Category Archives: Culinary History

A ‘recipe’ for chocolate on a 19th-century cup

Porcelain chocolate cup, saucer and lid set created in Paris for the Ottoman market and marked in red overglaze, 19th century, Oriental Museum, Durham University. Image courtesy of the author.

By Frederick Fossey-Warren

This porcelain hot chocolate cup from the early 19th century seems decidedly Ottoman. Gilded with gold and over-glazed with an intricate red pattern, the cup is designed to follow the “Egyptian style” that proved immensely popular with colonial Ottoman officials at the turn of the century. In fact the cup is so extravagant that it’s possible it was never actually intended for use, but purchased as a display piece, a succinct symbol of both status and wealth, by a member of the Ottoman elite.

Given its appearance, one could reasonably expect to trace the cup’s origins to a Turkish city such as Istanbul or Ankara. Upon closer inspection, however, the presence of different languages written onto the cup complicate its provenance. While the cup was bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire, its origins lie elsewhere. In fact, the cup was constructed in none other than…Paris? So, how did we get here?

After its arrival in the so-called “Old World” in the early 16th century, chocolate slowly but surely became a new court favourite across Europe and, by the end of the 17th century, had become a mainstay in aristocratic circles. It wasn’t long before chocolate began to spread into Asia and Africa, truly becoming one of the world’s first global commodities. As in Europe, given its scarcity and price, in the Ottoman Empire chocolate was initially largely restricted to the nobility, as much a status symbol as a foodstuff.

Initially enjoyed primarily as a drink, chocolate was seen as not only a nourishing treat, but a superfood, a sobering source of energy able to cure or prevent most common ailments. Many saw potential in its import as a commodity, and through its arrival it often contributed to the development of industry and revenue. Given its initial scarcity – chocolate had to be harvested in the Americas, loaded onto ships, and sailed across the Atlantic in a journey that routinely lasted three months – chocolate stayed in high demand, and markets soon opened not just for cacao, but for chocolate ‘accessories.’ These included such objects as chocolatera for dissolving together chocolate paste and sugar, molinillo for frothing hot chocolate, and, of course, cups for drinking, which brings us back to our porcelain cup.

When people consider the movement of luxury goods in the long nineteenth century, it is often taken for granted or assumed that goods primarily moved out of the peripheries of Africa, Asia and the Americas, and into the imperial core of Western Europe. This cup, however, challenges this understanding. From the date and manufacturers mark on the underside of the object, we can tell that this cup, saucer and lid collection was constructed in Paris in 1809. Given its design, it was likely always intended for sale within the Ottoman market.

In the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire remained a powerful and, importantly, wealthy force in Eastern Europe, and an attractive market for many across Europe. When, in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire expanded to encompass much of the Middle East and North Africa, the tastes of Ottoman elites changed, adopting the styles and fashions of many of their newly incorporated colonial subjects. This chocolate cup was ingeniously crafted to capitalise on these trends, part of an aesthetic and cultural movement that historian Ussama Makdisi has called ‘Ottoman Orientalism’.

Inscription detail. Porcelain chocolate cup, saucer and lid set created in Paris for the Ottoman market and marked in red overglaze, 19th century, Oriental Museum, Durham University. Image courtesy of the author.

So what were the design features that made this chocolate cup an example of ‘Ottoman Orientalism’? The underside of the saucer features a series of seemingly random Chinese characters. In relation to the cup’s purpose, these four characters, 李唐宋官, roughly translate to ‘Li Tang, Song dynasty official’. While there was a Li Tang in the Song dynasty, and in fact he was an accomplished landscape painter, he had nonetheless died almost seven hundred years prior to the time of this cup’s creation, and almost six hundred years before chocolate’s arrival in China. So why were these Chinese characters included? Simple: to make the cup seem more appealing to prospective buyers, and hence more likely to sell. The inclusion of these Chinese characters, presumably merely copied wholesale from another source, both fed into the intended exoticism of the piece, and attempted capitalise on a long existing market for Chinese porcelain in the Ottoman Empire.

The story of this cup does not, however, merely end with its creation and sale. Just as with the saucer, on the underside of the cup is another short sentence, this time, however, in Urdu. Unlike the Chinese characters, this writing was added after the cup was purchased and offers us a perplexingly poetic phase. The cryptic writing roughly translates to ‘That same diminished consciousness; This same deep target’ and is attributed to one Jannatī, likely a pen-name, meaning ‘the heavenly’. Whoever this Jannatī was, they clearly had some affection for the cup; not only did they write an inscription on its underside, but there is evidence of attempts at restoration, with the gold on the lid having been re-gilded.

Inscription detail. Porcelain chocolate cup, saucer and lid set created in Paris for the Ottoman market and marked in red overglaze, 19th century, Oriental Museum, Durham University. Image courtesy of the author.

When taken together, the elaborate and varied inscriptions on this cup act, in some sense, as a recipe. If a recipe is a set of instructions allowing you to, hopefully, produce something far greater than the sum of its parts, then, for a historian, the cup’s inscriptions act as an invaluable recipe in allowing us to gain a far deeper understanding not only commerce in the early 19th century, but also of chocolate, and its role as one of the world’s first truly global commodities. From South America to France, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire and even China, this porcelain cup combines facets of many different cultures and civilisations in both its purpose and construction. While both the maker of this cup and its first owners are by now long dead, this object they left behind lives on, and continues to tell us much about the world in which they lived.

Frederick Fossey-Warren is a scholar interested in the role of race and ethnicity in modern East African politics. He participated in Durham’s Undergraduate Research Internship (UGRI) programme to conduct research on chocolate in the Durham University collections. He currently studying towards a Master’s in History at Durham.

Beating Dough for Sponge Biscuits: a Gendered Skill?

By Marta Manzanares Mileo

In 1611’s Arte de cozina, pastelería, bizcochería y conservería (The Art of Cooking, Pastry Making, Bakery and Preserving), Francisco Martínez Montiño, Philip III’s and Philip IV’s personal cook, provides a series of recipes for bizcochos or long sponge biscuits made of flour, sugar, and eggs, which were one of the favourites desserts in early modern Spain. In one of these recipes, Montiño instructs the reader how to whip the biscuit dough, warning “that you must not whip any biscuits with two hands, as the nuns do, but with one hand as when you beat eggs to make egg omelette.”[i]

 

A painted image shows a basket overflowing with breads and cakes.
Figure 1. Detail of bizcochos and other small cakes in Juan Van der Hamen y León, Still Life with Basket of Sweets. s. XVII. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Montiño was not the only commentator to criticize nuns’ culinary techniques. In Los quatro libros del arte de la confitería (Four Volumes on the Art of Confectionery), published in 1592, the confectioner Miguel de Baeza asserted that “sponge biscuits were of good quality in Toledo and produced in large quantities in monasteries; although these biscuits were not as good as those made in the confectionery shops”[ii] (I’ve briefly discussed Baeza’s book in an earlier post, in which I examined the circulation of manuscript confectionery books among guild confectioners, some of them based on Baeza’s print work).

As scholars of early modern culinary literature have noted, professional author-cooks added personal comments and recipe corrections to demonstrate their professional expertise via their cookbooks. Baeza and Montiño used their privileged position to claim their culinary authority, in this instance by comparing and diminishing nuns’ baking skills. Their remarks clearly reflect the gendered division of culinary labour in early modern Europe between “male-professional-skilled” and “female-domestic-unskilled.” What is striking about their criticism is that nuns were (and still are) well-known for their prowess in the preparation of sweets.

As part of a larger research project on the gendering of sweet foods in early modern Spain, I examine how cultural associations between women and sugar might have translated into gendered modes of cooking and eating sweet food.[iii] I have shown that women of various social backgrounds, including nuns, played a crucial role in shaping a growing taste for sugary food in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spain.  Indeed, cultural images of industrious nuns making delicious sweet treats in convent kitchens prevailed across the early modern Catholic world. To honour ecclesiastical officials and families, nuns prepared a wealth of fruit preserves, small cakes, and biscuits, including bizcochos.

A written manuscript describes an early modern Spanish recipe.
Figure 2. Recipes for bizcochos by Sister Clara María Suay. Arxiu del Regne de València, Clero, caja 788, nº54. Appearing with permission of Arxiu del Regne de València.

 

Did Spanish nuns have their own technique for making bizcochos? In an attempt to answer this question, I faced a series of methodological problems, partly as a result of the scarcity of surviving manuscript recipes written by women in this period. One exception is a manuscript collection of short recipes scattered through the personal papers of Sister Clara María Suay, a professed nun in the Royal Monastery of La Puridad in Valencia. Although Clara María Suay annotated two different recipes for sponge biscuits, she included only brief notes about ingredients and instructions.

It is unclear whether nuns possessed their own unique techniques to prepare their well-known sponge biscuits. Can we consider it a culinary “secret” kept behind convent walls? In any case, Montiño and Baeza’s recipes offer a compelling example of the gendered dimensions of cooking, which were often distorted and biased, and some of the methodological issues that historians face when seeking to uncover women’s culinary practices in the context of early modern Spain.

 

Acknowledgements

This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement Nº 891543.

[i] Francisco Martínez Montiño, Arte de cozina, pastelería, bizcochería y conservería (Madrid: 1611), p.  274.

[ii] Miguel de Baeza, Los quatro libros del arte de la confitería (Alcalá de Henares: 1592), p. 76.

[iii] For a more extensive account on this research, see my forthcoming article “Sweet Femininities: Women and the Confectionery Trade in Eighteenth-Century Barcelona” in Gender & History.

A Taste of Tamarind

By Allison Fulton, Amara Santiesteban Serrano, and Jeannette Schollaert

Sturdy Contradictions

The grand and imposing hard-wood tree Tamarindus indica, commonly known as the tamarind tree, has long been a contradictory plant: it is at once a place of refuge and site of danger, a medicinal purgative and a culinary shape-shifter, an ingredient in a thirst-quencher and a drought-tolerant species. And while the tree has been documented across historical and literary genres for millennia, its place of origin remains scientifically obscure. Genetic studies do suggest an African origin, though wood charcoal analysis confirms that the tree has inhabited India since at least 1300 BCE, leading some to argue it is indigenous to the region. The tamarind narrative is rooted in so many singular places, but its global circulation speaks to the plant’s long history and steadfast ability to grow in dry and hot climates.

Black and white botanical drawing of tamarind
Botanical drawing of tamarind from Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, 1679. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Such contradictions have been explored through storytelling: the tree serves as creative inspiration, thematic motif, and simple theatrical site across myth, legend, and fiction. The tamarind got its small leaves, according to a Bihar tribal story, when the exiled Lord Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita came upon a tamarind grove, where the tree’s large leaves provided shelter. But Rama was convinced that they were meant to suffer during their exile and so he ordered Lakshmana to shoot at the leaves with his bow and arrow—the leaves have been split ever since. 

Though many cultures venerate the tree as sacred or home to gods, some purport the tree’s curses and dangers; some Indian and Caribbean communities warn that the tamarind is home to spirits. A Hindu legend illustrates how the tree became cursed: one day, Radha, goddess of love and compassion, was on her way to meet Krishna when she stepped on a piece of ripe tamarind fruit bark and cut her foot. Now late for her meeting with the god, she cursed the fruit to fall from the tree still unripe, as it does today. The sheer pervasiveness of the plant in visual, oral, and written cultures across the globe speaks to its mythological status as both sprawling and rooted, exemplifying the sturdy contradiction that is the tamarind tree.

Image from book.
Krishna Woos Radha: Page from the Dispersed “Boston” Rasikapriya (Lover’s Breviary). Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tamarind’s Medicinal and Culinary Uses

Virtually every part of the tamarind tree—seeds, fruity pulp, bark, root, and leaves—is edible in some form. Its fruit contains the rather unusual tantric acid that makes it simultaneously the “most acidic and sweetest fruit.” The acid’s sweet-sour flavoring has a cooling effect in hot weather which makes it a valuable ingredient in a wide variety of dishes and beverages and inextricably links the fruit to warm climates. Moreover, as French botanist Joseph de Tournefort (1656–1708) conjectured, the fruit’s acidity lends itself to uncountable medicinal uses, such as a “purging medicine,” a laxative, an aid in facial paralysis, and a flavoring to make more bitter or unpleasant medicines taste sweeter. 

Tamarind’s resilience has made it a central part of herbal medicine practices across history.  A seventeenth-century oil painting created after a design by the French printmaker Nicolas de Larmessin II portrays three men as the personifications of medicine, pharmacy, and surgery. At the center of the composition, the physician personifying medicine is cloaked in garb that bears the names of medieval authors central to traditional Western medicine, including Avicenna and Mesue, two Persian polymaths credited by Tournefort as key to the spread of knowledge about tamarind. Taking a closer look, just beneath the medicine man’s hand, is a written prescription to treat medical ailments, and nestled within the text that includes “cassia” and “rhubarb,” is none other than “tamarind.”

Tracing the appearance of the tamarind tree’s commonly used parts across materia medica, travelogues, and cookbooks, is a means to track the dissemination of traditional herbal Ayurvedic medicinal knowledge through the peak of colonial expansion, to call attention to the colonial economic interests in T. indica, and to foreground the diverse religious and culinary cultures that the plant sustains.

Windward Islands, Barbados: The Pavilion, Queen’s House, showing the verandah of the Artist’s bedroom (the upper windows) and the covered way to the left leading to Queen’s House, July 28, 1881. The tree in the foreground is a tamarind tree. Image Credit: Yale Center for British Art

Cooking and Empire: Tamarind Recipes

Tamarind is most known for its culinary uses and is a staple in Indian cuisine. During or following their time in the British colonies, white women colonists like Mrs. Carmichael would often feature tamarind in English-language colonial cookbooks. Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner’s 1909 The complete Indian housekeeper & cook, for example, instructs readers to use tamarind water to quench their thirst in the course of their missionary work. The authors refer to tamarind using the Hindi term “Imli,” suggesting that their knowledge of the plant comes either directly or indirectly from those speaking Hindi. The cookbook does not offer any insight into how the British women gained access to the tamarind itself–there are no instructions for harvesting the pods from the trees or even directions for how best to acquire the plant from a market. This suggests that British women could easily obtain tamarind. Some British cooks noted that when unable to import tamarind, they “had to rely on lemon juice (and sometimes sour gooseberries) as a substitute.” British cooks like Eliza Acton even advocated for the importation of tamarind “in the shell – not preserved” in an effort to replicate the cuisines made in India.[1]

[1] Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, 144.

Cassava: From Toxic Tuber to Food Staple

By Christina Emery, Rachel Hirsch, and Melinda Susanto

When eaten raw, cassava is likely to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Worse still, the unprocessed plant, containing high levels of cyanide, is poisonous to humans and can paralyze when eaten. Despite these deterring properties, cassava has long been culturally and nutritionally significant. And because Indigenous peoples of Meso- and South America discovered a way to render it edible through extensive processing, today cassava is enjoyed by 600 million people worldwide. One of the world’s major food crops alongside maize, rice, and wheat, cassava is cultivated as far away from its native habitat in South America as Southeast Asia. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, where it is a primary source of carbohydrates for many and is consumed as part of a popular dish known as fufu.

How did cassava come to occupy this pride of place in the global food system? How did it transform from a poisonous tuber into a major food staple, and from an exclusive dweller of South America into a cosmopolitan citizen of the world? To answer these questions, this essay considers how human interactions with cassava helped to shape the plant into the significant food crop that it is today. We first look at the elaborate method of processing cassava developed by the Indigenous peoples of Meso- and South America and then turn to the codification and spread of this knowledge, facilitated by European travelers to the so-called New World. This meeting of Indigenous and European knowledge systems, combined with cassava’s tolerance for drought, resulted in a food crop that would create new hope for global food security in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, as knowledge of cassava and its specimens circulated to different parts of the world, the plant took on additional cultural meanings through novel culinary uses and artistic representations.

Botanical drawing of cassava surrounded by caterpillars and other insects.
Drawing of cassava by Maria Sybilla Merian. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Of Frogs and Cassava: Early Cultivation in the Andes

Wild ancestors of the domesticated Manihot esculenta—known more commonly as cassava, manioc, or yuca—were likely introduced into Meso- and South-American agriculture by Indigenous farmers around 8000 BCE. Cassava was domesticated in these early agricultural plots, and the plant’s seeds and stem cuttings were traded over short distances.

Archaeological evidence suggests that cassava became an important food staple for several ancient cultures in present-day Peru, including the Chavin (1000–200 BCE), Nazca (200 BCE–600 CE), Moche (250–750 CE), and Chimú (1000–1470 CE).[1] 

Representations of cassava made by Moche artists provide clues as to how the plant was understood and appreciated by Andean peoples in the first millennium of the Common Era. Moche artists often represented cassava together with Leptodactylus pentadactylus—a frog found throughout the Amazon—as shown in this ceramic from Dumbarton Oaks’s collection. The smoky jungle frog, as this species is commonly called, was likely associated with agriculture, and representations of frogs may have been used in harvest-related rituals. Indeed, while cassava roots are the most commonly eaten part of the plant, they go bad quickly when dug up from the soil. However, if cassava is left in the ground, it can survive for up to four years and be harvested periodically.[2]

Indigenous Knowledge: How to Process Poison

While storing cassava in the soil addresses the issue of perishability, additional steps need to be taken to ensure that its roots can be safely eaten upon harvesting. In the Amazon, cassava is popularly divided into two major types—sweet and bitter—depending on the level of toxicity. Sweet cassava can be eaten simply by peeling and boiling it. Bitter cassava must be processed using a specific method before it can be safely consumed. The danger lies in cyanogenic glucosides, which vary in amount depending on the type of cassava, the climate, and the season in which it is cultivated. Women in Meso- and South America are primarily responsible for the processing of cassava and transforming the poisonous plant into flour for casaba, or cassava bread, and into a fermented beverage known as chicha. It is a multi-step process that includes washing and grating the cassava root, mashing it into a pulp, then hanging, dehydrating, and finally baking the dried pulp on a hot surface.[3]

1856 watercolor, “Saliva Indian Women Making Cassava Bread, Province of Casanare” by Manuel María Paz. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the amount of work required to process cassava with high levels of cyanide, bitter cassava is more popularly cultivated than sweet cassava in the Amazon today. The indigenous Tukanoans of the Yapu village in the northern Amazon, for example, grow 100 different types of cassava, 98 of which are bitter. Archaeologist Warren Wilson and anthropologist Darna Dufour have demonstrated that bitter cassava yields a higher harvest than does its sweet counterpart, possibly due to its resistance to disease and insects.  It is perhaps for this reason that bitter cassava is favored as a food crop over sweet cassava, despite the additional processing required to render it edible.

[1] Donald Ugent, Shelia Pozorski, and Thomas Pozorski, “Archaeological Manioc (Manihot) from Coastal Peru,” Economic Botany 40, no. 1 (1986): 99.

[2] Donna McClelland, “The Moche Botanical Frog,” Arqueología Iberoamericana 10 (2011): 40.

[3] Darna L. Dufour, “A Closer Look at the Nutritional Implications of Bitter Cassava Use,” in Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World, ed. Leslie E. Sponsel (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), 151.