The Hour of The Goddess: An Interview With Chitrita Banerji

Earlier this month Tiffin published the following interview with author of Bengali Cooking, Chitrita Banerji:

I met Chitrita Banerji the week before Thanksgiving at her Cambridge home, where we shared a pot of fine tea and she plied me with homemade Bengali snacks—sandesh, the milk sweet so popular in Banerji’s native Kolkata, and postor bora, fried croquettes made out of white poppy seeds and rice flour. The bricked-in alleys and mews outside were deserted from the piercing cold and it was a delight to speak with Banerji about everything from Satyajit Ray (whose Feluda stories she has translated) to the history of chhana, the milk solids that famously form the basis of a wide variety of Bengali sweets (sandesh included).
Continue reading “The Hour of The Goddess: An Interview With Chitrita Banerji”

A delightful winter recipe from one of France’s greatest chefs

This week’s free recipe is taken from Edouard de Pomiane’s Cooking with Pomiane. A highly-respected scientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris as well as a much-loved radio chef, Pomiane was once described by Raymond Blanc as “my hero.”

‘To prepare dinner for a friend is to put into the cooking pot all one’s affection and good will, all one’s gaiety and zest, so that after three hours’ cooking a waft of happiness escapes from beneath the lid.’
—Edouard de Pomiane

Continue reading “A delightful winter recipe from one of France’s greatest chefs”

A warming winter recipe from ancient Rome

From this week we will be offering a free weekly recipe to our blog readers. Our first offering is this warming winter recipe from Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery.

Roman Cookery unveils one of Europe’s last great culinary secrets: the food eaten by the ordinary people of ancient Rome. Based on olive oil, fish and fresh vegetables, their cuisine was the origin of the Mediterranean diet as we know it today and, in particular, of classic Italian cooking.

World Orders in Decline – then and now

With the election of Donald Trump, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the rise of populist movements across Europe, and the increasing assertiveness of Russian foreign policy there has been much talk about the possible end of globalisation and a return to great power rivalry. In this extract from The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield recounts the beginnings of The Great Labour Unrest of 1910-1914 in a world where (rather like ours) a hegemonic power was in decline, wages for many were stagnating or declining, and wealth was concentrating in fewer and fewer hands…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The date of the Unrest’s beginning is, by general agreement, January 1910; and the most obvious cause of it was the continued drop in real wages . . .

Back in 1890, with the opening of new fields in South Africa, the world’s stock of gold began to increase at an alarming rate; by 1909 it had been swollen by a quantity very considerably greater than the total amount of bullion and coin previously existing in Europe, America and the Colonies, a quantity more than half as much as the world’s total previous stock in all forms. The mysterious metallic tide, flowing into England year by year, trickled into even the poorest houses; but – such was its nature – the shape it took there was scarcely an aureate one. It became a halfpenny more on the pound of tea, or three-pence more on a pair of boots; it became a general price rise. By 1910 the purchasing power of the pound, steadily declining, had shrunk to 16 shillings and 11 pence.

This was the effect of cheap gold upon the workers of England, and it was an unavoidable effect. But there should have been a compensation. For an increase in prices means an increase in productivity, and an increase in productivity means an increase in wages. Yet wages, though they had risen a little, had not risen in proportion; in 1910 the English worker was a poorer man than he was in 1900. What was the reason for this? Were businessmen, filled with a joyful confidence, investing too much of the nation’s resources in worthless undertakings? Were they growing careless? Were weak men remaining in the field, who, in less prosperous times, would have sold their concerns to more ruthless competitors? Any one of these reasons would have resulted in a lessened productivity and a consequent fall in real wages.

Or was capital discovering more attractive fields for investment than the field of British industry? The Boer War and the Russo–Japanese War had absorbed their share, and more than their share, of the national resources; and by 1910 one and a half billions of private capital were sunk in North and South America, and perhaps two billions were profitably scattered to the foreign ends of the earth. Was there consequently less capital available to co-operate with labour in the home field?

These questions lead us deeper into the sad mazes of the investing mind, which at each turn becomes more careless, more greedy, more vindictive and more feeble. The rate of return to capital was visibly increasing, but where was that capital invested? What uncouth toilers, in what remote corners of the world, sweated and starved to bring to some comfortable little householder in Upper Tooting his pleasant five per cent? The comfortable little householder probably asked this – not of his conscience, however, but of his prospectus and balance sheet, which always returned the most reassuring answers. And, besides, what else could he do with his savings? They were not his to control. The independent small entrepreneur – that dream of Liberal economics – had vanished from the earth; the great illusion of the middle classes was over; wealth was in the grip of other and fewer and more formidable hands.

Indeed, that tide of gold, rolling up out of South Africa, had deposited in the boardrooms and drawing-rooms and palaces of England a preposterous and powerful flotsam, which, arriving casually like seaweed, established itself with the instinctive adroitness of a barnacle. The new financier, the new plutocrat, had little of that sense of responsibility which once had sanctioned the power of England’s landed classes. He was a purely international figure, or so it seemed, and money was his language, like a loud and glittering Esperanto; it was a language, moreover, which England’s upper classes seemed unable to resist. Where did the money come from? Nobody seemed to care. It was there to be spent, and to be spent in the most ostentatious manner possible; for its new masters set the fashion and the fashion they set was not likely to be a reticent one. Society in the last pre-war years grew wildly plutocratic; the middle classes became more complacent and dependent; only the workers seemed to be deprived of their share in prosperity.

The picture is hardly a pleasant one, yet it has to be rendered even more unpleasant by the added colours of fear. The British industrialist was definitely afraid. The infinite interacting veins of credit, which seemed to knit the world up into one vast organism, gave a specious promise of peace and co-operation; a radiant promise. And the world’s financial map, studded with the inevitable concentrations of capital, was radiant indeed; but it was the radiance of acne. It was a creeping disease, and the first of its victims was British industrial supremacy. Already inhuman hostilities had been proclaimed; foreign tariffs, foreign bounties, the restrictive commercial policies of foreign governments. The old world-empire of Free Trade had long since tottered to its fall. American Trusts and German Kartellen controlling their own home markets were dumping their products in non-protected countries; and though the influence of this was hardly yet felt in England, the very existence of such tactics bred a secret terror. Wherever the English industrialist looked, he could not escape the presence of America and Germany. Technical inventions were now their speciality; they were admirably organized; they had discovered within their borders vast resources of iron, coal and oil. In ’95, England was the leading coal-producing country; now she was far behind the USA, and only just ahead of Germany: in the relative production of iron-ore, pig-iron and steel she was an ignoble third. Where was it all to end?

True, in her exports of domestic produce she still led the world, but by an uncomfortably narrow margin, which dwindled every year. And she still had almost a monopoly of the world’s sea-borne trade. Almost, but not quite. Japanese shipping, leaving its particular hunting ground in the China Sea and the Pacific Islands, was creeping across to the Pacific coasts of South America, and even supplying parts of the Indian Ocean. Germany was becoming a menace. Even America, no longer content with her modest coal exports to Cuba and Mexico, was making shipments to Mediterranean and South American ports. Scarcely had the thunders of Gettysburg and Sedan died away than this new and more sinister warfare declared itself, whispering at last into the farthest corners of the seven seas. Its first effects upon England had been the depressions of ’75 and ’84; and now – and now – why were economists prophesying another depression, perhaps in 1916? Well, there was no use thinking about it; times were unusually prosperous, England was still the leading industrial nation. But steadily and irresistibly the fear grew…

Read more about The Strange Death of Liberal England here.

Mark Grant on Roman Cuisine

We will soon be sharing some warming winter recipes from culinary researcher Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery, but in the meantime here is an interview with Mark on Roman cuisine and its relationship with modern Mediterranean food. Mark teaches classics and has edited and translated a number of culinary works by historical figures such as the Byzantine physician Anthimus and Oribasius, personal physician to the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.  His most recent book is Austro-Hungarian Cookery: Leaves from a Family Kitchen.

What led you to become interested in Roman cuisine? Why do you think it is a culinary tradition worth exploring?

Shaun Holman, one of my Latin teachers at school, asked if anyone in the class had come across the cookery book by Apicius. He had bought a copy for the library and that evening I borrowed it.  Over forty years later I am still experimenting with Roman food. I pay tribute in the book to his memory. What I find fascinating about Roman food is the survival of flavours. There are predecessors of pesto, Provencal beef stews, agrodolce sauces, filo pastry, honey cakes and dried fruit. This culinary tradition unites east and west, the Christian and Islamic worlds, a common heritage that dates back over two thousand years.

Can you tell us something about the research process? How did you go about finding the recipes in Roman Cookery?

I studied Latin and Ancient Greek at school and university. My PhD looked at the broader topic of ancient dietetics. I also taught Classics at secondary schools for nearly twenty years. Almost from the outset I wanted to find recipes from outside Apicius, a compilation from the late Roman Empire, and so I kept a notebook of references. The sources can be divided into three main types: recipes detailed in agricultural and technical works, for example Cato’s On Agriculture (3rd/2nd century BC), Pliny’s Natural History (1st century AD) and Galen’s extensive writings on medicine (2nd century AD); marginal notes by ancient commentators and scribes to explain difficult words in a text, for example dishes mentioned in the plays of Aristophanes (5th century BC) and Plautus (3rd/2nd century BC); and fragments of other cookery books, for example the Heidelberg papyrus and authors quoted by Athenaeus’ Partying Professors (2nd/3rd century AD). Archaeology can show the content of larders around the Roman Empire, and thus the regional variations, and how this was prepared for the table.

How does Roman cookery relate to modern day Mediterranean and Italian cooking?

Roman cookery is quintessential Mediterranean cookery. It is its very foundation and for some recipes it has hardly changed. Yet just like any other cookery, it needs lots of practice to make perfect, and then some more. Without a family tradition from which to learn, anyone interested in Roman cookery must keep experimenting, trying out proportions and testing ideas. Each cook has to create that family tradition, as if there were a slave in a tunic standing by the side of the stove.

What do you think readers will find most surprising about Roman cooking

That it is really very good – and very sophisticated. I have run cookery sessions around the UK, the most recent at the Wells Latin Summer School, and the verdict is positive. Sometimes the impression from history books is that Roman cooking is not for the modern palate. The flavours can be both familiar and unusual. It is exciting to have such a window on the past.

If you were to recommend one Roman recipe what would it be?

This is a difficult question and the answer will of course change. But for the moment I would recommend a recipe by Apicius (4.5.4) for apricots. Mint, vinegar and wine do not sound as if they will work. Adjust the proportions – the recipe, like most, does not give quantities – and the result is exquisite in its subtlety. For a recipe where I have noted my own interpretation of quantities, the nut cake on pages 144-5 of Roman Cookery is wonderfully moreish.

Read more about Roman Cookery here.

Lorca — Voyage to the Heartland


Published back in September, we were pleased to see author Nicolas Lalaguna’s review of Lorca’s Sketches of Spain in The Morning Star:

“Sketches of Spain lets you bear witness to the 18-year-old folk musician Lorca discovering the poet inside. In his prologue he tells us that every book is a garden and how “lucky the man who can plant it out and blessed the man who cuts its roses and feeds his soul.” He begs the reader to look beyond the set horizons, to dream and “experience in myriad shades” the garden he is planting out before us.

For many this book will be an ongoing source of wonder and insight into the development of a beautiful mind.

For those who don’t have the opportunity to read Lorca in his own language, trust in Bush’s unpretentious and welcoming translation not to sully the melodic metaphors, along with Bell’s illustrations which act as a visual echo of the world the musician describes.

Sketches of Spain is a welcome addition to any library, doubly so for those who wish to see Spain’s past and all of our future a little differently.”

Full review here.

The Strange Death of… Everything

Not a week goes by it seems without an article or a book being published that adapts the title of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England. Examples abound – from the obvious such as The Strange Death of Tory England and The Strange Death of Liberal America to more obscure examples such as The Strange Demise of British Canada and The Strange Death of Social-democratic Sweden. Indeed the latest edition of the London Review of Books promises an article entitled ‘The Strange Death of Municipal England’.


Yet it’s not simply the title of George Dangerfield’s classic work that retains its relevance. In an era where all political certainties seem questionable and where the dominance of traditional political parties across Europe seems to be breaking down, now is the perfect time to revisit Dangerfield’s chronicle of the collapse of the Liberal party in the face of radical popular movements and resistance in Britain’s colonies. As investigative journalist Paul Foot wrote back in 1997:

“There are, of course, many history books about this period… even after 61 years, however, George Dangerfield’s book is supreme.”

We are inclined to think that the same is true now, more than 80 years since The Strange Death of Liberal England was first published.

Chitrita Banerji and Bengali Cuisine

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing interviews with some of our fantastic authors. First up is Chitrita Banerji — novelist, translator, and one of the very few Indian food historians in the world. We asked her about her book, Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals and the changing reception of Bengali cooking in the West.

You grew up in Calcutta but also spent many years in Bangladesh. How does Bengali cuisine differ between what used to be West and East Bengal?

The Muslim influence is very strong in the cooking of modern Bangladesh. That is evident in the preponderance of meat items in both daily meals and festive menus. Vegetables are accorded a distinctly secondary place and hardly appear in the meals served at weddings or during big religious festivals. The use of onions is ubiquitous, almost as if it were salt. Not surprisingly, there is far greater variety in the preparation of meat dishes than in West Bengal.

The Hindus of East Bengal (many of whom eventually migrated to West Bengal) are noted for the diversity of their fish preparations. Their cooking is also marked by a greater use of spices and oil. While the culinary culture of West Bengal also includes many fish dishes (as well as meat) the use of spices is more moderate. There is a far greater range of vegetable dishes here, probably a lingering influence of the vegetarianism promoted by the sixteenth-century Hindu reformer of the Vaishnav sect, Sri Chaitanya. The addition of small quantities of sugar in savoury dishes is also a characteristic of West Bengali cooking. However, many of these distinctions are ebbing, given the increasing tendency of eating out, preference for meat, and interest in the cuisines of other parts of the world.

You have been settled in the United States since the early 90s. How has American interest in Bengali cooking changed over the years and what has the role of Indian emigrants to the United States been in that
development?

Bengali cooking is still largely unknown in the United States. There are Indian restaurants that mostly serve northern Indian food, sometimes adding a few items from southern India (such as dosa) or items from the coastal cuisines of Goa or Kerala or Mangalore. That is what the American consumers are familiar with. The few restaurateurs who have tried to specialise in serving Bengali food have not succeeded. This is a wide open field, awaiting a committed, knowledgeable entrepreneur.

Many people in the United States and the UK will know Bengali cooking largely through restaurant food. What do you think they may find surprising about Bengali home cooking?

Although Bengali cooking is really not known in the United States the situation is different in the UK, because of the greater number of Bengalis living there. Even so, I don’t think too many people are aware of the range and nuance of authentic Bengali food. The good thing is that now some really enterprising Bengalis are opening small-scale, home-based restaurants to serve traditional Bengali food. In Bengal, we think of “bhat-machher jhol” (rice and fish stew) or “dal-bhat-aloobhatey” (rice, dal, and mashed potatoes seasoned with mustard oil and chopped green chilis) as quintessential Bengali meals–simple, yet exquisite. You hardly ever see that outside of Bengal. New restaurants like Calcutta Streets in London are attempting to serve such items and, from what I hear, their customers are both surprised and delighted. I hope more of them come up and people begin to realise that chicken tikka masala is not necessarily an accurate representation of the vast variety of India’s regional cuisines.

Are there any common misconceptions about Bengali cuisine that you feel need challenging?

Once people in Western countries recognise what Bengali cuisine is, it would be important not to conflate the cooking styles of the two Bengals–Bangladesh and West Bengal. I would also like to stress that the notion of any and every Indian food being heavy on spices and chilis is an erroneous one. Many Bengali dishes are very mild and their taste depends on the flavour imparted by a selection of whole spices rather than heavy-duty ground masala or a combination of onions and garlic and tomato.

If you had to choose just one recipe to recommend from your book which would you choose and why?

Although Bengalis, by and large, are not vegetarians, the one recipe I would like people to try from my book is a vegetarian one—Chholar Dal (in the chapter on Early and Late Autumn). It is absolutely delicious. The taste is complex and the fragrance of garam masala permeates every mouthful. It is substantial; you can almost make a filling meal out of this dal served with some rice or paratha or luchi (Bengali fried bread). The addition of fried coconut chips to the dal adds both texture and nutrition. And given the current trends towards vegetarianism and veganism, this is a recipe that anyone can try!

Find out more about Chitrita’s book here.