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Early spices in Amsterdam

At the Asia in Amsterdam symposium which was held at the start of the exhibition Asia in Amsterdam” – which has moved from Amsterdam and will be on view in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA (USA) from February 27, 2016- , the Shared Taste project delivered a paper presented by prof. Anne Gerritsen on early culinary exchange, entitled “Candied ginger and China root: Asian ingredients in the 17th century Dutch kitchen“.

To determine whether the arrival of Asian spices and other ‘exotic’ ingredients and condiments on VOC ships in the early 17th century indeed influenced foodways in the Netherlands, as is the general assumption, we decided to look for these (supposedly) unfamiliar ingredients in 16th and 17th century Dutch cookbooks, and track the changes over time.

A cultural history of chopsticks



‘With these two sticks, the Japanese are able to fill their mouths with marvelous swiftness and agility. They can pick up any piece of food, no matter how tiny it is, without ever soiling their hands’.

This is an observation made by Francesco Carletti, a Florentine merchant, who set out from Seville in the late sixteenth century, on what would become an eight-year journey across the world that included Japan. He was not the first European (more…)

Prinsenhof shards

Objects kept inside a museum, displayed in a beautiful or artful way, can only be looked at from a distance : the whole point is to keep precious and valuable objects safe from harm. Yet when one actually touches material culture, there is a spark of communication which leads towards to a whole new way of seeing things.

We had the great opportunity last April to visit Museum Prinsenhof in Delft, where Susanne Klüver held a ceramics session, (more…)

A Shared Taste?

Teawares and the material culture of early exchange between China and Korea

These green-glazed bowls were made in Korea in the late twelfth century. China’s prowess in making fine ceramics is perhaps better known than Korea’s tradition, but the quality of these beautiful bowls serves to illustrate the unfairness of that difference in global fame. But were the two traditions entirely unrelated, or is there a connection between them? Is there, perhaps, even a ‘shared taste’ between the two? Let’s trace their story from their arrival in Europe.

In 1912 Francis Bernard Aubrey Le Blond (1869–1951) travelled by boat to China, Korea and Japan, and returned to Europe by Trans-Siberian Railway via Russia [1]. His pioneer wife, the mountaineer and photographer Elizabeth Alice Frances Le Blond (1860–1934), accompanied him [2]. (more…)

Babi Ketjap

babi ketjapLet’s have a look at this text, a recipe from Kokki Bitja, Indonesia’s earliest printed cookbook.

Published in Batavia in the mid- 19th century, it is a collection of short Indonesian, Chinese and even Dutch recipes, written in hybrid Malay mixed with Dutch words – as can be seen from recipe names like Kwe Tulband, Pastij Oedang, or Stoof Ayam.

The cookbook was very popular and was reprinted at least nineteen times, well into the 1940s. The title Kokki Bitja, ‘Beloved Cook’, refers to the author, a certain ‘Nonna’ (miss) Cornelia, living at the ‘Tiada-Katahoewan‘ estate. We know very little about her, only that she suddenly passes away in 1859 only days before publication of the reprint, after a nervous fit in the kitchen while failing her ‘Kwee Broeder‘ cake, as the publishers tell us in their ‘Heartbreaking Words by the Publishers’ of the 5th edition. (more…)

Soya sauce on Mount Fuji?

Mount Fuji

Gallery 203 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is part of the Asian Art Department, and is devoted to Chinese ceramics. In particular, the porcelains presented here reveal ‘the interchanges between Chinese ceramics and those in other parts of the world’ [1]. One of the selected items is this small dish (25.1 cm wide, and 28.5 cm long).

Dish in the shape of Mount Fuji with a design of horses and deer, Ming dynasty ca. 1620–30. Metropolitan Museum (Purchase, Barbara and William Karatz Gift, Gift of C. T. Loo and Company, by exchange and Rogers Fund, by exchange, 2010 (2010.206)

It is made from porcelain, using the characteristic white clay found near the southern Chinese kiln town of Jingdezhen. It has been decorated with blue designs, brushed onto the clay surface before the object was glazed and then fired at high temperature. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), hundreds of thousands of such so-called ‘blue-and-white’ porcelains were produced in Jingdezhen, so that in itself does not explain the choice of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to select it for display in Gallery 203. The shape, however, does explain the choice. The shallow dish (5.3 cm in height) is wide on one side and narrow on the other, with rounded edges on either side of the design in the middle. Instead of laying the dish flat, one could stand it up on its wider side, with the narrow shape at the top, to reveal a shape not unlike that of the famous Mount Fuji in Japan. (more…)

‘A viscous savoury juice’

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). (more…)

Stir-fry : a history

In our modern life style it is perfectly normal to go to the supermarket for some meat and veg, slice them in bite-size pieces and then X these in a wok or saute pan. When you think about what should come in the position of ‘X’, it is obvious we need a special verb here. We can’t use ‘roast’, ‘boil’, ‘fry’ or simply ‘cook’. These all do not sound right when using a wok. We need a special word to describe what we are doing when we are holding a spatula and preparing something in some hot oil in our woks, a verb which in Chinese is called ‘chao’ 炒.

The character for ‘chao’ shows the ‘fire’ radical on the left and then several strokes on the right, which at a closer look, could really resemble a hooked spatula with some edible chunks to either side, scraping the tilted bottom of a wok. And ‘chao’ing is actually that: scraping and stirring ingredients to cook evenly. (more…)