The Magic of Socotran Aloe

By Shireen Hamza

“The people of this island are without faith — and they are strong magicians. They originate from Greece.”

What?

I had been flipping through Ikhtiyārāt-i Badī‘ī, a Persian pharmaceutical manuscript composed in the fourteenth century by Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār (d. 1404). The British Library has many surviving manuscripts of this text, including one copied by the author’s son.[1] I was looking through each of them to see whether they included any Arabic-Persian glossaries, for an ongoing project. I was stopped short by the sentence above.

It was part of an entry on aloes. I read the entry from the beginning:

Aloes are of three varieties: Socotran, Arabic and Samḥābī. The best variety is Socotran. Socotra is an island close to the shore of Yemen. It is forty leagues [long]. The people of this island are faithless and are strong magicians. Their origins are from Greece. Alexander sent them from Greece to this island in order to make aloe. Their women are even stronger magicians.

I was beginning to wonder what this had to do with aloes. Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār continued.

On whole, the situation is so extreme that if they have a conflict with another person, and that person is present — or if they even focus on their memory of the person’s face — and they put a glass of water before themselves and begin to do magic, a drop of blood eventually appears in the glass. Then, they put the glass on their liver, heart or lung. That person falls dead on the spot. And if one were to open the person’s belly, they would find no liver. People exaggerate about their magic to this extent. The best type of Socotran aloes are the color of liver, smell like marw (Maerua), and are full of leaves [with juice] similar to gum Arabic. If someone has pain, massaging [the afflicted area] with this will quickly bring relief. It has the color of saffron and emits the smell of goose fat.

With that, I was abruptly returned to the familiar land of medieval Islamic medicine. What had these magicians to do with aloe? Livers disappear from the victims of magical attacks and reappear as the color of the best aloes — perhaps referring to the color of the juice extracted from the plant’s leaves. But this seemed a happenstance juxtaposition; the author drew no correlation.

Arid landscape and blur sky. Plan with wide lower leaves that are brown. Several long, spiny flowers that are bright red (narrow) grow out of it.
Aloe Perryi in Socotra. Credit: photo by Todd Masilko, accessed at Flickr.

 

Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār’s narration of the history of this object is unusual, for this text and for pharmacopeia in general. The rest of the entry continues in the usual way — Arabic aloes are also called Yemeni and Adeni aloes; aloes are hot and dry to the second degree, though some say to the first and others to the third, and Jālīnūs (Galen) says dry to the third degree, hot to the first; aloe is among the most beneficial medicines for the stomach, and for treating swelling and pain; it is a purgative for yellow bile; it pulls excess moisture and phlegm from the head and joints; it clears obstructions from the liver; with age, it turns black and loses potency; and so on. This story of the island’s magicians seemed to belong more to another kind of book.

Indeed, this story appears often in Arabic literature. The earliest version is in “Accounts of China and India,” a travelogue by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, likely written in the ninth century. Attesting to the wide renown of these aloes, al-Sīrāfī begins his description of Socotra as “the place where Socotran aloes grow.”[2] According to him, Aristotle had instructed Alexander the Great to find this island, expel its inhabitants and resettle it with Greeks who could guard the aloe and export it — because “no purgatives (ayārijāt) are complete without aloe.” He then explains how these Greeks eventually became Christian — and how their ancestors remained Christian in Socotra, living there among other peoples. Another famous traveler, al-Bīrūnī, included a brief mention of the story in a pharmaceutical text he wrote in the eleventh century — the closest precedent to Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār. By the thirteenth century, several well-known authors included some version of this story in their work, like Yāqūt in his geographical text, al-Qazwīnī in his  “Wonders of Creation,” and al-Nuwayrī in his lengthy encyclopedia. While Islamic literature is full of stories of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander, some scholars have argued that these authors drew on Greek accounts that don’t survive, and that the story spread further through The Alexander Romances.[3]

“Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in his Mountain Cave,” a painted folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi made in 1597-1598, likely in India. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār says nothing of Christianity on Socotra. al-Sīrāfī says nothing of magic. But a few pages later, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār translates a lengthy aloe recipe by Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248), originally in Arabic. This and other citations of Arabic medical texts suggest that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār could read Arabic, and may have taken his account from any of the texts mentioned here. But why?

Writing from far-away Shiraz, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār dismisses the magical abilities of Socotran people as exaggeration. But though he disagreed, he included the story as part of the information in circulation about Socotran aloe, for the sake of creating a comprehensive entry. This is why he also included contradictory accounts of the hotness and dryness of this aloe. But did he believe that Alexander’s ancient interest in Socotran aloe was additional proof of its continued superiority to other varieties of aloe?

Modern botanical research includes a survey of a plant’s history on earth, a legacy of early modern Natural History. The discipline of Natural History does not translate easily to sciences before the eighteenth century in any region.[4] But there are narrative “histories” of certain substances within texts of ṭibb, Arabic and Persian medicine, as well as in encyclopedia, lapidaries, bestiaries and other genres. Origin stories appear alongside the most practical of information.

Objects, and especially plants, are difficult to pin down — they feel unstable as we follow them through different periods, geographic contexts and even textual genres. I imagine that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār may have felt the same way. Perhaps by whisking his reader onto the scene of an ancient conquest, he felt that his enthusiasm for the remedy would come with a strong recommendation.


Postscript

The people of Socotra are currently struggling under very real conditions of occupation due to the ongoing war, cholera pandemic and COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen. If you can, please support the work of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation or comparable organizations.

Notes

[1] British Library India Office Islamic 3499

[2] Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga. (New York: NYU Press, 2014): 122-123

[3] Mikhail Bukharin, “The Mediterranean World and Socotra,” in Foreign Sailors on Socotra: The Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq Ed. I. Strauch. (Hempen Verlag: Bremen, 2012): 494-531, at 504-505.

[4] Karen Reeds and Tomomi Kinukawa, “Medieval Natural History,” in Lindberg, David C., and Michael H. Shank. The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 2, Medieval Science. Ed. David Lindberg and Michale Shank. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 569-589.

“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.

The “Nutrition Song”: Imperial Japan’s Recipe for National Nutrition

Nathan Hopson

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

In May 1922, Japan’s preeminent nutritionist, Saiki Tadasu, released a recording of his “Nutrition Song,” performed by opera star Hanafusa Shizuko. Saiki, a medical doctor who had received a PhD from Yale in 1907 before returning to Japan to crusade for national nutritional improvement, was the founding director of the Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). In this position, Saiki was the most prominent of a generation of nutritional reformers who advocated a new national diet based on modern, rational nutrition science. The IGIN, the world’s first government-sponsored dedicated nutrition lab, was established in 1920 under the powerful home ministry to address a constellation of “food problems” increasingly unavoidable after the nationwide paroxysm of Rice Riots in 1918. It was a recognition at the highest levels that for Japan to fulfill its dream of being one of the Great Powers, from the ideological project of hygienic modernity to the realities of scarcity and waste, food would play a central role.

Under Saiki, the IGIN evangelized for a distinctly Japanese “national nutrition,” based on the objective and quantifiable universalities of state-of-the-art nutrition science—especially the American “New Nutrition” to which he had been exposed while in the US—but simultaneously sensitive to Japan’s particular circumstances. The Institute primarily targeted the new urban middle-class “professional housewife” class and children more broadly: the former with a media blitz that included articles in women’s magazines, a daily radio broadcast of approved recipes (a topic for a future post), and numerous workshops, both on-site and around Japan; and the latter through a school lunch program that gained traction in the 1920s. This combination, promising to help both women and children, promised the greatest long-term improvement in the national diet: children would learn to eat properly, and their mothers to cook properly. In all of its proselytizing, the Institute appealed to the upwardly mobile self-interest of its audiences, reminding them that with its scientific and rational “economical nutrition” plans, they could do more with less.

The “Nutrition Song” was a didactic nine-verse summary of Saiki’s master plan for proper (rational and economical) national nutrition, based on the substitution of nutritionally equivalent foods to reduce waste and cost while simultaneously increasing efficiency. The first two stanzas of the Nutrition Song deal, respectively, with personal and social nutrition. The third verse explains macronutrients. The fourth lists daily dietary requirements and promotes Saiki’s “each meal perfect” meal planning system, based on the New Nutrition’s Taylorist doctrine of nutritional quantifiability and the substitutability of equivalent foods. Verses five, six, and seven are, respectively, anti-gourmand, pro-substitution (“economical nutrition”), and white rice-skeptical (another topic for another day…). The final two verses remind listeners to eat rationally rather than emotionally. Saiki’s lyrics are, in short, imperial Japan’s recipe for national nutrition.<

Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.
Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.

Wake in the morning with the strength to crush an ogre
Refreshed by peaceful dreams
With a strong mind to overcome heat and cold
Impervious to disease
These are the gifts of nutrition


Even foreigners will be jealous of our children and grandchildren
Great and strong, humbly thank the gods
For pure water and endless food
Giving life and saving the world
These are the rewards of nutrition

Protein in milk, meat, eggs, shellfish, and beans builds the body
Potatoes, grains, and sugars are called carbohydrates
Like fats they burn easily, giving strength and heat
What’s left settles, enriching the body

An average working person requires
80g of protein and 2400 calories, the rest from fats and carbohydrates
Ensure that each meal
Is rich in nutrition

“Good” foods are not necessarily rare delicacies
Affordable wholesome foods abound
Meats are good, fish excellent
Dried or salted, cod, sardines, herring, and fresh bream

Tofu, natto, miso, and soy flour; beans can substitute for meat
Supplement taste and nutrition with meat scraps and dried whole sardines
Prepare food cleverly so as not to waste
And learn proper storage so as not to waste heaven’s bounty

Consider the immense virtues in each little grain
Use rice properly: mill appropriately and don’t wash
When rice is scarce, eat barley, buckwheat, millets, and potatoes
Eating them all together for red blood and strong bones

Eat a balanced diet, different for young and old
Eat bones, skin, and flesh for minerals and vitamins
Do not gratify your appetites; daily routine is most important
Chew well and don’t be picky
That’s the secret to a long, healthy life

In frozen winter the body loses heat
So eat plenty of fatty foods
In sweltering summer, eat fruits and vegetables and drink water
For unchanging health in changing seasons

In my next post, I’ll examine the IGIN’s official cookbook, a year’s worth of IGIN-endorsed recipes interspersed with helpful columns about food- and nutrition-related topics. It’s the practical application of the principles laid out in the “Nutrition Song.” This post is based on my forthcoming article, “Nutrition as National Defense: Japan’s Imperial Government Institute for Nutrition, 1920-1940.” Journal of Japanese Studies 45, no. 1 (2019).

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.

Fairgoing Filipino Food in the Fifties

By R. Alexander Orquiza

In 1950, the cooking demonstrations at the California State Fair were a way to taste and see the globe. Americans were eager to show their newfound cosmopolitan tastes. World War II had ended. Many Americans firmly believed in Henry Luce’s “American Century.” But what do those food demonstrations in a Sacramento fairground say about the consumers who eagerly ate these foods?

California State Fair Agriculture Building, 1950. Image Credit: Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento Room.

A close examination of the Filipino recipes from California Cookery (1950), the official cookbook of the state fair, provides an interesting case. One can easily see an emerging American consumerism, the heavy hand of culinary adaptation, and a bit of historical amnesia in the presentation of Filipino food.

Coolerator Fridges, 1953. Image Credit: RetroLicious Ltd., Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.co.uk/retroliciousltd/

On a larger scale, these demonstrations promoted different international cuisines as a way of advertising the new appliances of the post-war American consumer society. In addition to Filipino cuisine, there were demonstrations of recipes from Norway, the Netherland, China, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Mexico thanks to “the cooperation of the consulates of several nations.” The Pioneer Appliance Company of San Francisco provided its “Coolerator” line of refrigerators, electric stoves, and freezers; the demonstration kitchens were lined with Armstrong Linoleum floors; and United Grocer of Sacramento stocked the shelves with imported goods and fresh California produce. Demonstrations thus simultaneously broadened the culinary mindset of attendees while directing consumers to buy the latest kitchen gear at their local store.

The recipes clearly catered to an American audience that was unfamiliar with Filipino food even after fifty-two years of American presence in the Philippines. Recipes used easy-to-find ingredients and presented a familiar three-course structure to entice Americans suspicious of trying Filipino food.

Demonstrators offered five recipes. Adobong Baboy (braised pork) was described in the official California State Fair cookbook as “the national dish of the Philippines” that was conveniently served either hot or cold. Its listed ingredients—pork, garlic pepper, salt, lemon, and water—were easy to find. They paired Adobong Baboy with ensaladang kamatis (tomato salad), a similarly easy-to-prepare dish of sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt. Served alongside white rice (kanin) and completed with one ripe banana (pang matamis) per person, the demonstration presented a clear message—anyone could make Filipino food.

However, a closer look at these dishes shows complexity beyond the simple consumer nirvana  of the fairgoers. The recipe for adobong baboy failed to use the essential ingredient of a Filipino adobo—vinegar, the ingredient that quickly pickles and preserves pork in the tropics—one of the reasons why the adobo cooking method became popular in the Philippines.

Chicken adobo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, the recipe failed to describe the multiple variations of adobo. Each region, each island (and there are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines) has its own adobo that differs according to vinegar, spices (bay leaves, annatto seeds, cloves, or turmeric), and the use of sugar or coconut milk. Similarly, ensaladang kamatis removed key ingredients— coconut vinegar, shrimp paste red onions, ginger, and pepper—that give a Filipino tomato salad its bite. Perhaps it was difficult to find coconut vinegar and shrimp paste in 1950s Sacramento; but the remaining ingredients were surely available. White rice, or kanin, was (and is) undoubtedly a staple of Filipino cooking; but Filipinos commonly line their rice pots with banana leaves to impart characteristic flavor. Finally, while a ripe banana is a great way to end a Filipino meal, the sliced fruit that most Filipinos end a meal with is mango.

One imagines that United Grocer had a hard time procuring mangoes, banana leaves, shrimp paste, and coconut vinegar in the 1950s. But these culinary adaptations are also indicative of how little Americans knew about the Philippines despite five decades of American colonial rule. The state fair demonstrations were more California than Philippines as recipes lacked indigenous ingredients and descriptions of their rich culinary historical backstories of trans-Pacific exchange and Hispanicization. “Exotic” Filipino food joined the other international cuisines that inspired the emerging American middle class to invest in new kitchen appliances. Yet those other countries did not have the same colonial relationship with the United States dating back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Now that Filipino cuisine is the latest Southeast Asian food fad in the United States, it is easy to forget that introducing Americans to Filipino food at the California State Fair in 1950 inevitable meant compromises on ingredients, techniques, and dishes. Recreating Manila in Sacramento before the age of jet travel was always going to be a stretch. But the removal of the social and cultural histories behind dishes, particularly their connections to western imperialism, reflected a larger ignorance and amnesia to American empire in the Philippines. A deeper dive into Filipino food would inevitable reveal the dirtier, bloodier aspects of the American relationship with the Philippines. Filipino food, removed of its historical context, became yet another way to promote the new ethos of the post-war American consumer.

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