Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Bagel, Baklava and Bag-leb


I suppose this to be the original bagel,
even if in Turkish it’s called simit.

I won’t waste breath apologizing for the frontispiece. Still, I wish I hadn’t put it up there. It’s making me drool... crunchy, salty yet soft inside, and I can’t have one if only because of the gluten. This is, in case you don’t recognize it, a Turkish-style bagel called simit. You probably won’t find them among the items called bagels in your local convenience store. You might have to ask.

You could have already guessed what we’re aiming for when you first glanced at the title of today’s blog, so I’ll keep it short. A bagel is not a baklava, but could share some etymological roots, it seems to me. Could this also be true of the Tibetan food term bag-leb?

To begin with, as you may know there are several culinary invention myths associated with the Turkish siege of Vienna. Let’s skip over the milk-coffee, the coffee-house, and the croissant — the croissant is supposedly based on the Turkish/Islamic crescent — and go straight to the matters that interest us right now, the bagel and baklava.  It is usual to find a Germanic root meaning 'round' behind bagel, or just to assume the Yiddish origins of the word, an automatic assumption (likely to be accepted without investigation) just because it is so widely regarded as a Jewish food. But legend says it was invented by a Viennese baker to commemorate victory over the Turkish forces, based on the shape of the stirrups of the Polish cavalry. I’m already confused about what counts as real history or not, and in danger of making matters worse, but I believe the bread item itself, or should I say items, were of Turkish origins, the naming based in confusing which of the newly introduced doughy items was which. Tell me if I’m wrong.

Baklava you must know is made of super-thin pastry layers and filled with nuts and honey. It has a clear Turkish name, first borrowed into European languages in the mid-17th century.  But just remember what a huge territory was ruled by the Ottomans then and since and you will know where to find the places where baklava is well known as part of the national cuisine. They have different styles of making them, of course, and tend to pronounce it with an accent on a different syllable. I like to say it with an initial accent. But if the Ottomans donated it to the Austrians at that point, there is still no telling how much history was already behind it. Most think it is quite ancient, guessing it is Roman or even Babylonian, it is difficult to find agreement.

There are those who argue that the word, if not the sticky sweet itself, goes back to the time when Turkic speakers neighbored Mongolian speakers in the Orkhon River valley of Mongolia, far before the Turkish migrations. I haven’t found any sense of consensus on this.

Then, during the long centuries of emigration and expansion into Asia Minor, the Turkish people absorbed a tremendous number of words from neighboring languages, particularly Arabic and Persian, so much so that Ottoman Turkish got complicated. So it might not be possible to be sure of the word’s ultimate origins. I know I can’t tell you, even if I’m working on expanding my Turkish vocabulary again these days.

So now that we’ve managed to reach so little certainty on those first two words, let’s see what we can do with the third, the common Tibetan word bag-leb for ‘bread’.

Some people think, mistakenly as we will see in a moment, that bag-le-ba is just another spelling (perhaps the more correct spelling?) for Tibetan bag-leb.

A TBRC search of bag-le-ba reveals that in its 6 occurrences it is 5 times used as a regional or country name with its own peculiar script (or is it the script only that has the name?).  In one instance only is it a type of cloth (perhaps a cloth named after the place?). To be safe, I tried searching for bag-le-pa, and the 4 occurrences there point to it being a fabric. And the most likely solution to this, too, is to see it as meaning Pahlava.*

(*There are some country lists contained in Tibetan translations of scriptures where Pahlava appears in the forms Pa-hu-pa and Ba-hu-ba, both of these I think being based on misreadings of a more exact transcription that also occurs: Pa-hla-ba.) 

But, and this seems like a large but, in those cases where a fabric is concerned, it is possible these are all references to cloth made from bark, and this draws us into an Indic/Sanskritic etymology for bag-le-ba that likely has no connection to Pahlava.

Paul Pelliot, in his legendary Notes on Marco Polo, suggests it may be explained by a Prakrit form similar to Bengali bāklā, 'bark.'  The Sanskrit form is valkala. Emeneau wrote a piece on bark clothing, so you can read about that for yourself in case you have trouble believing in it.

In short, we can now forget about bag-le-ba. When you encounter this spelling it never means bread.

So now that we have eliminated this touch of confusion with the Persian realm and its script as well as cloth made of bark, we can settle down to the word bag-leb. Bag-leb is, as we said, the quotidian Tibetan word today for bread. It may be true what Laufer says, I cannot eliminate the possibility that it’s a two-word expression meaning flatbread. Still, I think it could well be another example of what I call a ”Tibetanization,” a borrowing that slowly and unconsciously naturalizes the foreign word by spelling it in a form that lends itself to a Tibetan meaning. And this is especially likely in multisyllabic words in my experience. See our earlier blog about Turkish and Mongolian loans in Tibetan.

Indeed, it is the case that as far as there is such a thing as traditional Central Tibetan bread,* it would to be in the form of approximately three inches in diameter, & maybe 3/4" high, rounds, more along the lines of a thick pancake or flattened roll than a loaf of bread, and usually made with brown wheat flour. In my experience the better ones always were.

(*Not everyone will appreciate the note of skepticism, but I have yet to run into a bona fide pre-20th-century usage of the word bag-leb, and all my searches for early instances have been in vain. You can go to TBRC and try searching for it yourself. But wait,  I spoke too soon. I do seem to find one usage in a medical work preserved for us in the Tanjur written by an Indian physician Raghunātha (Ra-gu-nā-tha/ར་གུ་ནཱ་ཐ་who visited Tibet sometime after 1656. This is significant! I do wonder if the Indian writer intended an Indian flatbread, roti or chapati or the like, when he used the word. It seems to be difficult to find evidence for these Indian breads in pre-Mughal literature.)

So finally, I ought to be ashamed of myself. After all, I’ve invited you over to visit from a great distance for a much-kneaded discussion over a cup of tea only to offer you an empty, or very nearly empty, plate of answers. So now it’s your turn. Tell me what makes sense to you.

Testimonies of some highly reputed scholars of past generations

M.B. Emeneau, “Barkcloth in India—Sanskrit Valkala,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 82, no. 2 (April 1962), pp. 167-170. I believe this is the single best discussion on this important topic, in case you’re curious as I think you are. Surely you are thinking, Is it comfortable? Can it breathe?

Berthold Laufer, “Loan-Words in Tibetan,” T'oung Pao, vol. 17, no. 1 (1916), pp. 403-552, at p. 532, footnote 1:  

The Tibetan word pa-le (“bread”), however, which Dalgado (l.c. p. 120) derived from Bell’s Manual of Colloquial Tibetan and with an interrogation-mark placed among the derivatives from Portuguese pão does not belong to the Romance languages. It is written bag-leb, both elements being genuine Tibetan words, bag meaning “flour, pap, porridge” and leb, “flat.”

Paul Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo, vol. 1, p. 465: shows once more that the translators of the Mahāvyutpatti from Tibetan into Chinese often adopted arbitrary interpretations : hua-mien, ,,cotton”, is given as a translation of Skr. vakkali, Tib. bag-le-ba. But the would-be Skr. vakkali can be nothing else than a Prākrit form of Skr. valkala, ,,bark garment” (cf. Pali vakkala and vakkali), and Tib. bag-le-ba seems to be an adjectival form of bag-le, itself based on a Prākrit form similar to Beng. bāklā, ,,bark” (on which cf. J. Bloch, La formation de la langue marathe, 404; but bag-le-ba may have been contaminated by Bag-le-pa or Bag-le-ba, ,,of Balkh”).  

NOTE of mine: just a comment on those last words, I think Pelliot introduced an unnecessary confusion with Balkh. Balkh is represented in Tibetan sources in the forms Bag-la and Sbal-kha. Heed the metathesis, it happens, especially when liquids are involved.

On the web

For a discussion on the bagel, look here. Search for yourself and find a lot more. I regret that I didn’t read this book before posting my nonsense: The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, by Maria Belinska. You can see some of it at Googlebooks if you look for it.

For a recipe with clear directions for making bag-leb (བག་ལེབ་), go to this page at Yolangdu website. You should at the very least go there for its photograph of what ordinary Central Tibetan bread looks like. Yolangdu is a commercial site in the sense that they offer travel services as well as a cookbook that can be purchased. I am not advertising their paid services — this is a non-commercial blog — just linking this particular page with its recipe generously offered to the world without any price attached.

For a trip around the world showing the many forms that bread can take, I think this page is the greatest: It has photos of every type mentioned in this blog, including Tibetan baleb and Turkish simit.

Some books about Tibetan food

Rinjing Dorje (Rig-’dzin-rdo-rje), Food in Tibetan Life, with illustrations by the author, Prospect Books (London 1985). 

Not just useful for its recipes, this has impressive cultural information on such matters as table manners, joking and swearing. So I recommend reading it even if you don’t like food. My older brother once borrowed the book, and swore that he did his best to follow its directions for making Tibetan beer and nearly died when he tried it, perhaps because he took seriously the suggestion that eagle shit and aconite might be used in the yeast starter. But my dear brother, rest his soul, always had a flair for the dramatic, knew how to embroider his travel stories to ensure maximum impact. I never had that useful ability myself.

Bod-kyi Nyer-mkho'i Zas-rigs Tshig-mdzod (“Tibetan Traditional Food and Drink Dictionary”), Kokonor People's Printing Press (Xining 2000). 

Perhaps you can view it here (!rid=W20183). The brief introduction and postscript can be read in English. Each entry gives definitions in Tibetan, Chinese and English, although it is often the case that the Tibetan definitions are much longer and more detailed.  Notice that the late famous Namkhai Norbu was involved in the making of this reference work, but his name is given as Mr. Na Ka Nuo Bu, “the famous Tibetan scholar of Italian Oriental University.” The entry for bag-leb defines it as a name for flat go-re, which is interesting, even if the English translates with the technically incorrect “Baked bread.” Looking at the entry for go-re, it says it is the general word for any kind of bread, and then continues with 3 pages of entries for different types. I think the basic meaning of go-re is simply round, with extended meaning of completeness, while in the kitchen context the best translation might be bun.

Bod Zas Bdud-rtsi’i Bum-pa (‘The Vase of Ambrosia that is Tibetan Food’), Tibet People’s Printing Press (Lhasa 1993). 

Perhaps you can view it here (!rid=W4CZ309050). I wouldn’t much recommend this recipe book for most people. There is hardly anything in it for me since I’ve reverted to the vegetarianism of my younger years. Well, there is one very simple recipe for honey bread (sbrang thud) that is sounding good, although I think I’ll make it with teff. You know, I once enjoyed fresh croissants from the French Bakery in Lhasa, proving true that line of a song, “It’s a whole world after all!”

And a final note for myself (July 29, 2021)

I ought to think more about one occurrence of a region called Bag-le. This is in the discussion of earthquakes found in the omens text by Garga (Derge Tanjur, Toh. no. 4321).  It is mentioned just before Persia, and seems to be described as located in Tokharia (the western one no doubt, not the eastern). It’s part of a longer list of countries, and looks like this with country names turned red:  tho gar gyi yul bag le dang  /    bar sig [~par sig] gi yul dang  /... That means that Bag-le probably means Balkh (Skt. Bāhlika), so I should go back and apologize to Pelliot for doubting him.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please write what you think. But please think about what you write. What's not accepted here? No ads, no links to ads, no back-links to commercial pages, no libel against 3rd parties. These comments won't go up, so no need to even try. What's accepted? Everything else, even 1st- & 2nd-person libel, if you think they have it coming.

Follow me on