Sep 282018

Today is generally accepted to be the birthday (551 BCE) of the Chinese philosopher known in English as Confucius. Confucius is traditionally credited with having written or edited numerous Chinese classic texts, but modern scholars are cautious about attributing specific works to Confucius himself. Confucius’ stated principles have much in common with Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, recommending the family as a basis for ideal government. His teaching and philosophy have influenced people around the world. If you wish you can skip down below the biography which follows here and read about Confucian philosophy and its application to cooking.

The name “Confucius” is a Latinized form of the Mandarin Chinese “Kǒng Fūzǐ” (孔夫子, meaning “Master Kong” – often shortened nowadays to “孔子” Kǒng Zǐ – also intrinsically meaning “Master Kong” but is now simply a name in much the same way that all Chinese names have a literal meaning which is not particularly emphasized in everyday speech), and was coined in the late 16th century by the early Jesuit missionaries to China. Confucius’s clan name was “Kǒng” (孔; Old Chinese: *kʰˤoŋʔ), and his given name was “Qiū” (丘; OC: *kʷʰə). His “capping name”, given upon reaching adulthood and by which he would have been known to all but his older family members, was “Zhòngní” (仲尼; OC: *N-truŋ-s nrəj), the “Zhòng” indicating that he was the second son in his family.

Confucius was born in the district of Zou (鄒邑) near present-day Qufu in China. The area was notionally controlled by the kings of Zhou but effectively independent under the local lords of Lu. His father Kong He (孔紇) or Shuliang He (叔梁紇) was an elderly commandant of the local Lu garrison. His ancestry traced back through the dukes of Song to the Shang dynasty which had preceded the Zhou. Traditional accounts of Confucius’s life relate that Kong He’s grandfather had migrated the family from Song to Lu.

Kong He died when Confucius was 3 years old, and Confucius was raised by his mother Yan Zhengzai (顏徵在) in poverty. His mother was less than 40 when she died. At age 19 Confucius married Qiguan (亓官), and a year later the couple had their first child, Kong Li (孔鯉). They later had two daughters together, one of whom is thought to have died as a child. Confucius was educated at schools for commoners, where he studied and learned the Six Arts: Rites (禮), Music (樂), Archery (射), Charioteering (御), Calligraphy (書), and Mathematics (數).

Confucius was born into the class of shi (士), between the aristocracy and the common people. He is said to have worked in various government jobs during his early 20s, and as a bookkeeper and a caretaker of sheep and horses, using the proceeds to give his mother a proper burial. When his mother died, Confucius (aged 23) is said to have mourned for three years, as was the tradition.

In Confucius’s time, the state of Lu was headed by a ruling ducal house. Under the duke were three aristocratic families, whose heads bore the title of viscount (all noble titles used here are English equivalents of old Chinese terms) and held hereditary positions in the Lu bureaucracy. The Ji family held the position “Minister over the Masses”, who was also the “Prime Minister”; the Meng family held the position “Minister of Works”; and the Shu family held the position “Minister of War”. In the winter of 505 BC, Yang Hu—a retainer of the Ji family—rose up in rebellion and seized power from the Ji family. However, by the summer of 501 BCE, the three hereditary families had succeeded in expelling Yang Hu from Lu. By then, Confucius had built up a considerable reputation through his teachings, and families came to see the value of proper conduct and righteousness, so they could maintain loyalty to a legitimate government. Thus, that year Confucius came to be appointed to the minor position of governor of a town. Eventually, he rose to the position of Minister of Crime.

Confucius desired to return the authority of the state to the duke by dismantling the fortifications of the city—strongholds belonging to the three families. This way, he could establish a centralized government. However, Confucius relied solely on diplomacy as he had no military authority himself. In 500 BCE, Hou Fan—the governor of Hou—revolted against his lord of the Shu family. Although the Meng and Shu families unsuccessfully besieged Hou, a loyalist official rose up with the people of Hou and forced Hou Fan to flee to the Qi state. The situation may have been in favor for Confucius as this likely made it possible for Confucius and his disciples to convince the aristocratic families to dismantle the fortifications of their cities. Eventually, after a year and a half, Confucius and his disciples succeeded in convincing the Shu family to raze the walls of Hou, the Ji family in razing the walls of Bi, and the Meng family in razing the walls of Cheng. First, the Shu family led an army towards their city Hou and tore down its walls in 498 BCE.

Soon thereafter, Gongshan Furao or Buniu, a retainer of the Ji family, revolted and took control of the forces at Bi. He immediately launched an attack and entered the capital Lu. Earlier, Gongshan had approached Confucius to join him, which Confucius considered. Even though he disapproved the use of a violent revolution, the Ji family dominated the Lu state force for generations and had exiled the previous duke. Although he wanted the opportunity to put his principles into practice, Confucius gave up on this idea in the end. Gongshan was generally considered an upright man who continued to defend the state of Lu, even after he was forced to flee.

During the revolt by Gongshan, Zhong You (仲由) had managed to keep the duke and the three viscounts together at the court. Zhong You was one of the disciples of Confucius, and Confucius had arranged for him to be given the position of governor by the Ji family. When Confucius heard of the raid, he requested that Viscount Ji Huan allow the duke and his court to retreat to a stronghold on his palace grounds. Thereafter, the heads of the three families and the duke retreated to the Ji’s palace complex and ascended the Wuzi Terrace. Confucius ordered two officers to lead an assault against the rebels. At least one of the two officers was a retainer of the Ji family, but they were unable to refuse the orders while in the presence of the duke, viscounts, and court. The rebels were pursued and defeated at Gu. Immediately after the revolt was defeated, the Ji family razed the Bi city walls to the ground.

The attackers retreated after realizing that they would have to become rebels against the state and their lord. Through Confucius’s actions, the Bi officials had inadvertently revolted against their own lord, thus forcing Viscount Ji Huan’s hand in having to dismantle the walls of Bi (as it could have harbored such rebels) or confess to instigating the event by going against proper conduct and righteousness as an official. The incident brought to light Confucius’ foresight, practical political ability, and insight into human character.

When it was time to dismantle the city walls of the Meng family, the governor was reluctant to have his city walls torn down and convinced the head of the Meng family not to do so. The Zuo Zhuan recalls that the governor advised against razing the walls as he believed that this would make Cheng vulnerable to the Qi state and cause the destruction of the Meng family. Even though viscount Meng Yi gave his word not to interfere with an attempt, he went back on his earlier promise to dismantle the walls.

Later in 498 BCE, duke Ding personally went with an army to lay siege to Cheng in an attempt to raze its walls to the ground, but he did not succeed. Thus, Confucius could not achieve the idealistic reforms that he wanted including restoration of the legitimate rule of the duke. He had made powerful enemies within the state, especially with viscount Ji Huan, due to his successes so far. According to accounts in the  traditional records, Zuo Zhuan and Shiji, Confucius departed his homeland in 497 BCE after his support for the failed attempt of dismantling the fortified city walls of the powerful Ji, Meng, and Shu families. He left the state of Lu without resigning, remaining in self-exile and unable to return as long as viscount Ji Huan was alive.

The Shiji stated that the neighboring Qi state was worried that Lu was becoming too powerful while Confucius was involved in the government of the Lu state. According to this account, Qi decided to sabotage Lu’s reforms by sending 100 good horses and 80 beautiful dancing girls to the duke of Lu. The duke indulged himself in pleasure and did not attend to official duties for three days. Confucius was disappointed and resolved to leave Lu and seek better opportunities, yet to leave at once would expose the misbehavior of the duke and therefore bring public humiliation to the ruler Confucius was serving. Confucius therefore waited for the duke to make a lesser mistake. Soon after, the duke neglected to send to Confucius a portion of the sacrificial meat that was his due according to custom, and Confucius seized upon this pretext to leave both his post and the Lu state.

After Confucius’ resignation, he began a long journey or set of journeys around the principality states of north-east and central China including Wey, Song, Zheng, Cao, Chu, Qi, Chen, and Cai (and a failed attempt to go to Jin). At the courts of these states, he expounded his political beliefs but did not see them implemented.

According to the Zuo Zhuan, Confucius returned home to his native Lu when he was 68, after he was invited to do so by Ji Kangzi, the chief minister of Lu. The Analects depict him spending his last years teaching 72 or 77 disciples and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of texts called the Five Classics. These are:

Classic of Poetry

A collection of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs, 105 festal songs sung at court ceremonies, and 40 hymns and eulogies sung at sacrifices to heroes and ancestral spirits of the royal house.

Book of Documents

A collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It is possibly the oldest Chinese narrative, and may date from the 6th century BCE. It includes examples of early Chinese prose.

Book of Rites

Describes ancient rites, social forms and court ceremonies. The version studied today is a re-worked version compiled by scholars in the 3rd century BCE rather than the original text, which is said to have been edited by Confucius himself.

I Ching (Book of Changes)

The book contains a, now, well known divination system. In Western cultures and modern East Asia, it is still widely used for this purpose.

Spring and Autumn Annals

An historical record of the State of Lu, Confucius’s native state, 722–481 BCE.

During his return, Confucius sometimes acted as an advisor to several government officials in Lu, including Ji Kangzi, on matters including governance and crime. Burdened by the loss of both his son and his favorite disciples, Confucius died at the age of 71 or 72. He died from natural causes. Confucius was buried in Kong Lin cemetery which lies in the historical part of Qufu in the Shandong Province. The original tomb erected there in memory of Confucius on the bank of the Sishui River had the shape of an axe. In addition, it has a raised brick platform at the front of the memorial for offerings such as sandalwood incense and fruit.

Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, many argue that its values are secular and that it is, therefore, less a religion than a secular morality. Proponents argue, however, that despite the secular nature of Confucianism’s teachings, it is based on a worldview that is religious. Confucianism discusses elements of the afterlife and views concerning Heaven, but it is relatively unconcerned with some spiritual matters which you might consider essential to religious thought, such as the nature of souls. However, Confucius is said to have believed in astrology, saying: “Heaven sends down its good or evil symbols and wise men act accordingly”.

In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a “transmitter who invented nothing”. He puts the greatest emphasis on the importance of study, and it is the Chinese character for study (學) that opens the text. Far from trying to build a systematic or formalist theory, he wanted his disciples to master and internalize older classics, so that their deep thought and thorough study would allow them to relate the moral problems of the present to past political events (as recorded in the Annals) or the past expressions of commoners’ feelings and noblemen’s reflections (as in the poems of the Book of Odes).

His moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules. Confucian ethics may, therefore, be considered a type of virtue ethics. His teachings rarely rely on reasoned argument, and ethical ideals and methods are conveyed indirectly, through allusion, innuendo, and even tautology. His teachings require examination and context to be understood. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:

廄焚。子退朝,曰:“傷人乎?” 不問馬。

“When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court Confucius said, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.” By not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrates that the sage values human beings over property; readers are led to reflect on whether their response would follow Confucius’ and to pursue self-improvement if it would not have. Confucius not serve as the prophet of a deity, and his teachings are not understood as a universally true set of abstract principles. Rather he is represented as the ultimate model for others. Many commentators therefore consider Confucius’ teachings to be a Chinese example of humanism.

One of his teachings was a variant of the Golden Rule, sometimes called the “Silver Rule” owing to its negative form:


“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”


Zi Gong [a disciple] asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”

The Master replied: “How about ‘reciprocity’! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Often overlooked in Confucian ethics are the virtues to the self: sincerity and the cultivation of knowledge. Virtuous action towards others begins with virtuous and sincere thought, which begins with knowledge. A virtuous disposition without knowledge is susceptible to corruption, and virtuous action without sincerity is not true righteousness. Cultivating knowledge and sincerity is also important for one’s own sake; the superior person loves learning for the sake of learning and righteousness for the sake of righteousness. Words to live by !!! I am not in any sense a Confucian scholar or disciple (although I have studied his works), but in one way or another I adhere to these principles.

No recipe today, but instead Confucian principles related to food (which are followed in China, but not always in Chinese restaurants outside of China). The philosophy of Confucius is deeply reflected in Chinese food culture to this day. He attached great importance to food and described it as one of the three basic conditions, along with an army and trust, for founding a state. It is said that Confucius helped to bring perfect taste to Chinese food by developing proper cooking techniques.

Confucian food basics:
  • Food should be served in small or chopped pieces
  • The taste of any dish depends on proper mixing of all of its ingredients and condiments
  • Taste of individual elements does not have great importance in food, but fine blending of ingredients results in great taste and dishes in meals must be compatible
  • Blending of food also results in harmony and is an important part of the philosophy; without harmony foods cannot taste good
Confucius recommends:
  • Eat only at meal times
  • Don’t eat food that smells bad
  • Don’t consume food that is not well cooked
  • Eat fresh and local; do not eat food out of season
  • Don’t eat when the sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared
  • Eat ginger but in moderation so as to not increase the internal heat of the body
  • Know the origin or source of your food
  • The way you cut your food reflects the way you live
  • Meat should be eaten in moderation
  • Eat only until seven tenths full; control in portions promotes longevity
  • You need not limit drinking, but do not drink to the point of confusion
  • Hygiene is essential in food preparation




Nov 012017

Today is the birthday (1871) of Stephen Crane who was a prolific novelist, poet, and short story writer during his short life. He wrote notable works in what is now called the American Realist tradition as well as early examples of American Naturalism and Impressionism. I knew nothing about Crane until I moved to Orange County, New York near to Port Jervis where he grew up. He’s well known in the U.S. for The Red Badge of Courage, a stark portrayal of a battle during the American Civil War that was quite at odds with the writing of the time because of its unflinching description of the horrors of battle. I expect the book is (or was) required reading in high school literature classes, but American literature passed me by in its totality when I was in secondary school. Things may have changed. As soon as I lived near Port Jervis, and traveled there all the time for shopping and business, it was impossible to avoid Crane’s aura.

Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, to Jonathan Townley Crane, a minister in the Methodist Episcopal church, and Mary Helen Peck Crane, daughter of a clergyman. He was the 14th and last child born to the couple. Nine survived to adulthood. The young Stephen was raised primarily by his sister Agnes, who was 15 years his senior. The family moved to Port Jervis, New York, in 1876, where his father became the pastor of Drew Methodist Church, a position that he retained until his death.

As a child, Stephen was often sickly and afflicted by constant colds. Despite his fragile nature, Crane was an intelligent child who taught himself to read before the age of four. Crane was not regularly enrolled in school until January 1880, but he had no difficulty in completing two grades in six weeks. Recalling this feat, he wrote that it “sounds like the lie of a fond mother at a teaparty, but I do remember that I got ahead very fast and that father was very pleased with me.”

Crane’s father died on February 16, 1880, at the age of 60; Stephen was 8 years old. After her husband’s death, Crane’s mother moved to Roseville, near Newark, leaving Stephen in the care of his older brother Edmund who lived in Sussex County, New Jersey. He next lived with his brother William, a lawyer, in Port Jervis for several years. His older sister Helen took him to Asbury Park to be with their brother Townley and his wife, Fannie. Townley was a professional journalist who headed the Long Branch department of both the New-York Tribune and the Associated Press, and also served as editor of the Asbury Park Shore Press. Agnes, another Crane sister, joined the siblings in New Jersey. She took a position at Asbury Park’s intermediate school and moved in with Helen to care for the young Stephen.

Within a couple of years, the Crane family suffered more losses. First, Townley and his wife lost their two young children. His wife Fannie died of Bright’s disease in November 1883. Agnes Crane became ill and died on June 10, 1884, of meningitis at the age of 28. In late 1885 Crane enrolled at Pennington Seminary, a ministry-focused coeducational boarding school 7 miles (11 km) north of Trenton. His father had been principal there from 1849 to 1858. In 1886 Luther Crane, another of Stephen’s siblings, died after falling in front of an oncoming train while working as a flagman for the Erie Railroad. It was the fourth death in six years among Stephen’s immediate family.

After two years, Crane left Pennington for Claverack College, a quasi-military school. He later looked back on his time at Claverack as “the happiest period of my life although I was not aware of it.” While he held an impressive record on the drill field and baseball diamond, Crane generally did not excel in the classroom. Not having a middle name, as was customary among other students, he took to signing his name “Stephen T. Crane” in order “to win recognition as a regular fellow.” Crane was seen as friendly, but also moody and rebellious. He sometimes skipped class in order to play baseball in which he was a star catcher. He was also greatly interested in the school’s military training program. He rose rapidly in the ranks of the student battalion.

In mid-1888, Crane became his brother Townley’s assistant at a New Jersey shore news bureau, working there every summer until 1892. Crane’s first publication under his byline was an article on the explorer Henry M. Stanley’s famous quest to find the Scottish missionary David Livingstone in Africa. It appeared in the February 1890 Claverack College Vidette. Within a few months, Crane was persuaded by his family to forgo a military career and transfer to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, in order to pursue a mining engineering degree. He registered at Lafayette on September 12, and promptly became involved in extracurricular activities. He took up baseball again and joined the largest fraternity, Delta Upsilon. He infrequently attended classes and ended the semester with grades for only four of the seven courses he had enrolled in. After one semester, he transferred to Syracuse University, where he enrolled as a non-degree candidate in the College of Liberal Arts. He roomed in the Delta Upsilon fraternity house and joined the baseball team. He attended just one class (English Literature) during the middle trimester, and remained in residence while taking no courses in the third trimester.

He focused on his writing while at Syracuse and began to experiment with tone and style while trying out different subjects. He published his fictional story, “Great Bugs of Onondaga,” simultaneously in the Syracuse Daily Standard and the New York Tribune. Having declared college “a waste of time” he decided to become a full-time writer and reporter. He attended a Delta Upsilon chapter meeting on June 12, 1891, but shortly thereafter left college for good. It’s getting quite normal for me to write that a famous author or writer quit school at a young age because he (or she) was fed up with its limitations. It’s less possible in the sciences and technical fields these days, but was the norm in these fields also at one time because education was dominated by Latin and Greek, with theology thrown in for good measure down to the 19th century.

Crane lived for only 9 years after college, but his life was packed with adventure. You can read about that on your own. I’ll, instead talk about The Red Badge of Courage and the role Port Jervis played in the writing of it. Not only did Crane spend significant portions of his boyhood in Port Jervis, he was a frequent visitor as an adult, staying with his brother, William. The house where William lived and practiced law on East Main Street is still used as law offices: now one of the grand old buildings in a part of the city that are too expensive to be used as private dwellings. In its heyday Port Jervis was a prosperous, thriving, bustling city located on a key turn in the Delaware and Hudson canal (hence the “port” part) which ran from Honesdale on the eastern tip of the coal fields of Pennsylvania to Kingston, New York, on the Hudson. The canal supplied coal to New York city (via the Hudson river), fueling the Industrial Revolution there. It was also the conduit for all manner of supplies such as bluestone, used as paving stones and building materials for the city, fine glassware and crystal, and a host of manufactured goods. The canal followed the Delaware river eastwards to Port Jervis, then struck north to Kingston. Until the canal was built Port Jervis did not exist as anything other than a minor village on the junction of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Afterwards it was a major center for manufacturing and commerce. In Crane’s time the city was in its absolute heyday

Drew Methodist church, where Crane’s father was pastor and where the Crane family lived, is adjacent to one of the city’s parks, now called Veteran’s Park, with various monuments to the 124th New York State Volunteers, generally known as the Orange Blossoms, who fought in major campaigns in the American Civil War, and who were recruited in major urban centers of Orange County, especially Port Jervis. Local tradition has it that Crane spent time, both as a boy and as an adult, listening to tales of war from veterans in that park. In fact, it used to be called Stephen Crane Memorial Park until 1983 when the name was changed because locals objected to it because they felt that The Red Badge of Courage was a disservice to the memory of civil war veterans, many of whose descendants still live in Port Jervis. No comment.

The central battle in The Red Badge of Courage is not named, but historians universally agree that it is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Chancellorsville where the Orange Blossoms served with distinction. You’ll have to read the book, if you haven’t already, to get the general feeling of it. Here’s some morsels:

He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try and read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.

The youth took note of a remarkable change in his comrade since those days of camp life upon the river bank. He seemed no more to be continually regarding the proportions of his personal prowess. He was not furious at small words that pricked his conceits. He was no more a loud young soldier. There was about him now a fine reliance. He showed a quiet belief in his purposes and his abilities. And this inward confidence evidently enabled him to be indifferent to little words of other men aimed at him.

It was perhaps that they dreaded to be killed in insignificant ways after the times for proper military deaths had passed. Or, perhaps, they thought it would be too ironical to get killed at the portals of safety.

Even today readers marvel at the accuracy with which Crane was able to portray the inner feelings of soldiers in war time even though he had no experience of combat. Without question he spent long hours talking to veterans, probably in Port Jervis, and elsewhere.

Camp cooking during the American Civil War has been analyzed many times. The big problem at the start of the war was that the soldiers had no experience with cooking. Men didn’t cook at home in those days – end of story. In consequence the army had to devise a strategy to keep the men as well fed as possible. One solution was to divide the soldiers into mess units of 100 with a man appointed as main cook with another man helping on a rotating basis. For general reference to help the cooks Captain James Sanderson wrote Camp Fires and Camp Cooking; or, Culinary Hints for the Soldier. You can find the complete text as a .pdf file here: 

The recipes are not bad and can easily be replicated at home. They are very detailed to help novice cooks, unlike other cookbooks of the era than were written for chefs and home cooks with some experience. I cooked in much the same over my fire pit in Orange County, not thinking at the time that I was re-enacting battlefield cooking. A few excerpts:


Remember that beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder. In cooking, more than in anything else in this world, always make haste slowly. One hour too much is vastly better than five minutes too little, with rare exceptions. A big fire scorches your soup, burns your face, and crisps your temper. Skim, simmer, and scour, are the true secrets of good cooking.


Never serve beans until they have been soaked over night. At eight o’clock in the morning, put eight quarts into two kettles, and fill up with clean cold water. Boil constantly, over a brisk fire, for an hour or more, during which many of the beans will rise to the top. At the end of this time, take the kettles off the fire for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then pour off all the water, replacing it with fresh clean water. Add to each kettle a pound of parboiled pork, without rind, and boil continuously for an hour and a half longer.

At quarter past eight o’clock, fill three kettles loosely with pieces of pork weighing from three to five pounds, cover with water, and boil briskly for one hour; then pour off all the liquid, and fill up with clean hot water, and boil for one hour and a half longer; then take out all the pork, and lay it aside. Take out also one-half of the beans from the other kettles, placing them aside for breakfast next morning, and add to the remainder the liquor in which the pork was boiled. To each kettle add also two onions chopped or sliced, with plenty of black or red pepper, some salt, and a tablespoonful of vinegar. After fifteen minutes’ longer boiling, mash the beans with a wooden stick made for the purpose, and serve, with a slice of pork, in a separate dish.

If onions are plenty, mince fine eight or ten of them, fry them in a pan with a little flour and fat, with half a pint hot water, and the same quantity of the liquor in which the pork was boiled. After cooking five minutes, add pepper, salt, and half a glass of vinegar, and pour over the slices of pork.



Oct 082017

Today is the birthday of Narapati Sithu ( နရပတိ စည်သူ) also known Sithu II or Cansu II (1138–1211), famed king of the waning Pagan dynasty of Burma/Myanmar from 1174 to 1211. I’ll give you some highlights of his reign after I dribble on a little about ethnicity, nationalism, language and whatnot – rather ironically, the day after I left Myanmar for Cambodia. At least the particulars are still fresh in my mind. Let’s look first at words such as “Burma” and “Myanmar” in the light of what they mean politically and in the context of nationalism.

Myanmar, like most other modern nations, is riven by ethnic strife that is centuries old. Whether you call the country Burma or Myanmar you are referring to the currently dominant ethnicity in a multi-ethnic nation. The military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades referred to the nation as the UNION of Myanmar, with accompanying slogans emphasizing the need for unity amidst the ethnic diversity and division that continues to this day.  Easy words when you belong to the ruling ethnicity. All nations (and empires) deal with the complexities of ethnicity: sometimes peaceably, sometimes not. Language is quite often the defining characteristic of ethnicity. For Westerners (especially my students of old), my usual illustration is to point out that what is usually called standard Spanish or French or Italian (or English for that matter), is no more than a dialect in a spectrum of dialects that came to be called “standard” because the people who spoke it had all the power: Florentine in Italy, Castilian in Spain, Parisian in France (and London English in England). Amidst those dialects of a single language (which are sometimes barely mutually intelligible) you’ve also got groups who speak completely different languages. In the contemporary UK, for example, you still have isolated pockets of speakers of both Gaelic and Norse languages dotted around the fringes, barely holding on in an ocean of standard English that floods media, government, law, and the like.  Nowadays you won’t find any native speakers of these languages who don’t also speak English, but centuries ago it was a different matter. In the 18th century in Great Britain there were plenty of people who could not speak English, but instead grew up speaking Norn or Manx, or Cornish or what have you. The situation changed considerably over the years through forced enculturation, but you can also understand how that would lead to resentment as local cultures succumbed to pressures from the dominant culture.

Thus, whether you think of the country as Burma or Myanmar you are using the name, not of a country as such, but of the currently dominant ethnicity – called Burmans in English. Narapati Sithu was largely responsible for this state of affairs, although a lot has happened since his reign. The Kingdom of Pagan (pronounced Bagan) was the first kingdom to unify the regions that came to constitute modern-day Burma/Myanmar. Pagan’s 250-year rule over the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery laid the foundation for the ascent of Burmese language and culture, the spread of Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma, and the growth of Theravada Buddhism in Burma and in mainland Southeast Asia. The kingdom grew out of a small 9th-century settlement at Pagan (Bagan) by the Mranma (Burmans), who had recently entered the Irrawaddy valley from the Kingdom of Nanzhao centered on Dali in what is now Yunnan province in China . Over the next two hundred years, the small principality gradually grew to absorb its surrounding regions until the 1050s and 1060s when King Anawrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom, for the first time unifying under one polity the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. By the late 12th century Anawrahta’s successors – especially Narapati Sithu, had extended their influence farther to the south into the upper Malay peninsula, to the east at least to the Salween river, in the farther north to below the current China border, and to the west, in northern Arakan and the Chin Hills. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Pagan, alongside the Khmer Empire, was one of two main empires in mainland Southeast Asia. The Burmese language and culture gradually became dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley, eclipsing the Pyu, Mon and Pali norms by the late 12th century. Theravada Buddhism slowly began to spread to the village level although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. Pagan’s rulers built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Pagan capital zone of which over 2000 remain. The wealthy donated tax-free land to religious authorities, and this practice was one of the primary cause of the collapse of the Pagan dynasty because religious leaders ended up with more wealth and power than the kings.

Narapati Sithu’s reign saw many firsts in Burmese history. For the first time, the term Mranma (the Burmans) was openly used in Burmese language inscriptions. The Burmese script became the primary script of the kingdom, replacing Mon and Pyu scripts. The first Burmese customary law based on his grandfather Alaungsithu’s judgments was compiled, and used as the common system of law for the entire kingdom. He founded the Royal Palace Guards, which later evolved to become the nucleus of the Burmese army in war time. He encouraged further reforms of the Burmese Buddhism. By the efforts of his primate Shin Uttarajiva, the majority of the Burmese Buddhist monks realigned themselves with the Mahavihara school of Ceylon.

Sithu II died in 1211 and during the reign of his descendants the region fragmented into ethnic pockets. Nonetheless, the process of “Burmanization”, which continued into the 19th century and the British colonial period, and eventually blanketed the entire lowlands, was still in an early stage. The first extant Burmese language reference to “Burmans” appeared only in 1190, and the first reference to Upper Burma as “the land of the Burmans” (Myanma pyay) in 1235. The notion of ethnicity continued to be highly fluid, and closely tied to political power. While the rise of Ava kingdom (1364 to 1555) ensured the continued spread of Burman ethnicity in post-Pagan Upper Burma, the similar emergence of non-Burmese speaking kingdoms elsewhere helped develop ethnic consciousness closely tied to respective ruling classes in Lower Burma, Shan states and Arakan.  In fact, the idea of Mons, for example, as a coherent ethnicity in the region, probably emerged only in the 14th and 15th centuries following a periodic collapse of Upper Burman hegemony.

I’ve already explained the impossibility of cooking Myanmar dishes outside of Myanmar.  Here’s a video that will help you understand.  The cook is from Bago, center of Mon culture, but lives on Inle lake.

Dec 012016


According to some sources, the world’s first moving assembly line began operation at the Henry Ford Company in 1913.  The actual date of initial operation is subject to debate, but I’ll use this one. The moving assembly line was a monumental revolution in the production of cars, and, ultimately in mass production in general. On the positive side, I suppose, the moving assembly line was a giant leap forward in producing relatively inexpensive cars for the masses, and his methods were known at the time as Fordism. On the not-so-positive side, Ford’s innovation spawned repetitive, dull labor, mass consumption of identical cars, and traffic jams. I’m a colossal fan of handmade goods and public transport.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T

The main point to understand is that Ford did not invent the assembly line; that has a very long history. He invented the moving assembly line. The assembly line in general is practically as old as civilization. Any system in which a product moves from one person to the next for the addition of components is an assembly line. So, for example, in a professional kitchen a plate can move from the roast station to the vegetable station to the sauce station and then out to the diner. Three different chefs have added a component to make the plate complete. Ford made several changes to increase efficiency and speed in assembly. First, he standardized the components; second he standardized the actions on the assembly line; and third he created a constantly moving conveyer belt so that the cars moved from one assembly point to the next. His innovation cut the assembly time for a car from about 12 hours by hand to about 2½ hours on the moving line.


With mass produced standard parts there was no time wasted getting components to fit, as there is in hand manufacture. Building a car using Ford’s method is just like building a house using lego blocks. Every component fits where it should on the car because the car has a completely uniform construction, which means that every car is identical and all the parts are interchangeable. The components are fitted together in carefully regulated steps. Ford had time and motion experts calculate the precise number of steps (87) needed to construct a car, as well as the order and most efficient way to organize the construction. The moving conveyer belt meant that the cars under construction moved from station to station where workers had the parts ready to attach. The workers were trained in the one task each had to manage so they could perform it quickly. In consequence a car rolled off the assembly line every 3 minutes. That’s great for mass production, but not so great in other ways.


Assembly line production in this manner has two major flaws, in my opinion. First, it produces endless copies of the original model. Ford is famous for saying that you could have the model-T in any color you wanted as long as it’s black.  Nowadays assembly line production has some variety built in but in Ford’s day it was the continual production of identical models that was one key to low cost. In addition, Ford’s innovation made labor repetitive (that is, boring). If you are trained to fit driver-side doors on the cars, that’s all you do 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. That reduced Ford’s labor costs, because such work is not skilled labor, and, like parts, one line worker can easily be replaced by another if one gets sick or is inefficient. Ford paid decent wages and the work was steady because demand for his cars was high. But the work itself was dehumanizing.

Ford’s production methods not only revolutionized production, but revolutionized culture in general. You have to decide whether the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa. I’ve done assembly-line work and it’s not for me. The job was well paid, but the days at work robbed my soul of creativity and dignity. I became a slave to production at the expense of my humanity. The inhumanity of the moving assembly line is famously parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times:

Like industrial production, assembly-line cooking has its pluses and minuses. At its worst we end up with mass-produced fast food that may be cheap but has few redeeming features beyond filling an empty belly. But assembly-line cooking is not all bad, and sometimes results in something special. As the name implies a line cook is a cook working on a culinary assembly line, and busy restaurants, even the fanciest, cannot always produce every dish, one plate at a time assembled by a single cook.


At home I occasionally need to use assembly line techniques, especially when I am cooking for a crowd, and pretty much always when I am having a dinner party. Cooking shows on television often make a big deal out of plating a meal. I don’t do that at home. I do not assemble plates in the kitchen and then bring them to the dining table ready to eat. My guests have empty plates and I bring all the dishes to the table. They then circulate, and guests help themselves as the different components pass. So it’s like an assembly line except in this case it is the components that move and the finished product stays in one place. The finished product is not as elegant as it would be if I made each dish in the kitchen, but the seeming paradox here is that by using a moving assembly line for all the components, each diner’s plate is unique. Assembly lines do not have to result in identical products.

There is also a certain amount of efficiency to using assembly line methods in the kitchen. So, for example, if I have 4 apples to peel, core, and slice. I could peel, core and slice the first, then the second, and so on, and that’s what I used to do for a long time. But now I peel all 4, then core all 4, then slice all 4. When I managed a catering company and when I directed church suppers, we always had assembly lines.

Here’s a very efficient assembly line in Thailand:

May 112015


The Diamond Sūtra is a Mahāyāna (Buddhist) sūtra from the Prajñāpāramitā, or “Perfection of Wisdom” genre, and emphasizes the practice of non-abiding and non-attachment. The full Sanskrit title of this text is the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

A copy of the Chinese version of Diamond Sūtra, found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century by Aurel Stein, was dated back to May 11, 868. It is, in the words of the British Library, “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.” The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, which may be translated roughly as the “Vajra Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra.” In English, shortened forms such as Diamond Sūtra and Vajra Sūtra are common. The Diamond Sūtra has also been highly regarded in a number of Asian countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism has been traditionally practiced. The full history of the text remains unknown, but Japanese scholars generally consider the Diamond Sūtra to be from a very early date in the development of Prajñāpāramitā literature. Some western scholars also believe that the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra was adapted from the earlier Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.


The first translation of the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese is thought to have been made in 401 CE by the venerated and prolific translator Kumārajīva. Kumārajīva’s translation style is distinctive, possessing a flowing smoothness that reflects his desire to convey the meaning as opposed to giving a precise literal rendering. The Kumārajīva translation has been particularly highly regarded over the centuries, and it is this version that appears on the 868 CE Dunhuang scroll. In addition to the Kumārajīva translation, a number of later translations exist. The Diamond Sūtra was again translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Bodhiruci in 509 CE, Paramārtha in 558 CE, Xuanzang in 648 CE, and Yijing in 703 CE.


The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited a Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda monastery at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in the 7th century CE. Using Xuanzang’s travel accounts, modern archaeologists have identified the site of this monastery. Birchbark manuscript fragments of several Mahāyāna sūtras have been discovered at the site, including the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (MS 2385), and these are now part of the Schøyen Collection. This manuscript was written in Sanskrit, and written in an ornate form of the Gupta script. This same Sanskrit manuscript also contains the Medicine Buddha Sūtra (Bhaiṣajyaguruvaiḍūryaprabhārāja Sūtra).

The Diamond Sūtra gave rise to a culture of artwork, sūtra veneration, and commentaries in East Asian Buddhism. By the end of the Tang Dynasty (907) in China there were over 800 commentaries written on it. One of the best known commentaries is the Exegesis on the Diamond Sutra by Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School.

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The Diamond Sūtra, like many Buddhist sūtras, begins with the phrase “Thus have I heard” (Skt. evaṃ mayā śrutam). In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest. Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha a question. There follows a dialogue regarding the nature of perception. The Buddha often uses paradoxical phrases such as, “Subhuti, that which is called the Buddha Dharma is not the Buddha Dharma; therefore it is called the Buddha Dharma”. The Buddha is generally thought to be trying to help Subhūti unlearn his preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality and enlightenment. Emphasizing that all forms, thoughts and conceptions are ultimately illusory, he teaches that true enlightenment cannot be grasped through them; they must be set aside. In his commentary on the Diamond Sūtra, Hsing Yun describes the four main points from the sūtra as giving without attachment to self, liberating beings without notions of self and other, living without attachment, and cultivating without attainment.

Throughout the teaching, the Buddha repeats that successful assimilation of even a four-line extract of it is of incalculable merit and can bring about enlightenment. Section 26 also ends with a famous four-line gatha.

All conditioned phenomena
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
Like dew or a flash of lightning;
Thus we shall perceive them.


There is a wood block printed copy in the British Library which, although not the earliest example of block printing, is the earliest example which bears an actual date. The book displays a great maturity of design and layout and speaks of a considerable ancestry for woodblock printing. The extant copy has the form of a scroll, about 5 meters (16 ft) long. The archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein purchased it in 1907 in the walled-up Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in northwest China from a monk guarding the caves – known as the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”.

Here are a few extracts:

All living beings, whether born from eggs, from the womb, from moisture, or spontaneously; whether they have form or do not have form; whether they are aware or unaware, whether they are not aware or not unaware, all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated. Why Subhuti? Because if a disciple still clings to the arbitrary illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not an authentic disciple.

Furthermore, Subhuti, in the practice of compassion and charity a disciple should be detached. That is to say, he should practice compassion and charity without regard to appearances, without regard to form, without regard to sound, smell, taste, touch, or any quality of any kind. Subhuti, this is how the disciple should practice compassion and charity. Why? Because practicing compassion and charity without attachment is the way to reaching the Highest Perfect Wisdom, it is the way to becoming a living Buddha. [Sounds a lot like the Sermon on the Mount !!]

When the Buddha explains these things using such concepts and ideas, people should remember the unreality of all such concepts and ideas. They should recall that in teaching spiritual truths the Buddha always uses these concepts and ideas in the way that a raft is used to cross a river. Once the river has been crossed over, the raft is of no more use, and should be discarded. These arbitrary concepts and ideas about spiritual things need to be explained to us as we seek to attain Enlightenment. However, ultimately these arbitrary conceptions can be discarded. Think Subhuti, isn’t it even more obvious that we should also give up our conceptions of non-existent things? [Interesting. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed so many times – including by Witgenstein.]

Buddha then asked, “What do you think, Subhuti, does one who has entered the stream which flows to Enlightenment, say ‘I have entered the stream’?”

“No, Buddha”, Subhuti replied. “A true disciple entering the stream would not think of themselves as a separate person that could be entering anything. Only that disciple who does not differentiate themselves from others, who has no regard for name, shape, sound, odor, taste, touch or for any quality can truly be called a disciple who has entered the stream.”

The full text in English is here:

The colophon, at the inner end of the book reads:

Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [11 May 868].

In 2010 UK writer and historian Frances Wood, head of the Chinese section at the British Library, was involved in the restoration of its copy of the book. The British Library website allows readers to view the original Diamond Sutra in its entirety. Rotsa ruck reading 9th century Chinese.

The Diamond Sutra was printed during the Tang dynasty, the Golden Age of Chinese culture. Great strides were made in that era in science and engineering, art, and printing. The cuisine was legendary, and lavish imperial banquets were routinely described in detail. Sadly, no recipes are extant although there are many ingredient lists attesting to the exotic nature of some of the dishes using elephant trunk, camel hump and the like. Even if it were not for the lack of original recipes and lack of authentic ingredients, replicating the cooking techniques would defeat us. The emperor reportedly had over 1,000 people employed in various aspects of banqueting including the cooking and procurement of ingredients. On important occasions banquets could last for 5 days with 50 courses of multiple dishes. Even the appetizers were outrageous and beyond the expertise of modern chefs.

Modern banquet halls in China and the U.S. try for a pale imitation – mostly for tourists – but I’d just as soon pass as pay a month’s wages for a sad copy. Instead here are a few images:

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Apr 082014


Today is the International Day of the Roma, a large stateless ethnic group known variously as Rom, Romany, Romani etc. and commonly referred to in English as “gypsies,” although that term is now a catchall for a slew of travelling people.  The day is meant as a time to celebrate the Romany people’s heritage and accomplishments, as well as a special moment to press for the end of discrimination against them around the world.  I have a particular interest in these people because my maternal great-grandfather was Romany (our family term), so, although the connexion is distant, I feel an affinity.

sloper sibs (a)

Here is a newspaper photo of my great-grandfather, William George Sloper, with his wife and children (my great aunts and uncles).  My granddad, Billy Sloper, is seated beside his mother.  He was the eldest of this large brood – not uncommon for Romany then and now.   I never knew my great-grandfather, of course, but I knew quite a few of his children.  He was a circus trapeze artist in his youth, but when the troupe was performing in Oxford he met my great-grandmother (not Romany) married and settled down in a house in a district know as St Ebbes (colloquially, The Friars), and worked as a gas fitter (a specialized form of plumbing).  When I was at Oxford (early 1970’s) I was able to meet and get to know the surviving siblings.

It is a daunting task to try to say something in a short space about the Romany as a whole; they are so diverse and scattered.  Even the basic language has seven distinct branches that are mutually unintelligible.  There are some core values that are more or less universal to all Romany groups, but over time these have become diluted, and, typically, relatively settled groups take on the characteristics of the culture where they live.  Thus, for example, Romany may be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Muslim, with a few Protestants mixed in depending on their location.  To make life a bit easier I am going to give a brief overview and in the process I’ll also say something about the centuries of discrimination.

The Romany are a diasporic (territorially scattered) ethnicity of Indian origin, living mostly in Europe and the Americas. In their own language, generally called “Romani” by scholars, they are known collectively as Romane or Rromane (depending on the dialect). The double “r” in the latter is guttural and trilled. Romany are widely dispersed, with their largest concentrated populations in Europe — especially central and eastern Europe and Anatolia, the Iberian Kale, and Southern France. They originated in India and arrived in midwest Asia, then Europe, at least 1000 years ago, either separating from the Dom people or, at least, having a similar history; the ancestors of both the Romani and the Dom left North India some time between the sixth and eleventh century.  There is very little linguistic or historical evidence to pin down the time of migration from India more precisely.  It is conjectured that they were low caste musicians and entertainers who traveled to make a living.

Since the nineteenth century, some Romany have migrated to the Americas. There are an estimated one million in the United States; and more than 600,000 in Brazil, most of whose ancestors emigrated in the 19th century from eastern Europe. Brazil also includes Romany descended from people deported by the government of Portugal during the Inquisition in the colonial era. In migrations since the late 19th century, Romany have also moved to Canada and countries in South America. Argentina has a population of more than 300,000 Romany most of whom are still migratory.  Many make a living trading in used cars as they once used to with horses.  One of my early nicknames in Buenos Aires was “Gitano,” not because of my heritage but because I travel a lot.

The Romany are probably unique among diasporic peoples in that they have never identified themselves with a territory, have no tradition of an ancient and distant homeland from which their ancestors migrated, and do not claim the right to national sovereignty in any of the lands where they reside. Rather, Romany identity is bound up with the ideal of freedom expressed, in part, in having no ties to a homeland or, in many instances in a home locale.  Traditionally they are travelers. The absence of neither orally transmitted origin stories nor of a written history has meant that the origin and early history of the Romany people was long an enigma. Indian origin was suggested on linguistic grounds as early as 200 years ago. Now genetic evidence connects the Romany people and the Jat people, the descendants of groups which emigrated from South Asia towards Central Asia during the medieval period. Recent analysis of Y-chromosomes (paternally inherited) and mitochondrial DNA (maternally inherited) shows that a large percentage of contemporary Romany carry genetic material that is not found elsewhere outside of India.

Contemporary scholars have suggested that one of the first written references to the Romany, under the term “Atsingani” (that is, from the Greek atsinganoi, cognate with “tzigani” or “gitani,” Romance words for “gypsies”), dates from the Byzantine era during a time of famine in the 9th century. In the year 800 CE, Saint Athanasia gave food to “foreigners called the Atsingani” near Thrace. Later, in 803 CE, Theophanes the Confessor wrote that Emperor Nikephoros I had the help of the “Atsingani” to put down a riot with their “knowledge of magic.” However, the Atsingani were also a Manichean sect that disappeared from chronicles in the 11th century. “Atsinganoi” was used to refer to itinerant fortune tellers, ventriloquists and wizards who visited the Emperor Constantine IX in the year 1054.  The map below (click to enlarge) gives a good representation of the migrations of Romany from the 12th to 16th although it contains a fair degree of speculation and interpolation.


Early histories show a mixed reception for Romany in Europe. Although 1385 marks the first recorded transaction for a Romany slave in Wallachia, they were issued safe conduct by Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire in 1417.  Romany were ordered expelled from the Meissen region of Germany in 1416, Lucerne in 1471, Milan in 1493, France in 1504, Catalonia in 1512, Sweden in 1525, England in 1530, and Denmark in 1536. In 1510, any Romany found in Switzerland were ordered to be put to death, with similar rules established in England in 1554, and Denmark in 1589.  Portugal began deportations of Romanies to its colonies in 1538.

Later, a 1596 English statute, however, gave Romanies special privileges that other itinerants lacked and France passed a similar law in 1683. Catherine the Great of Russia declared the Romany “crown slaves” (a status superior to serfs), but also kept them out of certain parts of the capital. In 1595, Ştefan Răzvan overcame the stigma of his birth to a Romany father, and became the voivode (prince) of Moldavia. He was a rare exception, however.  In sum, from the 16th to 19th centuries European Romany were alternately left alone, persecuted, enslaved, exiled, disenfranchised, executed en masse, and forcibly assimilated. Without power, wealth, or influence they were at the mercy of political forces and were often made the scapegoats for social troubles that were none of their making.

On the other side of the coin, in the late 19th century Romany were frequently admired in the arts. So-called gypsy music became immensely popular in this period.  Strictly speaking there is no unified style of Romany music.  Romany musicians in various countries took the local musical forms and made them their own.  Famous examples include the Andalusian flamenco which has frequently been performed and influenced by Romany musicians, and the Hungarian csárdás, composed examples of which found their way into the classical repertoire.   Classical composers who have used csárdás themes in their works include Emmerich Kálmán, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Léo Delibes, Johann Strauss, Pablo de Sarasate, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and others. The csárdás from Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus, sung by the character Rosalinde, is probably the most famous example of this style in vocal music. One of the best-known instrumental csárdás is the composition by Vittorio Monti written for violin and piano, but here played by a Hungarian Romany orchestra.

Of course Bizet’s Carmen romanticizes the mystery and passion of the Romany. (A modern analog would be Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”).


The fate of the Romany has been equally mixed, as in previous eras, in the 20th and 21st centuries.  During World War II, the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Romany in what is sometimes referred to as the “other Holocaust.”  Numbers killed are impossible to determine accurately and figures range from a low of 220,000 to as many as 1.5 million. Like the Jews, they were sentenced to forced labor and imprisonment in concentration camps. They were often killed on sight, especially by the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front.

In Communist central and eastern Europe, Romanies experienced assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. The Romani language and Romany music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of Romany from Slovakia, Hungary and Romania were re-settled in border areas of Czech lands and their nomadic lifestyle was forbidden. In Czechoslovakia, where they were labeled as a “socially degraded stratum,” Romany women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. This policy was implemented with large financial incentives, threats of denying future social welfare payments, misinformation, and involuntary sterilization. In the early 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of migrants to central and eastern Europe. Sixty percent of around 100,000 Romanian nationals deported under a 1992 treaty were Romany.

During the 1990s and early 21st century many Romany from central and eastern Europe attempted to migrate to western Europe or Canada. The majority of them were turned back. Several of these countries established strict visa requirements to prevent further migration.

In 2005, the Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched in nine central and southeastern European countries to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of the Romany minority across the region. The first World Romani Congress was organized in 1971 near London, funded in part by the World Council of Churches and the Government of India. It was attended by representatives from India and 20 other countries. At the congress, the green and blue flag from a 1933 conference, embellished with the red, sixteen-spoked chakra, was reaffirmed as the national emblem of the Romani people, and the anthem “Gelem, Gelem” was adopted as a national anthem.

The International Romani Union was officially established in 1977, and in 1990, the fourth World Congress declared April 8 to be International Day of the Roma, a day to celebrate Romani culture and raise awareness of the issues facing the Romani community. The 5th World Romany Congress in 2000 issued an official declaration of the Romany as a non-territorial nation.

There have been many studies of Romany culture but you have to take them with a grain of salt.  I don’t think you can speak of a unified underpinning that unites all Romany peoples, although worldwide there is a definite sense among Romany peoples that you are either embracing the Romany ethos or you are not.  Anthropologists would define them as patriarchal and patrilocal.  Women generally hold a lower position than men although they can achieve a measure of social status as they get older and as they have children.  They have tended to have large families, and a high value is placed, therefore, on childbirth. Very Biblical.  A woman on marriage moves to live with her husband’s family and her duties shift from her parents to her in-laws.

Romany traditional purity laws are similar to those of both Hindus and Jews. Certain body parts, animals, acts etc. are considered impure, and any violation of purity laws must be atoned for.  In classic Romany culture failure to abide by such rules, called “Romanipen,” can lead to exclusion from the community. Someone who fails to adhere to Romanipen is known as a Gadjo.  But as with Jewish and Hindu rules of this sort, in the modern world many Romany no longer follow Romanipen completely, although a substantial percentage in eastern Europe living in Romany enclaves do.

I could not leave this discussion of the Romany without a tip of the hat to the vardo, or gypsy wagon, a unique feature of English Romany.  They were a very common sight on roads in England in the 19th and early 20th century.  They are highly decorated horse drawn wagons that are both home and transport.  Nowadays about 1% of English Romany live and travel in them although they are not normally as highly decorated as they once were.  They are now mostly collectors’ items and there are several projects at the moment to restore abandoned vardos.  Here’s a few images to whet your appetite.


Speaking of appetite, there is not much I can say about Romany food.  When asked about what they eat Romany will normally reply “we eat what you eat.”  This is generally the case but I can note a few points.  First is the traditional method of cooking – a cast iron pot slung over an open fire. In Our Forgotten Years: A Gypsy Woman’s Life on the Road, Maggie Smith-Bendell talks about the open fire, called in Angloromani (the English Romany creole dialect), a yog: “The yog was the ­centre of our life, of our family. Everything got discussed and pulled apart and put back together in front of the yog. It was everybody’s job to keep it ­going. I still have fires outside.”  It was also common to eat from a single communal dish, using the right hand only, as is customary throughout India.  Smith-Bendell also notes that it was normal to catch and eat small animals such as rabbits and hedgehogs, although in the latter case they were considered impure in the breeding season.


So, I suggest a rabbit stew.  No great secret here.  Brown off a jointed rabbit with some onions. Add what vegetables you have to hand and top off your cooking pot with water.  You can also add field herbs of your choosing.  In English byways and woods there are still plenty to be found.  Simmer for an hour or more until the rabbit is tender.  With store bought rabbit (sadly lacking in flavor in comparison with wild rabbits) an hour is sufficient.


Jun 262013


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Katta - Gruppe lemur katta ring-tailed lemur  mad8

Today the people of Madagascar celebrate the nation’s formal separation from colonial rule by France in 1960.  The country and the island have always fascinated me for all manner of reasons (and, no, I have not seen the dopey CG movie of the same name).  Ever since I saw Madagascar on maps of the world on walls in my elementary classrooms I knew without having to be told that the island had separated from the African mainland at some point in geological history.  It’s just so obvious.  Madagascar with its big bump on the western coast looks as if it exactly matches a big bite taken out of the mainland’s southeast coast like a jigsaw puzzle piece.  It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Madagascar was part of the west coast of India when it separated from Africa as the supercontinent Gondwana was splitting up, and then Madagascar broke off from India as India journeyed north to crash into Eurasia (click on the graphic above).  Because of this early separation from continental territories about 88 million years ago, Madagascar is a treasure trove of flora and fauna: 90% of its plant and animal species are unique to the island.  Culturally it has a fascinating layered history as wave upon wave of immigrants arrived from first the Indonesian archipelago, then from Asia, Africa, and Europe. The main language of the island is Malagasy, related to several modern languages of Borneo (where the first settlers most likely originated), and unrelated to mainland African languages.

Most archaeologists estimate that the earliest settlers arrived in outrigger canoes from southern Borneo in successive waves throughout the period between 2,360 and 1,450 years ago, making Madagascar one of the last major landmasses on Earth to be settled by humans. Upon arrival, early settlers practiced slash-and-burn agriculture to clear the coastal rainforests for cultivation. The first settlers encountered Madagascar’s abundance of megafauna, including giant lemurs, elephant birds, giant fossa and the Malagasy hippopotamus, which have since become extinct due to hunting and habitat destruction.  By the early seventh century, groups of these early settlers had begun clearing the forests of the central highlands.  Arabs first reached the island between the 7th and 9th centuries.  A wave of Bantu-speaking migrants from southeastern Africa arrived around 1000 and introduced the zebu, a type of long-horned humped cattle, which were kept in large herds.

Madagascar was an important transoceanic trading hub connecting ports of the Indian Ocean in the early centuries following human settlement. The written history of Madagascar began with the Arabs, who established trading posts along the northwest coast by at least the 10th century and introduced Islam, the Arabic script (used to transcribe the Malagasy language in a form of writing known as sorabe), Arab astrology and other cultural elements. European contact began in 1500, when the Portuguese sea captain Diogo Dias sighted the island. The French established trading posts along the east coast in the late 17th century.

Until the late 19th century Madagascar was an independent kingdom with close trading ties to France.  But in 1883 France took the excuse of abrogated trade agreements (which were dubious to begin with), to invade and occupy the island.  Resistance lasted until 1897 when full French occupation was formally accepted.

France’s power and reputation were severely weakened by German occupation during WW II, leading to a post-war Madagascan independence movement.  France relinquished control of Madagascar over a five year period in the 1950’s leading to full independence being granted in 1960.  Since then Madagascar’s political system has been through four republics, each with a new constitution. The latest constitution was ratified by referendum in 2010.

Madagascar’s complex immigration and political history coupled with its extraordinary biodiversity has led to a kaleidoscopic cuisine.  Rice is the staple, and a typical meal consists of large quantities of rice (vary) plus a flavoring side dish (laoka).  Choosing one recipe is another case of me being spoilt for choice.  I settled on an absolute favorite of mine — Akoho sy Sauce Poivre Vert (chicken in green peppercorn sauce).  Even the name blends Malagasy and French.  I tend to go overboard on the peppercorns because I love them so much, and they leave a lustrous warm aftertaste. You can get peppercorns in brine in good gourmet stores or online.  DO NOT use dried.  Naturally this is to be served with plain boiled rice.

Akoho sy Sauce Poivre Vert


2 lbs (1 kg) chicken (drumsticks, thighs, and breasts)
¼ cup (55 g) butter
¼ cup (30 g) flour
2 cups (470 ml) milk,
fresh green peppercorns

Lightly salt and pepper the chicken, then grill it over wood or charcoal until cooked (use the broiler if you have to).

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter then stir in the flour and let it cook, stirring often, until the mixture begins to brown.

Add the milk a little at a time, and whisk to make a thick sauce.

As the sauce begins to thicken, add in salt and peppercorns to taste. Stir in the chicken and let everything heat through.

Serve hot over rice.

Serves 4



May 182013


Today is the birthday of Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (1872). He was was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, pacifist, and social critic. He was born in Monmouthshire, into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Britain. He was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”.

He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege and his protégé, and my hero, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He is widely held to be one of the 20th century’s premier logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers. His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, computer science, and philosophy, especially philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

bertr russ

Russell was a prominent anti-war activist; he championed anti-imperialism, and went to prison for his pacifism during World War I. Later, he campaigned against Adolf Hitler, then criticized Stalinist totalitarianism, attacked the United States of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and was an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. He was briefly jailed again in 1961, following his conviction on public order charges brought after a large central London peace demonstration in commemoration of Hiroshima Day. The cartoon above appeared in the Evening Standard at the time.

Russell was a humanist who wrote extensively on the human condition.  The following quotations are representative:

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

“I believe in using words, not fists. I believe in my outrage knowing people are living in boxes on the street. I believe in honesty. I believe in a good time. I believe in good food. I believe in sex.”

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

The following tale is based on what is sometimes called “Russell’s chicken” – an evaluation of the limits of inductive reasoning:

On a farm, there was a flock of chickens. One chicken started talking with another, remarking: “How good our farmer has been to us. I think he is an awfully nice man, because he comes every morning to feed us.” The other chicken nodded in agreement, adding “and he has been feeding each and everyone of us here every day like clockwork, every day without fail since we were all just little baby chicks.” Indeed, when queried, most of the other chickens clucked in agreement about how benevolent their farmer was.

But there was one chicken, intelligent but eccentric, who countered saying “How do you know he is all that good? I remember, not too long ago, that there were some older chickens who were taken away, and I haven’t seen them since. Whatever happened to them?”

Some of the chickens may have slept a little uneasily that night, but in the morning the farmer came as usual, this time scattering even more corn around. The chickens ate this with gusto, and this dispelled any remaining doubts about the benevolence of the farmer. “You see, there is nothing to worry about. Our farmer had a little extra food, so he gave it to us because he likes us! He is a good man,” remarked one chicken to the others, and they all nodded in agreement, all of them, that is, except one. The intelligent but eccentric chicken became even more agitated. “He is just fattening us up! We are going to be slaughtered in a week’s time!” he squawked in alarm. But nobody listened. All the other chickens just thought he was a troublemaker.

A week later, all the chickens were placed into cages, loaded on to a truck, and driven to the slaughterhouse.

Moral of the story: You cannot always induce the truth from past experience!

In honor of Russell’s chicken I give you a recipe for coq au vin, one of the first dishes I learned to cook when I was a student at Oxford (Russell went to Cambridge). There are hundreds of recipes for classic coq au vin but they are all variations on a theme: chicken simmered in wine with onions, bacon, mushrooms, and vegetables. My cooking mentor, Robert Carrier, in his recipe insists that when you cook with wine you should not use some cheap plonk, but a wine you would be willing to serve at table. Cheap ingredients produce cheap results. Like all fine soups and stews, coq au vin is best if made the day before it is needed, and refrigerated overnight to marry and mature all the flavors.  Therefore, you should allow three days to make the finished dish. Be warned: when preparing this dish you need a lot of bowls and plates to reserve cooked ingredients before they are all combined.

Coq au Vin


For marinating the chicken

1 bottle French Burgundy or California Pinot Noir
1 large onion, sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 large carrot, peeled, sliced
1 large garlic clove, peeled, flattened
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 6-pound roasting chicken, backbone removed, cut into 8 pieces (2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, 2 wings with top quarter of adjoining breast, 2 breasts)

For cooking the chicken

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 ounces thick-cut bacon slices, cut crosswise into small pieces
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 large shallots, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
4 large fresh thyme sprigs
4 large fresh parsley sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1 pound assorted mushrooms (dark mushrooms such as crimini or stemmed shiitake are best but any mushrooms will do)
20 pearl onions
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
½ lb of baby potatoes, or large potatoes peeled and chopped into bite sized chunks.


First Day: Marinating the chicken

Combine the wine, onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and peppercorns in large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool completely then mix in the oil. Place the chicken pieces in a large glass bowl. Pour the wine mixture over the chicken; stir to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 day and up to 2 days, turning the chicken occasionally. Alternatively you can use two large ziplock bags that between them can accommodate the chicken and marinade.  Divide the chicken evenly between the two bags and place half in each.  Divide the marinade evenly between the two bags.  Close the bags almost completely leaving small opening. Squeeze as much air as possible out of the bags. Close the hole and lay the bags flat on the counter.  Shift the chicken around so that there is one layer. And place flat in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days  I prefer this method because the marinade evenly coats the chicken and does not need to be turned, although once in a while, if you like, you can flip the bags over.

Second day: cooking the chicken:

Using tongs, transfer the chicken pieces from the marinade to paper towels to drain; pat dry. Strain the marinade reserving the vegetables and liquid separately.

Bring a pot of water to a rapid boil and put in the pearl onions. After 30 seconds drain the onions and plunge them into a boil of iced water. When they are cool they can be peeled easily by simply squeezing the skin.  The onions will pop out. Reserve in a small bowl.

Heat the oil in a heavy large pot (wide enough to hold chicken in single layer) over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and sauté until crisp and brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small bowl. Add the chicken, skin side down, to the drippings in the pot. Sauté until brown, about 8 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to large bowl. Add the vegetables reserved from marinade to the pot. Sauté until brown, about 10 minutes. Mix in the flour; stir 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the reserved marinade liquid and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Cook until the sauce thickens, whisking occasionally, about 2 minutes. Mix in the shallots, garlic, herb sprigs, and bay leaves, and then the broth. Return the chicken to the pot, arranging the chicken skin side up in single layer. Bring to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and simmer the chicken for 30 minutes. Using tongs, turn the chicken over. Cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in the same skillet. Add the onions and sauté until beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer onions to a plate. Reserve the skillet.

Boil the potatoes until just tender and keep warm.

Using tongs, transfer the chicken to a plate. Strain the sauce from the pot into the reserved skillet, pressing on the solids in the strainer to extract all the sauce and discard the solids. Bring the sauce to a simmer, scraping up browned bits. Return the sauce to the pot. Add the onions to the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and cook until the onions are almost tender, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and bacon. Simmer uncovered until the onions are very tender and the sauce is slightly reduced, about 12 minutes. Tilt the pot and spoon off any excess fat from top of sauce. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Return the chicken to the sauce. (This can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. Warm over low heat when ready to serve.)

Arrange the chicken on a large rimmed platter. Spoon the sauce and the vegetables and bacon over the chicken. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with boiled potatoes.

Get someone else to do the washing up.

Serves 4