Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!


Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

“Daily Recipes for Home Cooking” (1924)

By Nathan Hopson

This is the second in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

Imagine a national cookbook. What would that look like? What would it say about the values and ideology of the society in which it was produced and the individuals and governmental organizations involved? Well, Japan gave us at least one answer to this almost a century ago, in 1924.

The first post in this series examined the “Nutrition Song,” a 1922 Japanese song with lyrics by the founding director of Japan’s Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). This song was part of an extensive and diverse media strategy that included early adoption of radio as a medium; IGIN-approved recipes were broadcast daily beginning in 1926 and printed the following day in the major newspapers. More remarkable as a manifesto than as a musical achievement, this song articulated a program for a rational, economical, modern diet. The lyrics encapsulate the IGIN’s advocacy of nutrition science as a win-win tool to improve individual quality of life and national strength.

In fact, the Institute began publishing daily “cheap, delicious recipes” on May 29, 1922 (figure 1), calling for a “kitchen revolution” to realize “an economical life and increased health for the Japanese.” Radio was a tantalizingly novel, fashionable, quintessentially modern medium rapidly adopted in urban Japan. Along with popular programs like radio calisthenics, the IGIN’s menus du jour, which carried the imprimatur of a premier government science laboratory and its celebrity chief, “modernized and ‘rationalized’ conceptions of the body, health, physical fitness, and exercise.” The appeal of both calisthenics and the Institute’s meal plans was both positive and negative, personal and patriotic. On the one hand, there was the possibility of personal betterment. On the other, many Japanese were plagued by “a nagging sense of physical inferiority vis-à-vis” the Western imperial powers.[1]

Figure 1 The IGIN’s first daily recipes published in a major newspaper. From Asahi Shinbun, May 29, 1922.

But even before its foray into radio, in 1924 the IGIN compiled a year’s worth of recipes originally published in newspapers into a cookbook called Daily Recipes for Home Cooking. A few columns explaining basic facts about nutrition, hygiene, etc., are sprinkled throughout, but otherwise Daily Recipes is a straightforward day-by-day guide to preparing “nutritious, delicious, and economical” breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a middle-class family of three.

When I picked up a copy of this book, I was delighted to find that the May 29 menu is in fact the same as that for the Institute’s memorable 1922 newspaper debut: shellfish simmered in soy sauce and mirin (tsukudani) and miso soup with cabbage for breakfast, fried bamboo shoots and salted salmon sashimi for lunch, and a pork and vegetable curry accompanied by spicy pickled bamboo shoots and wakame for dinner.

There are two marked differences between the 1922 Asahi article and the Daily Recipes version. First, the former explicitly lists rice as the main course, while the latter does not. (Conversely, the cookbook includes seasonings like soy sauce and sugar, not listed in the 1922 version.) The inclusion of rice is significant because, despite the IGIN’s open antagonism to white rice as wasteful and even a threat to national security (teaser!), the Institute expected a family of three to consume almost two liters of cooked rice daily. Second, the newspaper itemizes nutritional information, while the cookbook does not. This speaks to a difference in context. Cookbook buyers were likely to be converts to the IGIN’s ideology of “economical nutrition” and believers in the Institute’s bona fides and its scientized menu based on the principles of quantification and substitution. If the newspaper recipes were proselytization for the New Nutrition-style IGIN diet, the cookbook was more “preaching to the choir.”

Table 1 Nutrition information for IGIN’s May 29, 1922/1924 daily recipes (serves 3)

Ingredients Amount (g) Protein (g) Calories Price (sen)
Rice 1.9 (liters) 100.4 4814.4 54
Cabbage 75 2.2 35.2 2
Miso 112.5 13.8 177.9 3
Shellfish 75 13.6 57 10
Salted salmon 225 58.7 306 9
Daikon 150 1.1 27 2
Bamboo shoots 300 7.8 90 1
Sesame oil 56 0 506.3 4.5
Wheat flour 75 8.8 274.2 2
Beef 187.5 28.7 598.1 15
Carrot 56 0.7 21.9 2
Potato 112.5 1.7 96.8 2
Wakame 19 2.2 38.4 2
Suet 45 0.2 411.7 3.5
Total 240 7455 112
Total/person 80 2485 37.3

*Amounts approximate; calculated from Japanese Imperial units
**Sen = ¥1/100

To return to my original question, as exemplified by this daily menu plan from Daily Recipes, the IGIN relentlessly backed a national dietary reform program couched in the Fordist/Taylorist logic of quantification and substitution. In doing so, the Institute appealed to the self-interest of the new professionalizing housewife, who was increasingly expected to mobilize modern science to improve the efficiency and quality of life of her family—and by extension, the nation.


[1] Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2018), 120.

Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.

British Beef, French Style: Robert May’s Braised Brisket

By Marissa Nicosia

This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. You can learn more about the series of recipes that Marissa updated on her site Cooking in the Archives and read a version of this post on the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog. Marissa gives special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.

And if you are near D.C., you should check out the First Chefs exhibition (co-curated by RP editor, Amanda Herbert) before it closes on March 31!


Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.

The British are known for their beef. Although poultry, lamb, pork, game, fish, and shellfish abound in British cookery books from the early modern period, beef stands out. Beef is also a perennial refrain in Shakespeare’s works: The Duke of Orleans mocks King Henry’s army’s distress in the middle of Henry V by saying they are “out of beef”; Shylock ponders the difference between a pound of human flesh and that of “muttons, beefs, or goats”; Prince Hal addresses Falstaff with the moniker “sweet beef”; and in Twelfth Night louche English suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek proclaims, “I am a great eater of beef” (Henry V III.vii.155; Merchant of Venice I.iii.172; 1 Henry IV III.iii.188; Twelfth Night I.iii.82). Both as sustenance and cultural signifier, cooking and eating beef was associated with British identity in the Renaissance.


First opening of May’s book. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, LUNA.

Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook was first published in 1660 and went through multiple reprint editions in subsequent years. On the title page he promises recipes “for the Dressing of all Sorts of FLESH” and in the pages of this cookbook he certainly delivers. Under the engraved portrait of the chef, a few verses promise that May will provide “in one face / all hospitalitie” of the nation and his recipes will inspire “tables” groaning with “Natures plentie.” For British chefs this certainly meant how to prepare tempting beef dishes.

Recipe in May’s The Accomplisht Cook. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, LUNA (p. 115 and p. 116)

My brisket recipe updates May’s recipe “To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion” for use in a twenty-first-century kitchen. The following text is from the 1685 edition, but the recipe is also in the first edition from 1660 (I3v-I4r).

To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion

Take a rump of beef, boil it & scum it clean, in a stewing pan or broad mouthed pipkin, cover it close, & let it stew an hour; then put to it some whole pepper, cloves, mace, and salt, scorch the meat with your knife to let out the gravy, then put in some claret-wine, and half a dozen of slic’t onions; having boiled, an hour after put in some capers, or a handful of broom-buds, and half a dozen of cabbidge-lettice being first parboil’d in fair water, and quartered, two or three spoonfuls of wine vinegar, as much verjuyce, and let it stew till it be tender; then serve it on sippets of French bread, and dish it on those sippets; blow the fat clean off the broth, scum it, and stick it with fryed bread. (K2r-K2v)

In the French Fashion

You may be asking why I’ve turned to a recipe with the descriptor “in the French Fashion” after talking about the British and their beef. Importing wine from France was a long British tradition. May’s recipe specifically calls for “claret-wine” or French Bordeaux especially made for export to the European market. As Paul Lukacs explains in Inventing Wine, in the fourteenth century British demand for claret was so high that the British imported eighty percent of Bordeaux’s exports. Desire for French claret was “so strong that the Bordeaux wine fleet sailed twice a year—first in the fall, when the ships were filled with as much of the new harvest’s wine as they could carry, and then again in the spring when they transported what was left.” Anglo-French relations had quite a few high and low points between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century when May was writing. Nevertheless, French claret was a mainstay of British drinking and eating culture.

Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
The Cooking Team. Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved

Moreover, stewing or braising beef in wine was an effective way to transform tough cuts like “rump” or “brisket” into tender stews. In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat explains the science behind these slow braises. Put simply: the acidic compounds of wine and the low-slow heat tenderize the tough muscle by breaking down its collagen proteins. The addition of acidic capers, wine vinegar, verjuice, and cabbage later in May’s recipe amplifies the potency of the cooking medium. As chef Fergus Henderson shows in his Nose to Tail Eating, it is a very British thing to make use of the whole animal and to use the most effective cooking techniques to render each cut into a delicious dish. A British “Accomplisht Cook,” like May, must make do with the ingredients and methods available to him even if they are, in many ways, French.

Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds brisket
  • 2 cups sliced yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon mace
  • 1 bottle red wine (750 ml; ideally, French claret or Bordeaux)
  • 4 cups sliced cabbage
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1⁄2 baguette or other bread

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Pat the brisket dry and then place it in a large pot fitted with a cover. Add onions, salt, black peppercorns, whole cloves, and mace. Pour in wine, cover, and place in the oven for 1 hour. After the brisket has cooked for 1 hour, carefully flip it over. After it has cooked for 1 1⁄2 hours, add cabbage, vinegar, and capers. Check it at the 2 1⁄2 hour mark. It should be tender when poked with a fork. If not, give it more time. If the cabbage is crowded, rearrange as necessary for even cooking. To serve, cut your bread into cubes and arrange them on a platter. Remove the brisket and set it on a cutting board to rest. Remove the cabbage and onions and place them on top of the bread. Reduce remaining cooking liquid for ten minutes until it thickens. Slice the brisket thinly, and place on top of the cabbage, onions, and bread. Pour the reduced sauce over the whole dish. Serve immediately.

Notes

This satisfying dish will serve four to six people. The cubes of bread that May calls “sippets” are a common ingredient in meat dishes from this period. They efficiently and deliciously soak up the rich, flavorful sauce.


Learn More

Albala, Ken. Food in Early Modern Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003, especially pages 164–184.

Appelbaum, Robert. Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture and Food among the Early Moderns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, especially pages 35-38.

Something to Share: Food from Home to Home

By Megan Daigle, with Maria Wilby and Iman Mortagy

Food brings people together. That simple idea is what underpins Something to Share, a cookbook produced in 2018 by Refugee Action—Colchester, a small but mighty voluntary organisation that works to help newcomers settle into the town, access services, and feel at home. There is, of course, a broad base of research demonstrating that cookbooks shape notions of belonging and community, from the local to the national—and all the more so for social justice groups seeking to promote inclusion and fund their work.[1] When we set out to produce Something to Share, however, what interested us was what we had seen in action ourselves.


Refugee Action—Colchester’s cookbook, Something to Share, is available to order online. Thanks to generous support from Linklaters LLP, all proceeds in their entirety go to support RA–C’s work and clients. The cookbook would also not be possible without support from Firstsite.

Since 2016, RA–C has operated the Syrian Pop-Up Café, which sees local refugees catering for community groups, churches, colleges, weddings and birthdays, the University of Essex, the Roman River Music Festival, and local arts venue Firstsite. The first café took place at the opening of Gee Vaucher’s Introspective exhibition at Firstsite, and Gee later came on board to design our cookbook. We now run regular cafés and cookery classes, with the goal that these will become self-supporting and refugee-run enterprises. Food and recipes have thus helped RA–C to build bridges of all kinds, and they have been a catalyst for integration, solidarity, and togetherness for our refugee chefs.

We hope that Something to Share makes a meaningful contribution to how Colchester sees itself as a welcoming and multicultural town. This book brings together family recipes from local refugees, asylum-seekers, and volunteers, placing them alongside personal stories of memories connected to food, long and difficult journeys, and the building of new homes and friendships. It presents an image of Colchester as a place with a long history of welcome and the courage not to look away from those in need.

Below, you will find an excerpt from the book where two of RA–C’s founders, Maria Wilby and Iman Mortagy, reflect on how food and recipes underpin everything they do.

The Transformative Power of Food: A Conversation

Maria: Everyone says the kitchen is the heart of the home, meaning what gets created in the kitchen. Food nourishes people, and not just physically. I think it’s a really important element of what we do at Refugee Action—Colchester.

Iman: Cooking and the kitchen are important to me too as part of my spiritual journey on the Sufi path. […] I think others may relate to this too. In the tradition and writings of Rumi, seekers need to be ‘cooked’ themselves in order to be matured into purer and tastier beings! […] In Sufism, there’s an emphasis on being very present in anything we do, treating it like a meditation, with reverence. The idea is that the cook transfers her or his energy into the food that’s being cooked. In fact, Rahaf [whose recipes appear in the book] tells me that her mother also does a prayer while she’s cooking, the same one that I do while stirring the pot. She will silently chant Ya Wadud (literally, ‘Oh Source of Love’). It’s all about love really, isn’t it? Interestingly, many people have commented that the food at the Syrian Pop-Up Cafe is very good because it’s made with love.

Maria: It’s similar to British culture where, traditionally, families used to say prayers before meals. I noticed with the Syrian community that there is a deeper reverence for the food and an absolute understanding of what they’re cooking and how flavours work together. There are regional variations in their recipes that I realise personalise their dishes.

Iman: When you’re preparing a meal in the Middle East, it’s about honouring the guest. For thousands of years, one of the most important values in Middle Eastern culture has been generosity. There are so many proverbs and poems that tell you to bring everything out of the cupboard for your guests. What I present to you on the table is a testament to what you are worth to me.

Maria: In one of the cookery classes, Dalchah [another contributor] made a biryani and it was huge. One of the participants wrote it all down, and when she made the recipe at home it turned out to be enough for about 23 people. So she phoned up everyone in her road and had an impromptu party because she said, ‘What could I do? I had to share it.’ One of our chefs once said to us, ‘For me, cooking is a noble thing. It’s not something I feel embarrassed about doing. To be able to do something that makes people happy like this shows me that I still have something to give and something to share.’

Iman: I think we all bring our own backgrounds and experiences to the table when we’re making food for the Pop-Up Café.


[1] Jen Bagelman, Maria Astrid Nunez Silva, and Carly Bagelman, “Cookbooks: A Tool for Engaged Research,” GeoHumanities 3, 2 (2017): 371–372; Sidney W. Mintz. Tasting food, tasting freedom: Excursions into eating, culture, and the past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); Priscilla Pankhurst Ferguson. Word of mouth: What we talk about when we talk about food (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014).