In the second half of the eighteenth century, the botanist Martinus (Martin) Houttuyn described Japanese soy as follows: ‘een Lijmerig en niet onaangenaam ziltig Sap, dat in Flesschen overkomt, en, in plaats van Vleesch-Sap of Sjeu, over Erwten en andere Spyzen gegeten wordt om den Appetyt te verwekken’ (1). Roughly translated into English, the statement reads: ‘Japanese soya is a viscous and not unpleasantly savoury juice, which arrives in bottles, and is consumed instead of meat-juice or gravy with pulses and other dishes, to raise one’s appetite’.
The passage was included in the section on herbs (kruiden) in a multi-volume study entitled ‘Natural history’ or ‘Extensive description of the animals, plants and minerals, according to the system of Linnaeus’ (Natuurlyke Historie of uitvoerige beschryving der dieren, planten en mineraalen, volgens het samenstel van Linnaeus).
The author, Martin Houttuyn, was born in 1720 in Hoorn, a small town located on the Zuyderzee, north of Amsterdam. Hoorn had held city rights since 1357, and had flourished during the seventeenth century, when Hoorn was a base for the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) and became a prosperous centre of trade. By the eighteenth century, however, the town had started to decline, and the young Martin, son of a doctor, moved away to start his medical studies at the University of Leiden. After two years of study, he established himself in Amsterdam, and began to work on a series of publications on medical and botanical knowledge. He published the first volume of his ‘Natural History’ in 1761. This series was an attempt to make all knowledge about natural history known to a general public, and the 37-volume publication that was completed in 1785 covered thousands of pages (2).
As the title suggests, Houttuyn drew on the classification system devised by the great Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus (1707-1778). It was Linnaeus who categorised this bean as ‘dolichos soja’ (3), and it was under the heading of ‘dolichos soja’ that Houttuyn added the description quoted above.
The popular name of this plant was ‘Japanese’ (Japansche), and as Houttuyn explained, the plant deserved its name, not only because it could be found in Japan, but because it was used to make ‘Japansche soya’ sauce. The description that followed alluded not only to its viscosity and its salty flavour, but the ways in which this sauce was consumed: poured over peas and other dishes, in the same way that meat-juices or gravy were used. But Houttuyn also mentioned its method of delivery: it arrived from its remote location of manufacture to the Dutch consumer in bottles. Finally, Houttuyn makes a comment about the authenticity of the sauce: in ‘Oostindie’ (the islands now known as Indonesia, then part of the overseas colonial ‘possessions’ of the Dutch), people use large quantities of both the ‘real Japanese’ soya sauce and its imitation (‘nagemaakte’), Chinese soya sauce.
Deceptively simple, this eighteenth-century description of a new foodstuff, soya sauce, points at many of the questions this project will address. What kind of commodities and foodstuffs were exchanged between Asia and Europe? Who participated in this culture of exchange, and how was knowledge about new foodstuffs shared between consumers in different cultural zones? How did people like Houttuyn find out the information he needed to describe this ‘Japanese’ bean?
We all know that we live in a ‘globalized’ world: the food we eat (and how we cook our food, see ‘stir fry’), the clothes we wear, the material goods that surround us, they have almost all travelled across vast distances before entering our daily environments. But as this description of soya sauce from the eighteenth century already shows: globalization and global connections are nothing new. Houttuyn’s life was connected to the wider world in many different ways: in the physical environment where he grew up, surrounded by the traces of the VOC in Hoorn, visible in the eighteenth century as much as they are today, in the university where he studied, and in his studies and translations of medical and botanical knowledge. His own writings, as we saw in this short passage, contributed in their own way to the exchange of knowledge and food practices in the eighteenth-century world.
M. Houttuyn, Natuurlyke Historie of uitvoerige beschryving der dieren, planten en mineraalen, volgens het samenstel van Linnaeus (Amsterdam, 1761-1785). The text can be found in Volume II, part 10, page 158 (here). Fulltext of part 2, 10 through Archive.org
- http://plants.jstor.org/person/bm000326929. Martinus Houttuyn, Natuurlyke historie of uitvoerige beschryving der dieren, planten en mineraalen, volgens het samenstel van den heer Linnæus. Met naauwkeurige afbeeldingen. Amsterdam: by de erven van F. Houttuyn, 1761-85.
Dolichos soja (soya bean), from the collection of Carl Linneaus. LINN 900.17 Dolichos soja (Herb Linn)
http://linnean-online.org/8484/ (consulted 18 September 2014)