Category Archives: food

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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What’s the Matter with Cambodia?

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 258-289:

Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.

At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.

The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]

Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.

Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.

The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”

Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.

Notes: Brinkley’s book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don’t appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don’t even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.

1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.

2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. “Cambodians” never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.

3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.

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Serbs Stymie UN, NATO, NGOs, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2413-2434:

Whatever semblance of order the United Nations had brought to Sarajevo disintegrated in the last week of May. Serb soldiers marched into a UN-guarded compound and rode off with confiscated tanks and heavy artillery that were off-limits under the latest cease-fire. In protest, NATO warplanes bombed a Serb ammunition depot near Pale.

The Serb retaliation was pitiless and highly effective. They shelled a strip of outdoor cafés in the northern Bosnian city of Tuzla, killing seventy-one people, mostly teenagers. (Unlike the February 5, 1994, market bombing in Sarajevo, nobody bothered to deny it. Serb commander Ratko Mladić boasted that the shelling was punishment for the NATO air strikes.)

Across Bosnia, the Serbs captured hundreds of UN peace-keepers as a deterrent to further air strikes. Pale television flaunted the Serbs’ captives, broadcasting footage of the peace-keepers shackled to poles and bridges. On June 2, a U.S. F-16 flying above the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka was shot down and disappeared.

“They are the UN Protection Forces, but they cannot even protect themselves,” said Bosnian prime minister Haris Silajdžić.

It was almost unbelievable. The Republika Srpska, with a population of 800,000—about the size of Greater Pittsburgh—had brought the combined powers of the United Nations and NATO to their knees.

The roads northwest of Sarajevo that the United Nations had been using for land convoys were now shut down. The Serbs stepped up their attacks on the Mount Igman Road, opening fire with anti-aircraft guns on the armored cars of journalists and aid workers. With the siege tightening, there was no flour or sugar for sale anywhere in Sarajevo.

I ran into Suada’s sister-in-law, Aida, who was desperately looking for powdered milk. She had had a baby in May and her breast milk had dried up from poor nutrition. The monthly distribution of humanitarian aid had dwindled to one cup of oil and half a pound of dried peas, beans, and rice per person.

“Believe me. The person who is eating only that humanitarian aid is dead already,” declared Jela.

The sense of abandonment was acute. “The whole world is protesting three hundred UN peacekeepers in chains while we, an entire nation, have been in chains for three years,” complained Esad Taljanović.

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Dreaming of Salina in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 766-804:

Television stations in Japan, Britain, Italy, Germany, and the United States broadcast the film of Berin at the brewery [mortar attack]—without the more gruesome scenes—and footage from the funeral. A retired couple in Salina, Kansas, were watching and arranged to evacuate the boy so he could live with them. It all happened so quickly Berin barely had time to say good-bye. Victor Jackovich, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia at the time, accompanied Berin on a UN flight. An ABC crew filmed the hurried good-bye in the courtyard on Logavina Street. Berin wrote Delila a letter the day he was airlifted out of Sarajevo. “I have just taken a hot shower. I ate five bananas. I watched television,” Berin said in the letter written from the Frankfurt airport while he was en route to the United States.

Delila talked about Kansas incessantly. Her English grammar book and dictionary were always on the kitchen table. She would curl up on a rug-covered divan in the kitchen studying as her grandmother read the Koran. She kept an atlas open on the kitchen table with a circle drawn around Salina, Kansas.

When I first met Delila in January 1994, the kitchen was the only room in the house warm enough to sit in. It was an old house to begin with—slanty floors with bright Oriental rugs, hand-printed wallpaper curling at the edges. Plastic sheeting was taped over the broken panes of a window. A tiny aluminum stove was jerry-rigged on a stack of bricks. Berin’s cat curled up to it for warmth. Delila wore a baggy maroon sweater over three layers of T-shirts. Everything hung loosely on her tall, underweight frame.

“Physically, I am in Sarajevo, but in my mind, I am in America,” Delila said. “Everything that comes from America, I am interested in. I saw a television program about Bill Clinton that was great.”

The retired couple in Kansas did not realize initially that Berin had a sister still alive. After Berin’s arrival, they tried to bring Delila out as well. “They know how close we are. My brother is very attached to me. He used to take my cigarettes, hide them, and say, ‘I’ll give you one back when you give me a kiss,’” she said.

Delila’s recklessness completely vanished with the promise of emigrating to the United States. Suddenly, she was always frightened. She worried she would die before she could leave Sarajevo. She was afraid to take flowers to her parents’ graves across the street. She would only go on days when fog obscured the cemetery from sniper fire. The brewery shelling had left Delila with four pieces of shrapnel in her body, and she worried that if she slipped and fell on the ice, the shrapnel would shift and hurt her.

Outside the Lačevićs’ front gate, small children from the apartment next door used to sit on the stoop and play with dolls. Delila would yell at them to go back inside. “The kids hate me, but I don’t care what the neighbors say. I chase them away, and tell them, ‘Look, you can see Trebević like it is the palm of your hand.’”

Delila no longer disregarded the mortar shells that came crashing down from the mountain. When the shelling started, she said she could feel her shrapnel itching and she would run, not walk, to the bomb shelter, usually carrying the cat.

“I can run fast, when I’m scared. I’ll tell you, Carl Lewis is nothing compared to me,” she said. “When I get to America, I’m going to start running professionally.”

Delila planned out her future. She wanted to eat at McDonald’s and study medicine. She promised to give up her two-pack-a-day cigarette habit as soon as she got to America. (“I won’t be nervous anymore, so I won’t need it.”)

Once she left Sarajevo, Delila declared adamantly, she would probably never come back. Her brother had written her that his English tutor had asked if he missed Sarajevo. “He said no. If he ever came back, it would be as a tourist—and maybe not even then. I feel that way, too. I have to go somewhere where I can relax, physically, mentally. I don’t know that I would ever return.”

Delila’s sixty-nine-year-old grandmother had been listening to Delila speak, quietly weeping. I asked if she was afraid she might never see her granddaughter again. “No,” she replied, without hesitation. “I am looking forward to it. I will be happy when Delila leaves.”

Delila couldn’t count the days. For security reasons, people being evacuated usually had only a day or two’s advance notice. So she kept her bags packed and her documents folded neatly in an envelope in the bedroom with her few precious possessions. Her grandmother had given her a farewell present, a gold four-leaf clover that she always wore around her neck.

Delila practiced her good-byes to family members. She didn’t bother with her friends. “I told them that one day if I’m not around, I’ve either been killed or I’ve gone to America.”

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North Korea’s Economic Collapse

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 1810-1832:

KIM IL-SUNG’S DEATH had, in fact, not changed much in the country. Kim Jong-il had gradually been assuming power over the decade preceding his father’s death. The economy’s inevitable collapse had been set in motion years before under the weight of its own inefficiencies. But North Korea’s Great Leader picked a convenient time to die, one that would prevent his legacy from being tarnished by the catastrophic events of the coming years. Had he lived a moment longer, North Koreans today would not be able to look back with nostalgia at the relative plenty they had enjoyed during his lifetime. His passing coincided with the last gasps of his Communist dream.

By 1995, North Korea’s economy was as stone-cold dead as the Great Leader’s body. Per capita income was plummeting, from $2,460 in 1991 to $719 in 1995. North Korea’s merchandise exports dropped from $2 billion to about $800 million. The collapse of the economy had an organic quality to it, as though a living being were slowly shutting down and dying.

In Chongjin, the hulking factories along the waterfront looked like a wall of rust, their smokestacks lined up like the bars of a prison. The smokestacks were the most reliable indicators. On most days, only a few spat out smoke from their furnaces. You could count the distinct puffs of smoke—one, two, at most three—and see that the heartbeat of the city was fading. The main gates of the factories were now coiled shut with chains and padlocks—that is, if the locks hadn’t been spirited away by the thieves who had already dismantled and removed the machinery.

Just north of the industrial district the waves lapped quietly against the empty piers of the port. The Japanese and Soviet freighters that used to make regular calls to pick up steel plates from the mills were gone. Now there was only North Korea’s fleet of rusting fishing vessels. Perched on a cliff above the port, giant letters proclaimed KIM JONG-IL, SUN OF THE 21ST CENTURY, but even they appeared to be crumbling into the landscape. The red lettering on the propaganda signs along the road hadn’t been repainted for years and had faded to a dull pink.

One of the most polluted cities in North Korea, Chongjin now took on a new beauty, stark and quiet. In autumn and winter, the dry seasons in northeast Asia, the sky was crisp and blue. The sharp odor of sulfur from the steelworks had lifted, allowing people once more to smell the sea. In summer, hollyhocks crept up the sides of concrete walls. Even the garbage was gone. Not that North Korea ever had much litter—there was never enough of anything to go to waste—but with economic life at a standstill, the detritus of civilization was disappearing. There were no plastic bags or candy wrappers wafting in the breeze, no soda cans floating in the harbor. If somebody stamped out a cigarette on the pavement, somebody else would pick it up to extract a few flecks of tobacco to roll again with newspaper.

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Homelessness in North Korea

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2613-2626:

It is worth noting here how extraordinary it was for anyone to be homeless in North Korea. This was, after all, the country that had developed the most painstaking systems to keep track of its citizens. Everybody had a fixed address and a work unit and both were tied to food rations—if you left home, you couldn’t get fed. People didn’t dare visit a relative in the next town without a travel permit. Even overnight visitors were supposed to be registered with the inminban, which in turn had to report to the police the name, gender, registration number, travel permit number, and the purpose of the visit. Police conducted regular spot checks around midnight to make sure nobody had unauthorized visitors. One had to carry at all times a “citizen’s certificate,” a twelve-page passport-size booklet that contained a wealth of information about the bearer. It was modeled on the old Soviet ID.

All that changed with the famine. Without food distribution, there was no reason to stay at your fixed address. If sitting still meant you starved to death, no threat the regime levied could keep people home. For the first time, North Koreans were wandering around their own country with impunity. Among the homeless population, a disproportionate number were children or teenagers. In some cases, their parents had gone off in search of jobs or food. But there was another, even stranger, explanation. Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households—they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive. That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.

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Private Markets for Food Aid

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1129-1146:

Food aid from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other donors mitigated the worst of the famine by the late 1990s. But in an indirect and accidental way, it also energized the market ladies and traveling entrepreneurs who would give Shin sustenance, cover, and guidance in his escape to China.

Unlike any other aid recipient in the world, North Korea’s government insisted on sole authority for transporting donated food. The demand angered the United States, the largest aid donor, and it frustrated the monitoring techniques that the U.N. World Food Program had developed around the world to track aid and make sure it reached intended recipients. But since the need was so urgent and the death toll so high, the West swallowed its disgust and delivered more than one billion dollars’ worth of food to North Korea between 1995 and 2003.

During these years, refugees from North Korea arrived in the South and told government officials that they had seen donated rice, wheat, corn, vegetable oil, nonfat dry milk, fertilizer, medicine, winter clothing, blankets, bicycles, and other aid items on sale in private markets. Pictures and videos taken in the markets showed bags of grain marked as “A Gift from the American People.”

Bureaucrats, party officials, army officers, and other well-placed government elites ended up stealing about thirty percent of the aid, according to estimates by outside scholars and international aid agencies. They sold it to private traders, often for dollars or euros, and delivered the goods using government vehicles.

Without intending to do so, wealthy donor countries injected a kind of adrenaline rush into the grubby world of North Korean street trading. The lucrative theft of international food aid whetted the appetite of higher-ups for easy money as it helped transform private markets into the country’s primary economic engine.

Private markets, which today supply most of the food North Koreans eat, have become the fundamental reason why most outside experts say a catastrophic 1990s-style famine is unlikely to happen again.

The markets, though, have not come close to eliminating hunger or malnutrition. They also appear to have increased inequity, creating a chasm between those who have figured out how to trade and those who have not.

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