Category Archives: food

Soviet Famine Humor, 1932

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 844-882:

Officially the famine did not exist. It was only mentioned in the terms of veiled allusions to ‘difficulties on the collectivisation front’. Trudnesty—difficulties—is one of the most frequent words in Soviet parlance; it serves to minimise disasters in the same proportion as achievements are magnified. The Soviet citizen automatically understands that a ‘gigantic victory of the revolutionary forces in Britain’ means that the Communist Party has increased its vote by one half per cent, whereas ‘certain difficulties in the health situation in Birobidjan’ means that the cholera is raging in that province.

After a week, I had incorporated into my vocabulary some of the essential household words of Soviet life such as pyatiletka (the five year plan), komandirovka (official journey), propusk (permit), nachalnik (chief), remont (‘in repair’). I learnt that valuta (foreign currency) could buy one any otherwise unobtainable goods; that si-chass meant literally ‘at once’ but was in fact the equivalent of the Spanish mañana; that a kulturny choloveik, a ‘cultured person’ was one who did not spit and swear, who used a handkerchief, and could do sums without an abacus. I learnt that Soviet watches, gadgets and machines had to ‘go to remont’ every three months; I learnt to write on the coarse, grey sheets which served as writing paper, and to wash under a kind of samovar with a drip-tap, fixed to the wall. I learnt that no map or policeman could help you to find an address because all streets had new names but were called by their old ones; and that officials and employees were permanently being moved about the country as in a game of musical chairs. All this I learnt eagerly and with a great sense of exhilaration, for I knew that everything that annoyed me was the heritage of the past and everything that I liked a token of the future. Besides, I have always had a deep longing for the primeval chaos, a nostalgia for the apocalypse; and here I found myself in the middle of both.

One of my favourite pastimes was to walk through the streets trying to guess the meaning of the mysterious abbreviations by which every institution, office or shop, was called. Thus my co-operative store was called INSNAB; the organisation that looked after me, MORP; the Institute for which Alex worked, UFTI, which was a branch of NARKOMTASHPROM (People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industries), which depended on SOVNARKOM (the Government), and was controlled by GOSPLAN (the Government Planning Committee) jointly with the CKSP(B)CS (Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party, Bolshevist Fraction, of the Soviet Union). Most difficult to remember were the initials of my publishers in Kharkov because they were not in Russian but in Ukrainian. The abbreviation ran: URKDERSHNAZMENWYDAW, and meant: Ukrainian State Publishing Trust for National Minorities. The reason for this epidemic of initials was that enterprises could no longer be called after their proprietor or trade-name; it was a symptom of the depersonalisation so typical of Soviet life.

In trying to understand everyday life in a totalitarian state, one should beware of over-simplification. In the period preceding the murder of Kirov in 1934, which started the Terror, people in Russia did not live in permanent fear, but rather in a world of diffuse insecurity, of floating apprehension. An incautious remark did not, as a rule, entail immediate retribution. The citizen merely knew that his remark would remain on the record, and that the day might come, perhaps in a year, perhaps in ten years, when he would slip up on his job or get involved with a jealous woman or a neighbour coveting his flat, and on that day the G.P.U. would hold against him every dubious conversation and encounter of his past. In other words, the Soviet citizen was no more acutely frightened than a Catholic is of the Last Judgment—except that the G.P.U. operate this side of death, and that he had nowhere to turn for confession and absolution.

In 1932, it was still possible among intimate friends to pass on a joke that was politically off-colour. To understand the sample that follows, one must know that before he was exiled, Trotsky had advocated a harsh policy towards the peasants for the benefit of the industrial workers, whereas Bukharin had advocated concessions to the peasants at the expense of the workers. The story purports to list questions put to candidates for Party membership, and the correct answers thereto:

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the town but no food in the country?
Answer: A Left, Trotskyite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the country but no food in the town?
Answer: A Right, Bukharinite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is no food in the country and no food in the town?
Answer: The correct application of the general line.

Question: And what does it mean when there is food both in the country and in the town?
Answer: The horrors of Capitalism.

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South Caucasus: European or Asian?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 186-210:

Is the South Caucasus in Europe or Asia? By one definition, proposed by the eighteenth-century German-Swedish geographer Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, the region is in Asia, and the border with Europe runs along the Kuma-Manych Depression, north of the Greater Caucasus range. Other geographers, a bit more tidily, have made the mountains of the Caucasus themselves the border between Europe and Asia. Nowadays, the consensus is to place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Europe and make the Turkish border and the river Araxes the Europe-Asia frontier. The strange result of this is that “Europe” in Armenia and Azerbaijan is directly due east of the “Asian” Turkish towns of Kars and Trabzon.

No definition is satisfactory because the South Caucasus has multiple identities. It is both European and Asian, with strong Middle Eastern influences as well. Politically the three countries, and Georgia in particular, tend to look to Europe. They are members of the two European institutions, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—but then so is Turkey. The Georgian politician Zurab Zhvania famously told the Council of Europe in 1999, “I am Georgian and therefore I am European.” But Armenians maintain links with their diaspora communities in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, and Azerbaijanis have affinities with the Turkic nations of Central Asia. In the end, it comes down to a matter of self-identification. At the beginning of Kurban Said’s classic 1937 novel of the Caucasus, Ali and Nino, set in Baku before and during the First World War, a Russian teacher informs his pupils that the Russian Empire has resolved the ancient geographical dispute over the Caucasus in favor of Europe. The teacher says, “It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia”—at which point Mehmed Haidar, sitting in the back row, raises his hand and says, “Please, sir, we would rather stay in Asia.”

The Caucasus also has its own identity. Anthropologists identify its customs and traditions fairly easily, and they get more marked the closer to the mountains one gets. The Caucasian nationalities share similar wedding and funeral ceremonies, and all mark the fortieth day after the death of a loved one with strikingly similar rituals. The same elaborate rituals of hospitality and toasting are found across the region, even among Muslim Azerbaijanis. Foreign mediators between “warring” Armenians and Azerbaijanis or Georgians and Abkhaz have frequently seen how once the two sides sit down to dinner together, political differences are forgotten and convivial rituals of eating and drinking precisely observed. Ethnic and religious differences were always there but are much more accentuated by modern politics. A century ago, attitudes toward religion could be deeply pragmatic. In her memoir of early twentieth-century Abkhazia, Adile Abas-oglu writes, “Arriving in Mokva for the Muslim festivals I always laughed when I observed how people drink wine and vodka at them and some families cooked holiday dishes from pork.”

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The Honor of Carving the Sheep’s Head

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 402-15:

Then he invited me to a lunch in his honor to be held in the drafty shack of a local village elder, a stern man wrapped in many layers of clothing. My Tatar drivers were eager to get back to Bishkek and warned me that this “quick lunch” would last most of the day. I started to believe them on the seventh or eighth course when various soups, rice dishes, and many servings of meat gave way to manti, Kyrgyz steamed dumplings stuffed with mutton, onions, and chunks of fat. You eat them with your hands, and it is said that the true measure of a good dumpling comes from the sensation of fat trickling down to your elbow as you raise the dumpling from plate to mouth. In that regard, these dumplings didn’t disappoint.

By the time I felt I could manage an escape from the lunch and crawl back to the car—since walking no longer seemed possible, given the gluttony—a man sitting next to me handed me a boiled head of some animal and a sharp long knife. Tradition demanded that a guest of honor cut strips of meat from the head and pass them around. Since I had traveled the farthest to be at this feast, it was decided that I should scalp the head, my neighbor explained. I protested that Beknazarov was the true guest of honor—I was just a pesky lunch crasher and therefore should be disqualified from the task. I didn’t want to steal another man’s boiled head. Seeing my confusion, my neighbor laughed and passed the head to a Beknazarov aide, who proceeded to slice and dice it with an authority born of many such feasts. Sensing our lunch was starting to morph into dinner, I quietly slipped away. Beknazarov stayed behind, sitting cross-legged on the floor, chatting with the elders and enjoying being the man of the moment again. Within a month he would be leading crowds of protesters yet again.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Shoyu-making Terms

On our latest visit to Japan, we explored the Shirakabe (white-wall) historic district of Yanai City in Yamaguchi Prefecture. One of the most interesting Edo Period buildings was the old Sagawa Shoyu brewery now turned into a museum and shop. The most linguistically interesting exhibit was the following chart of the shoyu-making process (醤油の作り方工程 shouyu no tsukurikata koutei).

Shoyu-making process

Shoyu-making process

It starts on the left with the three main ingredients:

  • mugi ‘wheat or barley’, which you roast (煎る iru [also written 炒る]) and crack (ひきわる hikiwaru [or 砕く kudaku ‘crush’]}
  • mame ‘[soy]bean’ (大豆 daizu lit. ‘big-bean’), which you steam (蒸す musu)
  • 種麴 tanekouji (lit. ‘seed-malt’) ‘malt starter (Aspergillus bacilli)’

Mix (まぜる mazeru [also written 混ぜる]) them to form the malt (麴 kouji) and let it ferment (仕込 shikomu).

Add malt to brine (塩水 shiomizu/ensui ‘salt-water’) while stirring with a paddle (櫂 kai) to make a mash (もろみ moromi).

After it reaches maturity (熟成 jukusei), press it (しぼる shiboru) to separate the liquid raw shoyu (生醤油 kijouyu, namashouyu) from the raw dregs (生揚 kiage, namaage).

The raw shoyu is heated (火入 hiire ‘fire-insert’) (pasteurized) to make regular refined shoyu (醤油).

The solid dregs have many other uses. In 1781, a brewer in Yanai combined the dregs (instead of brine) with a new batch of malt to make Yanai’s trademark 甘露醤油 Kanro Shouyu lit. ‘sweet-dew shoyu’, more prosaically known as 再仕込み醤油 sai-shikomi shouyu ‘refermented shoyu’, which has a lighter taste (淡口 usukuchi) especially suitable for delicate sashimi. This process is outlined in the bottom line of the chart above. (The Sagawa shop offers small spray bottles of Sweet Dew soy sauce.)

The Kikkoman Institute for International Food Culture publishes an English-language bulletin called Food Culture that contains an interesting series of articles by food historian Ryoichi Iino on the History of Shoyu.
1. Origins of fermented sho (Ch. jiang) in China and use in Heian Japan
2. Use of sho in Heian and Kamakura periods, decline of liquid sho in favor of miso
3. Uses of miso and rise of shoyu and tamari in pre-Edo Period
4. Production and diffusion of shoyu in the Edo Period

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Okinawans Before the Battle, 1945

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 63-64, 74-75:

Okinawa’s problems included an internal caste system and vigorous snobbery. As most Japanese looked down at most Okinawans, rich Okinawans, especially from the cities, tended to look down at farming villagers, who did the same to inhabitants of the smaller Ryukyu islands. More painfully, there was overcrowding. The island’s southern third, where by far the hardest fighting would take place, was over four times more densely populated than Rhode Island. This would contribute to the coming battle’s extraordinary toll in civilian deaths, as it had contributed to centuries of poverty. “When you come to Okinawa,” a folk song advised, “please wear straw shoes” – for the coral was as hard on bare feet as it was to cultivation. The majority of the population eked out their existence on thin, harsh soil. Nature took away almost as much as it gave. The chronicle of natural disasters, especially crop-ruining, house-flattening typhoons, reads like the drum rolls of a dirge to a little people also regularly decimated by drought, plague and famine. “The whole fragile, minuscule structure survived throughout the centuries at bare subsistence level,” a Western historian summarized. No threat to anyone, the patch of meager land would never be a prize, except for its strategic position in other nations’ plans.

Poverty remained widespread in 1944. It was rooted in subtropical lassitude, agricultural backwardness and the typhoons that regularly ravaged housing and crops. The 1940 population, about 475,000 before the battle in 1945, owned 250 motor vehicles, one to every two thousand persons. A quarter were busses. In “poor” Japan, which felt compelled to seize other people’s land, the average farmer farmed five tan, about one and a quarter acres. It was two tan on Okinawa, and per capita income was about half the mainland average.

Farmers usually went without shoes. They planted their tiny fields chiefly with sugar cane, most of the crop now going to the mainland’s war-economy alcohol, and with sweet potatoes. The blessed sweet potato, which had arrived on a seventeenth-century ship returning from delivering tribute to the Chinese court, remained the mainstay of the “poor man’s” diet. A naval research unit that would analyze soil samples after the American landing first discovered that “Okinawa’s earth was made of sweet potatoes – everywhere we dug.” Next, it found the fields were “generously fertilized with nightsoil – a rich source … of typhoid and paratyphoid bacilli, which a month later [in May 1945, when the fighting was most severe] produced a mild outbreak among our troops.”

Despite great hunger for farmland, much of the island remained untilled. The mountain soil was too thin, large tracts wre covered with sand and thousands of coral escarpments had no covering at all – thus an even more intense cultivation of the arable land. Although private ownership had replaced an ancient system of common ownership, a long history of village responsibility for the common welfare bound the little hamlets, also tightly linked by family ties, in a deep sense of cooperation and community obligation.

Bean soup, a few garden vegetables and very occasional pork and fish provided relief from the sweet potatoes. Rice was a luxury for many farmers. They considered rain good weather, since water was scarce despite heavy annual rainfall, most of which ran off the coral. But there was much laughter and song. There was an easygoing attitude toward one’s time on earth, far easier than in intense, driven mainland Japan.

Perhaps the most salient contrast with the Japanese was in the attitude toward life and death. Okinawans revered their ancestors but not as warriors. The most noticeable man-made feature of the landscape was the great number of tombs. The earliest had been in caves that honeycombed the island. Later, when aboveground structures were constructed, most families spent as much money and effort as possible on the dwelling place for all eternal spirits. One of the two most prominent designs was shaped like a little house, often built into a hill unsuited for cultivation. The other, probably imported later from China, looked like a turtle’s back, the turtle being a symbol of long life – or, as many had it, a vagina opening into a womb, the idea being that all return to their source after their earthly passage. The Okinawan versions had a oddly gentle beauty. A visiting artist was surprised by the “extraordinary fine shape” of even the poor farmers’ efforts.

The family tomb was the site for picnics and holidays. Three years after death, the bones of the decomposed body were washed, then placed in a beautifully colorful ceramic urn inside the tomb for thirty-three years, when a memorial service was held and the now floating spirits were venerated – but with no glorification of death, let alone hunger to serve or sacrifice for a nationalist cause….

Stunning Japanese victories from 1931 to 1941 did convince many Okinawans that Japan, not Okinawa, was indeed divine and destined to rule the world. Until then, then had long been skeptical of nationalist ambitions and military methods, and had felt much good will toward the United States in particular. Many of the sixty thousand Ryukyuans who emigrated by 1930 were in Argentina, the Japanese mainland and Brazil … But many went to Hawaii and California. The savings sent back from their chiefly laboring wages there represented riches to their families.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Chouzame, Hogeisen, Zakkoku

蝶鮫 chouzame (lit. ‘butterfly-shark’) ‘sturgeon, Acipenseridae’ – This summer we visited Miyazaki Prefecture, the last of the 46 on the main islands that we hadn’t yet visited. (Maybe we’ll finally visit Okinawa next year.) Halfway up Mt. Aso, in the deep, dark gorges of Takachiho, where the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is said to have been coaxed out of her cave to found the imperial dynasty of Japan, commencing with Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C., we found some very unusual fish swimming in a large pool that should have been filled with carp. A sign by the fishfood dispensers confirmed that they were chouzame (lit. ‘butterfly-shark’) ‘sturgeon’, and a poster in a nearby souvenir shop confirmed that they were part of a campaign beginning in 1983 to build up Japan’s domestic caviar industry. Unfortunately we did’t get to sample any of their caviar, although we ate several other kinds of fish roe on that trip.

捕鯨船 hogeisen (lit. ‘catch-whale-ship’) ‘whaler’ – Our trip included a day walking the waterfront of Shimonoseki, a major port city whose culinary fame centers around fugu ‘pufferfish, blowfish, globefish’ (usually written 河豚 lit. ‘river-pork’ when written in kanji, but also written with several other kanji), but also includes 鯨 kujira ‘whale’. We ate fugu (cooked, not raw) and we passed a whalegun monument to the whaler (hogeisen ‘catch-whale-ship’) Toshi Maru No. 25.

The kanji for ‘whale’ is composed of two elements, 魚 uo hen indicating the semantic domain of ‘fish’, and 京 ‘capital’, indicating its sound in Chinese (currently jing in Mandarin, as in Beijing and Nanjing). (‘Whale = capital fish’ is an easy mnemonic for the kanji.) The word for ‘capital’ seems to have entered Japanese more than once, so its Sino-Japanese pronunciation varies between kyou as in Kyoto, and kei as in Keihan ‘Kyoto-Osaka’ (or Keihin ‘Tokyo-Yokohama’). The Sino-Japanese pronunciation of 鯨 ‘whale’ is closer to the kei variant, as in 鯨肉 geiniku ‘whale meat’, 鯨脂 geishi ‘whale blubber’, or 鯨飲馬食 geiin-bashoku (lit. ‘whale-drink horse-eat’) ‘heavy eating and drinking’.

雑穀 zakkoku (lit. ‘mixed-grains’) ‘millet, lesser grains’ – Japanese restaurants do not generally offer the choice of brown rice in place of white rice, but at one exceptional tonkatsu restaurant in Miyazaki City, we were offered the option of 十六穀 juurokkoku ’16-grain’ rice. At home we also have little ’16-grain’ packets to add to the cups of rice we cook.

The kanji 穀 koku translates ‘cereal, grain’, as in 穀食 kokushoku ‘cereal diet’ or 穀倉 kokusou ‘granary’, but the ’16-grain’ mixture contains more than we think of as ‘cereal grains’. In addition to barley, maize, sorghum, and various millet grains, it includes soy and adzuki beans, and amaranthus, quinoa, and sesame seeds. The generic term for all these ‘lesser grains’ is 雑穀 zakkoku ‘mixed-grains’ and it also includes pumpkin, sunflower, shiso, and cannabis seeds. The kanji 雑 zatsu, zou ‘mixture, miscellany’ occurs in many compounds where its connotations range from neutral, as in 雑貨店 zakkaten ’emporium, variety store’, 雑誌 zasshi ‘magazine, periodical’, or zousui ‘medley soup’; to derogatory, as in 雑人zounin ‘low-class people’, 雑物 zoumotsu ‘inferior goods, entrails’, or 雑草 zassou ‘weeds’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kampouyaku

From The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth (Weatherhill, 1985), pp. 141-142:

The city of Toyama is nationally famous for the manufacture of patent medicines, usually sold door to door by elderly enthusiasts in small wooden chests (the medicines, not the enthusiasts), and these chests become part of the household furniture. The preparation of and sale of the medicines, called kampoyaku [漢方薬 kan-pou-yaku ‘China-method-medicine’] (Chinese concoctions), bear all the signs of a small-scale cottage industry, but the entrepreneurial genius of the people of Toyama has parlayed this unlikely source of fortune into a business with an annual wholesale value of more than 190 billion yen. The city’s oldest and best-known kampoyaku manufacturer is Kokando, and I arranged to pay them a visit.

The Kokando factory—opened in 1876 and rebuilt shortly after the war—stands in the southern sector of Toyama near the old tram stop named after it. The who showed me round spoke slowly and precisely and with the solemnity of a preacher who has the undivided attention of a disarmed infidel.

“Before the war our ninety-nine medicines—the widest range of kampoyaku in Japan—were manufactured and packed entirely by hand. Nowadays, of course, we use machines, but the traditions and process remain the same, and the recipes continue to derive from thjose which were imparted to Lord Maeda in the seventeenth century.

“The botanical ingredients include Korean ginseng (a very expensive kind of carrot) and the roots of the Indian ginkgo tree. But more highly prized are the items we obtain from the internal organs of animals. There is, for example, the dried glandular fluid of the male musk deer, drawn off during the rutting season and employed in the manufacture of a powerful stimulant. Originally, in order to obtain this fluid, it was unfortunately necessary to slaughter the deer, but nowadays, thanks to the development of new methods, it can be obtained humanely through plastic tubes. Then there is the bile of the Japanese bear, a pain killer and an agent in the reduction of fevers. The secretion from the poison gland of the Chinese toad is mainly used in the treatment of heart diseases, though it, too, kills pain with remarkable efficacy. And gallstones produced in the bladders of cows are a restorative and an antidote to several toxic substances.”

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