Eating and reading

on sauce and ink

KECAP, n. This week I made a recipe that called for kecap manis, which is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Kecap manis is not readily available in the groceries of small-town Kentucky, where I am this week and where I grew up. So I had to look it up to make an approximate substitute. (The cookbook I was using suggested replacing it with coconut nectar, another product I was unlikely to find at Kroger. So on the internet’s advice, I used regular soy sauce and brown sugar, although I think real kecap manis has a much thicker texture and I could have used molasses).

This is what I was cooking, by the way—fried tofu and broccoli. Both dishes are from Unmi Abkin’s Curry & Kimchi. The sauce on the tofu is her take on General Tso’s, a dish that is as multicultural/American as ketchup.

I didn’t realize how to pronounce “kecap” at first. C is probably the trickiest letter in the Roman alphabet, although x is a troublemaker too, and really, not a single one is reliable. (Well, maybe m.) Anyway, things only came together for me when I saw that “kecap” is also sometimes spelled “ketjap.”

That looks a lot like “ketchup,” I thought.

Two sauces with almost the same name couldn’t be a coincidence. Like a totally self-centered jerk, my first thought was that maybe the English word “ketchup” had given rise to kecap/ketjap, but it’s the other way around!

It turns out “ketchup” is a little bit of an etymological mystery. The following explanation is now my preferred theory, but I speak zero of the original languages involved and am half a world away from my area of expertise, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Or a dash of kecap manis.

“Kecap” used to be the Malay word for fish sauce, though in Bahasa Indonesia it now just means “sauce.” In addition to kecap manis (soy-based; manis = “sweet”) in Indonesian cuisine, there’s kecap asin (soy-based; asin = “salty”) and kecap ikan (ikan = “fish”).

The original “kecap” fish sauce was already an international commodity before European colonists encountered it. The English first tasted it in present-day Malaysia and Singapore in the late 1600s. The sauce had come there via seafaring Chinese traders (or pirates) who’d been inspired by the fish sauces of Vietnam (nuoc mam) and Thailand (nam pla). The Chinese sailors, who came from the southern coastal region of Fujian, called their sauce “kôe-chiap” or “kê-chiap.”

The English colonists took the idea home and transformed it into a fish-and-mushroom sauce. Slate offers this recipe from 1742:

To Make KATCH-UP that will keep good Twenty Years.

Take a Gallon of strong stale Beer, one Pound of Anchovies wash’d and clean’d from the Guts, half an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Cloves, a quarter of an Ounce of Pepper, three large Races of Ginger, one Pound of Eschallots, and one Quart of flap Mushrooms well rubb’d and pick’d; boil all these over a slow Fire till it is half wasted, and strain it thro’ a Flannel Bag; let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle and stop it very close …

Mushrooms (or walnuts) gradually became the main ingredient in the sauce. Apparently you can still buy “mushroom ketchup” in the UK. Tomatoes don’t enter the picture until the early 1800s, and sugar becomes an ingredient in US iterations in the 1890s. That’s how we get modern-day ketchup, which you can find at a Kroger in small-town Kentucky.

This week in Capital-R Romance, I made progress in Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s contemporary Congolese novel set in a fictional version of Lubumbashi, Tram 83, but didn’t finish. I did come across this great line of dialogue, though. It’s spoken by one of the many sex workers in Tram 83’s titular nightclub:

Pour moi les préliminaires, c’est comme la démocratie. Si tu ne me caresses pas, j’appelle les Américains.

For me foreplay is like democracy. If you don’t caress me, I’m calling the Americans.

And speaking of caresses, in small-r romance, this week I read:

That Kind of Guy (demi het m/allo het f, both cis, contemporary) by Talia Hibbert. A hallmark of Talia Hibbert’s writing is complex main characters whose lives—physical and mental health, family and personal history, careers and living situations—are richly explored. That sounds like something you’d find in every novel, but Hibbert brings such warmth and specificity to it. For example, one of the main characters in this novel has POTS, a chronic health condition that causes her to faint or become lightheaded if she stands up too quickly, and you learn a lot about her from the ways it intersects with her life. I also love how Hibbert develops the main characters’ friendships and family relationships in addition to the romance, so you get a real sense of community. Like all her books, this is a joy to read. Content warnings: sex, an emotionally abusive parent, divorce, an ace-spectrum character has done self-harm in the form of having sex he didn’t want.

I Wanna Be Where You Are (m/f, both cis and het, young adult, contemporary) by Kristina Forest. I mentioned this book last week, since I bought it for a teen in my life. She gave it a rave review, so I picked it up from the library—see, Macmillan? I bought the book and I checked it out of the library—and read it myself. It’s wonderful. Totally engrossing. This book is also extra special because it’s harder than it should be to find contemporary fiction starring Black girls that isn’t about fighting against racism or some other big issue, or dealing with a family tragedy or the death of a friend. There’s nothing wrong with books about serious issues, of course, but the teen I gave this book to was already dealing with heavy stuff in her real life. I wanted to cheer her up, not make her cry or rage against injustice. Chloe and Eli, the main characters in this book, have loving, supportive families and are mostly concerned with how to follow their dreams after high school—and whether they’ll get caught and grounded for taking an unauthorized road trip. It’s adorable and so necessary. I recommend it to young adult and regular adult readers. Content warnings: a parent has died in a car accident, divorce.

Last week after I wrote about “calm up,” many of you shared words that small children in your lives have come up with, so here is a selection:

My friend Diane wrote, “I once told [my toddler] to behave, and he said, ‘I am being hǣve!’”

My mom told me that at around five or maybe six years old, I complained that my younger brother was “rumpeting around my room.”

And some excellent words from twitter:

And from the auteur of “calm up,” this insight:

I love it. I think we should all adopt this terminology.

This connection between eating and reading comes up often in articles about romance novels, which describe romance readers as “voracious” or as “devouring” books, since so many of us read avidly. Romance readers often find this metaphor insulting. The journalists who write the annual February 14th “look at what these freakish women are reading” articles don’t respect us. They don’t conceive of reading romance as anything intellectual or emotional; it’s a bodily process, and an animal, uncontrollable one at that. Nobody talks about dining or supping on romance novels. Nothing so civilized. It’s gluttony—and lust.

Even though I recognize the insult in the articles, I have an affection for the eating metaphor. Everything humans do, we do with our bodies. I like reading and I like eating and books are a kind of food to me.

And of course, there is this Mark Strand poem, “Eating Poetry.”

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

Last week we were getting drunk on poetry, this week we’re eating it. Word Suitcase endorses romping with joy in the bookish dark, but not licking any non-consenting librarians.

And speaking of art, food, consumption, and any small children you may have in your life, here’s a timely and timeless reminder from Sesame Street: don’t eat the pictures when you go to museums.

Have a good week!

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