Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Black Beetle Sauce.

I remember as a child growing up in the North of England in the 1950’s being told – and wholeheartedly believing – that the spaghetti beloved by Italians was actually worms. I understand that this was a common story perpetrated at the time. I do not know if the perpetrators were adults or other children, nor if it was done in jest or out of post-war jingoism, or simple monumental ignorance. How do these stories start?

Today I am going to give you one fine historical example of the process in action. I found it in Popular Errors Explained and Illustrated (John Timbs, London, 1841) – a book I am sure I am going to delve into again.

Sailors have a notion that Soy is made from cockroaches; and however absurd the belief may appear the reason for it is worthy of investigation. The Chinese at Canton have a large Soy manufactory and they are particularly solicitous to obtain cockroaches from ships; from which circumstances sailors immediately conclude that it is for the purpose of making Soy from them. But it is better established that cockroaches are used by the Chinese as bait in fishing. The infusion of cockroaches is also used in medicine; and Mr Webster, surgeon of H.M.S. Chanticleer, states that common salt and water saturated with the juices of the cockroach, has all the odour and some of the flavour and qualities, of Soy; so that the sailors notion after all may not be far from the truth.

This story must not have had wide currency outside of the maritime community, I wouldn’t think, because soy sauce was eagerly taken up by the British - certainly by the second half of the eighteenth century, who imported it from the East Indies. The British seem to have an ancestral love of salty spicy sauces, perhaps as a result of that long Roman occupation, and exposure to their favourite salty, fishy garum?

As evidence for this popularity, I remind you that soy sauce was one of the indispensible inclusions in Kitchener’s ‘Magazine of Taste’, which he explains in The Cook’s Oracle (1817). In addition, I note (cooks being no exception to the concept of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery) that the nineteenth century was rife with recipes for imitation Soy and Worcestershire sauces.

Here is a recipe using soy sauce to make another ‘catsup’, from the inimitable Eliza Acton.

Mix well by shaking them in a bottle a quarter pint of Indian soy, half a pint of Chili vinegar, half a pint of walnut catsup, and a pint and a half of the best mushroom catsup. These proportions make an excellent sauce either to mix with melted butter and to serve with fish, or to add to different kinds of gravy, but they can be varied or added to at pleasure.
Indian soy ¼ pint; Chili vinegar ½ pint ;walnut catsup ½ pint; mushroom catsup 1 ½ pint .
Obs: A pint of port wine a few eschalots and some thin strips of lemon rind will convert this into an admirable store sauce. Less soy would adapt it better to many tastes.
Modern Cookery in all its Branches (1845)

Quotation for the Day.
A well made sauce will make even an elephant or a grandfather palatable.
Grimod de la Reynière

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