Aug 142017

Today is the feast day of St. Antonio Primaldo and his companion martyrs (I Santi Antonio Primaldo e compagni martiri), also known as the Martyrs of Otranto — 813 inhabitants of the Salentine city of Otranto in southern Italy (now Apulia) who were killed on this date in 1480 by invading Ottomans intent on conquering the Italian peninsula. The mass execution is commonly explained as taking place after the Otrantins refused to convert to Islam when the city fell to an Ottoman force under Gedik Ahmed Pasha. The actual events are in dispute by modern historians, but there is no doubt that hundreds of residents of Otranto were killed at this time, based on the physical evidence, that is, hundreds of skulls and other bones displayed in the local cathedral. The siege of Otranto, and the martyrdom of the inhabitants, was the last significant military attempt by a Muslim force to conquer southern Italy. The slaughter is celebrated by historians (notably Risorgimento historians such as Arnaldi and Scirocco) as a milestone in Italian and European history because this sacrifice prevented the Italian peninsula from being conquered by Muslim troops, and was the end of Ottoman designs on the region. Ottoman expansion into eastern and western Europe can be seen on this map (click to enlarge):

The contemporary Turkish historian Ibn Kemal claimed that the slaughter occurred because the inhabitants, en masse, would not convert to Islam.

Modern historians are more inclined to believe that the slaughter was a punitive measure, without religious motivation, exacted to punish the local population for the stiff resistance they put up, which delayed the Turkish advance and enabled the king of Naples to strengthen local fortifications.  It would also have been a warning to other Italian cities what to expect if they chose to resist and were defeated. They martyrs were beatified in 1771 and were canonized by pope Francis on 12 May 2013 with their feast day set as 14 May. They are the patron saints of the city of Otranto and the Archdiocese of Otranto.

On 28 July 1480 an Ottoman force commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha, consisting of 90 galleys, 40 galiots and other ships carrying a total of around 150 crew and 18,000 troops, landed beneath the walls of Otranto. The city strongly resisted the Ottoman assaults, but the garrison was unable to resist the bombardment for long. The garrison and all the townsfolk thus abandoned the main part of the city on 29 July, retreating into the citadel whilst the Ottomans began bombarding the neighboring houses.

According to an account of the story chronicled by Giovanni Laggetto and Saverio de Marco, the Turks promised clemency if the city capitulated but were informed that Otranto would never surrender. A second Turkish messenger sent to repeat the offer “was slain with arrows and an Otranto guardsman flung the keys of the city into the sea.” At this the Ottoman artillery resumed the bombardment.

A messenger was dispatched to see if King Ferdinand of Naples could send assistance. As time went on “Nearly seven-eighths of Otranto’s militia slipped over the city walls and fled.” The remaining 50 soldiers fought alongside the citizenry dumping boiling oil and water on Turks trying to scale the ramparts between the cannonades. On 11 August, after a 15-day siege, Gedik Ahmed ordered the final assault, which broke through the defenses and captured the citadel. When the walls were breached the Turks began fighting their way through the town. Upon reaching the cathedral “they found Archbishop Stefano Agricolo [ Stefano Pendinelli ], fully vested and crucifix in hand” awaiting them with Count Francesco Largo. “The archbishop was beheaded before the altar, his companions were sawn in half, and their accompanying priests were all murdered.” After desecrating the Cathedral, they gathered the women and older children to be sold into slavery in Albania. Males over 15 years old, small children, and infants, were all killed. According to some historical accounts, a total of 12,000 were killed and 5,000 enslaved, including victims from the territories of the Salentine peninsula around the city.

800 able-bodied men were told to convert to Islam or be slain. A tailor named Antonio Primaldi is said to have proclaimed “Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him.” To which those captives with him gave a loud cheer. On August 14 they were led to the Hill of Minerva (later renamed the Hill of Martyrs). There they were to be executed, with Primaldi to be beheaded first. After the blade decapitated him “his body allegedly remaining stubbornly and astonishing upright on its feet. Not until all had been decapitated could the aghast executioners force Primaldi’s corpse to lie prone.” Witnessing this, one Muslim executioner (whom the chroniclers say was an Ottoman officer called Bersabei) is said to have converted on the spot and been impaled immediately by his fellows for doing so.

Between August and September 1480, King Ferdinand of Naples, with the help of his cousin Ferdinand the Catholic and the Kingdom of Sicily, tried unsuccessfully to recapture Otranto. Seeing the Turks as a threat to his home, Alfonso of Aragon left his battles with the Florentines to lead a campaign to liberate Otranto from the Ottoman invaders beginning in August 1480. The city was finally retaken in the spring of 1481 by Alfonso’s troops supported by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary’s forces. The skulls of the martyrs were placed in a reliquary in the city’s cathedral.

On 13 October 1481 the bodies of the Otrantines were found to be uncorrupted and were translated to the city’s cathedral. From 1485, some of the martyrs’ remains were transferred to Naples and placed under the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary in the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello, an altar that commemorated the final Christian victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571. They were later moved to the reliquary chapel, consecrated by Benedict XIII, then to a site under the altar where they are now located. A recognitio canonica between 2002 and 2003 confirmed their authenticity.

A canonical process began in 1539. On 14 December 1771 Pope Clement XIV beatified the 800 killed on the Colle della Minerva and authorized their cult. Since then they have been the patrons of Otranto. On 6 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree recognizing that Primaldo and his fellow townsfolk were killed “out of hatred for their faith” The martyrs were canonized on 12 May 2013 by Pope Francis. The announcement of the canonization was made on 11 February 2013 by Pope Benedict XVI in the consistory in which Benedict also announced in Latin his intention to resign the papacy.

Some modern historians, such as Nancy Bisaha and Francesco Tateo have questioned details of the traditional account. Tateo notes that the earliest contemporary sources describe execution of up to one thousand soldiers or citizens, as well as the local bishop, but they do not mention conversion as a condition for clemency. Bisaha argues that more of Oranto’s inhabitants were likely to have been sold into slavery than slaughtered. However, other historians, such as Paolo Ricciardi and Salvatore Panareo, have argued that in the first year after the martyrdom there was no information about the massacres in the contemporaneous Christian world, and only later — when Otranto was reconquered by the Neapolitans — was it possible to get details of the massacre from the local survivors who saw it. Their memories may or may not have been accurate, and they are certainly not directly recorded.

Some version of a salt cod dish (known under some cognate of baccalà) is known throughout the coastal regions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Salentine baccalà is regionally famous in and around Otranto. The addition of tomatoes and black olives make it distinctive.

Baccalà alla salentina


700 gm salt cod
700 gm potatoes, peeled and sliced
8 Italian tomatoes, coarsely chopped
black olives
1 onion, peeled and sliced
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
dried breadcrumbs
grated pecorino


Soak the salt cod in water for at least 48 hours, changing the water regularly.

Preheat the oven to 200˚C.

In a deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven, sprinkle a little extra-virgin olive oil followed by a thin layer of breadcrumbs. Then add a layer of potatoes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Then add a layer of chopped tomatoes, followed by a layer of sliced onions and olives with a seasoning of oregano and grated pecorino cheese.

Sprinkle the dish with a little olive oil.

Cut the soaked cod in chunks and lay it on top of the dish. Add another layer of potatoes, then onions, then tomatoes, olives, and seasonings, finishing with a topping of breadcrumbs and cheese sprinkled with olive oil.

Bake the dish for around 45 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the dish in the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and crusty Italian bread.

Jul 192017

Today is Martyrs’ Day (အာဇာနည်နေ့, pronounced [àzànì nḛ]) in Myanmar, a national holiday observed to commemorate Gen. Aung San and seven other leaders of the pre-independence interim government, and one bodyguard who were assassinated on 19th July, 1947. It is customary for high-ranking government officials to visit the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Yangon in the morning of that day to pay respects.

On 19 July 1947, at approximately 10:37 a.m., BST, several of Burma’s independence leaders were gunned down by a group of armed men in uniform while they were holding a cabinet meeting at the Secretariat in downtown Yangon. The assassinations were planned by a rival political group, and the leader and alleged mastermind of that group Galon U Saw, together with the perpetrators, were tried and convicted by a special tribunal presided by Kyaw Myint with two other Barristers-at-law, Aung Thar Gyaw and Si Bu. In a judgment given on 30 December 1947 the tribunal sentenced U Saw and a few others to death and the rest were given prison sentences.

Appeals to the High Court of Burma by U Saw and his accomplices were rejected on 8 March 1948. In a judgment written by Supreme Court Justice E Maung (1898–1977) on 27 April 1948, the Supreme Court refused leave to appeal against the original judgment.

Then-President of Burma Sao Shwe Thaik refused to pardon or commute the sentences of most of those who were sentenced to death, and U Saw was hanged inside Rangoon’s Insein jail on 8 May 1948. A number of perpetrators met the same fate, while minor players, who were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, also spent several years in prison.

The assassinated were:

Aung San, Prime Minister

Ba Cho, Minister of Information

Mahn Ba Khaing, Minister of Industry and Labor

Ba Win, Minister of Trade

Thakin Mya, Minister Without Portfolio, unofficially considered as Deputy Prime Minister of Burma

Abdul Razak, Minister of Education and National Planning

Sao San Tun, Minister of Hills Regions

Ohn Maung, Secretary of State Transport

Ko Htwe, Razak’s bodyguard

Tin Tut, Minister of Finance, and Kyaw Nyein, Minister of Home affairs, were not present at the meeting. Additionally, one of the assassins, Ba Nyunt, came to the office of Chamber of Deputies Speaker U Nu, who was not present because of a leave of absence due to minor illness.So Ba Nyunt could not find U Nu to kill. Later Ba Nyunt became the government witness in the trial process.

Many Burmese believe that the British were somehow involved in the assassination plot; two British officers were also arrested at the time and one of them charged and convicted for supplying an agent of U Saw with arms and munitions. A large part of the stockpile, which was enough to equip a small army, was recovered from a lake next to U Saw’s house in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Soon after the assassinations, Major General Sir Hubert Rance, the last British Governor of Burma, appointed U Nu to head an interim administration and when Burma became independent on 4 January 1948, Nu became the first Prime Minister of Burma and he declared 19 July a public holiday.

I suppose I can be accused of being a tad too picky when it comes to giving you “authentic” recipes from around the world. I plead guilty. The simple fact is that when you’ve eaten asado in Argentina, fried noodles in China, or sashimi in Japan (or even something specific such as tripes à la mode de Caen in Caen), you get a bit defensive about recipes, not least because key ingredients are often available in local markets only.  Here’s a couple of views of Myanmar cuisine I have tasted recently in Mandalay, one in a restaurant and one home cooked.  Care to have a go? There are two fairly basic rules. First is that rice is the basis of the meal, whether it is plain boiled or fried with various ingredients such as fermented tea leaves or Chinese beans. Second, there are numerous dishes to add to the rice – all relatively small and all placed in communal dishes in the center of the table. The idea of a main dish is anathema.

Myanmar sits at the crossroads of several well-known cuisines – Indian, Thai, and Chinese – and is also home to a number of ethnic groups. A regular meal in a Myanmar household may consist of dishes from several of these cuisines although they all seem to have a hint that is uniquely Burmese. Hard to explain. The Burmese especially like sour pickled things and reasonably spicy/hot things (not desperately hot). Many of the pickles are fermented by rural women who come to markets periodically to sell them. They are typically wild greens that grow in the countryside and in streams. Finding an adequate translation into English of what I am eating is usually next to impossible (and you’re not going to find anything like them at the A & P). My host called one of the pickled greens I liked, “aquatic Morning Glory.” See if you can get hold of that !!

Breakfast where I live is always soup, rice, and some side dishes. One soup I like is labeled “fish bones with vermicelli.” This recipe will produce a vague simulacrum. Honestly – save your pennies and get on the road to Mandalay if you want the real deal. When this is served it’s normally accompanied with a variety of toppings to add: chopped coriander, chopped boiled egg, chopped green onion, and hot pickles. To my taste it’s a bit bland on its own, although the fish stock can be quite complex. The toppings complete the dish for me.

Tohu Byawk


1½ cups chickpea flour
8 cups fish stock
½ lb cooked rice vermicelli


Put the chickpea flour and salt to taste in a medium bowl and add 2 cups of cold broth. Whisk well to make a smooth paste without lumps.

Bring the remaining 6 cups of broth to a boil in a large heavy pot. Turn the head down to a simmer.

Whisk a ladleful of hot broth into the chickpea mixture vigorously to temper and thin it, then pour it into the simmering broth in a thin stream, whisking constantly.

Lower the heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring to ensure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pot.

When all the chickpea mix is incorporated thoroughly, simmer for about 5 minutes until the soup has thickened and has a slight sheen. Reduce the heat to low and continue stirring for another couple of minutes.

Add the rice vermicelli and heat through.

Serve with toppings of your choice – certainly fresh coriander, green onions, and boiled egg.

Feb 212016


International Mother Language Day (IMLD) (Bengali: আন্তর্জাতিক মাতৃভাষা দিবস Antôrjatik Matribhasha Dibôs) is a worldwide annual observance held on this date to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. First announced by UNESCO on 17 November 1999, it was formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution establishing 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

The date of International Mother Language Day corresponds to the day in 1952 when students from the University of Dhaka, Jagannath University and Dhaka Medical College, demonstrating for the recognition of Bangla (Bengali) as one of the two national languages of East Pakistan, were shot dead by police near the Dhaka High Court in the capital of present-day Bangladesh. ( )


“Mother language” is the English calque (loan translation) of a term used in several Romance languages: lengua materna (Spanish), lingua madre (Italian) and langue maternelle (French). A more fluent English translation would be “mother tongue,” although “native language” is the more common term in English. In historical linguistics, the English term “mother language” refers to an ancestral (or proto-language) of a language family. Calque is a loanword from a French noun, and derives from the verb calquer (to trace, to copy). The word “loanword” is a calque of the German word Lehnwort, just as “loan translation” is a calque of Lehnübersetzung. A calque is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.

International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999 (30C/62). On 16 May 2009 the United Nations General Assembly, in its resolution A/RES/61/266, called on its member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.” In the resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages to promote unity in diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism. The UN made the following declaration:

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

As an anthropologist, world traveler, and teacher of English as a foreign language, this is a subject dear to my heart. Language is the soul of a culture. When a language dies, a whole culture dies with it. How many languages in history have been lost to hegemony and imperialism? I’ve mentioned many here in my posts, such as Cornish and Norn. There are obvious instances where you want everyone speaking the same language. When I’m flying I want the pilot, other pilots in the vicinity, and people in the control tower to be speaking the same language. But such instances are very rare, and only come about because of modern technology. For the most part we should celebrate and encourage diversity and multiculturalism, not attempt to destroy it by homogenizing the world.

There is no doubt that monolingualism has its conveniences for a country. It’s cheaper and simpler to print official documents, conduct business etc. in one language, but this convenience comes at a heavy cost. If you look at the natural world you see that vigor and adaptability derive from diversity. A species may thrive in one environment, but if it lacks genetic diversity it will die out when the environment changes. Cultural diversity is just as, if not more, important.

Promoting the language of the dominant culture to the exclusion of all others has for centuries been a form of social control. The English outlawed Irish in Ireland. The Chinese are currently mandating Mandarin in Hong Kong schools and discouraging Cantonese. Stalin insisted on Russian being spoken throughout the Soviet Union. And so it goes . . . On occasion the “English only” drumbeat sounds loudly in the United States, even though the peoples who speak Cherokee, Keresan, Hopi, and even Spanish, have occupied parts of the national territory a lot longer than native English speakers.


Once I attended a cultural event at a football stadium in Yoshkar-Ola, the administrative capital of Mari El, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation. The event was conducted in Mari only and was seen as a deep threat to the Russian dominated government. The stadium was ringed by Russian soldiers with tanks and automatic rifles, and a banner hung over the stadium proclaiming in Russian, “A united Russia is a strong Russia.” All that the people inside were doing was talking, cracking jokes, and singing in Mari. There were no political speeches or the like. Yet the Russian government was afraid.

I know all too well what it’s like to live in a country where I cannot speak the language and be surrounded by incomprehensible sounds. I’m doing it right now. All I can say to the fearful is “get over it.” The world is a breathtaking kaleidoscope. Don’t contribute to its destruction.

Not only do I try to speak local languages as best I can, I also love to cook and eat local foods. My first “recipe” suggestion would be to go out and eat at a restaurant from an unfamiliar culture. Meanwhile here’s a gallery of pictures from a lecture I gave in China called “Strange Foods.” You’ll see a few familiar friends such as tripe and haggis, and a few not so familiar such as bat soup and chocolate covered spiders – not to mention a range of foods from the insect world including eggs and larvae. My point is that someone, somewhere in the world laps these things up. When I came to the picture of dragonfly soup in my lecture, one person in the class said “my family eats that”!! This same person was disgusted by cheese – who wants to eat rotten milk? Maybe I’ll run out now to the local market to get some horse meat for Sunday lunch.

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Tamasin Day Lewis. Cork English Market. Stephen O'Reily's Tripe & Drisheen stall, Honeycombe tripe.

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