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Masala Sauce

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1223418.  Fri Jan 27, 2017 5:05 pm Reply with quote

Dear Stephen fry and the QI team,

I watched a episode of QI on Friday 27th. Jan 2017. I heard Stephen say that the Masala curry sauce was thought to have been invented in Glasgow around 1966, Well I can tell you that this is wrong.

Before I get much older I would like to tell you an extraordinary story that will cast light on the origins of one of the UK's favourite dishes.

My Mother, Dorothy Lee was the daughter of a Black Watch Chef and although she was born in Inverness Scotland, spent the later part of her childhood in the shadow of the mountain Kanchenjunga Himal in Northern India, (the mountain actually is in Nepal). On returning to the UK she married my father who was also with the British Army and while on a posting to Hong Kong, both I and my younger sister were born. We returned to the UK from Hong Kong and my Father was de-mobilised but was retained by the British Army to take up an appointment in Nairobi in Kenya, during the Mou Mou and the transition to Kenya's independence. In order to understand this story you have to understand that things were different in those days and the normality of political correctness was not as prominent as it is today. The British and other European ex-pats (expatriates) tended to stick together as a tight community and we mixed readily with the Indian expatriates from India as a preference to the local Black people of Kenya, who were for the most part our employees in one form or another.

The year is 1963 or perhaps 1964. There was to be a biggish kind of “shin dig”, I was too young to take any notice as to what it was for, but it involved the British army, invited guests and the guest of honour who was to oversee the cuisine was none other than the late great Fanny Cradock. Fanny's number two, apart from Johnnie was my mother who was to help and advise Fanny on the kind of cuisine that was apparent in Nairobi in those days, bearing in mind the tastes of the British Army and the invited guests including some Indian guests. The British Army having a long History in India, of course was well acquainted with Indian cuisine.

Given the facts above, I hope I have set the scene with some accuracy. Fanny and my mother set about creating the menu for the event which included hot and spicy dishes with an “Indian Flavour” (curries etc.).

Concerned that some of the invited guests, indeed some dignitaries from the UK in Kenya to oversee the independence detail, would not take to the hot stuff, Fanny and my mother set about creating a not so hot curry dish and utilizing my mother's experience of cooking in India, spices and so forth, they created a mild curry sauce reddish brown in colour matching the colour of the “murum” sand/dirt that is used by the Masai tribes of Kenya, for body painting and dying their clothing. Because the sauce was a mild sauce and not full on curry hot they referred to it as a “Sleeping Curry” and because of the Masai colour they called it the “Sleeping Masai Curry”, translated into Swahili, the prominent native language of Kenya it became “Masai La La” sauce, La La is the Swahili word for sleep.

The Masai La La sauce was a great hit and even after Fanny left Kenya my mother would re-create the sauce and share its recipe with her friends which included many Indian people.

After Kenya's independence, much of the Indian population found things becoming very difficult for them in Kenya, mainly because they hadn't treated the local black Africans very well and they now found themselves on the other side of the stick. A mass migration of Indian folk immigrated to the UK as a result, having been given favourable immigration status. They bought with them the secretes of the Masai La La sauce, the name of which it time was corrupted to 'Masai La' Sauce and thence Masala Sauce.

So here we have the true story behind a true British Classic. It was invented not in India or the UK, or by Indian folk even, but in Kenya and the inventors were two English Ladies Fanny Cradock and Dorothy Lee.

Fanny in her generosity refused to take any credit for the dish, I guess in respect for my mother, their friendship and time they spent together in Kenya, or perhaps because she attached no importance to it. I don't know. My mother was similarly the same, it was just a bit of fun at the time.

Hoping that you can help put the record straight, and with the best regards,

Bob Lee.

1223430.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 4:55 am Reply with quote

Wow, that is quite a story! While I have no cause to doubt you, have you any proof/evidence to back it up?

1223431.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 5:07 am Reply with quote

Lovely story and I think it would be fantastic to have it on the show.
Excuse the "fact checking" thing. It's a habit in this place. You have probably seen how many people want to correct factual errors on the show, even small ones, so we have to verify things!

Spud McLaren
1223437.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 5:55 am Reply with quote

Yes indeed. The Hindi for spice seems to be चाट मसाला (chaat masaala) and for spices, मसाले (masaale), according to Google translate. I have some reservations about that, though:

    1. How far can one trust Google translate as regards accuracy?
    2. I can't seem to find out how old the Hindi term is - it isn't without the bounds of possibility that it acquired the term quite recently, therefore not precluding the source (no pun intended) outlined in the OP.
    3. Even if Google translate is accurate and the Hindi term is older than (say) 1960, there may still be an element of coincidence here.

Any Hindi etymologists amongst us?

Spud McLaren
1223439.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 6:04 am Reply with quote

Conversely, running sleep through the translator to Swahili gives usingizi. OK, then, let's try it backwards - la la in Swahili gives, err, la la in English.

What about lala (no space) in Swahili? According to Google, that is lying in English.

As I say, I have no way of knowing how accurate Google actually is on such matters. There may be dialect words that aren't in its lexicon, for example.

However, according to this well-known dictionary, the word masala has been known in use since around 1780.

Too many variables for a non-expert ...

1223448.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 7:53 am Reply with quote

Interesting about the Hindi word, however, if such a spice existed my mother would have almost certainly known about it. The choice of name for the sauce may well have been some kind of play on words corrupted for the event in Kenya. My mother is still alive but is a very old lady now. She lives in Washington in the USA, having re-married to Major John Braund of the USA forces who was the highest ranking officer first ashore to take the surrender of the Japanese forces in world war II. He had always kept the Japanese flag given to him as part of the initial surrender. After he died my mother donated the flag to the Washington state museum where it can be seen on display. Anyway I'll ask her about the Masaala spice when I next speak to her.
As for further proof it's difficult. Sadly, Fanny died on 27th. December 1994, so the only thing my mother has left is the signed cook books she gave her, thanking her for all the help and the wonderful time she had in Nairobi.

It is not unusual for words and sayings to be changed by different cultures to more familiar words in their own language. The Swahili word 'isofiti' (if that's how it's spelt), comes from English and it means 'it doesn't fit'. Similarly, the word Laika (as in Laika the first dog in space), is a Russian word meaning Angel and has similarities in Arabic and when it arrived with the Arab traders in East Africa the word became Malaika in Swahili. What I'm trying to say here is that it may well have been the presence of a spice called Masaala that was partly responsible for the corruption of the name of the sauce from Masai La La to Masai La (dropping the second 'La') and thence Masala, given the time frame.

1223451.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 8:09 am Reply with quote

In response to Spud McLaren above. Swahili is a big language and has differences all over East Africa. The Seventh most spoken language in the world, the last time I looked. The Word 'Tembo' is commonly used for Elephant and is credited for the word 'Jumbo' formulated by visitors to Africa in the old days cobbling together words like 'Jambo' (a greeting) and Tembo (the Elephant), to end up with a phrase 'Mumbo Jumbo' and the word Jumbo now becoming something that is very big like 'Jumbo Jet'. Yet in the old a proper Swahili Ndovu ( where the N is pronounced as an 'EN' so the word becomes 'en-dovu') is the word for Elephant. The dictionary doesn't exactly help; 'To To La La' (where To is pronounced Toe) means the child is sleeping (To To meaning Child, baby or Family which would include a man's wife). In Scotland you might hear someone say that they are going out their get their 'Messages', They are in fact going out to collect their shopping. Check the dictionary for Messages and see if shopping is mentioned anywhere.

Rgs. Bob

Last edited by Aerosputnik on Fri Feb 03, 2017 3:04 am; edited 1 time in total

Spud McLaren
1223453.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 8:15 am Reply with quote

Well, quite. I mentioned these points (although , obviously, not the specific examples) in my 2 posts above. I'm not trying to disprove your story, merely to say that sometimes things are more complex than they might first appear. And sometimes they aren't. Life can be very confusing.

1223454.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 8:27 am Reply with quote

Check this:-

Spud McLaren
1223456.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 8:45 am Reply with quote

Ah! That's more like it!

Edit: So the google translate wasn't exactly wrong, I've just realised, it just should have said "lying down".

1223459.  Sat Jan 28, 2017 9:17 am Reply with quote

Aerosputnik wrote:
Similarly, the word Laika (as in Laika the first dog in space), is a Russian word meaning Angel

No it isn't. It means like "woofer" or "barker".

Alexander Howard
1224034.  Wed Feb 01, 2017 8:54 am Reply with quote

I think what Stephen said on the show was not that Masala sauce was invented in Glasgow, but a particular dish, chicken masala.

I will leave expertise in Swahili, Hindi and Cookery to others...

1224140.  Wed Feb 01, 2017 2:28 pm Reply with quote

Wasn't it Chicken TIKKA Masala?

1224433.  Fri Feb 03, 2017 2:59 am Reply with quote

"Similarly, the word Laika (as in Laika the first dog in space), is a Russian word meaning Angel".

Once again it depends where you are in Russia, It's a big place. Not only that; all dogs are angels in disguise!

"When God had made the earth and sky,
The flowers and the trees,
He then made all the animals,
The fish, the birds and bees.

And when at last He'd finished,
Not one was quite the same,
God said, "I'll walk this earth of mine,
And give each one a name."

And so He travelled far and wide,
And everywhere He went,
A little creature followed Him,
Until its strength was spent.

When all were named upon the earth,
And in the sky and sea,
The little creature said, "Dear Lord,
There's not one left for me."

Kindly the Father said to him,
"I've left you to the end,
I've turned my own name back to front,
And call you DOG, my friend."

Author Unknown


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