Rachel Laudan recently proposed an interesting series questions about how we can track the global migration of foods and recipes. In many of the posts that I have made on this site, I have looked at a recipe that can be easily traced in a relatively linear fashion. However, these cases are likely to be exceptions, rather the the norm. So how do we trace the migration of recipes? The following case of shrimp pastes and fish sauces demonstrate how difficult this can be.
Recently I have been reading as much as I can find on Anglo-Indian foods and customs. It is a fascinating area of research in its own right, but it is also often throws un-expected light on other aspects of food history. One of the centers of Anglo-Indian activity in London was The Oriental Club, which seemed to be entirely populated by ex-colonial stereotypes. One interesting recipe published in a small cookbook titled "Indian Cookery" (1861) by Richard Terry, the club's chef is called "Bullachong":
"Pick and clean 2 quarts of shrimps, or prawns, pound them well in a mortar, rub them through a coarse wire sievve; place them again in the mortar, add 1-oz. of glaze, 2 cloves of garlic, or green ginger, if to be had, 4 chillies pounded very fine, 1 tablespoonfull of tomata sauce, and the juice of half a lemon: beat all well together add 4 tablespoonsfull of ghee, melt 4 pats of butter in an omelette pan, pour in the bullachong, and fry, keeping moving the whole time; place it on your dish, pour gravy round, and serve. This may be kept some time by placing it in bottles, and keeping well corked"
This shrimp paste was most likely intended as a relish to go with other dishes, but what interested me was the resemblance in the name with the modern Malay "Belacan". As part of the 19th century expansion of the British Empire, parts what is now modern Malaysia were formerly the colonies of British Malaya. Prior to this period the British had a huge presence in this region. So is "Bullachong" simply a British adaption of a Malay dish? Are there earlier English references to this dish?
Obviously there are numerous references, two of the earliest are of particular interest:
In the 17th century the adventurer William Dampier describes a fermented fish product in Tonkin (now northern Vietnam)
"To make it, they throw the mixture of shrimps and small fish into a sort of weak pickle, made with salt and water, and put it into a tight earthen vessel or jar. The pickle being thus weak, it keeps not the fish firm and hard, neither is it probably so designed, for the fish are never gutted. Therefore, in a short time they turn all to a mash in the vessel; and when they have lain thus a good while, so that the fish is reduced to a pap, they then draw off' the liquor into fresh jars, and preserve it for use. The masht fish that remains behind is called balachaun, and the liquor poured off is called nuke-mum"
He calls this fish paste "Balachaun". Originally I thought that Dampier may have incorrectly recorded this name, as I could find no modern usage of this term in Vietnam for shrimp/fish paste. However, another 16th century European in the Cochin-Chinese (now southern Vietnam) city of Hoi An describes the following:
"The Cochin-Chinese use a kind of sauce, which they call balachiam, made of salt fish macerated and steeped in water. This is a sharp liquor not unlike mustard, and serves to sharpen the appetite to the rice, which they cannot eat without it ; and for this reason those who can afford it lay in large stocks of it, as Europeans do their stores of wine."
A little further research indicated that in the trading port of Hoi An, a Malay dialect was used, so it is quite possible that Dampier et al., correctly recorded the name of a fish paste/sauce in Vietnam using a Malay term. One slight niggle is that Belacan a shrimp paste and in modern Vietnam shrimp paste is known as "mắm tôm/ruoc " . Well names change over time and even in historical times "shrimp paste" can be made using fish, especially the lower grades. Further evidence that the Anglo-Indian "Bullachong" was a British attempt at Malay Belachan was found in the "The Peoples Indian Cookery Book" (Calcutta, 1900) were a recipe for "Balichow" recommends using "Malacca Balichow". Malacca in Malaysia is still famous for its shrimp sauce/paste products. However, a further complication is also a recipe in the same book for "Balachong". Rather annoyingly there is no description of Balachong, only a method of how to prepare a dish using Balachong (I assume it is a shrimp paste).
A clue to the origin of Balachong is seen in the following 19th century description:
"Gnapee or Nga-pee is made of prawns, shrimps, or any cheap fish, pounded into a consistent mass, and frequently allowed to become partially putrid. It is known in commerce by the name of Balachong, and largely consumed as a condiment to rice in all the countries to the east of Bengal, including the southern part of China and the islands of the Eastern Archipelago. Its distribution gives rise to an extensive internal trade, and like the herrings and salt fish with the negro population of the West Indies, it forms to the natives a palatable addition to their ordinary food."
So it seems that Balachong (and similar spellings) is a relatively common trade or generic name for fermented shrimp or fish paste and also for Anglo-Indian dishes using this paste. Another early Anglo-Indian recipe for this dish is:
"AN INDIAN DISH, CALLED BALLACHONG (1845).—Take a pint of picked shrimps, a pint of sour apples finely chopped, mix and shake them in a stew-pan to dry a little over the fire. Take one pound of butter, two cloves of garlic, and one onion chopped very fine ; pepper and salt to taste, a spoonful of curry powder and Cayenne mixed. Fry the onion and garlic in the butter, and the other ingredients fry together. Put them whole into a jar and cover close. When wanted for use, fry a piece in small quantities dipped in butter."
Another 19th century source gives a definition of the traded ballachong:
"BALACHONG, a kind of cake formed of dried fish, pounded up with salt and spices, and then allowed to ferment freely. The best sort, or the red balachong, is made of shrimps. The black, or common sort, is made of other small fish. It is esteemed a great delicacy by the Malays and Chinese, with whom it forms an article of extensive commerce."
So the story of this dish is that fermented shrimp paste was a common trade item in the region and was used as a base for various other dishes, some of which were then named after the Malay origin trade name for this shrimp paste. In fact several forms of Ballachong are still made in Calcutta and is generally recognized as an Anglo-Indian dish. In addition, while a fermented shrimp paste was obtained as a trade item, local non-fermented versions are also made, the Anglo-Indian dishes could be either. Simple and neat.
Well actually the story is not quite that simple.
At the present time fermented shrimp paste is used extensively thought South-East Asia and is known by numerous different names depending on location and production method. In 19th century British sources by far the majority of references to Balachong or gnapee reference the product to Burma. In part this is likely to be due to the huge internal trade of this product in Burma, but also due to the fact that the British authorities were keen to control trade in Burma and attempted to tax this product. A typical 19th century reference in to ngapee:
"The greatest Burmese delicacy is ngapee — putrid shrimps, salted, beaten, and dried. No meal that a Burman makes would be complete without this ingredient. Large quantities are sent up the rivers, and the King of Ava admits it as a delicacy within the gilded portals of his palace."
To appreciate how extensive the internal Burmese trade in Gnapee was, it is worth knowing that in 1854-55 it is estimated that 13,500 tons of this product traded. Records of this product date back to the 12th century. Gnapee/nga-pi can be made of either fish or shrimp, the name means actually means "pressed [or ground] fish". So the Anglo-Indian dish is a result of East Indian trade with Burma and the British presence in Burma.
Actually, to complicate things even further, another dish of huge popularity in Burma is called "Balachaung", which is so popular that it seems almost to be a national dish. This link gives a typical modern recipe. As you can see it is a relish that is made from both dried shrimp and shrimp paste. Interestingly it seems to be a dish in transition between the Anglo-Indian Ballachong/Ballachow and fermented shrimp/fish paste condiments. Given the proximity of Calcutta to Burma, potentially the Calcutta Anglo-Indian dish is derived from this Burmese relish or less likely the Burmese dish derives from the Anglo-Indian dish.
Another complication in the origin of the Anglo-Indian dish is the presence of another great European trading power in India and SE-Asia - the Portuguese. Portugal's western Indian colony of Goa has many dishes which are specifically regional and reflect both Indian and Portuguese influences. One of these dishes is known as "Balchao". While this is essentially a sour shrimp relish (often used to flavor other dishes), there is so much variation in the recipes that it might be more useful to think of it as a "recipe family", rather then a specific dish. Many recipes suggest using fresh shrimp, equally it can be made with dried shrimp. It can be consumed when made or bottled for future use. Another former Portuguese colony, Macao, also has a similar recipe known as "balichao", although descriptions of this condiment sound more similar to a fermented fish sauce. There are also scatter references to similar dishes though out SE-Asia and even in Sri Lanka.
Obviously the Goan "Balchao" and the Burmese "Balachaung" are related both in name and in preparation to the Anglo-Indian Balichow/Balachong. But what exactly is this relationship? Is it linear with one origin in Burma or the former Portuguese colonies? Is there a more complicated relationship with multiple points of origin? While the former is more "neat" and makes a better story, I prefer the latter scenario as it is more likely to be the truth. If we consider the recipe for recipe for "Balichow" in "The Peoples Indian Cookery Book" (Calcutta, 1900), the name is essentially that of the Portuguese colonies, however the recipe actually suggest the use of fermented shrimp paste from Malaysia. Given that a whole bunch of similar "Bal-"sounding names were used in trade for fermented shrimp/fish paste as far back as the 17th century, deriving an origin based on the name of the dish alone is problematic. Even though it is likely that the origin of these names is rooted in a Malay dialect, it is also untrue to say that these dishes are Malay in origin. Equally, if we look at the way in which the dishes themselves, there is so much variation in technique, the manner in which they are consumed and how the are stored that this is also problematic.
Maybe the best option would be to change the scale of the analysis. Rather then looking at a huge geographic area over an extended period of time, perhaps it is better to look at the original set of Anglo-Indian recipes and simply say that these are derived from the Anglo-Indian community in Calcutta. Ultimately, I think that the real value of this exercise is not to produce a "just so story" with a simple, if unlikely point of origin, but to demonstrate the existence of a large family of inter-related dishes covering a large area of the world in multiple cultures over a significant amount of time. Maybe