Isinglass- A Christmas Tonic Westindian Style

Sea Moss. I buy my sea moss from a local Westindian man who processes it himself.

Sea Moss. I buy my sea moss from a local Westindian man who processes it himself.

Gum Arabic is a resin.

Gum Arabic is a resin.

Leaf gelatin.

Leaf gelatin.

Christmas should be a time of giving and good feeling even if we don’t always observe the traditional exchanging of gifts and decoration of our surroundings. These days, however- in Panama as well as elsewhere- folks are obsessed. They eat and drink (alcoholic beverages) to the point of unconsciousness usually making themselves sick from their incessant feasting and general Rumba. Making merry is taken to excessive levels in our world and the statistics for emergency room admissions on account of intoxications will testify to this.

Growing up in Panama my Westindian ancestors had a collection of remedies for keeping the body toned and revitalized whenever we would put it to the test by overindulging in all of this seasonal surfeiting. One of them was a tonic called Isinglass (some write it Icinglass). My grandmother Fanny Reid first introduced me to Isinglass as she prepared and drank it often herself. After a while she would offer it to me and, being receptive to her motherly attentions, I would gladly drink it. Apart from the tell tale taste of sea weed, its taste was pretty acceptable and I would observe how she prepared it.

Isinglass comes from the old British preparation of gelatin from the swim bladders of fish and later on from its commercial preparation from cow and pork bones and hooves. Today, with all the concerns for mad cow disease and the dietary requirements of vegetarians and vegans in the world, several vegetable substitutes for gelatin are now widely used.

My grandmother would send me to the Botica on the side street adjacent to Magnolia Building to purchase her principal ingredients for this concoction. She would say, “Juni, you go to the pharmacy and buy me some Isinglass, sea moss, and Gomorra. Take the money out me purse.” At first I would hesitate and ask her, “But, Mamí, Gomorra?” “You just tell him ‘Gomorra’ and he will know what you mean.”

The rather sullen owner of the tiny little drug store knew exactly what I was there for as soon as I’d step up to the counter and ask for these things. Without a word he would go and whip out a strange looking stringy mass of Isinglass (hard and brittle to the touch), a generous portion of sea moss and a goodly amount of “Gomorra,” wrap it up and off I’d go. It wouldn’t be until much later when I’d return to my beloved Panama as a grown man that I would discover what “Gomorra” really was.

In trying to collect the ingredients to make my own batch of Isinglass, people told me that I could only get those ingredients at Botica Javillo up in Santana and when I asked the pharmacist for Gomorra he knew exactly what I meant. He placed a small bag of Gum Arabic on the counter and it was only then that the mystery of “Gomorra” was cleared up. So much for my Westindian people’s sometimes inscrutable vernacular!

These days I buy the sea moss from a Westindian man who collects it himself up on the beach in Colon, cleans it, dries it, packages it and comes down to the 25 Street area to sell it. An industrious man, he told me he derives a living from selling this product.

For Christmas I’ve decided to share an Isinglass Recipe with my readers and bid you all a Merry and Blessed Christmas!

Isinglass – Icinglass- Westindian Style in Panama

1 to 1½ cups of dried sea moss (sea weed) preferably the stringy kind½ cup unflavored gelatin powder or 2 or 3 sheets of leaves of gelatin (pictured above)*Note: there are various non-animal gelatin products just Google around.2 tablespoons ground up Gum Arabic (Gomorra) soaked until dissolved. Soak the sea moss until it becomes reconstituted. Dissolve the gelatin in hot water. Run the sea moss through the food processor if you wish and mix with the other two ingredients. Cook the mixture for maybe 10 to 15 minutes and remove from the stove. Allow it to cool and then flavor it with cinnamon, nutmeg and add evaporated or whole milk to taste, or soy milk- whatever you prefer. Refrigerate until it is a bit thick and serve. Great taste and quite nutritious as a reconstituting tonic!

8 responses to “Isinglass- A Christmas Tonic Westindian Style

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton


    I will have to see if all that can be found in Russia! Some reason it may be difficult to find it all. 🙂

    I can't even find jello of any type or even plain gelatin…

    Have a great Christmas!

    From Kyle and Sveta

  2. Hi Kyle and Svet,

    It may be that with restrictions on beef imports and meat by products, gelatin may be considered a meat by product and is restricted in Russia. Try agar agar, which is vegetarian substitute and just as good.

    By the way, MERRY CHRISTMAS to both of you and have a prosperous New Year!


  3. Happy New Year to the writers of the Silver People's Chronicle! Would like to thank you for all the articles over the years. When I first came across this site I was so happy to see that someone had documented what I had been trying to explain about my heritage, and more. It has been very educational and inspirational, it's something to share with the younger generation since there is so much history that I didn't know.

    I was born in 1956, the most I knew; my grandfather came from Jamaica and helped build the canal, but I sure didn't have the knowledge of their life experience in Panama that the Silver People's Chronicle has provided!

    Thanks again and God Bless You!

  4. I am catching on my Holiday reading before February and I had saved this one because to read the words Isinglass and Sea Moss being so far away in time and geographically from home brings back like a breeze Panama and West Indian culture. In Paraiso and Rainbow City, the sellers voices would echo as they shouted seamoss'nisinglass and reverberate everywhere. To this day, I never knew what it was but assumed it was a male tonic for virility. You have now solved a mystery, but also brought a wind of memories

  5. “Isinglass- A Christmas Tonic Westindian Style |
    The Silver People Chronicle” was in fact a good blog post.

    However, if it possessed more pics it would definitely be quite possibly better.

    Take care -Ophelia

  6. This is a topic which is close to my heart… Best wishes!
    Where are your contact details though?

  7. Update on segregation……….European Slaves in The Islamic Empire.
    Posted on August 20, 2013
    There are key differences between the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Eastern Slave Trade (aka Arab/ Islamic Slave Trade). While the Atlantic Slave Trade focused on transporting Black Africans to the New World to provide domestic and industrial labour, the Eastern Slave Trade was not race based. Prophet Muhammad himself, during the course of inaugurating a tripartite paradigm of Islamic slavery via his military campaigns and raids against the citizens of Arabia, enslaved some of the Semitic peoples of the region. The prerequisite for being enslaved in Islam for domestic or industrial labour; sex slavery and concubinage; or chattel, is not based on race but on being a non-Muslim war captive. As the Islamic Empire expanded out of Arabia via North Africa and into Europe, war captives of all shades – brown, yellow, black and white – were relegated to slave status.

    Very little is known in mainstream circles, of how White slaves fared in the Islamic Empire, in spite of the fact that they very well existed in the hundreds of thousands and more. White Eunuchs were visible throughout the Empire; in sizeable numbers in Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. At the slave markets, the purchase price for White eunuchs fared differently from Black eunuchs. White sex slaves also priced differently than Black sex slaves.

    When Muslim scholars argue that Islam is not race-based, they are proven right by the doctrine of slavery in Islam – it knows not colour and recognises religion only. In the bookIslamic Jihad: A Legacy of Imperialism, Forced Conversion and Slavery, author M. A. Khan discusses the number and realities of Whites who fell prey to Islamic military conquests and raids, and ultimately ended up enslaved in the Islamic Empire as eunuchs, concubines and labourers. Below is an excerpt from Chapter VII of the book.

    ©2013. Secular African Society. All Rights Reserved.


    About slaves coming from Europe to the Muslim world, Lewis adds:

    In Europe there was also an important trade in slaves, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, and even Orthodox Christian… Central and East European slaves, generally known as Saqaliba (i.e. Slavs), were imported by three main routes: overland via France and Spain, from Eastern Europe via the Crimea, and by sea across the Mediterranean. They were mostly but not exclusively Slavs. Some were captured by Muslim naval raids on European coasts, particularly the Dalmatian. Most were supplied by European, especially Venetian, slave merchants, who delivered cargoes of them to the Muslim markets in Spain and North Africa. 867

    European slaves were in special demand for serving as concubines, in the royal army and palaces, and in establishments of the rich in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. According to Giles Milton’s White Gold and Robert Davis’ Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, since the 1530s, North African Muslim pirates raided European coastal towns and villages from Sicily to Cornwall as well as European ships for some three centuries and enslaved over one million Europeans (including many American seamen). British humanist author Christopher Hitchens queries on this enslavement: ‘How many know that perhaps 1.5 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa between 1530 and 1780? …what of the people of the town of Baltimore in Ireland, all carried off by ‘corsair’ raiders in a single night?’869

    The Barbary Muslim pirates kidnapped Europeans from ships in North Africa’s coastal waters (Barbary Coast). They also attacked and pillaged the Atlantic coastal fishing villages and town in Europe, enslaving the inhabitants. Villages and towns on the coast of Italy, Spain, Portugal and France were the hardest hit. Muslim slave-raiders also seized people as far afield as Britain, Ireland and Iceland.

    In 1544, the island of Ischia off Naples was ransacked, taking 4,000 inhabitants prisoners, while some 9,000 inhabitants of Lipari Island off the north coast of Sicily were enslaved.870 Turgut Reis, a Turkish pirate chief, ransacked the coastal settlements of Granada (Spain) in 1663 and carried away 4,000 people as slaves. In 1625, Barbary pirates captured the Lund Island in the Bristol Channel and planted the standard of Islam. From this base, they went ransacking and pillaging surrounding villages and towns, causing a stunning spectacle of mayhem, slaughter and plunder. According to Milton, ‘Day after day, they struck at unarmed fishing communities, seizing the inhabitants, and burning their homes. By the end of the dreadful summer of 1625, the mayor of Plymouth reckoned that 1,000 skiffs had been destroyed and similar number of villagers carried off into slavery.’871 Between 1609 and 1616, the Barbary pirates ‘captured a staggering 466 English trading ships.’

    Murad Rais, a European convert to Islam, became a leader of the Barbary pirates at the coastal Corsair town of Salé off Morocco. In 1627, he went on a pillaging and enslaving campaign to Iceland. After dropping anchor at Reykjavik, his forces ransacked the town and returned with 400 men, women and children and sold them in Algiers. In 1631, he made a voyage with a brigand of 200 pirates to the coast of Southern Ireland and ransacked and pillaged the village of Baltimore, carrying away 237 men, women and children to Algiers.872

    The barbaric slave-raiding activities of the Muslim pirates had a telling effect on Europe. France, England, and Spain lost thousands of ships, devastating to their sea-borne trade. Long stretches of the coast in Spain and Italy were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants until the nineteenth century. The finishing industry was virtually devastated.

    Paul Baepler’s White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives lists a collection of essays by nine American captives held in North Africa. According to his book, there were more than 20,000 white Christian slaves by 1620 in Algiers alone; their number swelled to more than 30,000 men and 2,000 women by the 1630s. There were a minimum of 25,000 white slaves at any time in Sultan Moulay Ismail’s palace, records Ahmed ez-Zayyani; Algiers maintained a population of 25,000 white slaves between 1550 and 1730, and their numbers could double at certain times. During the same period, Tunis and Tripoli each maintained a white slave population of about 7,500. The Barbary pirates enslaved some 5,000 Europeans annually over a period of nearly three centuries.873

    The most famous European Christian to serve as a slave in Barbary Muslim Africa was Miguel de Cervantes, the famous Spanish author of the Don Quixote epic. He was taken captive in 1575 by Barbary pirates and was later released upon payment of ransom.

    The Ottoman penetration into Europe in the 1350s and their capture of Constantinople later in 1453 opened new floodgates for slave-trade from the European front. In their last attempt to overrun Europe in 1683, the Ottoman army, although defeated, returned from the Gates of Vienna with 80,000 captives.874 An immense number of slaves flowed from the Crimea, the Balkans and the steppes of West Asia to Islamic markets. BD Davis laments that the ‘‘Tartars and other Black Sea peoples had sold millions of Ukrainians, Georgians, Circassians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Slavs and Turks,’’ which received little notice.875 Crimean Tatars enslaved and sold some 1,750,000 Ukrainians, Poles and Russian between 1468 and 1694.876 According to another estimate, between 1450 and 1700, the Crimean Tatars exported some 10,000 slaves, including some Circassians, annually—that is, some 2,500,000 slaves in all, to the Ottoman Empire.877 The Tatar slave-raiding Khans returned with 18,000 slaves from Poland (1463), 100,000 from Lvov (1498), 60,000 from South Russia (1515), 50,000–100,000 from Galicia (1516), 800,000 from Moscow (1521), 200,000 from South Russia (1555), 100,000 from Moscow (1571), 50,000 from Poland (1612), 60,000 from South Russia (1646), 100,000 from Poland (1648), 300,000 from Ukraine (1654), 400,000 from Valynia (1676) and thousands from Poland (1694). Besides these major catches, they made countless more Jihad raids during the same period, which yielded a few to tens of thousands of slaves.878 These figures of enslavement must be considered in the context that the population of the Tatar Khanate was only about 400,000 at the time.879

    For the complete references to the above excerpt, please refer to M. A. Khan’s book:Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Imperialism, Forced Conversion and Slavery. A free copy is

    • Carlos,
      Thanks for the brief history update on the Islamic brand of slavery and the slave trade. But, I ask, what specifically does your comment have to do with our topic in the Panama of colonial times?