A few days ago I read a blog post on Le Minh Khai’s great Southeast Asian history blog on Worcestershire Sauce adverts in 1930s Siam, and the Don Draper-esq mental acrobatics involved in selling this quintessentially English condiment to Thais by telling them that Americans liked it. Then today, thanks to Thant Myint-U’s facebook page, I saw this advert for Heinz Mandalay Sauce.
What surprised me about this was that the British in Burma were very disparaging about the most popular Burmese condiment, gnapee. It was described in one book, in 1900, as ‘a decoction of rotten fish pounded with chillies’, and in another, from 1878, as ‘the rankest filth’ whose production in fishing villages rendered them ‘perfectly unbearable to a European.’ All this was no doubt a way of portraying Burma as a strange and backward place. And yet, back in Britain in 1907 when the new sauce was launched with a considerable marketing campaign behind it, the association with Burma was intended to be appetizing.
So, when someone in Britain reached over the table to dollop some Mandalay Sauce on their Welsh rarebit (as the ad suggested), what were they expecting? Not something exotic in the sense of something alien and different. Instead, I think they were after something familiarly exotic. Something safely within their cultural expectations. Perhaps what Rudyard Kipling described in his poem Mandalay, ‘spicy garlic smells’. I think that Edwardians didn’t eat Mandalay Sauce to get a taste of Burma, they ate it for a taste of empire.