgeree if you want – the great Anglo-Indian dish which I talk about at length here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/charles-edward-kingsford-smith/

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For today’s recipe a plain breakfast of smoked fish and rice is in order (with some trimmings). Smoked fish is quite edible as is, but in this case heat it in a skillet in warmed water. Don’t boil the water because the fish will fragment. Serve it over boiled rice (plain or with saffron) and garnished with boiled egg and tomato.  I like a little lime pickle too for a kick.

May 292016
 

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Today is Oak Apple Day in England and that is fixed http://www.bookofdaystales.com/oak-apple-day/   It could also be Castleton Garland day in England, and the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’í calendar) worldwide. However, in both cases it is not today this year. May 29 is the usual day for these celebrations (according to the Gregorian calendar), but they can shift a day now and again.  Castleton Garland is easy to explain; it occurs on 29 May unless it is a Sunday (as it is this year – 2016) in which case it is held on Saturday 28th.

The Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh is more complicated. Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic: بهاء الله‎‎, “Glory of God”, born Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí (Persian: میرزا حسینعلی نوری‎‎), was the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. He died on this date in 1892 and his death is celebrated as the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh  within the Bahá’í faith. The date is fixed within the Bahá’í calendar, but can shift a little within the Gregorian calendar because the Bahá’í calendar is pegged to the vernal equinox (which can be either 20 or 21 March). Things are made a little more complicated by the fact that days within the Bahá’í calendar begin at sunset, and the date of the equinox varies according to time zone.

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The Bahá’í calendar was based on the original Badí‘ calendar, created by the Báb (founder of Bábism and central to Bahá’í) in the Kitabu’l-Asmá’ and the Persian Bayán in the 1840s. It uses a scheme of 19 months of 19 days (19×19) for 361 days, plus intercalary days to make the calendar a solar calendar. The first day of the early implementation of the calendar year was Naw-Rúz, while the intercalary days were assigned variously. The calendar contained symbolic connexions to prophecies of the Báb concerning the next Manifestation of God termed “He whom God shall make manifest.”

Bahá’u’lláh, who claimed to be the messenger prophesied by the Báb, confirmed and adopted this calendar. Around 1870, he instructed Nabíl-i-A`zam, the author of The Dawn-Breakers, to write an overview of the Badí’ calendar. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (1873) Bahá’u’lláh made Naw-Rúz the first day of the year, and also clarified the position of the intercalary days which should immediately precede the last month. Bahá’u’lláh set Naw-Rúz to the day on which the sun passes into the constellation Aries. Bahá’ís interpret this formula as a specification of the vernal equinox, though the global position where that should be calculated was not defined.

The Bahá’í scriptures left some issues regarding the implementation of the Badi’ calendar to be resolved by the Universal House of Justice (global governing body of Bahá’í) before the calendar could be observed uniformly worldwide. On 10 July 2014 the Universal House of Justice announced provisions that enabled the common implementation of the Badi’ calendar worldwide, beginning at sunset 20 March 2015, coinciding with the completion of the ninth cycle of the calendar.

The Bahá’í calendar in Western countries was originally synchronized with the Gregorian calendar, meaning that the extra day of a leap year occurred simultaneously in both calendars. The intercalary days stretched from 26 February to 1 March, so they automatically included the Gregorian leap day. There were four intercalary days in a regular year, and five in a leap year. The practice in Western countries was to start the year at sunset on March 20, regardless of when the vernal equinox technically occurred.

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In 2014, the Universal House of Justice selected Tehran, the birthplace of Bahá’u’lláh, as the location to which the date of the vernal equinox was to be fixed, thereby freeing the Badí’ calendar from the Gregorian calendar. For determining the dates, astronomical tables from reliable sources are used.

In the same message the Universal House of Justice decided that the birthdays of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh would be celebrated on “the first and the second day following the occurrence of the eighth new moon after Naw-Rúz” (also with the use of astronomical tables) and fixed the dates of the Bahá’í Holy Days in the Bahá’í calendar, standardizing dates for Bahá’ís worldwide. These changes came into effect as of sunset on 20 March 2015.

Normally the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh falls on 29 May in the Gregorian Calendar when the vernal equinox in Tehran is on 21 March, but this year (2016) Naw-Rúz fell on 20 March, so the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh was celebrated on 28 May (around 3 am). However, by the Gregorian calendar Bahá’u’lláh died around 3 am on 29 May 1892.

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Bahá’u’lláh was born Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí (Persian: میرزا حسینعلی نوری‎‎). Although he claimed to be the prophetic fulfillment of Bábism, a 19th-century outgrowth of Shí‘ism, in a broader sense he claimed to be a messenger from God referring to the fulfillment of the eschatological expectations of Islam, Christianity, and other major religions.

Bahá’u’lláh taught that humanity is one single race and that the time has come for its unification in a global society. He taught that “there is only one God, that all of the world’s religions are from God, and that now is the time for humanity to recognize its oneness and unite.” His claim to divine revelation resulted in persecution and imprisonment by the Persian and Ottoman authorities, and his eventual 24-year confinement in the prison city of `Akka in Palestine (present-day Israel), where he died. He wrote many religious works, totaling over 100, most notably the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the Kitáb-i-Íqán, and Hidden Words.

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In the Bahá’í Faith, religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and to the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abrahamic figures—Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, as well as figures from Indian religions like Krishna, Buddha, and others. For Bahá’ís, the most recent messengers are the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. In Bahá’í belief, each messenger prophesied of messengers to follow, and Bahá’u’lláh’s life and teachings fulfilled the end-time promises of previous scriptures. Humanity is understood to be in a process of collective evolution, and the need of the present time is for the gradual establishment of peace, justice and unity on a global scale.

There are two known photographs of Bahá’u’lláh. Outside of pilgrimage, Bahá’ís prefer not to view his photo in public, or even to display it in their private homes, so I will follow suit here. I do know what he looked like.

Bahá’í eating practices are based on a desire for a healthy body and as religious observances. Thus there is a 19-day fast at the end of the year when the faithful may not ingest anything, including water, during sunlight hours. Otherwise, alcohol is completely forbidden, even in cooking, and a diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and grains is preferred, although meat is not forbidden. There is a general eschatological belief that the consumption of animal products will eventually end. Persian cuisine at the time of Bahá’u’lláh was in a period of transition, suitable for his philosophy. A recently discovered anonymous MS (WMS Pers 2013/1 ) shows just how heavily Western cooking fashions were entering the tradition. The recipes are written in Persian but are of French origin.

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Kateh is the basic rice recipe from northern Iran. It is much simpler than pilau recipes found throughout Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, and is suitable today because it is basic, vegan, and easy. You can use it to accompany all manner of dishes.

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Start with 3 cups of basmati rice.  Wash the rice in cold water twice, drain the water, and then let the rice soak in fresh water for at least 2 hours.

Drain the rice again and put it in a non-stick saucepan. Add 5 cups of water, 4 tablespoons of your choice of oil and salt to taste. Mix thoroughly.

Bring the water to a rolling boil, skim off any scum, and let the water boil until the water level sinks to just below the rice level.

Cover the pan tightly (you can wrap the lid in a towel), and cook over low temperature for about 30 minutes.

As with every traditional recipe of this sort, experience counts. It is common to add saffron to the rice for flavor and color.

Aug 262015
 

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The loudest explosion in history occurred on this date in 1883 when Krakatoa, in present-day Indonesia between Java and Sumatra, erupted. The volcano blew up and the following day collapsed in four gigantic explosions that were heard 3,000 miles away, with shock waves registering on barometers around the world. The energy of those eruptions has been estimated to have been 10,000 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Thousands of people were killed in the surrounding area from the eruptions, but the biggest death toll was from vast tsunamis unleashed by the volcano’s collapse. All told, an estimated 36,000 people were killed, although recent figures put the number at over 100,000 dead.

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As sulphur dioxide and dust shot 50 miles high into the stratosphere, they cast a blanket around the world that cooled the Earth and plunged weather patterns into chaos. The dust also turned skies into fantastic colors, with scarlet sunsets and vivid afterglows. In London, the evening sky in November 1883 turned such an intense red that people thought there was a huge fire and called out fire engines.

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In Norway, blood red sunsets are thought to have inspired Edvard Munch’s surreal sky in The Scream, as he wrote at the time: ‘clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city.’

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The dusty atmosphere also made the sun and moon turn blue or green, and in 1884 another phenomenon, the Bishop’s ring, appeared, as bluish-white, bronze and brown, circles enveloped the sun.

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I’d like to focus on the recipe of the day because it is so apposite: tumpeng. Tumpeng is a cone-shaped rice dish made to resemble a volcano and served with various side dishes (vegetables and meat). The cone shape of rice is made by using a cone-shaped woven bamboo container. The rice itself could be plain steamed rice, uduk rice (cooked with coconut milk), or yellow rice (uduk rice colored with kunyit (turmeric)). The cone shaped rice is erected on a tampah (a rounded woven bamboo container) topped with banana leaf, and surrounded by assorted Indonesian dishes. In 2013, the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy promoted tumpeng as one among 30 Indonesian culinary icons, and finally elevated its status to the official national dish of Indonesia in 2014, describing it as “the dish that binds the diversity of Indonesian various culinary traditions.”

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People in Java, Bali and Madura usually make Tumpeng to celebrate an important event, but it is universal throughout Indonesia. Tumpeng dates back to ancient Indonesian tradition revering mountains and volcanoes as the abode of hyangs, the spirit of ancestors and gods, celebrated at the rice harvest. Generally now, Tumpeng is a symbol of gratitude, served at gratitude ceremonies (syukuran or slametan). After the people pray, the top of Tumpeng is cut off and delivered to the most important person. He or she may be the group leader, the oldest person, or an honored guest. Then, all people at the ceremony enjoy the tumpeng together. Tumpeng, expresses gratitude to God as well as appreciation of togetherness and harmony.

The cone shaped rice is surrounded by assorted Indonesian dishes, such as urap vegetables, ayam goreng (fried chicken), ayam bakar (grilled chicken), empal gepuk (sweet and spicy fried beef), abon sapi (beef floss), semur (beef stew in sweet soy sauce), teri kacang (anchovy with peanuts), fried prawn, telur pindang (boiled marble egg), shredded omelette, tempe orek (sweet and dry fried tempeh), perkedel kentang (mashed potato fritters), perkedel jagung (corn fritters), sambal goreng ati (liver in chilli sauce), or anything you wish.

Traditionally there should be a balance between vegetables, egg, meat and seafood. The composition of a traditional Javanese tumpeng is complex because the elements must balance one another according to Javanese belief. Traditional Javanese tumpeng will usually involve urap vegetables, tempeh, ayam goreng, teri kacang, fried shrimp, telur pindang, empal gepuk and sambal. In reality you can serve whatever you want these days from vegan to fish, but a balance is important.

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There is a philosophical meaning to every part of a traditional tumpeng plate. According to folklore in Java and Bali, the cone-shaped tumpeng is a mystic symbol of life and ecosystems, and also symbolizes the glory of God as the Creator of nature. The various side dishes and vegetables represent the life and harmony of  nature. A traditional and complete tumpeng platter should contains at least one meat to represent land animals, fish to represent sea creatures, an egg dish to represent winged animals, and vegetables for the plant kingdom. Usually tumpeng is served with spinach as spinach is a traditional symbol of prosperity in Javanese agricultural society.

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There are several variants of tumpeng, served at different ceremonies.

Tumpeng Robyong – This kind of tumpeng is usually served at the traditional Javanese siraman (bridal shower). Tumpeng is placed on a bakul bamboo rice container and on top of the tumpeng is placed egg, shrimp paste, shallots and red chilli.

Tumpeng Nujuh Bulan – This kind of tumpeng is served in the seventh month of pregnancy prenatal ceremony. The tumpeng is made of plain white rice. The main tumpeng is surrounded by six smaller tumpeng, to create a total of seven tumpengs all erected on tampah covered with banana leaf.

Tumpeng Pungkur – Used in the ceremony for the death of a virgin or unmarried male or female. It is made from white rice surrounded only with vegetables dishes. The tumpeng later must be cut vertical in to two parts evenly and placed one against another.

Tumpeng Putih – White tumpeng, uses white rice since white color symbolize holiness in Javanese culture. This kind of tumpeng is employed in sacred ceremonies.

Tumpeng Nasi Kuning – Yellow tumpeng, the color yellow represents a heap of gold, wealth, abundance and high moral character. This kind of tumpeng is eaten at cheerful, happy festivities such as the celebration of birth, engagement, marriage, Eid, Christmas etc.

Tumpeng Nasi Uduk – Also called tumpeng tasyakuran. Uduk rice (rice cooked in coconut milk) is used in theMaulud Nabi ceremony, a ceremony celebrating the birthday of prophet Muhammad.

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Aug 192015
 

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Afghan Independence Day is celebrated in Afghanistan on this day to commemorate the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919. The treaty granted complete independence from Britain; although Afghanistan was never a part of the British Empire. The British fought three wars with Afghanistan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842) led to the defeat of the entire British-led Indian invaders by Afghan forces under Akbar Khan somewhere along the Kabul-Jalalabad Road, near the city of Jalalabad. After this defeat, the British-led forces returned to Afghanistan on a special mission to rescue their prisoners of war but quickly made a complete withdrawal.

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The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80) first began with a British defeat followed by their victory at the Battle of Kandahar, which, in turn led to Abdur Rahman Khan becoming the new emir and the start of friendly British-Afghan relations. The British were given control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs in exchange for protection against the Russians and Persians.

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The Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 led the British to give up control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs.

For well over a century Afghanistan has been politically unstable and grindingly poor. The reason are not hard to understand but the solutions are very difficult to find. Foremost is the presence of conflict, both internal and external. Internal conflict arises from issues I have talked about many times before. The nation of Afghanistan is a conglomeration of ethnicities bound together politically by certain accidents of history, but usually at each other’s throats. Outside invasion has been a fact of life for centuries.

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The country sits at a crossroads where numerous civilizations have interacted and often fought. It has been home to various peoples through the ages, among them the ancient Iranian peoples who established the dominant role of Indo-Iranian languages in the region. At many times, the land has been part of large regional empires, among them the Achaemenid Empire, the Macedonian Empire, the Indian Maurya Empire, and the Islamic Empire.

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Many kingdoms have also risen to power in Afghanistan, such as the Greco-Bactrians, Kushans, Hephthalites, Kabul Shahis, Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Khiljis, Kartids, Timurids, Mughals, and finally the Hotak and Durrani dynasties that were the foundation of the modern state. The formation of modern Afghanistan mirrors the creation of nation states in Europe and Africa out of diverse ethnicities, with all the attendant turbulence, but magnified. Modern major powers, such as Russia and the U.S., who believe they can come in and sort things out by imposing their will through sheer overwhelming might need to pay more attention to the history books.

Afghanistan is surprisingly uniform culturally despite its ethnic and linguistic diversity. The majority of Afghans are Muslim (although with some diversity in interpretation), dress similarly, listen to the same music, share a generally similar worldview, and enjoy the same foods. In the southern and eastern region, as well as western Pakistan which was historically part of Afghanistan, the Pashtun people dominate. The western, northern, and central regions of Afghanistan are influenced by neighboring Central Asian and Persian cultures. Afghans living in cities, particularly Kabul, are further influenced to some degree by Indian culture through Bollywood films and music.

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Afghanistan has long been famous for carpet making. One of the most exotic and distinctive of all oriental rugs is the Shindand or Adraskan (named after local Afghan towns), woven in the Herat Province, in western Afghanistan. Strangely elongated human and animal figures are their signature look. The carpet can be sold across Afghanistan with the most based in Mazar-e Sharif. Another staple of Afghanistan is the Baluchi rug, most notably Baluchi prayer rugs. They are made by Afghanistan’s Baloch people in the south-western part of the country.

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Afghan cuisine is largely based upon the nation’s chief crops, such as wheat, maize, barley and rice. Accompanying these staples are native fruits and vegetables as well as dairy products such as milk, yogurt and whey. Kabuli Palaw is the national dish of Afghanistan. Kabuli Palaw, also called Qabili Pulao or simply pilav, is an pilaf dish consisting of steamed rice mixed with raisins, carrots, and lamb. Kabuli Palaw is made by cooking basmati or long grained rice in a brothy sauce (which makes the rice brown). This dish may be made with lamb, chicken, or beef, but lamb is preferred. I like to use shanks but any cut is all right. Meaty lamb neck is flavorful. You can also use goat. Kabuli Palaw is finished off by being baked in the oven and may be topped with fried sliced carrots, raisins, orange peel strips, and chopped nuts such as pistachios or almonds. The meat is covered by the rice or buried in the rice mixture.

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Kabuli Palaw

Ingredients

4 lbs lamb
2 large onions, sliced
salt
3 pints hot light stock
1½ lb cooked basmati or long grain rice

Sauce

2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp ground cumin
3 carrots, cooked and shredded
½ cup raisins
½ cup pistachios or slivered almonds
1 orange peel cut in julienne strips

Instructions

Simmer the lamb and onions, in light stock for about 2 hours, or until very tender.

Remove and cool the lamb, reserving the stock. Remove any bones from the lamb breaking the meat in large pieces.

Sauté the carrots in a little butter until lightly browned. Set aside.

For the stock sauce, brown the onions in butter in a large, deep skillet and then remove from the heat.

Add the cardamom and cumin and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon together with onion to form a paste.

Add about 1 pt of the lamb stock and simmer for a few minutes stirring with a whisk to combine.

Put the cooked rice, stock sauce and lamb into a large lidded casserole. Place the carrots, raisins, orange peel, and nuts on top. Cover and cook in the oven for about 35 to 45 minutes at 325°F. Add a little extra stock if it dries too much.

To serve fluff the rice and all the ingredients together and mound on a heated serving platter.

Jun 052015
 

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On this date in 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in The National Era, an abolitionist periodical, and the following year was issued as an illustrated book. Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Seminary and an active abolitionist, featured the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings. Assessment of the novel and its title character have undergone profound changes from its first publication to the present day.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies in Great Britain. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.” The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that “The long-term durability of Lincoln’s greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals … to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.”

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At the time of the novel’s initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel shows; Stowe’s melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for white audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two women who had escaped from slavery. Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom’s passivity against the daring of three African American women who escape from slavery.

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Senator Charles Sumner credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the election of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln himself reportedly quipped that Stowe had triggered the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass praised the novel as “a flash to light a million camp fires in front of the embattled hosts of slavery”. Despite Douglass’ enthusiasm, an anonymous 1852 reviewer for William Lloyd Garrison’s publication The Liberator suspected a racial double standard in the idealization of Uncle Tom:

Uncle Tom’s character is sketched with great power and rare religious perception. It triumphantly exemplifies the nature, tendency, and results of Christian non-resistance. We are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the White man, under all possible outrage and peril, as for the Black man… Talk not of overcoming evil with good—it is madness! Talk not of peacefully submitting to chains and stripes—it is base servility! Talk not of servants being obedient to their masters—let the blood of tyrants flow! How is this to be explained or reconciled? Is there one law of submission and non-resistance for the Black man, and another of rebellion and conflict for the White man? When it is the whites who are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights? And when it is the blacks who are thus treated, does Christ require them to be patient, harmless, long-suffering, and forgiving? Are there two Christs?

The accusation of a double standard may be apt, but I think that this and other critiques miss the point. Stowe upholds the Christian standard (mostly forgotten in the contemporary U.S.) of meeting hatred and bigotry with love, as did Jesus. Modern critics treat Uncle Tom’s servility as weakness rather than a strength (as Stowe intended). This change of attitudes towards Uncle Tom reflects a general cultural shift in the U.S. from tolerance to aggressiveness as the solution to what are perceived as the world’s ills.

James Weldon Johnson, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, expresses an antipathetic opinion in his autobiography:

For my part, I was never an admirer of Uncle Tom, nor of his type of goodness; but I believe that there were lots of old Negroes as foolishly good as he; the proof of which is that they knowingly stayed and worked on the plantations that furnished sinews for the army which was fighting to keep them enslaved.

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In 1949 James Baldwin rejected the emasculation of the title character “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex” as the price of spiritual salvation for a dark-skinned man in a fiction whose African-American characters, in Baldwin’s view, were invariably two dimensional stereotypes. To Baldwin, Stowe was closer to a pamphleteer than a novelist and her artistic vision was fatally marred by polemics and racism that manifested especially in her handling of the title character. Stowe had stated that her sons had wept when she first read them the scene of Uncle Tom’s death, but after Baldwin’s essay it ceased being respectable to accept the melodrama of the Uncle Tom story. Uncle Tom became what critic Linda Williams describes as “an epithet of servility” and the novel’s reputation plummeted until feminist critics led by Jane Tompkins reassessed the tale’s female characters. According to Debra J. Rosenthal in an introduction to a collection of critical appraisals for the Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, overall reactions have been mixed with some critics praising the novel for affirming the humanity of the African American characters and for the risks Stowe assumed in taking a very public stand against slavery before abolitionism had become a socially acceptable cause, and others criticizing the very limited terms upon which those characters’ humanity was affirmed and the artistic shortcomings of political melodrama.

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A specific impetus for the novel was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed heavy fines upon law enforcement personnel in Northern states if they refused to assist the return of people who escaped from slavery. The new law also stripped African Americans of the right to request a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf, even if they were legally free, whenever a single claimant presented an affidavit of ownership. The same law authorized a $1000 fine and six months imprisonment for anyone who knowingly harbored or assisted a fugitive slave. These terms infuriated Stowe, so the novel was written, read, and debated as a political abolitionist tract.

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Stowe drew inspiration for the Uncle Tom character from several sources. The best-known of these was Josiah Henson, an ex-slave whose autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, was originally published in 1849 and later republished in two extensively revised editions after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson was enslaved at birth in 1789. He became a Christian at age eighteen and took up preaching. Henson attempted to purchase his freedom for $450, but after selling his personal assets to raise $350 and signing a promissory note for the remainder Henson’s owner raised the price to $1000; Henson was unable to prove that the original agreement had been for a lesser amount. Shortly afterward Henson was ordered on a trip south to New Orleans, and when he learned that he was to be sold there he obtained a weapon and contemplated murdering his white companions, but decided against violence because his Christian morals forbade it. A sudden illness in one of his companions forced their return to Kentucky, and shortly afterward Henson escaped north with his family, settling in Canada where he became a civic leader.

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Southern plantations were noted for their cooking, and their recipes carried on after the Civil War as what is now classic Southern cuisine. A great many plantation cooks were slave women who created a style that was an amalgam of African and European traditions which was enormously varied across the South. I’ve given a number of recipes here before for hush puppies, hoppin’ John, burgoo, and the like – all personal favorites from my days living in the swamps of North Carolina. Here’s a more upscale recipe from South Carolina still popular today as a summer dish.

Dilled Rice and Shrimp salad

Ingredients

2 cups cooked long-grain white rice
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly chopped dill, plus extra for garnish
salt and pepper
¼ cup chopped green onions, plus extra for garnish
¼ cup sliced radishes
½ lb. cooked and shelled medium shrimp
1 lemon

Instructions

Combine the oil, vinegar, dill, and salt and pepper to taste in a blender or food processor, and blend until you have a fine emulsion.

Place the rice in a large mixing bowl and pour over the oil and vinegar dressing. Mix well. Add the shrimp and radishes and toss lightly. Cover the bowl and chill for several hours.

Serve with a garnish of fresh dill and green onions and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. You may need to toss the salad to separate the rice after refrigeration.