Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Odoric on Sago

      Last week I wrote a post about sago (Metroxylon sagu), one of the most important tree crops in Indonesia, especially in Borneo, parts of Sumatra, and the east (including New Guinea). It was considered a 'marvel' by Rustichello da Pisa, although we can't know Marco Polo's true opinion of it (Rustichello had a tendency towards exaggeration).
        Sago was also described by Odoric of Pordenone, a Franciscan monk who left Italy to proselytise in Asia in the early fourteenth century. Odoric was writing only a few decades after Rustichello's account of Polo's travels became popular across Europe, and some of the things he relates are similar to (and perhaps partly inspired by) Polo's stories, but in general the work is considered authentic and reliable. He wasn't copying because he had nothing else to say; he just saw similar things.

      Odoric seems to have been a fairly simple man with a relatively limited education, and his Latin was apparently not as polished as you'd hope. His book, the Relatio, published in 1330, was soon translated into several other languages and despite the poorly-composed Latin of the original was very influential. It was apparently especially influential in England, and John Mandeville - who claims to have been born in England, although a) he probably wasn't real and b) the hoaxer was probably French - was certainly inspired by Odoric's account.
Odoric is traditionally depicted with a forked beard after an Austrian description of him, as in this Old French version of Odoric's travels in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
       There's a digitised British Library manuscript of an Old French version of the Relatio, and it dates to 1331 (the year of Odoric's death), so it's almost exactly contemporaneous with Odoric's original. I haven't finished copying it yet (not because of length - the script is particularly tricky if you're new to Old French, as [u] and [n] appear the same, and so do [c] and [t]), and I'm not too interested in delving into the Latin, so let's buck the trend I established last week and stick to an English translation.

         The translation I'm using in Henry Yule's, from Cathay and the Way Thither (1866), a kind of Victorian version of Hakluyt for early accounts of Asia. His translation of Odoric's Relatio was re-published in 2001 by Eerdmans Publishing with a detailed introduction by Paolo Chiesa, and this is the edition I've got.

        Describing a place named Thalamasyn or Panten, which 'could have been intended as Borneo, or the peninsula of Malacca' (Yule), Odoric says:
       Here be found trees that produce flour, and some that produce honey, others that produce wine, and others a poison the most deadly that existeth in the world. [...] But, as for the trees that produce flour, 'tis after this fashion. These are thick, but not of any great height; they are cut into with an axe round about the foot of the stem, so that a certain liquor flows from them resembling size [?]. Now this is put into a bag made of leaves, and put for fifteen days in the sun; and after that space of time a flour is found to have formed from the liquor. This they steep for two days in sea-water, and then wash it with fresh water. And the result is the best paste in the world, from which they make whatever they choose, cakes of sorts and excellent bread, of which I, Friar Odoric, have eaten: for all these things have I seen with mine own eyes. And this kind of bread is white outside, but inside it is somewhat blackish. (p.108)
         This account seems to have some errors - you don't tend to leave sago for two weeks in the sun, nor do you need to steep it for days in sea-water - and I'd suggest that while Odoric probably did witness the processing of sago, he didn't stay for a long time and eat sago on a daily basis, as Polo claims to have done in Sumatra. His description of what sago looks like is accurate, too, although again I have to disagree with these medieval commentators about the gastronomic properties of the stuff.
Sago Palms in flower, with a glimpse of the river at Sarawak, Borneo
Sago palms in flower, Borneo. h/t Kew Gardens Marianne North Online Gallery.
        Sago is eaten for two good reasons, neither of which involves flavour: one is that the land might not be good for growing anything else, and the other is that processing sago takes little time out of your day. Sago will grow in several kinds of tropical swamp which would otherwise be useless to humans, and swamp (fed by rivers or rainwater) is dominant in large parts of lowland New Guinea, Borneo, and elsewhere in Indonesia. (It is the drained peat swamps, by the way, that are burning most in the forest fires this year. #MelawanAsap) That makes sago a particularly useful food for people in wet lowlands without the technology or labour to drain the soil.

      Sago is often referred to as the least energy-intensive staple food on Earth, which it could very well be. And while sago is almost pure carbohydrate, with very little protein and no fat, it can be converted into protein and fat (as I mentioned before) by felling a sago palm and allowing it to be colonised by red palm weevils. If you eat sago and palm weevil larvae in addition to plants grown in a garden, nuts and fruits from wild trees (candlenuts, Canarium ovatum, etc), fish from the seas and rivers, and game, then you'll probably have a more balanced diet with less energy expended than if you lived on rice or maize. It's quite amazing that simply by scooping out and mashing the pith of a tree you can feed your family, but there we are.

       In other news, so-called 'sago grubs' - the red palm weevil larvae - have been declared haram for Bornean Muslims (Borneo Post Online, Feb. 2015). Disaster!

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