Feb 282021

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, known as Reminiscere Sunday from the introit, Reminiscere miserationum tuarum Domine, which in English can be rendered:

Remember, O Lord, Thy compassions and Thy mercies, which are from the beginning, lest at any time our enemies rule over us: deliver us O God of Israel, from all our tribulations.

I did actually pay lip service to the second Sunday in Lent some years ago, but it happened to coincide with Purim in the Jewish tradition, so it was second fiddle back then – https://www.bookofdaystales.com/purim/   This year I will pay more attention to Lent (Purim was February 25/26 this year).

The readings for Reminiscere Sunday are the promises to Abraham in Genesis 17, and a restatement of them in Romans 4. The bottom line is that success comes from having faith, trusting God, and being patient.  The curious part of the Genesis narrative is that Abram is promised a son, when he was 99 and his wife Sarai was 90.  Supposedly she laughed at the idea and, in consequence, her son was called Isaac, which can be read as “laughs” in Hebrew” (יִצְחָק). The point is that you will get what you have been promised if you just wait patiently.  God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah after giving them the good news that their offspring will be more numerous than the stars in the sky, and a name change is always important in the Hebrew text.  In this case, the name changes have baffled scholars for centuries.  Sarai and Sarah are just dialectal variants of the same name, and Abram and Abraham are obscure etymologically, except they contain the roots “av” (אב) “father” and “ram” (רם) “high” – with the “ha” (ה) supposedly added in mark of the new covenant with God. That last bit has no justification in linguistics.

For a day that is all about remembering, you can think of recipes in two ways.  First, you can remember your favorite dish – perhaps from childhood.  Second, you can cook a favorite dish – from memory.  The latter is not too demanding.  Most of us cook from memory most of the time. For some mysterious reason, all my favorite dishes from childhood are from Argentina – milanesa, tuco, ravioli with brains, egg tortilla, dulce de leche, etc.  I have given recipes for all of them already. Instead here is a wonderful memory of my home – Doña Petrona’s cooking show. Doña Petrona was the chief celebrity cook in Argentina in the 1950s and ’60s, and her cookbook was beside the copy of Mrs Beeton in my house growing up.

May 292017

On this date in 1453 Constantinople fell to an invading army of the Ottoman Empire commanded by the 21-year-old Mehmed the Conqueror, the seventh sultan of the Ottoman Empire, defeating emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. The conquest of Constantinople followed a 53-day siege that had begun on 6 April 1453. The capture of Constantinople (and two other Byzantine splinter territories soon thereafter) marked the end of the Roman Empire, which had existed in one form or another for nearly 1,500 years. The Western half of the Roman Empire fell to invaders in the 5th century, but the Eastern half carried on – sometimes called the Byzantine Empire – until the 15th century.

The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople also dealt a massive blow to Christendom, because Muslim Ottoman armies could subsequently advance into Europe without an adversary to their rear. After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II transferred the capital of the Ottoman Empire from Edirne to Constantinople. For hundreds of years the city was officially called Kostantiniyye (القسطنطيني), but unofficially Mehmed called it Islambol (Islam rules) and eventually became Istanbul.

Many histories equate the fall of Constantinople (and the end of the Byzantine Empire) with the end of the Middle Ages, but it’s not as if people living at the time acknowledged that one era had ended an another begun. Things don’t happen that way on the ground. Terms such as “Middle Ages,” “Renaissance,” “Enlightenment” etc. are rubrics used by historians in hindsight for convenience. Nonetheless, big changes were afoot. Constantinople had been an imperial capital since its consecration in 330 under Constantine the Great. In the following 11 centuries, the city had been besieged many times but was captured only once: during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an event which further damaged the bad relations between eastern and western Christianity following the Great Schism in 1054, weakened the Byzantine Empire, and one of the major turning points in Western history, still very much alive among members of the Greek Orthodox church.

The Fourth Crusade was gathered in 1202 with the intent of capturing Jerusalem by attacking from Egypt, but they were sidetracked by offers of financial help if they would assist the currently deposed emperor. Constantinople had been unstable since the massacre there of the “Latins” (Roman Catholics) in 1182 by orthodox powers. This act increased tensions in the city and worsened relations between Western and Eastern Europe. In 1203 in the midst of violent riots between Greeks and Latins in the city, the newly crowned Alexios IV Angelos was deposed and he appealed to the Crusaders to restore him and quell the city’s problems. The Crusaders laid siege to Constantinople for a year, finally taking it in 1204 and initiating a bloodbath. This unspeakable atrocity of Crusaders against Christians was unprecedented.

The Crusaders established an unstable Latin state in and around Constantinople while the remaining empire splintered into a number of Byzantine successor states, notably Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond. They fought as allies against the Latin establishments, but also fought among themselves for the Byzantine throne. The Nicaeans eventually reconquered Constantinople from the Latins in 1261. Thereafter there was little peace for the much-weakened empire as it fended off successive attacks by the Latins, the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and, most importantly, the Ottoman Turks. The Black Plague between 1346 and 1349 killed almost half of the inhabitants of Constantinople. The city was severely depopulated due to the general economic and territorial decline of the empire, and by 1453 consisted of a series of walled villages separated by vast fields encircled by the fifth-century Theodosian walls.

By 1450 the empire was exhausted and had shrunk to a few square miles outside the city of Constantinople itself, the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and the Peloponnese with its cultural center at Mystras. The Empire of Trebizond, an independent successor state that formed in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, also survived on the coast of the Black Sea. When Sultan Mehmed II succeeded his father in 1451, it was widely believed that the young ruler, then 19 years old, would prove incapable—and that he would pose no great threat to Christian possessions in the Balkans and the Aegean. This optimism was reinforced by friendly assurances made by Mehmed to envoys sent to his new court. But Mehmed’s actions spoke far louder than his mild words. Beginning early in 1452, he built a second Ottoman fortress on the Bosphorus, on the European side several miles north of Constantinople, set directly across the strait from the similar fortress, Anadolu Hisarı, which his great-grandfather Bayezid I had previously built on the Asian side. This pair of fortresses gave the Turks complete control of sea traffic on the Bosphorus; specifically, it prevented help from the north, the Genoese colonies on the Black Sea coast, from reaching Constantinople. (The new fortress was also known as Boğazkesen, which held the dual meanings ‘strait-blocker’ or ‘throat-cutter’, emphasizing its strategic position.) In October 1452, Mehmed ordered Turakhan Beg to lead a large force into the Peloponnese and remain there to keep Thomas and Demetrios from assisting their brother Constantine XI Palaiologos during the impending siege of Constantinople.

Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI swiftly understood Mehmed’s true intentions and turned to Western Europe for help; but now the price of centuries of war and enmity between the Eastern and Western churches had to be paid. Since the mutual excommunications of 1054, the Pope in Rome was committed to establishing authority over the Eastern church. Nominal union had been negotiated in 1274, at the Second Council of Lyon, and indeed, some Palaiologoi emperors had since been received into the Latin church. Emperor John VIII Palaiologos had also recently negotiated union with Pope Eugene IV, with the Council of Florence of 1439 proclaiming a Bull of Union. These events, however, stimulated a propaganda initiative by anti-unionist Orthodox partisans in Constantinople; the population, as well as the laity and leadership of the Byzantine Church, became bitterly divided. Latent ethnic hatred between Greeks and Italians, stemming from the events of the Massacre of the Latins in 1182 by the Greeks and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins, played a significant role. Finally, the attempted Union failed, greatly annoying Pope Nicholas V and the hierarchy of the Roman church.

The army defending Constantinople was relatively small, totaling about 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreigners. At the onset of the siege, probably fewer than 50,000 people were living within the walls, including the refugees from the surrounding area. Turkish commander Dorgano, who was in Constantinople in the pay of the Emperor, was also guarding one of the quarters of the city on the seaward side with the Turks in his pay. These Turks kept loyal to the Emperor and perished in the ensuing battle. The defending army’s Genoese corps were well trained and equipped, while the rest of the army consisted of small numbers of well-trained soldiers, armed civilians, sailors and volunteer forces from foreign communities, and finally monks. The garrison used a few small-caliber artillery bullets, which nonetheless proved ineffective. The rest of the city repaired walls, stood guard on observation posts, collected and distributed food provisions, and collected gold and silver objects from churches to melt down into coins to pay the foreign soldiers.

The Ottomans had a much larger force. Recent studies and Ottoman archival data state that there were about 50,000–80,000 Ottoman soldiers including between 5,000 and 10,000 Janissaries, an elite infantry corps, and thousands of Christian troops, notably 1,500 Serbian cavalry that the Serbian lord Đurađ Branković was forced to supply as part of his obligation to the Ottoman sultan—just a few months before, he had supplied the money for the reconstruction of the walls of Constantinople. Contemporaneous Western witnesses of the siege, who tend to exaggerate the military power of the Sultan, provide disparate and higher numbers ranging from 160,000 to 200,000 and to 300,000.

Mehmed built a fleet to besiege the city from the sea (partially manned by Greek sailors from Gallipoli). Contemporary estimates of the strength of the Ottoman fleet span between about 100 ships to 430. A more realistic modern estimate suggests a fleet strength of 126 ships comprising 6 large galleys, 10 ordinary galleys, 15 smaller galleys, 75 large rowing boats, and 20 horse-transports.

Before the siege of Constantinople, it was known that the Ottomans had the ability to cast medium-sized cannons, but the range of some pieces they were able to field far surpassed the defenders’ expectations. Instrumental to this Ottoman advancement in arms production was a somewhat mysterious figure by the name of Orban (Urban), a Hungarian (though some suggest he was German). One cannon designed by Orban was named “Basilica” and was 27 feet (8.2 m) long, and able to hurl a 600 lb (272 kg) stone ball over a mile (1.6 km). The master founder initially tried to sell his services to the Byzantines, who were unable to secure the funds needed to hire him. Orban then left Constantinople and approached Mehmed II, claiming that his weapon could blast ‘the walls of Babylon itself’. Given abundant funds and materials, the Hungarian engineer built the gun within three months at Edirne, from which it was dragged by sixty oxen to Constantinople. In the meantime, Orban also produced other cannons for the Turkish siege forces.

Orban’s cannon had several drawbacks: it took three hours to reload; cannonballs were in very short supply; and the cannon is said to have collapsed under its own recoil after six weeks (this is disputed, however, reported only in the letter of Archbishop Leonardo di Chio and in the later and often unreliable Russian chronicle of Nestor Iskander). Having previously established a large foundry about 150 miles (240 km) away, Mehmed now had to undergo the painstaking process of transporting his massive artillery pieces. Orban’s giant cannon was said to have been accompanied by a crew of 60 oxen and over 400 men.

The city had about 20 km of land walls: 5.5 km; sea walls along the Golden Horn: 7 km; sea walls along the Sea of Marmara: 7.5 km), one of the strongest sets of fortified walls in existence. The walls had recently been repaired (under John VIII) and were in fairly good shape, giving the defenders sufficient reason to believe that they could hold out until help from the West arrived. In addition, the defenders were relatively well-equipped with a fleet of 26 ships: 5 from Genoa, 5 from Venice, 3 from Venetian Crete, 1 from Ancona, 1 from Aragon, 1 from France, and about 10 Byzantine.

On 5 April, the Sultan himself arrived with his last troops, and the defenders took up their positions. As their numbers were insufficient to occupy the walls in their entirety, the Byzantines decided to man the outer walls only. You can read all about the siege and fall of Constantinople if you wish. One should not assume, using hindsight, that the doom of Constantinople was inevitable. It was an exceptionally well defended city, so that even against a powerful army, fleet, and siege weapons, the fall of Constantinople was not a foregone conclusion. A few events broke the wrong way, however, and that sealed the city’s fate. It’s not overstating the case to say that the effects of the fall of Constantinople still reverberate today. If nothing else, it should be a stern warning that enmity between Christians and Muslims in Europe is scarcely new, and contemporary feuds of longstanding are not going to go away because of a few political speeches filled with platitudes.

Nowhere is the paradox of the tension between Greek and Turk more evident than in their respective cuisines: by and large they are THE SAME. I defy you to taste Turkish Delight and Greek Delight blindfolded and tell me which is which, though each side claims theirs is uniquely their own. Do the same with dolmadas (stuffed grape leaves), or 100 other specialties.  Yuvarelakia is a lamb meatball dish known in Byzantine times, and still popular in both Greece and Turkey.



1 lb. ground lamb
1 grated onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 tbsp barley flour
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint (or basil)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 egg, lightly beaten

5 cups meat stock
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
2 egg yolks


Combine lamb, grated onion, chopped garlic, barley flour, chopped parsley, fresh mint (or basil), dried oregano, salt and the slightly beaten egg. Mix well. Shape into walnut-sized meatballs and set aside.

Bring the 5 cups of stock to a boil with the chopped onion, celery, and carrot. Add salt to taste. Add the meatballs and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl beat together the lemon juice and egg yolks.  Carefully add 1 cup of stock to the lemon-egg mixture, a little at a time, whisking constantly.  When they are completely blended add back to the soup, stir, heat through gently and serve.

Jan 132017


Today may, or may not be the birthday of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, also commonly referred to as Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff and G. I. Gurdjieff, an influential early 20th-century mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and composer of Armenian and Greek descent, born in Armenia under Russian rule. Both the day of his birth and the year are mysteries. He once wrote that he was born on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day according to the Julian calendar which people infer is January 13th but a passport states that his date of birth was November 28th 1877.  People close to him (and his grave marker give 1872 as the year, and other sources say 1866. Given his penchant for inventing stories about himself and the people he met, there is no way of knowing, but today’s date is as good as any to celebrate a great man, and one of my heroes.

For me the most important aspect of Gurdjieff’s philosophy was that he believed in developing a kind of deep spirituality that was available to people in all walks of life, not just to those – such as monks or Sufis – who devoted all their lives to spirituality. Gurdjieff taught that most humans do not possess a unified mind-body consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. Gurdjieff described a method attempting to do so, calling the discipline “The Work” (that is, “work on oneself”) or “the Method.”

Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connexion with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result, humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as World War I. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could provide only a one-sided development, which did not result in a fully integrated human being.


According to Gurdjieff, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person— the emotions, or the physical body or the mind—tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or “centers,” as Gurdjieff called them. As a result, these paths fail to produce a properly balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three— the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a “Fourth Way” which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and the US. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, Gurdjieff’s discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development.

All I can do here is give a brief glimpse at the man and his teaching. You’ll have to read his works to get a better understanding, although they may not help much either. I first read his Meetings with Remarkable Men not long after it was published in English in 1963, and it took me a fair way into the book before I realized that rather than being what it claimed to be – namely, an autobiography and a description of profoundly spiritual men – it was mostly a series of tall tales, and nothing in it revealed anything directly about his philosophy or of the people he met. Every chapter ends with more or less the same ways – to the effect: “he told me the deepest thoughts which profoundly moved me, and which I will explain later.” I finally twigged that much of what he had written was a spoof when he described a trip across the Gobi desert which was obviously, and laughably, false.  Gurdjieff was nothing more or less than a complete paradox of a man, but he had many devoted disciples, as well as many students who fell away from him for one reason or another: usually his quixotic temperament and ideology. What I have gleaned of his philosophy over the years has left a lasting impression on me.

Gurdjieff (Russian: Гео́ргий Ива́нович Гурджи́ев, Greek: Γεώργιος Γεωργιάδης, Armenian: Գեորգի Գյուրջիև) was born to a Caucasus Greek father, Ἰωάνης Γεωργιάδης (Yiannis Georgiades), and an Armenian mother, Evdokia, in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire in the Transcaucasus. The name Gurdjieff represents a Russified form of the Pontic Greek surname “Georgiades” (Greek: Γεωργιάδης).

Gurdjieff spent his childhood in Kars, which, from 1878 to 1918, was the administrative capital of the Russian ruled Transcaucasus province of Kars Oblast, a border region recently captured from the Ottoman Empire with extensive grassy plateau-steppe and high mountains with a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population that had a history of respect for travelling mystics and holy men and for religious syncretism and conversion. Both the city of Kars and the surrounding territory were home to an extremely diverse population: Armenians, Russians, Caucasus Greeks, Georgians, Turks, Kurds and smaller numbers of Christian communities from eastern and central Europe such as Caucasus Germans, Estonians and Russian sectarian communities like the Molokans and Doukhobors. Gurdjieff makes particular mention of the Yazidi community. Growing up in a multi-ethnic society, Gurdjieff became fluent in Armenian, Pontic Greek, Russian, and Turkish, speaking the latter in a mixture of elegant Osmanli and some dialect. He later acquired “a working facility with several European languages.” Early influences on him included his father, a carpenter and amateur ashik or bardic poet, and the priest of the town’s Russian church, Dean Borsh, a family friend. As a boy Gurdjieff avidly read Russian-language scientific literature. Influenced by these writings, and having witnessed a number of phenomena that he could not explain, he formed the conviction that there existed a hidden truth not to be found in science or in mainstream religion.


In early adulthood, according to his own account Gurdjieff’s curiosity led him to travel to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet, and Rome before he returned to Russia for a few years in 1912. He was always unforthcoming about the source of his teachings. The only account of his wanderings appears in Meetings with Remarkable Men, which is not reliable – at all. He claims to have met dervishes, fakirs and descendants of the extinct Essenes, whose teaching had been, he claimed, conserved at a monastery in Sarmoung. The book also has an overarching quest narrative involving a map of “pre-sand Egypt” and culminating in an encounter with the “Sarmoung Brotherhood”, an organization that has never been definitively identified.

Gurdjieff wrote that he supported himself during his travels with odd jobs and trading schemes (one of which he described as dyeing hedgerow birds yellow and selling them as canaries). In the book he says that it’s always possible to make money in business if one is shrewd.  On his reappearance after his travels, as far as the historical record is concerned, the ragged wanderer had transformed into a well-heeled businessman. His only autobiographical writing concerning this period is Herald of Coming Good, a work, if anything, even less reliable than Meetings.


From 1913 to 1949, the chronology appears to be based on material that can be confirmed by primary documents, independent witnesses, cross-references and reasonable inference. On New Year’s Day in 1912, Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow and attracted his first students, including his cousin, the sculptor Sergey Merkurov, and the eccentric Rachmilievitch. In the same year, he married the Polish Julia Ostrowska in Saint Petersburg. In 1914, Gurdjieff advertised his ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians,” and he supervised his pupils’ writing of the sketch “Glimpses of Truth.” In 1915, Gurdjieff accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil, and in 1916, he accepted the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife, Olga, as students. At the time he had about 30 pupils. Ouspensky already had a reputation as a writer on mystical subjects and had conducted his own, ultimately disappointing, search for wisdom in the East. The Fourth Way taught by Gurdjieff during this period was complex and metaphysical, partly expressed in scientific terminology.

In the midst of revolutionary upheaval in Russia, Gurdjieff left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he set up temporary study communities in Essentuki in the Caucasus, then in Tuapse, Maikop, Sochi and Poti, all on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia, where he worked intensively with many of his Russian pupils. In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, settling in England and teaching the Fourth Way in his own way and attracting his own students. Subsequently the two men had a highly ambivalent relationship.



Four months later, Gurdjieff’s eldest sister and her family reached him in Essentuki as refugees, informing him that Turks had shot his father in Alexandropol on 15 May (as a part of the long-forgotten Armenian genocide). Posing as a scientist, Gurdjieff left Essentuki with fourteen companions and travelled by train to Maikop, where hostilities delayed them for three weeks. In spring 1919, Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne and accepted them as pupils. Assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his “Sacred Dances.”

In 1919, Gurdjieff and his closest pupils moved to Tiflis. There, Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Ostrowska; the Stjoernvals; the Hartmanns and the de Saltmarsh gathered the fundamentals of his teaching. Gurdjieff concentrated on his still unstaged ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians.” Thomas de Hartmann (who had made his debut years ago, before Czar Nicholas II of Russia) worked on the music for the ballet, and Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg (who years later married the architect Frank Lloyd Wright) practiced the ballet dances. In 1919, Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.


In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, his party travelled to Batumi on the Black Sea coast and then took ship to Istanbul. Gurdjieff rented an apartment on Koumbaradji Street in Péra and later at 13 Abdullatif Yemeneci Sokak near the Galata Tower. The apartment is near the kha’neqa’h (monastery) of the Molavieh Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul, Gurdjieff also met his future pupil Capt. John G. Bennett, then head of British Military Intelligence in Constantinople, who describes his impression of Gurdjieff as follows:

It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey, where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength

In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff travelled around western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities, including Berlin and London. He attracted the allegiance of Ouspensky’s many prominent pupils (notably his eventual editor and translator, A. R. Orage). After an unsuccessful attempt to gain British citizenship, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau. The once-impressive but somewhat crumbling mansion set in extensive grounds housed an entourage of several dozen, including some of Gurdjieff’s remaining relatives and some White Russian refugees.

New pupils included C. S. Nott, René Zuber, Margaret Anderson and her ward Fritz Peters. The generally intellectual and middle-class types who were attracted to Gurdjieff’s teaching often found the Prieuré’s spartan accommodation and emphasis on hard labor in the grounds disconcerting. Gurdjieff was putting into practice his teaching that people need to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually, hence the mixture of lectures, music, dance, and manual work. Older pupils noticed how the Prieuré teaching differed from the complex metaphysical “system” that had been taught in Russia. In addition to the physical hardships, his personal behavior towards pupils could be ferocious:

Gurdjieff was standing by his bed in a state of what seemed to me to be completely uncontrolled fury. He was raging at Orage, who stood impassively, and very pale, framed in one of the windows…. Suddenly, in the space of an instant, Gurdjieff’s voice stopped, his whole personality changed, he gave me a broad smile—looking incredibly peaceful and inwardly quiet— motioned me to leave, and then resumed his tirade with undiminished force. This happened so quickly that I do not believe that Mr. Orage even noticed the break in the rhythm.

Starting in 1924, Gurdjieff made visits to North America, where he eventually received the pupils taught previously by A.R. Orage. In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, he had a near-fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery against all medical expectation. Still convalescent, he formally “disbanded” his institute on 26 August (although he dispersed only his “less dedicated” pupils), which he explained as an undertaking “in the future, under the pretext of different worthy reasons, to remove from my eyesight all those who by this or that make my life too comfortable.”


After recovering, he began writing Beelzebub’s Tales, the first part of All and Everything in a mixture of Armenian and Russian. The book was deliberately convoluted and obscure, forcing the reader to “work” to find its meaning. He also composed it according to his own principles, writing in noisy cafes to force a greater effort of concentration.

In 1925, Gurdjieff’s mother died, and his wife developed cancer; she was to die in June 1926. Gurdjieff was in New York from November 1925 to the spring of 1926, when he succeeded in raising over $100,000. In all he made six or seven trips to the US. During them, he alienated a number of people with his brash and undisguised demands for money which some have interpreted in terms of his following the Malamatiyya technique of the Sufis, that is, deliberately attracting disapproval.

Despite his fund-raising efforts in the United States, the Prieuré operation ran into debt and was shut down in 1932. Gurdjieff constituted a new teaching group in Paris. Known as The Rope, it comprised only women, many of them writers, many of whom were lesbians. Members included Kathryn Hulme, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson and Enrico Caruso’s widow, Dorothy. Gurdjieff became acquainted with Gertrude Stein through Rope members, but she was never a follower.

In 1935, Gurdjieff stopped work on All and Everything. He had completed the first two parts of the planned trilogy but only started on the Third Series (later published under the title Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’.) In 1936, he settled in an apartment at 6, Rue des Colonels-Renard in Paris, where he was to stay for the rest of his life. In 1937, his brother Dmitry died, and The Rope disbanded.


Although the apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels-Renard was very small for the purpose, he continued to teach groups of pupils throughout World War II. Visitors recalled the pantry, stocked with an extraordinary collection of eastern delicacies, which served as his inner sanctum, and the suppers he held with elaborate toasts to “idiots” in vodka and cognac. His teaching was now far removed from the original “system”, being based on proverbs, jokes and personal interaction, although pupils were required to read, three times if possible, copies of Beelzebub’s Tales.

After the war, Gurdjieff tried to reconnect with his former pupils. Ouspensky was reluctant, but after his death (October 1947), his widow advised his remaining pupils to see Gurdjieff in Paris. J. G. Bennett also visited from England, the first meeting for 25 years. Ouspensky’s pupils in England had all thought that Gurdjieff was dead. They discovered he was alive only after the death of Ouspensky, who had not told them that Gurdjieff was still living. They were overjoyed to hear so, and many of Ouspensky’s pupils including Rina Hands, Basil Tilley and Catherine Murphy visited Gurdjieff in Paris. Hands and Murphy worked on the typing and retyping of the forthcoming All and Everything.

Gurdjieff suffered a second car accident in 1948 but again made an unexpected recovery:

With iron-like tenacity, he managed to gain his room, where he sat down and said: “Now all organs are destroyed. Must make new”. Then, he turned to Bennett, smiling: “Tonight you come dinner. I must make body work”. As he spoke, a great spasm of pain shook his body and blood gushed from an ear. Bennett thought: “He has a cerebral haemorrhage. He will kill himself if he continues to force his body to move”. But then he reflected: “He has to do all this. If he allows his body to stop moving, he will die. He has power over his body”.

Gurdjieff died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His funeral took place at the St. Alexandre Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 12 Rue Daru, Paris. He is buried in the cemetery at Avon (near Fontainebleau).


Eating was a supremely important act for Gurdjieff.  He insisted that, “Man should eat, not as an animal, but consciously.” He chose eating as the one experience that all human beings share:

When you do a thing, do it with the whole self, one thing at a time. Now I sit here and I eat. For me nothing exists in the world except this food, this table. I eat with the whole attention. So you must do—in everything. To be able to do one thing at a time—this is the property of man, not man in quotation marks.

If one knows how to eat properly, one knows how to pray.

It is important to compose a dish in its correctly-blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.

When I eat, I self-remember.

Thomas de Hartmann also tells us that:

To taste life fully was one of Mr. Gurdjieff’s principles. During our life with him we tried every sort of eastern dish, some very exotic. He told us that in the East they have always paid particular attention to the refinement of food elements. The aim is not to gorge oneself under the table, but rather to sample, in tiny portions, all kinds of variation of taste experiences. I can still see him vividly, his muscles completely relaxed as always. Slowly he lifts to his mouth a very good pear, not peeled. Unhurried, he takes a bite of it as if striving to absorb its entire aroma, it’s entire taste.


Given the foregoing it’s a bit difficult to suggest a single recipe to celebrate Gurdjieff’s life. Anything from an unpeeled apple to an enormous Chinese banquet would work because it’s less in what you eat as in how you eat it that is the key to Gurdjieff’s method. In that light I will give you some insight into Armenian cuisine, since Gurdjieff was Armenian.  I have mentioned Armenian cooking once before: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/jude-the-obscure/

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Armenians will stuff just about anything (with anything). This recipe is for a stuffed leg of lamb, but you can just as easily use lamb breast. The array of herbs, spices, and other flavors meets Gurdjieff’s desire for richness of cuisine. You should probably drink lots of vodka, brandy, or calvados with the meal if you want to follow in Gurdjieff’s footsteps.


Armenian Stuffed Lamb


1 (5 -6 lb) leg of lamb, semiboned (shank bone left in,)


3 garlic cloves, cut into 12 slivers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp dried mint
2 tsp dried oregano
salt and freshly ground pepper


3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup minced celery
1 cup long-grain rice
3 tbsp pine nuts
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 cups chicken broth
3 tbsp dried currants
freshly ground pepper
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp cinnamon


Marinate the lamb by first making 12 small incisions on the outside surface and inserting the garlic slivers. Then combine the oil, lemon juice, mint, oregano, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Place the lamb in a non-reactive dish and spread the marinade evenly over the inside and outside surfaces. Let the meat stand covered at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight.

Make the stuffing about an hour or so before roasting the lamb. Melt the butter in large saucepan or deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and sauté until soft but not browned. Stir in the rice, pine nuts and parsley. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice turns opaque (2-3 minutes). Gradually stir in the broth then add the currants and pepper to taste. Heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer covered until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the allspice and cinnamon while fluffing the rice with a fork. Let the stuffing cool at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 475°F/250°C.

Stuff the open pocket of the lamb with about 2 cups of stuffing. Press the open ends together and tie at 1-inch intervals with kitchen string. Place the lamb on a rack in roasting pan. Spoon the remaining stuffing into a small casserole and set aside.

Roast the lamb until browned (about 15 minutes) then reduce the heat to 350°F/175°C. Carefully pour 1½ cups of water into the pan. Continue to roast, basting every 15 minutes, for about 45 minutes. Fifteen minutes before the lamb is done, spoon 2 tablespoons of pan juices over the stuffing in the casserole and bake in the oven until heated through. Transfer the lamb to carving board and let stand covered with a tent of foil for 15-20 minutes.

Spoon the fat from the pan juices, then heat the to a rapid boil, scraping loose the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Strain into a sauceboat.

Slice the lamb into ½” thick slices and serve with the stuffing and pan juices.

Jul 192016


Today is the 8th full moon of the lunar year. As such it is celebrated as Asalha Puja in the Theravada Buddhist  tradition. Asalha Puja is one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festivals, celebrating the Buddha’s first sermon in which he set out to his five former associates the doctrine that had come to him following his enlightenment. This first pivotal sermon, often referred to as “setting into motion the wheel of dharma,” is the teaching which is encapsulated for Buddhists in the four noble truths:

there is suffering (dukkha)

suffering is caused by craving (tanha)

there is a state (nirvana) beyond suffering and craving

the way to nirvana is via the eightfold path.


All the various schools and traditions of Buddhism revolve around the central doctrine of the four noble truths. In scriptures ascribed to the Buddha the eightfold path is described as follows:

Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

(Nagara Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya ii.124)

This first sermon is not only the first structured discourse given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, it also contains the essence of all his subsequent teaching. At the end of the talk, one of the five participants recounted his understanding of what had been said and asked to be received as a disciple, a request the Buddha granted, thus establishing the first order of monks.

The day is observed by donating offerings to temples and listening to sermons. The following day begins the period known as Vassa, the Rains Retreat. Vassa lasts for three lunar months


For the duration of Vassa, monastics remain in one place, typically a monastery or temple grounds. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. Some Buddhist lay people choose to observe Vassa by adopting more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking, hence it is sometimes casually called “Buddhist Lent,” although the analogy with Christian Lent is not really appropriate. Commonly, the number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting the number of Vassas he has observed. In some SE Asian countries, notably Myanmar, young men may become ordained monks during Vassa, but afterwards return to a secular life.

Most Mahayana Buddhists do not observe Vassa but it is normal in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and SE Asia. Vassa ends on Pavarana, when all monastics atone for any offense committed during Vassa. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha. It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics in India not to travel during the rainy season as they might unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves during their travels. Many Buddhist ascetics live in regions which lack a rainy season. Consequently, there are places where Vassa may not be typically observed.

Most of the dishes considered to be uniquely Buddhist are vegetarian, but opinions and restrictions on the eating of meat, and whether it should be prohibited, vary among sects. When monks and nuns who follow the Theravadan way feed themselves by alms, they must eat leftover foods which are given to them, including meat. The exception to this alms rule is that when monks and nuns have seen, heard or known that animal(s) have been specifically killed to feed the alms-seeker, consumption of such meat is considered karmically negative and should be refused. The Pali Sutras where this rule is set forth tell of the Buddha refuting a suggestion by his student Devadatta to include vegetarianism in the monastic precepts. In fact one tradition asserts that the Buddha died from eating tainted pork.

Some Theravada Buddhist sects follow a cuisine for monks and nuns that prohibits the killing of plants. Therefore, strictly speaking, root vegetables (including potatoes, carrots or onion and garlic) are not to be used because their use results in the death of the plant. There is also a prohibition on eating mango based on an old tradition.


Today I’ve prepared a dish of lentils, pasta, and fresh porcini mushrooms for my meals, not because I follow either a vegan or a Buddhist regime, but because that’s what my body wants today. For several years I’ve been very careful to eat only foods that appeal when I first begin the cooking process, and not rely on whim or convenience. If nothing I have on hand appeals, I go out to the market or I don’t eat. I am never driven by hunger or appetite. I found the porcini mushrooms in the market and they instantly appealed to me.

Jun 162016


On this date, devout Sikhs honor the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, fifth of the ten Sikh gurus. His actual date of death is not known, but this is the conventional date of memorial in the Sikh calendar. It’s not a big festival day, but it is an important memorial because of the importance of Guru Arjan in the development of Sikhism, particularly as a martyr. His death spawned the militant branch of Sikhism that has persisted for centuries, spurring endless violence between Sikhs and Muslims, as well as with other sects. Let me state this emphatically at the outset. Violence in the name of religion is wrong – period. Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, you name it, are all religions that are fundamentally opposed to violence, yet numerous followers use their “faith” to conduct holy wars or acts of terrorism. This is just plain wrong, and is nothing more than using religion as a cover for their own brands of bigotry and hatred.

Guru Arjan (sometimes spelled Arjun) was born in Goindval, Punjab, the youngest son of Guru Ram Das and Mata Bhani, the daughter of Guru Amar Das. Guru Arjan was the Guru of Sikhism for a quarter of a century. He completed the construction of Amritsar and founded other cities, such as Taran Taran and Kartarpur. The greatest contribution Guru Arjan made to the Sikh faith was to compile all of the past Gurus’ writings, along with selected writings of other saints from different backgrounds which he considered consistent with the teachings of Sikhism into one book, now the holy scripture: the Guru Granth Sahib. It is, perhaps, the only Sikh scripture which still exists in the form first published (a hand-written manuscript) by the Guru.


Guru Arjan introduced the Masands, a group of representatives who taught and spread the teachings of the Gurus and received the Dasvand, a voluntary offering of a Sikh’s income in money, goods or service. Sikhs paid the Dasvand to support the building of gurdwaras and langars (shared communal kitchens). Although the introduction of the langar was started by Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan is credited with laying the foundation of the systematic institution of langars as a religious duty, one that has continued ever since.

Guru Arjan was arrested under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and ordered to convert to Islam. He refused, was tortured and executed in 1606 CE. Historical records and the Sikh tradition are unclear whether Guru Arjan was executed by drowning or died during torture. His martyrdom is considered a watershed event in the history of Sikhism.


Sikhism is not especially well understood in the West although it is easy to spot a Sikh male by his beard and turban. Sikhism ( ਸਿੱਖੀ Sikkhi), is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region of South Asia during the 15th century. The fundamental beliefs of Sikhism, articulated in the Guru Granth Sahib, include faith and meditation on the name of the one creator, unity and equality of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct and livelihood while living a householder’s life (marriage is an important obligation). Although one of the youngest amongst the major world religions, with over 25 million adherents worldwide, Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world.


Sikhism is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru, and the ten successive Sikh gurus. After the death of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, became the general spiritual guide for Sikhs. Sikhism emphasizes simran (meditation on the words of the Guru Granth Sahib), that can be expressed musically through kirtan or internally through Nam Japo as a means to feel God’s presence, and to have control over the “Five Thieves” (lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit). Secular life is considered to be intertwined with the spiritual life. Guru Nanak taught that living an “active, creative, and practical life” of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity” is above  metaphysical truth, and that the ideal disciple (i.e. sikh) is one who “establishes union with God, knows the Will of God, and carries out that Will.” Sikhs established the system of the langar, or communal kitchen, in order to demonstrate the need to share and have equality between all people. Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, established that the political/temporal (Miri) and the spiritual (Piri) realms should be mutually coexistent.

Sikhs also reject claims that any particular religious tradition has a monopoly on Absolute Truth. The development of Sikhism was influenced by the Bhakti movement, which developed out of the Vedic tradition of Hinduism. However, Sikhism was not simply an extension of the Bhakti movement, but a radical change in direction – rejecting polytheism, for example. Sikhism developed while the Punjab region was being ruled by the Mughal Empire. Both Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur, after they refused to convert to Islam, were tortured and executed by the Mughal rulers. The Islamic era persecution of Sikhs triggered the founding of the Khalsa, as a militant order to defend freedom of conscience and religion. A Sikh is expected to embody the qualities of a “Sant-Sipāhī” – a saint-soldier.

God in Sikhism is known as Ik Onkar, the One Supreme Reality. or the all-pervading spirit (which is taken to mean God). This spirit has no gender in Sikhism, though translations may present it as masculine. It is also Akaal Purkh (beyond time and space) and Nirankar (without form). In addition, Guru Nanak wrote that there are many worlds on which Ik Onkar has created life.


Guru Nanak further states that the understanding of Akaal is beyond human beings, but at the same time not wholly unknowable. Akaal is omnipresent (sarav viāpak) in all creation and visible everywhere to the spiritually awakened. Guru Nanak stressed that Ik Onkar must be seen with “the inward eye”, or the “heart”, of a human being: devotees must meditate to progress towards enlightenment of “higher” life. Guru Nanak emphasized revelation through meditation, as its rigorous application permits communication between God and human beings.

The Mul Mantar, the opening line of the Guru Granth Sahib and each subsequent raga, invokes Ik Oankar:

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ॥

Transliteration: ikk ōankār sat(i)-nām(u) karatā purakh(u) nirabha’u niravair(u) akāl(a) mūrat(i) ajūnī saibhan gur(a) prasād(i).

There is but one all pervading spirit, and truth is its name! It exists in all creation; it does not fear; it does not hate; it is timeless and universal and self-existent, You will come to know it through seeking knowledge and learning!

In Sikhism, only lacto-vegetarian food is served in the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) but Sikhs are not bound to be meat-free. The consensus is that Sikhs are free to adopt a meat diet or not as they choose. Sikhs, once they become Amritdhari (initiated) via the Amrit Sanskar (initiation ceremony), are forbidden from eating Kutha or ritually-slaughtered (Halal, Kosher)meat because it transgresses one of the four restrictions in the Sikh Code of Conduct. According to the Akal Takht (Central Body for Sikh Temporal Affairs), Sikhs are allowed only to eat Jhatka meat (meat from animals that are slaughtered instantly by a single blow).

Guru Nanak said it was pointless to debate the merits of either not eating or eating meat in the context of religion, as maintaining a strict diet does not make one blessed or elevate one to a superior status over another, spiritually or otherwise. Being a member of a religion incorporates not only one’s dietary customs, but the entire way in which devotees govern their lives. He advocated a life consisting of honest, hard work and humility, focus and remembrance of God, and compassion for all of humanity. These three key principles take precedence over one’s dietary habits.

I tend to agree with one branch of Sikhism which argues that both plants and animals have life, and so it is not rational to separate the one from the other by arguing that eating meat involves taking life whereas eating plants does not. Just because a carrot does not scream when you harvest it does not mean that it is less of a living thing than a cow. Humans eat living things – and they eat us. Such is the nature of life.

Nonetheless I’ll highlight a classic vegetarian Punjabi dish here, aloo gobi. It’s one of my favorites, and has taken me a long time to perfect. It’s a dry spicy dish made with potatoes and cauliflower. For a very thorough account of how to go about cooking it go here: http://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/aloo-gobi-recipe-punjabialoo-gobi/  It takes a lot of practice to get it right. The potatoes and cauliflower have to be cooked properly without boiling. The dish is very spicy, but dry, unlike the more usual heavily sauced curries you find in Indian restaurants that cover the waterfront from Goa, Kerala, Bengal, Madras, Gujarat, etc, but which can be highly generic.

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The principal seasoning of aloo gobi, added towards the end, is garam masala. I usually buy mine readymade, but it can vary considerably in content and quality. The basic ingredients are black peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, cloves, brown cardamom, nutmeg, and green cardamom. If you’re a real purist you can buy these spices whole and grind them together yourself. Ghee (clarified butter) is the preferred cooking oil, but plain vegetable oil is all right, and makes the dish vegan.


Aloo Gobi

1 medium cauliflower (450 g), cut into florets
5 or 6 medium size potatoes (350 g), pealed and sliced in wedges
2 inches ginger peeled and chopped
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp garam masala powder
coriander leaves for garnish
4 tbsp oil or ghee


You need a deep, heavy skillet with a tight fitting lid for a successful dish.

Heat the oil over medium-low heat and add the potatoes and cauliflower. Sauté the vegetables for about 10 minutes, but do not let them take on color. Stir continuously while cooking.

Add the ginger and turmeric and stir thoroughly to make sure that they are evenly distributed. Cover tightly and reduce the heat to low. Cook undisturbed for about 20 minutes. The water in the vegetables will steam them.

Uncover the pot, add the garam masala, turn the heat to medium high. You may need to add a little more oil at this stage if the pan is completely dry. Sauté for a few minutes to release all the flavors from the garam masala, stirring constantly to make sure the vegetables are evenly coated.

Serve with plain boiled basmati rice, chutneys, pickles, and flat bread.

Jan 312016


Today is the birthday (1543) of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which virtually ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ieyasu seized power in 1600, received appointment as shogun in 1603, abdicated from office in 1605 (a formal norm), but de facto remained in power until his death in 1616. His given name is sometimes spelled Iyeyasu, according to the historical pronunciation of he. Ieyasu was posthumously enshrined at Nikkō Tōshō-gū with the name Tōshō Daigongen (東照大権現).


Ieyasu is famed as the founder of the Edo period (江戸時代) or Tokugawa period (徳川時代), in Japan, the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan, when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country’s 300 regional daimyo. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, popular enjoyment of well known arts and culture, recycling of materials, and sustainable land and forest management. It was both a sustainable and self-sufficient society which was based on the principles of the highly practical management of finite resources. The shogunate was officially established in Edo on March 24, 1603, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.


In many ways, foreigners think of the culture of the Edo period as “traditional” Japanese culture — after a long period of inner conflict, the first goal of the newly established Tokugawa government under Ieyasu was to pacify, and stabilize, the country. It created a balance of power that remained (fairly) stable for the next 250 years, influenced by Confucian principles of social order. Most samurai lost their direct possession of the land: all land ownership was concentrated in the hands of about 300 daimyo. The samurai had a choice: give up their swords and become peasants, or move to the city of their feudal lord and become paid retainers. Only a few landed samurai remained in the border provinces of the north, or as direct vassals of the shogun — the 5,000 so-called hatamoto. The daimyo were put under tight control of the shogunate. Their families had to reside in Edo; the daimyo themselves had to reside in Edo for one year and in their provinces (han) for the next. This system was called sankin kōtai. This practice ended internecine wars among the daimyo.

The individual had no legal rights in Tokugawa Japan. The family was the smallest legal entity, and the maintenance of family status and privileges was of great importance at all levels of society. For example, the Edo period penal laws prescribed “non-free labor” or slavery for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696. (Click the graphic to see the full social order).


During the Tokugawa period, the social order, based on inherited position rather than personal merits, was rigid and highly formalized. At the top were the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge), together with the Shogun and daimyo. Below them the population was divided into four classes in a system known as mibunsei (身分制): the samurai on top (about 5% of the population) and the peasants (more than 80% of the population) on the second level. Below the peasants were the craftsmen, and even below them, on the fourth level, were the merchants. Only the peasants lived in the rural areas. Samurai, craftsmen and merchants lived in the cities that were built around the daimyo’s castles, each restricted to their own quarter.

Outside the four classes were the so-called eta and hinin, those whose professions broke the taboos of Buddhism. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners, and executioners. Other outsiders included the beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes. The word eta literally translates to “filthy” and hinin to “non-humans”, a thorough reflection of the attitude held by other classes that the eta and hinin were not even people. Hinin were only allowed inside a special quarter of the city. Other limitations on the Hinin included disallowing them from wearing robes longer than knee-length and the wearing of hats. Sometimes eta villages were not even printed on official maps. A sub-class of Hinin who were born into their social class had no option of mobility to a different social class whereas the other class of Hinin who had lost their previous class status could be reinstated in Japanese society. In the 19th century the umbrella term burakumin was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods. The eta, hinin and burakumin classes were officially abolished in 1871. Their cultural and societal impact, including some forms of discrimination, continued, however, into modern times.

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Edo period cuisine is seen by many outsiders as “classic” Japanese food. It represents the height of sustainability – vegetables, pickles, rice, and fish. Livestock cultivation was largely forbidden. Even tofu was considered decadent and highly prized. Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks. Tofu originated in Han dynasty China some 2,000 years ago. Tofu and its production technique were introduced into Japan during the Nara period (710–794). The spread of tofu throughout Asia probably coincided with the spread of Buddhism because it is an important source of protein in the vegetarian diet of East Asian Buddhism.

Tofu has a low calorie count and relatively large amounts of protein. It is high in iron, and depending on the coagulants used in manufacturing (e.g. calcium chloride, calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate), it can have higher calcium or magnesium content.

Tofu is incredibly versatile and amenable to all manner of flavorings. One of my favorite snacks from Japan is to warm it in dashi (bonito broth) and serve it topped with a sweet soy based paste. This was my breakfast this morning:


But have at it. Serve it in miso soup, casseroles, fried, with vegetables – you name it.

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Sep 302015


On this date in 1966 Botswana, officially the Republic of Botswana (Lefatshe la Botswana), became independent within the British Commonwealth. Botswana is a landlocked country located in Southern Africa. The citizens refer to themselves as Batswana (singular: Motswana). Botswana was formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, but adopted its current name after becoming independent. Since independence it has maintained a strong tradition of stable representative democracy, with a consistent record of uninterrupted democratic elections.

Botswana is topographically flat, with up to 70% of its territory being the Kalahari Desert. It is bordered by South Africa to the south and southeast, Namibia to the west and north, and Zimbabwe to the northeast. Its border with Zambia to the north near Kazungula is poorly defined but at most is a few hundred meters long.


Botswana is one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world. Around 10% of the population lives in the capital and largest city, Gaborone. Although once one of the poorest countries in the world—with a GDP per capita of about US$70 per year in the late 1960s—Botswana has since transformed itself into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, now boasting a GDP per capita of about $18,825 per year as of 2015, which is one of the highest in Africa. Its high gross national income (by some estimates the fourth-largest in Africa) gives the country a modest standard of living and the highest Human Development Index of continental Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 19th century, hostilities broke out between Tswana inhabitants of Botswana and Ndebele tribes who were making incursions into the territory from the north-east. Tensions also escalated with the Dutch Boer settlers from the Transvaal to the east. After appeals by the Batswana leaders Khama III, Bathoen and Sebele for assistance, the British Government put Bechuanaland under its protection on 31 March 1885. The northern territory remained under direct administration as the Bechuanaland Protectorate and is modern-day Botswana, while the southern territory became part of the Cape Colony and is now part of the northwest province of South Africa. The majority of Setswana-speaking people today live in South Africa.

When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 out of the main British colonies in the region, the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Basutoland (now Lesotho) and Swaziland (the High Commission Territories) were not included, but provision was made for their later incorporation. However, their inhabitants began to be consulted by the UK, and although successive South African governments sought to have the territories transferred, the UK kept delaying; consequently, it never occurred. The election of the Nationalist government in 1948, which instituted apartheid, and South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961, ended any prospect of incorporation of the territories into South Africa. An expansion of British central authority and the evolution of tribal government resulted in the 1920 establishment of two advisory councils to represent both Africans and Europeans. Proclamations in 1934 regulated tribal rule and powers. A European-African advisory council was formed in 1951, and the 1961 constitution established a consultative legislative council.


In June 1964, the UK accepted proposals for a democratic self-government in Botswana. The seat of government was moved in 1965 from Mafikeng in South Africa, to the newly established Gaborone, which sits near its border. The 1965 constitution led to the first general elections and to independence on 30 September 1966. Seretse Khama, a leader in the independence movement and the legitimate claimant to the Ngwato chiefship, was elected as the first President, going on to be re-elected twice.

The Tswana are the majority ethnic group in Botswana, making up 79% of the population. The largest minority ethnic groups are the BaKalanga, San or AbaThwa also known as Basarwa. Other tribes are Bayei, Bambukushu, Basubia, Baherero and Bakgalagadi. In addition, there are small numbers of whites and Indians, both groups being roughly equally small in number. Botswana’s Indian population is made up of many Indian-Africans of several generations, from Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, South Africa, and so on, as well as first generation Indian immigrants. The white population speaks English and Afrikaans and makes up roughly 3% of the population.Since 2000, because of deteriorating economic conditions in Zimbabwe, the number of Zimbabweans in Botswana has risen into the tens of thousands.


Fewer than 10,000 San are still living the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life. Since the mid-1990s the central government of Botswana has been trying to move San out of their lands. The U.N.’s top official on indigenous rights, Prof. James Anaya, condemned Botswana’s actions toward the San in a report released in February 2010. The San are very well known to anthropologists because fieldwork among them has greatly advanced the study of human prehistory and overturned many long held, but false, notions concerning foraging and domestication. Generally the San reject materialism, wealth, and personal power which makes them endearing to many, but relatively powerless in modern geo-politics.


The official language of Botswana is English although Setswana is widely spoken across the country. In Setswana, as in many Bantu dialects, prefixes are extremely important. These prefixes include Bo, which refers to a country, Ba, which refers to a people, Mo, which is one person, and Se which is a language. For example, the main ethnic group of Botswana is the Tswana people, hence the name Botswana for its country, the people as a whole are Batswana, one person is a Motswana, and the language they speak is Setswana.


The traditional foods of Botswana are generally fairly basic, including a lot of boiled grains, such as sorghum and maize – staples of much of Africa in one form or another. However, mopane worms may be a little exotic for Western tastes. They are the caterpillar stage of a common moth that are harvested by locals and either eaten directly (raw or cooked) or preserved by drying or smoking. You can buy them canned online, preserved in brine.

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Seswaa is a traditional meat dish of Botswana, made of beef, goat, chicken or lamb meat. It’s usually served as a festive dish for weddings, parties and the like, so seems perfect for Independence Day celebrations. Fatty meat is boiled on the bone in big kettles over an open fire until tender (with a lot of salt), and then shredded or pounded. It is often served with pap (maize meal) or sorghum meal porridge. You should use tough, stewing cuts which you can boil for a very long time. You don’t need a more detailed recipe but here’s a video I like because the commentary is in Setswana.


Jan 082015


Today is the birthday (1823) of Alfred Russel Wallace OM FRS, a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist. He is best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; his paper on the subject was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin’s writings in 1858. This prompted Darwin to publish his own ideas in On the Origin of Species. Wallace did extensive fieldwork, first in the Amazon River basin and then in the Malay Archipelago, where he identified the faunal divide now termed the Wallace Line, which separates the Indonesian archipelago into two distinct parts: a western portion in which the animals are largely of Asian origin, and an eastern portion where the fauna reflect Australasia.

He was considered the 19th century’s leading expert on the geographical distribution of animal species and is sometimes called the “father of biogeograph.” Wallace was one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century and made many other contributions to the development of evolutionary theory besides being co-discoverer of natural selection. These included the concept of warning coloration in animals, and the Wallace effect, a hypothesis on how natural selection could contribute to speciation by encouraging the development of barriers against hybridization.

Wallace was strongly attracted to unconventional ideas (such as evolution). His advocacy of spiritualism and his belief in a non-material origin for the higher mental faculties of humans strained his relationship with some members of the scientific establishment. In addition to his scientific work, he was a social activist who was critical of what he considered to be an unjust social and economic system in 19th century Britain. His interest in natural history resulted in his being one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the environmental impact of human activity.

Wallace was a prolific author who wrote on both scientific and social issues; his account of his adventures and observations during his explorations in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, The Malay Archipelago, is regarded as one the best of all journals of scientific exploration published during the 19th century.

Wallace had financial difficulties throughout much of his life. His Amazon and Far Eastern trips were supported by the sale of specimens he collected and, after he lost most of the considerable money he made from those sales in unsuccessful investments, he had to support himself mostly from the publications he produced. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the British scientific community, such as Darwin and Charles Lyell, he had no family wealth to fall back on, and he was unsuccessful in finding a long-term salaried position, receiving no regular income until he was awarded a small government pension, through Darwin’s efforts, in 1881.

Wallace’s contributions to evolutionary biology have now largely been forgotten, and evolution tends to be linked with Darwin only. But Wallace had a profound influence on the field and on Darwin himself. In fact, it has been argued that had he not corresponded with Darwin about his own theories concerning natural selection, Darwin might never have published his. Darwin had sat on his notes for many years because he was aware of the firestorm that would follow – and did. In his lifetime Wallace was one of the most famous scientists in the world, but soon after his death he was forgotten, and remains so. Hence my desire to celebrate him today.

Inspired by the chronicles of earlier travelling naturalists, including Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and William Henry Edwards, Wallace decided that he too wanted to travel abroad as a naturalist. In 1848, Wallace and Henry Bates left for Brazil aboard the ship Mischief. Their intention was to collect insects and other animal specimens in the Amazon rainforest and sell them to collectors back in the United Kingdom. Wallace also hoped to gather evidence of the transmutation of species which was a theory that was largely unsupported by empirical evidence.

Wallace and Bates spent most of their first year collecting near Belém do Pará, then explored inland separately, occasionally meeting to discuss their findings. In 1849, they were briefly joined by another young explorer, botanist Richard Spruce, along with Wallace’s younger brother Herbert. Herbert left soon thereafter (dying two years later from yellow fever), but Spruce, like Bates, would spend over ten years collecting in South America.

Wallace continued charting the Rio Negro for four years, collecting specimens and making notes on the peoples and languages he encountered as well as the geography, flora, and fauna. On 12 July 1852, Wallace embarked for the UK on the brig Helen. After 26 days at sea, the ship’s cargo caught fire and the crew was forced to abandon ship. All of the specimens Wallace had on the ship, mostly collected during the last, and most imporant, years of his trip, were lost. He could save only part of his diary and a few sketches.

Wallace and the crew spent ten days in an open boat before being picked up by the brig Jordeson, which was sailing from Cuba to London. The Jordeson’s provisions were strained by the unexpected passengers, but after a difficult passage on very short rations the ship finally reached its destination on 1 October 1852.

After his return to the UK, Wallace spent 18 months in London living on the insurance payment for his lost collection and selling a few specimens that had been shipped back to Britain prior to his starting his exploration of the Rio Negro. During this period, despite having lost almost all of the notes from his South American expedition, he wrote six academic papers (which included “On the Monkeys of the Amazon”) and two books; Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses and Travels on the Amazon. He also made connexions with a number of other British naturalists—most significantly, Darwin.

From 1854 to 1862, age 31 to 39, Wallace travelled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), to collect specimens for sale and to study natural history. A set of 80 bird skeletons he collected in Indonesia and associated documentation can be found in the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow strait in the archipelago led to his proposing the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace line.


Wallace collected more than 126,000 specimens in the Malay Archipelago (more than 80,000 beetles alone). Several thousand of them represented species new to science.] One of his better-known species descriptions during this trip is that of the gliding tree frog Rhacophorus nigropalmatus, now known as Wallace’s flying frog. While he was exploring the archipelago, he refined his thoughts about evolution and had his famous insight on natural selection. In 1858 he sent an article outlining his theory to Darwin; it was published, along with a description of Darwin’s own theory, in the same year.

Accounts of his studies and adventures there were eventually published in 1869 as The Malay Archipelago, which became one of the most popular books of scientific exploration of the 19th century, and has never been out of print. It was praised by scientists such as Darwin (to whom the book was dedicated), and Charles Lyell, and by non-scientists such as the novelist Joseph Conrad, who called it his “favorite bedside companion” and used it as source of information for several of his novels, especially Lord Jim.

In 1862, Wallace returned to England, where he moved in with his sister Fanny Sims and her husband Thomas. While recovering from his travels, Wallace organized his collections and gave numerous lectures about his adventures and discoveries to scientific societies such as the Zoological Society of London. Later that year, he visited Darwin at Down House, and became friendly with both Charles Lyell and Herbert Spencer. During the 1860’s, Wallace wrote papers and gave lectures defending natural selection. He also corresponded with Darwin about a variety of topics, including sexual selection, warning coloration, and the possible effect of natural selection on hybridization and the divergence of species. In 1865, he began investigating spiritualism, his advocacy of which alienated him from many powerful figures in the scientific community.

John Stuart Mill was impressed by remarks criticizing English society that Wallace had included in The Malay Archipelago. Mill asked him to join the general committee of his Land Tenure Reform Association, but the association dissolved after Mill’s death in 1873. Wallace had written only a handful of articles on political and social issues between 1873 and 1879 when, at the age of 56, he entered the debates over trade policy and land reform in earnest. He believed that rural land should be owned by the state and leased to people who would make whatever use of it that would benefit the largest number of people, thus breaking the often-abused power of wealthy landowners in British society. In 1881, Wallace was elected as the first president of the newly formed Land Nationalisation Society. In the next year, he published a book, Land Nationalisation; Its Necessity and Its Aims, on the subject. He criticized the UK’s free trade policies for the negative impact they had on working-class people. In 1889, Wallace read Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and declared himself a socialist. After reading Progress and Poverty, the best-selling book by the progressive land reformist Henry George, Wallace described it as “Undoubtedly the most remarkable and important book of the present century.”

Wallace opposed eugenics, an idea supported by other prominent 19th century evolutionary thinkers, on the grounds that contemporary society was too corrupt and unjust to allow any reasonable determination of who was fit or unfit. In the 1890 article “Human Selection” he wrote “Those who succeed in the race for wealth are by no means the best or the most intelligent …”. In 1898, Wallace wrote a paper advocating a pure paper money system, not backed by silver or gold, which impressed the economist Irving Fisher so much that he dedicated his 1920 book Stabilizing the Dollar to Wallace. Wallace wrote articles on other social and political topics including his support for women’s suffrage, and the dangers and wastefulness of militarism.

In 1898, Wallace published The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Its Failures about developments in the 19th century. The first part of the book covers the major scientific and technical advances of the century; the second part covers what Wallace considered to be its social failures including: the destruction and waste of wars and arms races, the rise of the urban poor and the dangerous conditions in which they lived and worked, a harsh criminal justice system that failed to reform criminals, abuses in a mental health system based on privately owned sanatoriums, the environmental damage caused by capitalism, and the evils of European colonialism. Wallace continued his social activism for the rest of his life, publishing the book The Revolt of Democracy just weeks before his death.

Wallace continued his scientific work in parallel with his social commentary. In 1880, he published Island Life as a sequel to The Geographic Distribution of Animals. In November 1886, Wallace began a ten-month trip to the United States to give a series of popular lectures. Most of the lectures were on Darwinism (evolution through natural selection), but he also gave speeches on biogeography, spiritualism, and socio-economic reform. During the trip, he was reunited with his brother John who had emigrated to California years before. He also spent a week in Colorado, with the American botanist Alice Eastwood as his guide, exploring the flora of the Rocky Mountains and gathering evidence that would lead him to a theory on how glaciation might explain certain commonalities between the mountain flora of Europe, Asia and North America, which he published in 1891 in the paper “English and American Flowers”. He met many other prominent American naturalists and viewed their collections. His 1889 book Darwinism used information he collected on his American trip, and information he had compiled for the lectures.

Wallace assembled a huge collection of flora and fauna which were kept in “cabinets.” Only one of these collections remains in its original cabinet. It consists of 1,700-items consisting of a variety of insects, including butterflies, beetles, moths, shells, flies, bees, praying mantises, tarantulas, seedpods, a hornet’s nest, and a small bird. A collector named Robert Heggestad found this cabinet/collection in Washington DC in 1979 and purchased it for $600 (not knowing who had assembled it). Heggestad began documenting references in Wallace’s work to specimens in the cabinet, resulting in a 62-page report to support the theory that the collection once belonged to Wallace. He also employed graphologist Beverley East to verify the handwriting on the collection. It is Wallace’s only known personal collection still in its original cabinet. Today it is believed that Wallace collected the specimens in the rosewood cabinet for instructional purposes.

On 7 November 1913, Wallace died at home in the country house he called Old Orchard, which he had built a decade earlier. He was 90 years old. His death was widely reported in the press. The New York Times called him “the last of the giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals that included, among others, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Lyell, and Owen, whose daring investigations revolutionised and evolutionised the thought of the century.” Another commentator in the same edition said “No apology need be made for the few literary or scientific follies of the author of that great book on the ‘Malay Archipelago’.”

Some of Wallace’s friends suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, but his wife followed his wishes and had him buried in the small cemetery at Broadstone, Dorset. Several prominent British scientists formed a committee to have a medallion of Wallace placed in Westminster Abbey near where Darwin had been buried. The medallion was unveiled on 1 November 1915.

I thought it fitting to talk about Malay cuisine because of Wallace’s close ties to the Malay region. I enjoy cooking one or two dishes when I can get hold of the ingredients which is easier for me now I am in SW China. But I do not have a kitchen yet, so I will just have to describe it. Malay restaurants are not common in the West, but I did find a good one once in Brighton on the south coast of England.


Malay cuisine is noted for its complex spice mixes, fiery sambals, coconut milk, and rice. Nasi lemak (Jawi: ناسيلمق) is a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, commonly found in Malaysia, where it is considered the national dish. It is also popular in neighboring countries such as Brunei, Singapore, Riau Islands, and Southern Thailand. It is not hard to prepare but you do need pandan leaves to get the right flavor. They can be found in the West, frozen, in Asian stores. They add a flavor similar to basmati rice to plain rice. So, if you cannot get them use basmati as a substitute.


Basically you use coconut milk in place of water using about a 2:I ratio of milk to rice so that the milk is completely absorbed. Add a few slices of fresh ginger and a knot of pandan leaves for flavoring. The rice is traditionally served with sliced cucumber, fried anchovies, boiled egg, and peanuts with some kind of sambal. But it can accompany any dish. Here’s a little gallery of ideas for you.

aw11 aw10 aw9 aw8 aw7 aw6

Dec 272014


Today is the birthday of Kuang Jianlian (鄺健廉) better known by her stage name Hung Sin-nui (紅線女), but also known as Hong Xian-nu, Hong Sin-lui, Hung Hsien-nu, Hong Sin-loi. She is now considered a national treasure as a Cantonese opera star and movie actress in China and Hong Kong.
She was born in Guangzhou with the name Kuang Jianlian or Kwong Kin-lin in 1924. Her ancestral hometown is Kaiping, Guangdong. With her aunt Ho Fu-lin as her mentor, she began to sing Cantonese opera at the age of 12. She started from Mui Heung and her first stage name was Siu Yin Hung. She took to the stage from 1939, adopting the stage name Hung Sin Nui (Red Line Girl).”Red line” in Chinese signifies important relationships, especially marriage.
She moved to Hong Kong during World War II. She played alongside Ma Shi-tsang, her then husband and well-known Cantonese opera singer and actor in productions including The Spoiled Brat and Her Groom, Bitter Phoenix, Sorrowful Oriole and Wang Zhaojun Marries beyond the Great Wall. She established her official diva status during the period and began her movie career. Her screen debut was Unforgettable Love in 1947. Here’s an example:

Hung made 105 films in her career from 1947 to 2009, but the bulk was during the late 1940s and 1950s.Her notable movies include The Judge Goes to Pieces, A Mother’s Tears, Everlasting Love, Wilderness, The Pretty Tigress, Searching the School and Guan Hanqing.
In 1955, Hung gave up her career in Hong Kong and joined the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Troupe on the mainland on the invitation of premier Zhou En-lai, where she performed until1961. She also founded the Hongdou Cantonese Opera Troupe where she trained and mentored many Cantonese Opera actors and actresses. During the Cultural Revolution Hung’s career halted. She was branded as “Black Line Girl” (disreputable girl) and banished to the countryside as a “street sweeper.” She and her family were sent to labor camps. She recalled she would sing inside her heart at a time when she was forbidden to sing out loud. She would hold a note and practice when she raised chickens, and when no one was looking she would practice, and would sing in high pitch during thunder storms. After the death of Mao Zedong, Hung slowly re-emerged on the renascent Cantonese opera scene. She also appeared in two films in 1990 and 2009 before her career ended.
Hung died on 8 December 2013 of a heart attack at the Guangdong General Hospital in Guangzhou, where she had retired in her last years.

Hung was married twice, first to well-known Cantonese opera actor Ma Shi-tsang from 1944 to 1955 and then to a writer Hua Shan from 1970 to his death in 1985. Hung had two sons and a daughter from her first marriage. Her daughter, Hung Hung, was also a Cantonese opera star. In 1981 she escaped to Taiwan and criticized the Chinese Communist government for what they had done to her mother. She eventually emigrated to Canada and wanted her mother to come with her, but Hung preferred to stay in China.
Hung is regarded as one of the greatest treasures of Cantonese opera and Hong Kong cinema. She is famous for her unique sweet, crisp, smooth and coquettish “Hung tone” (紅腔) of singing which incorporated the techniques of Beijing Opera, Kunqu, and Western opera singing styles. She was invited to leave a handprint at the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong. Much of Hung’s work and documents of her career are preserved at the Hungxiannu Art Center in Guangzhou, which was opened 1998 by the Guangzhou city government to commemorate and preserve her contribution to the art of Cantonese opera.


Her son Ma Ting-sing said “mother can be described as ‘never abandoning or wavering, with neither complaint nor regret’ toward Cantonese Opera. Whether it was in the midst of war or when the market was light, she still insisted on performing and teaching. Even when she faced 70% empty seats she still performed at will and persisted on that passion for Cantonese Opera.”
Nowadays Chinese traditional opera is in decline in popularity here in China. It is considered old fashioned by young people and is little known in the West. But I love it. Every Sunday in the park near where I live there are performances; the audience is nothing but older people (me included). Hung has a voice that moves my soul. I wish I could have heard her live.

I can’t say that I am enamored of Cantonese cuisine these days even though it is considered one of the eight classic cuisines of China.  It was the basis of “Chinese food” in the West for decades (suitably modified for Western tastes).  Now I find it rather bland in comparison with the rainbow of tastes I get in Yunnan.  But I did cook in that style for many years.  It’s hard to replicate in the West mainly because Western stoves don’t get hot enough to stir fry properly.  You need to get a wok or frying pan up to about 500°F or more to do a decent job.  Here in Kunming they use huge propane jets that could fuel a rocket ship.


What I suggest is that you get some tender beef, onions, mushrooms and bell peppers, cut them all into strips.  Heat a wok or frying pan as hot as you can.  Just put it on the highest heat and let it heat until it is smoking.  Then add a small amount of vegetable oil and dump the ingredients in.  Knock them around for a few minutes.  They will cook quickly.  Then add the savor of your choice.  It could be a mix of hoisin sauce and chicken stock, or oyster sauce, or whatever.  You can get them at the average supermarket.  But this is cook’s choice.  Even a mix of soy sauce, stock, and cornstarch will work.  Serve with rice of course, and eat with chopsticks !!!




Jun 212014


Today is National Day in Greenland, marking the anniversary of self rule granted by Denmark in 2009 after a long process of separation (still not complete). Greenland is an autonomous country, still within the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe (specifically Norway and later Denmark) for more than a millennium. In 2008, the people of Greenland passed a referendum supporting greater autonomy; 75% of votes cast were in favor. Greenland is, in area, the world’s largest island (Australia is counted as a continent), over three-quarters of which is covered by the only contemporary ice sheet outside of Antarctica. With a population of 56,370 (2013), it is the least densely populated country in the world. Few people from the outside know much about Greenland, so here is a potted history.

Greenland has been inhabited off and on for at least the last 4,500 years by Arctic peoples whose forebears migrated there from Canada. Norsemen settled on the uninhabited southern part of Greenland beginning in the 10th century. Inuit peoples arrived in the 13th century. The Norse colonies disappeared in the late 15th century. In the early 18th century, Scandinavia and Greenland came back into contact with each other, and Denmark established sovereignty over the island.

Having been ruled by Denmark-Norway for centuries, Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814, and a part of the Danish Realm in 1953 under the Constitution of Denmark. In 1973, Greenland joined the European Economic Community (EEC) with Denmark. However, in a referendum in 1983, a majority of the population voted for Greenland to withdraw from the EEC, and officially withdrew in 1985. In 1979, Denmark granted home rule to Greenland, and in 2008, Greenlanders voted in favor of the Self-Government Act, which transferred more power from the Danish royal government to the local Greenlandic government. Under the new structure, in effect since 21 June 2009, Greenland can gradually assume responsibility for policing, judicial system, company law, accounting and auditing; mineral resource activities; aviation; law of legal capacity, family law and succession law; aliens and border controls; the working environment; and financial regulation and supervision. The Danish government retains control of foreign affairs and national defense. It also retains control of monetary policy, providing an initial annual subsidy of DKK 3.4 billion, slated to diminish gradually over time as Greenland’s economy is strengthened by increased income from the extraction of natural resources.

It was the early Scandinavian settlers who gave the country the name Greenland. In the Icelandic sagas, it is said that the Norwegian-born Icelander Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland for manslaughter. Along with his extended family and his thralls, he set out in ships to explore icy land known to lie to the northwest. After finding a habitable area and settling there, he named it Grœnland (translated as “Greenland”), supposedly in the hope that the pleasant name would attract settlers (false advertizing goes back a long way). The name of the country in Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) is Kalaallit Nunaat (“land of the Kalaallit”). The Kalaallit are the indigenous Greenlandic Inuit people who inhabit the country’s western region.

In prehistoric times, Greenland was home to several successive Paleo-Eskimo cultures known primarily through archaeological finds. The earliest entry of the Paleo-Eskimo into Greenland is thought to have occurred about 2500 BC. From around 2500 BC to 800 BCE, southern and western Greenland was inhabited by the Saqqaq culture. Most finds of Saqqaq-period archaeological remains have been around Disko Bay. From 2400 BC to 1300 BCE, the Independence I culture inhabited northern Greenland. It was a part of the Arctic small tool tradition. Towns, including Deltaterrasserne, started to appear.


Around 800 BCE, the Saqqaq culture disappeared and the Early Dorset culture emerged in western Greenland and the Independence II culture in northern Greenland. The Dorset culture was the first culture to extend throughout the Greenlandic coastal areas, both on the west and east coasts, and it lasted until the arrival of the Thule culture in 1500 CE. The Dorset culture population lived primarily from whale hunting. The Thule culture people are the ancestors of the current Greenlandic population. They started migrating from Alaska around 1000 CE, reaching Greenland around 1300. The Thule culture was the first to introduce to Greenland such technological innovations as dog sleds and toggling harpoons.

From 986, Greenland’s west coast was settled by Icelanders and Norwegians, through a contingent of 14 boats led by Erik the Red. These settlers formed three settlements—known as the Eastern Settlement, the Western Settlement and Ivittuut the “Middle Settlement”—on fjords near the southwestern-most tip of the island. They shared the island with the late Dorset culture inhabitants who occupied the northern and western parts, and later with the Thule culture arriving from the north. Norse Greenlanders submitted to Norwegian rule in the 13th century. The Kingdom of Norway entered into a personal union with Denmark in 1380, and from 1397 along with Greenland was a part of the Kalmar Union.


The settlements, such as Brattahlíð, thrived for centuries but disappeared some time in the 15th century, perhaps at the onset of the Little Ice Age. Apart from some runic inscriptions, no contemporary records or historiography survives from the Norse settlements. Icelandic saga accounts of life in Greenland were composed in the thirteenth century and later, and do not constitute primary sources for the history of early Greenland. Modern understanding therefore depends on the physical data. Interpretation of ice core and clam shell data suggests that between 800 and 1300 AD, the regions around the fjords of southern Greenland experienced a relatively mild climate several degrees Celsius higher than usual in the North Atlantic, with trees and herbaceous plants growing and livestock being farmed. Barley was grown as a crop up to the 70th parallel. What is verifiable is that the ice cores indicate Greenland has experienced dramatic temperature shifts many times over the past 100,000 years. Similarly the Icelandic Book of Settlements records famines during the winters in which “the old and helpless were killed and thrown over cliffs.” The last written records of the Norse Greenlanders are of a marriage in 1408 in the church of Hvalsey—today the best-preserved Nordic ruins in Greenland.

These Icelandic settlements vanished during the 14th and 15th centuries, probably as a result of famine and increasing conflicts with the Inuit. The condition of human bones from this period indicates that the Norse population was malnourished, probably due to soil erosion resulting from the Norsemen’s destruction of natural vegetation in the course of farming, turf-cutting, and wood-cutting, pandemic plague, a decline in temperatures during the Little Ice Age, and armed conflicts with the Inuit.


In 1500, King Manuel I of Portugal sent Gaspar Corte-Real to Greenland in search of a Northwest Passage to Asia which, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, was part of the Portuguese area of influence. In 1501, Corte-Real returned with his brother, Miguel Corte-Real. Finding the sea frozen, they headed south and arrived in Labrador and Newfoundland. Upon the brothers’ return to Portugal, the cartographic information supplied by Corte-Real was incorporated into a new map of the world which was presented to Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, by Alberto Cantino in 1502. The Cantino planisphere, made in Lisbon, accurately depicts the southern coastline of Greenland.


In 1605–1607, King Christian IV of Denmark sent a series of expeditions to Greenland and Arctic waterways to locate the lost eastern Norse settlement and assert Danish sovereignty over Greenland. The expeditions were mostly unsuccessful, partly due to leaders who lacked experience with the difficult arctic ice and weather conditions, and partly because the expedition leaders were given instructions to search for the Eastern Settlement on the east coast of Greenland just north of Cape Farewell, which is almost inaccessible due to southward drifting ice. The pilot on all three trips was English explorer James Hall.

After the Norse settlements died off, the area came under the de facto control of various Inuit groups, but the Danish government never forgot or relinquished the claims to Greenland that it had inherited from the Norwegians; and when contact with Greenland was re-established in the early 18th century, Denmark asserted its sovereignty over the island. In 1721, a joint mercantile and clerical expedition led by Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland, not knowing whether a Norse civilization remained there. The expedition can be seen as part of the Danish colonization of the Americas. After 15 years in Greenland, Hans Egede left his son Paul Egede in charge of the mission in Greenland and returned to Denmark where he established a Greenland Seminary. This new colony was centred at Godthåb (“Good Hope”) on the southwest coast. Gradually, Greenland was opened up to Danish merchants, and closed to those from other countries.

When the union between the crowns of Denmark and Norway was dissolved in 1814, the Treaty of Kiel severed Norway’s former colonies and left them under the control of the Danish monarch. Norway occupied then-uninhabited eastern Greenland as Erik the Red’s Land in July 1931, claiming that it constituted terra nullius. Norway and Denmark agreed to submit the matter in 1933 to the Permanent Court of International Justice, which decided against Norway.


Greenland’s connexion to Denmark was severed on 9 April 1940, early in World War II, when Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. On 8 April 1941, the United States occupied Greenland to defend it against a possible invasion by Germany. The United States occupation of Greenland continued until 1945. Greenland was able to buy goods from the United States and Canada by selling cryolite from the mine at Ivittuut. The major air bases were Bluie West-1 at Narsarsuaq and Bluie West-8 at Søndre Strømfjord (Kangerlussuaq), both of which are still used as Greenland’s major international airports. During this war, the system of government changed: Governor Eske Brun ruled the island under a law of 1925 that allowed governors to take control under extreme circumstances; Governor Aksel Svane was transferred to the United States to lead the commission to supply Greenland. The Danish Sirius Patrol guarded the northeastern shores of Greenland in 1942 using dogsleds, detecting several German weather stations and alerting U.S. troops who then destroyed them. After the collapse of the Third Reich, Albert Speer briefly considered escaping in a small aeroplane to hide out in Greenland, but changed his mind and decided to turn himself in to the United States Armed Forces.

Greenland had been a protected and very isolated society until 1940. The Danish government had maintained a strict monopoly of Greenlandic trade, allowing only small scale troaking (barter) with Scottish whalers. Nevertheless, wartime Greenland developed a sense of self-reliance through self-government and independent communication with the outside world. Despite this change, in 1946 a commission including the highest Greenlandic council, the Landsrådene, recommended patience and no radical reform of the system. Two years later, the first step towards a change of government was initiated when a grand commission was established. A final report (G-50) was presented in 1950: Greenland was to be a modern welfare state with Denmark as sponsor and example. In 1953 Greenland was made an equal part of the Danish Kingdom. Home rule was granted in 1979.


Following World War II, the United States developed a geopolitical interest in Greenland, and in 1946  offered to buy Greenland from Denmark for $100 million, but Denmark refused to sell. However, in 1950, Denmark did agree to allow the United States to reestablish Thule Air Base, which was greatly expanded between 1951 and 1953 as part of a unified NATO Cold War defense strategy. The local population of three nearby villages was moved over 100 kilometers (62 mi) away in the winter. A secret attempt to construct a subterranean network of nuclear missile launch sites in the Greenlandic ice cap named Project Iceworm was carried out from Camp Century from 1960 to 1966 before being abandoned as unworkable. The Danish government did not become aware of the program’s actual mission until 1997, when it was discovered while looking for records related to the crash of a nuclear-equipped B-52 bomber at Thule in 1968.

With the 1953 Danish constitution, Greenland’s colonial status ended, the island was incorporated into the Danish realm as an amt (county), extending Danish citizenship to Greenlanders. This also resulted in a change in Danish policies toward Greenland that consisted of a strategy of cultural assimilation. During this period, the Danish government promoted the exclusive use of Danish in official matters, and required Greenlanders to go to Denmark for their post-secondary education; many Greenlandic children grew up in boarding schools in southern Denmark, many losing their cultural ties to Greenland. While the policies “succeeded” in the sense of creating a demographic shift turning Greenlanders from being primarily subsistence hunters into being urbanized wage earners, the policy also backfired to produce a reassertion of Greenlandic cultural identity by the Greenlandic elite, leading to a movement in favor of independence that reached its peak in the 1970s. As a consequence of political complications in relation to Denmark’s entry into the EEC in 1972, a further desire to establish the legality of Greenland’s status formed in Denmark, resulting in the Home Rule Act of 1979, which gave Greenland limited autonomy with its own legislature taking control of some internal policies, while the Parliament of Denmark maintained full control of external policies, security, and natural resources. The law came into effect on 1 May 1979. The Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, remains Greenland’s Head of state. In 1985, Greenland left the European EEC, because of the EEC’s commercial fishing regulations and an EEC ban on seal skin products. A referendum on greater autonomy was approved on 25 November 2008.

On 21 June 2009, Greenland assumed self-determination with responsibility for self-government of judicial affairs, policing, and natural resources. Also, Greenlanders were recognized as a separate people under international law. Denmark maintains control of foreign affairs and defense matters. Denmark upholds the annual block grant of 3.2 billion Danish kroner, but as Greenland begins to collect revenues of its natural resources, the grant will gradually be diminished. It is considered by some to be a step toward eventual full independence from Denmark. Greenlandic became the sole official language of Greenland at the historic ceremony.


Greenland cuisine is difficult to replicate elsewhere because it is dominated by local ingredients. Because the majority of Greenland is covered by permanent glaciers, the sea is the source for most food. Seafood dishes include various fishes (often smoked), mussels, and shrimp. Ammassat or capelin, a fish in the salmon family is commonly eaten and can easily be dried. Atlantic halibut, redfish, deepwater redfish, Greenland halibut, and lumpfish are fished from the west coast, as are Greenland cod (Gadus ogac) and shorthorn sculpin (Myoxocephalus scorpius), but these two are eaten only as a last resort. Arctic char is fished off the east coast. The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is rarely eaten because it is poisonous but can be edible after a complicated preparation of either boiling the meat repeatedly or fermenting it. I have to say that you are on your own when it comes to fermented fish, which is popular in Scandinavian cultures. There are very few things I will not eat a second time; Scandinavian fermented fish is in that category.


Suaasat is a traditional Greenlandic soup, thought of as the national dish. It is often made from seal, or from whale, reindeer, or sea-birds. The soup often includes onions and potatoes and is simply seasoned with salt and pepper or bay leaf. The soup is often thickened with rice or by soaking barley in the water overnight so that the starches leach into the water.

Here is a recipe for baked cod in leek and potato soup taken from Royal Greenland Recipes. By rights you should use Greenland cod, but Atlantic cod works as a substitute. Fish marry well with the classic leek and potato combination. You can find the recipe here in Danish, along with the image reproduced here, and a searchable index (Google translate helps).



Baked Cod in Potato and Leek Soup


4 cod fillets
salt and pepper
½ lb/400 g of potato, peeled and diced
2 leeks, white parts sliced
3 shallots or 1 onion, peeled and sliced
8 cups chicken broth
1 cup cream
1 bay leaf
small bunch chives
1 cup vegetable oil


Place the cod fillets in a greased ovenproof dish. Season with salt and pepper and place a small knob of butter on top of each fillet. Bake the cod in the oven at 320°F/160 °C for approx. 10 minutes

Sauté the onions in a little oil, once they are transparent add the leeks and potatoes. Sauté the leeks and potatoes lightly, and do not allow them to take on any color. Add the chicken broth and bay leaf.

Simmer until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked and soft, approximately 20-30 min.

Remove the bay leaf and blend the soup. Add the cream and season with salt and pepper

Blanch the chives quickly in boiling water then chop fine.

To serve, place the cod in a shallow dish, and pour the soup over it. Garnish with chives and toasted croutons.