Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mary Chung's

I have been eating at Mary Chung's restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge for many years. Before the present 464 Mass Ave., across the street at 447. Before that, there was Colleen's at 792-794 Main St. (where Royal East is now) and Joyce Chen's Small Eating Place at 302 Mass Ave. (where Thailand Café is now). Chinese food is a well-established MIT tradition, as laid out in Steven Levy's Hackers (it has an index entry). Though, in keeping with the premise of his book, Levy sets up the associated study of restaurant Chinese as arcana rather than culture and blows the intellectual curiosity fueling it all out of proportion. (I appreciate that readers of this blog are essentially pre-selected for believing that an interest in the language behind one's food is reasonable, if not required.)

Learning some Chinese from / for menus is hardly restricted to LISP programmers. James D. McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters is roughly half reproduced menus and half dictionary with his own character indexing system. Ping-gam Go's Understanding Chinese Characters by their Ancestral Forms has glossy color photos of San Francisco's Chinatown and accompanying text to teach how to read them. Locally, the Mei Wah website has photos from around Boston, particularly Chinatown, again with explanations.

By their nature, menus do not have much grammar. No matter what the language: a complicated French dish might have a number of past participles and a few prepositions, but it does not narrate how the chef prepares it. So it is primarily a matter of learning some Chinese food words and the writing system used to present them. Which is why the titles emphasize Chinese characters.

These days we go there most Friday evenings, often for takeout. And often get the same dishes. Namely,

  • Refreshing Bean Sprouts — 涼拌豆芽 liang2ban4 dou4ya2.
  • Dun Dun Noodles — 擔擔麵 dan4dan4 mian4.
  • Ma Paw Tou Fu — 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2 dou4fu3.

The entrées are made vegetarian, obviously.

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No single definition of 'word' works for all uses; there are whole books on the subject. But if taken to mean dictionary headword, that is, something that needs to be defined separately, then lots of Chinese words are made up of more than one character. The meaning of the word can be derived to varying degrees from the characters, just like etymologies is any other language. Most Chinese characters have two parts: a radical, which contributes a meaning in the sense of some kind of semantic category; and a phonetic part, which is related to a character that at one time sounded somewhat like the target. Chinese lexicography distinguishes between character dictionaries (字典 zi4dian3) and word dictionaries (辭典 ci2dian3).

Refreshing Bean Sprouts 涼拌豆芽 (Simplified: 凉拌豆芽) liang2ban4 dou4ya2 is bean sprouts with hot oil, vinegar and soy sauce. Liangban is cold vegetables with dressing, so roughly 'salad' (McCawley L3b.9b). zdic.net is a fairly comprehensive online dictionary. It has the classic Kangxi dictionary, which is the basis for radical classification, in Unicode form (scanned images can be found at kangxizidian.com). In its main dictionary, it includes English for each definition. These are somewhere between translations and glosses and include occasional solecisms, but they are still an aid to quicker navigation if one is not entirely fluent in Chinese. The entry for contains "凉拌 liángbàn [dress cold vegetable in sauce] ..." (with the fuller Chinese definition — click on the 详细解释 tab).  This bilingual cookbook has about a half-dozen such recipes, including 凉拌秋葵 liang2ban4 qui1kui2 Cold Dressed Okra.

zhongwen.com is a Chinese-English dictionary with the added feature that it includes traditional Chinese character etymologies. These aim to explain why a particular radical and phonetic were chosen and to break down complex characters into smaller pieces with some kind of semantic justification. Sometimes these analyses correspond to the actual history of the character and sometimes they do not. Thus they have aspects of each of true etymologies, folk etymologies, and mnemonics. So, one finds that 涼 liang2 'cool(ing)' is like 水 shui3 'water' and 京 jing1 'hills' (the same jing as in 北京 Beijing). Or that 芽 ya2 'sprouts' are 艸 cao3 'plants' that sprout out like 牙 ya2 'teeth'. The simplified 凉 liang2 uses the 'ice' radical instead of the 'water' one. The same data is available in book form. 拌 ban4 is 'mix' and 豆 dou4 is 'bean'.

Dun Dun Noodles 擔擔麵 (Simplified: 担担面) dan4dan4 mian4 is spicy sauce on noodles, as explained by the Dan Dan Noodles Wikipedia page (and McCawley L3a.6b). The article is still a stub and says, "delicios" in the middle of it without any context.

麵 mian4 is 'noodles'. This is the mein in Lo Mein (撈麵  lao1 mian4) and Chow Mein (炒麵 chao3 mian4). The simplified form 面 is the phonetic part of the traditional character. It was already a character in its own right, meaning 'face'. There are a (relatively) small number of characters where the simplified character is not just a simpler way of drawing it but rather a merging of two characters by eliminating the more complicated one and writing both the same way.

The brief Wikipedia article does explain that Dan-Dan Noodles are named after the way vendors would carry them for sale on the street. And Google does find a few places that refer to the dish as "Carrying Pole Noodles". Google Image search does not find any such vendors but here is a blog entry with someone carrying two large baskets in such an arrangement and here is a travelogue showing an elderly gentleman carrying firewood. The pole itself is 扁擔 bian3dan1 (or bian3dan0). The pole and burden considered together is 擔子 dan4zi0. The character 擔 is used to write the verb dan1 'carry; bear' with one tone and the closely related noun dan4 'burden' with another. Google quickly finds that 擔擔子 dan1  dan4zi0 is used to translate שְׂאֵת מַשָּׂא śə’ēṯ maśśā’  'bear a burden' in the last verse of Jeremiah 17 (don't do it on the Sabbath or else); the two Hebrew words are etymologically related, just like the two English and the two Chinese. The noodle dish is dan4dan4 or dan4dan0, with the noun duplicated. zdic says that vendors in Chengdu (成都 cheng2du1), Chungking (重庆 chong2qing4), etc. carried poles called 擔 dan4 to sell such noodles, hence the name.

The text of the first photo says that the man is carrying 35 kg in each basket, the second photo that the man is carrying 百斤 bai3 jin1 '100 catties'. In fact, 擔 dan4 is a unit of weight, usually defined in Chinese-English dictionaries as picul. A picul is 100 catties. Picul and catty are among the English words that come from Malay (fuller article requiring JSTOR access). Originally a picul is the amount one man can carry; the Malay word pikul means to carry a burden and the burden itself. So it serves the same gross estimation purpose as English hundredweight or French quintal (a word that had to do a bit of traveling to get where it did: < Medieval Latin quintale < Arabic قنطار qinṭār < Syriac? < Late Greek κεντηνάριον < Late Latin centenarium). As things were codified, a picul in Hong Kong was defined as exactly 133⅓ pounds avoirdupois, or around 60 kilos; the younger man is carrying more than average. The Chinese word is not unknown in English, as the Mandarin tan using Wade-Giles transcription or Cantonese tam. The first sense for Tan, n. in Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) is See Picul. It is still in Webster's Third New International, now the fourth tan sense. And the OED as the sixth tan sense, with the 1911 Britannica as the first citation. That seems worthy of restating in factoid form:
☛ The tan in Tan-Tan (Dan-Dan) Noodles is in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary and has been for almost a hundred years.

Interestingly enough, an older Mary Chung's menu used simplified characters for dan but not mian, with 担担麵. Relatively recent additions to the menu include Dun Dun sauce on fried tofu or bean sprouts, 旦旦豆腐 dan4dan4 dou4fu3 and 旦旦豆芽 dan4dan4 dou4ya2, written that way using the character 旦 dan4 'dawn', which is used as the phonetic for the simplified form 担. 旦旦  dan4dan4 means 'daily', but I do not think that is actually the intention. Probably it is a phonetic spelling to indicate that this is not really a Dan-Dan dish but something new being given that name. So, “Dan-Dan” Bean Curd / Sprouts.

Ma Paw Tou Fu 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2 dou4fu3 is bean curd with a sauce of hot peppers and Szechwan peppercorn, as kind of explained by the Mapo Tofu Wikipedia page (and McCawley E3a.8). The name appears to literally mean 'Pock-marked Grandma's Bean Curd' and names along those lines are seen on menus.

豆 dou4 'bean' is the same in 豆芽 dou4ya2 'bean sprout' and 豆腐  dou4fu3 'bean curd'. But it is also a kind of ritual vessel. Here is a picture of one. That is what the character is a drawing of, as can be seen on the Character Etymology site. It is also possible to see these true character etymologies using Wieger's Chinese Characters, one of those great Dover reprints, or Karlgren's more authoritative Grammata Serica Recensa. These each have ways of looking up characters, of course. As an alternative when starting online, GSR can be indexed by looking at the kGSR field of the Unihan entry and Wieger by using Gaoling, which is Wieger online without the pictures. (STEDT is developing a GSRE — as in Electronica — which is supposed to have a public interface someday.)

The base meaning of 腐 fu3 is 'rotten'. 婆 po2 is 'old woman; grandmother'. This latter character sometimes occurs with other phonetic parts. Chineselanguage.org's CCDICT has comprehensive character indices. Its page gives 㜑 along with a couple others. (It also has tantalizing non-public links to Hanyu Dazidian 漢語大字典 and Zhongwen Dacidian 中文大辭典, very large dictionaries of each of the types.)

The English Wikipedia explanation of the dish's name is that an unnamed woman with leprosy lived outside Chengdu and prepared this wonderful dish from her meager provisions and gained fame when everyone loved it. It notes the potential confusion between the characters for 'leprous' and 'numb', along with the odd phrase "Pork-Marked Old man-Lady." The article has some commentary inserted at the bottom like disconnected footnotes suggesting that she was pock-marked rather than leprous. The two characters are U+9EBB and U+75F2. The former means 'hemp; flax' and the latter 'leprosy'. The latter uses the former as the phonetic part together with radical 104 疒 chuan2 'sickness', but the two parts to not lend themselves to combining easily, so the result is like an overlay. From the histories of and , it can also be seen that the hemp drying in the 广 yan3 'barn' did not originally look like 林 lin2 'forest' (it is 𣏟 pai4 'fibers' — Windows users can get this extended character to display by installing sursung.ttf, the Chinese Extended Font in the Office 2003 Proofing Tools), the phonetic part of 痳 lin2 'gonorrhea'. Dictionaries seem to spread various other senses, such as 'numb' and 'pock-marked' between the two. Cannabinoids can be anesthetics; pock marks look somewhat like hemp seeds (both are 麻子 ma2zi0); hemp and flax are variegated; leprosy is characterized by numbness; it is also a skin condition. The confusion is furthered or eliminated, depending on how you look at it, by using 麻 as the simplified form for 痲. In any case, it seems that 'numbing' and 'pock-marked' are both plausible. 麻 is also the ma in 麻黄 ma2huang2 'yellow hemp' ephedra, which filled up inboxes for a time with its weight loss spam; 麻將 ma2jiang4 'spotted general' mahjongg (per AHD: general is a piece in Chinese Chess; other dictionaries claim "a trademark" and "sparrow"  — this FAQ allows the story to be pieced together: the Chinese name is 麻雀 ma2que4 'sparrow'; when it was introduced to America in 1920 it was trademarked as “Mah-Jongg”; that name has spread even back to China, where a somewhat plausible character was chosen — I've gone with 'spotted' because it fits so nicely with pockmarked); and even 麻薩諸塞 ma2sa4zhu1sai1 Massachusetts (e.g. this State document). Again, in factoid form:
☛ The mah in Mah Paw (Mapo) Bean Curd is in even moderate size English dictionaries.

The somewhat longer Chinese Wikipedia page gives a story with more specific origins. In the first year of the Tongzhi Emperor (同治帝 tong2zhi4 di4) of the Qing dynasty (1862), in a northern suburb of Chengdu, Wanfu Bridge (万福桥 wan4fu4 qiao2), was a restaurant owner named Senfu Chen (陈森富 chen2 sen1fu4) whose wife's maiden name was Liu (刘 liu2). Mrs. Chen's face was pock-marked, so people called her “Pock-marked Grandma Chen.” She invented a way of cooking bean curd, called “Pock-marked Grandma Chen's Bean Curd.” So they renamed their restaurant “Pock-marked Grandma Chen's Bean Curd Restaurant” (陈麻婆豆腐店 chen2  ma2po2 dou4fu3 dian4). The restaurant in question even has a web page, giving its story in Chinese, English and Japanese and showing its line of ready-made food products. Note that it uses the rarer 㜑 po2 mentioned above. Its history gives a few more details. Mr. Chen is here named Chunfu (春富 chun1fu4), he dies early and his wife takes over, and the original name of the restaurant is “Chen's Thriving Restaurant” (陈兴盛饭铺 chen2 xing1sheng4 fan4pu4). The restaurant succeeds thanks to travelers over the newly widened bridge. Porters would pay for their meals with cooking oil. There is even a poem, but I am not up to translating poetry right now. Similar versions of the story are given on English language travel sites for Chengdu; for instance, Cuisines in Chengdu (check out the animation in the banner), where it says the restaurant was established in 1842. This bilingual book has a chapter “How Chinese Dishes Were Named” (online here) with much the same story, except that now it is the Happiness (福 fu4) Bridge instead of Innumerable Happiness 万福 wan4fu4; the Chinese version (not online that I can find) adds that this was during the Tongzhi era. The Aug. 24, 1980 diary entry in Letters from China has Ms. Chen needing to feed hungry soldiers with only doufu to work with.

Longer still is the Japanese Wikipedia page. Interestingly, the majority of its history section is devoted to its introduction into Japan by Chen Kenmin (陳建民), the father of Szechwan food in Japan, who is known to American fans of Iron Chef as the father of Chen Kenichi (陳建一), the Iron Chef Chinese. Note that the surname Chen 陳 is the same as the original restaurant proprietor; I assume this is a coincidence, no specific association seems to be mentioned.

Szechwan peppercorn is one of the main spices in Mapo Tofu. Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages has a comprehensive one for it. It is worth noting that it is unrelated to either hot pepper or black pepper and that though the English name for one of its varieties is anise pepper it is also unrelated to star anise, another important Chinese spice (the other three in five spice powder are cinnamon, clove and fennel). In Chinese, it is 椒 jiao1 or more fully 山椒  shan1jiao1 'mountain pepper'. Szechwan peppercorn causes a numbing sensation, so its taste is known as 麻 ma2 'numbing'. The hot taste of hot peppers is 辣 la4. So a typical Szechwan taste when both are used is 麻辣 ma2la4. 麻辣豆腐 ma2la4 dou4fu3 is therefore the general name for tofu spiced this way, and so applicable to 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2  dou4fu3. For example, here is a page with a recipe for a vegetarian "mapo doufu" that the author calls "mala doufu". Likewise, this cookbook writes 麻辣豆腐 ma2la4 dou4fu3 for its Spicy Bean Curd dish; this one for its Peppery Hot Bean Curd, noting the distinction between peppery and hot and mentioning “Pockmarked Woman's Bean Curd.”  This bilingual cookbook writes 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2  dou4fu3 for its Spicy Szechuan Bean Curd, even though it is a vegetarian variation. Even if it is only a coincidence and Mrs. Chen really was pock marked, I imagine that the similarity would reinforce the suitability of the Mapo name.

Just 麻豆腐 ma2 dou4fu3 is what is left after making tofu, perhaps 'flaxen bean curd', that is, okara (おから). Here is a Japanese page showing a Chinese dish made from it. Okara patties are my wife's favorite from the veggie burger food group, perhaps because she made tofu from scratch back in the day.

The tofu at Mary Chung's comes from Chang Shing Tofu Inc., which is on Rogers St. about half way between the Kendall Square and Lechmere T stops, right at the edge of where the old light industrial East Cambridge is being supplanted by biotech lab / office buildings. (Building one of them required digging a foundation in a toxic waste site from an old coal tar plant. The smell made it almost impossible to work in that area for more than a year.) It is run by Albert Dao, who moved here in the early 80s after a career in the Vietnamese Air Force. The company's trucks can be spotted driving around town, from which one can tell that the name of the company is actually 長興豆品公司  chang2xing1 dou4pin3 gong1si1 'Chang Shing Bean Products Inc.', since they also make things like soy milk. I think I remember reading that they sell the okara as feed for livestock up in Vermont.

Finally, the name of the restaurant is 鍾園川菜館 zhong1 yuan2chuan1 cai4guan3. 園  yuan2 'garden' is common in restaurant names and 川 chuan1 'river' is the second character in 四川 si4chuan1 'Szechwan' and can be used as an abbreviation (for example, 川椒 chuan1jiao1 means 'Szechwan peppercorn'). So, 'Chung Garden - Szechwan Restaurant'. The Mei Wah page points out that Yuan-Chuan could be a Chinese given name. But no, it isn't in this case. We just asked. It's not like Chinese is a secret.

(I'll also try to clean up the two Wikipedia entries I discussed above when I get a chance.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Peppers are on my short list of favorite foods, and Solanaceæ is almost certainly the favorite food family.  (So there, Bovidæ lovers!)  When visiting markets of any sort, I am always on the lookout for hot pepper sauces.  It can be tricky finding the hot ones, since even the same kind will almost always vary in hotness from brand to brand, just like Southwestern American hot sauces do.  (We usually have to ask the proprietor, who sometimes doesn't remember.)

Some time ago, on one of the first trips to a local Lebanese grocery store, in the jars of pepper sauces from Syria and Lebanon were some labeled "Chatta."  This gave a moment's pause, until a jar was turned around to reveal شطّة shatta.  Transliteration works just as well into French as English.  This is an Arabic word for peppers and for a hot sauce made from them.  And I have since found that chatta is a quite common spelling even among Lebanese-Americans to refer to the latter.

The purpose of this short post is to call attention to the very comprehensive Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages (it's over there on the right under Tools).  When I first encountered it, again a while ago, I naturally went to its Chile page, like at a market, where near the top of a list that even includes Georgian წიწაკა cicaka is Arabic شَطَّة shatta.  Remembering chatta, I checked the German version of the page, but no, it doesn't switch transliteration schemes to schatte.

I now see that Katzer's Coconut page has a list which overlaps (with some variation) with one I had in an earlier post here.  It lists two Tamil words, which I didn't until a comment pointed out my confusion.  As I said, I already had the site bookmarked, though I hadn't honestly thought of coconut as a spice; but it's right there at the top when I Google for "தேங்காய் coconut" to double check my update.  Furthermore, it mentions نارگیله nārgileh 'water pipe,' as LanguageHat suggested in his comment on the post.  My mistake.

Peppers will probably be the subject of longer posts, when I come up with more interesting things to say.

Iron Chef

Watakushi no kioku ga tashika naraba
'If my memory serves me correctly'

I am a fan of the Iron Chef TV show. The original Japanese one. They carry the show's absurd premise to the necessary extremes, with The Chairman's extravagance, rival factions, and localized haute cuisine. The American version is okay sometimes, but does not quite manage this. Alton Brown's nerdiness is better suited to his own Good Eats than as its version of the erudite Dr. Hattori. Still, my wife is a regular reader of Jeffrey Steingarten's Vogue columns and books, so his appearance as a judge is a highlight for her.

It has been some time since the show ran here. There is a petition to have the Food Network release it on DVD, but I frankly doubt that has much effect. In any case, this makes it likely that I misremember some details. So rather than repeatedly qualifying everything I have to say, I am putting this whole post under The Chairman's signature slogan at the top. If you remember something better, please do leave a comment.

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The name of the show is 料理の鉄人 ryōri no tetsujin; this appears on the screen with a whooshing sound effect before commercial breaks. The Wikipedia entry points out that this means 'Ironmen of Cooking,' which is literally true but makes it sound stranger than necessary. 料理 ryōri is 'cooking'; 料理人 ryōrinin is 'cook; chef'; 鉄 tetsu is 'iron; steel' (cf. Shinnittetsu.); 鉄人 tetsujin is 'iron man; strongman.' 料理人 + 鉄人 = 料理の鉄人. It's often hard (for us foreigners) to produce the right particles, but they're easier to understand. Iron Chef seems like a fine idiomatic translation, not a rebranding. Often the iron chefs are referred to as just tetsujin; it's easy to hear this when The Chairman announces that the Iron Chef has won at the end.

The version shown on Food Network is dubbed, which some say is part of its deliberate comic appeal. Some episodes subtitle The Chairman while dubbing the rest, which allows us to get a little more of the Japanese. For example, this reveals that the formula for introducing the challenger includes saying how old he or she is, which is completely ignored in the English.

The show is also a source of the occasional cultural tidbit. For instance, Japanese children hate green bell peppers, for which the French piment is borrowed as ピーマン pīman. They think that they taste bitter and smell like grass. This is parallel to what American kids think about, say, Brussel Sprouts. Traditions like this are interesting because they pass from one generation of children to the next by a combination of means. Adults outgrow their dislike, but still believe that children will not like them, and so send mixed messages when they try (and universally fail) to get their children to eat them a few times. Slightly older children pass the meme along in the same way as schoolyard rhymes. Yellow and red sweet bell peppers are all right. The proverb for show #45 was 緑は、キング。赤は、クイーン。黄は、プリンス。midori-wa, kingu / aka-wa, kuīn / ki-wa, purinsu 'green for the king, red for the queen, yellow for the prince,' manly bitter green, feminine sweet red, just-right yellow. That is why Kaga bites into a yellow pepper in the show's opening. Grownups occasionally maintain their childhood preference. This happened in the same episode, where a judge, a well-known writer, admitted that he still avoided green ones. Again, this is just like Bush 41 and broccoli.

The preparation skills and techniques are fascinating and the presentations quite artistic, but the meals themselves are a problem for a vegetarian: everything has meat or fish or both in it. So far as I know, only one challenger ever prepared a vegetarian menu: 藤井 宗哲 Fujī, Sotetsu, in show #47 of 9/23/94. Fujī is a Buddhist monk, 住職 jiyū-shiyoku 'Chief Priest' and 典座 tenzo 'Head Cook' of 不識庵 Fushiki-an Temple, and author of a number of cookbooks, some coauthored with his wife, who also has a book in English. This style of cooking 精進料理 shōjin ryōri 'devotion cooking' is at base vegan monk's food. As served to temple visitors, it has evolved an elaborate presentation, and is therefore actually considered rather extravagant. The challenger lost to Iron Chef Sakai, who did not himself prepare vegetarian dishes; the judges evidently found Fujī's bland.

Plant food words can be tricky. They can be regional and make distinctions of variety, size, shape, maturity, preparation and even intended use that botanists do not recognize. Dictionaries, even larger ones, often do not have enough space to reconcile taxonomist with greengrocer or homemaker. Translations rarely line up: two foreign terms can be translated by a single English term, of which there are several choices with different source sets. And it gets even more complicated as more languages and their respective translations are introduced. Of course, translation is not done without an intended target context as well as language. A word could mean one thing in the context of Italian food and another in the context of Korean food. But the simple distinctions like Chinese grocery or Ethiopian restaurant have been challenged by mega-supermarkets with worldwide produce and chefs producing pan-fusion cuisine. In particular, Iron Chef is a Japanese take on eclecticism. Sakai is the Iron Chef French. The obvious Japanese stamp on everything prepared is not qualitatively greater than when American cooking shows interpret food from everywhere.

With that in mind, what was the theme ingredient? The Japanese page 料理の鉄人1994 ryōri no tetsujin 1994 gives a table with battles for that year and Tetsujin confrontations record and とろろいも対決 tororo-imo taiketsu give detailed summaries; they all agree: とろろいも tororo-imo. 芋 imo is 'tuber'. とろろ芋 tororo-imo is translated by WWWJDIC as 'yam.' Tubers in the names of the dishes are 長芋 nagaimo and 山芋 yamaimo. Iron chef : The Official Book and the Food Network page also give 'Yam.' Iron Fans Online has a page for Battle Yam, which I imagine is based the English broadcast; it names the two varieties of yam used as "Nagaimo (Long Yams) and Ichiaimo (Knuckle Yams)." The 1994 table has an English version, IRON CHEF 1994, which says "grated yam." That is easy to clear up: とろろ tororo is 'grated yam'; とろろ芋 tororo-imo are the tubers you make it from, thus 'yams' (maybe even "grating yams," like "pickling cucumbers," but no one says that).

In America, yam usually means some variety of sweet potato. When qualified as true yams or something like that, it means those that come from Africa, such as are used to make fufu. (We got a bag of fufu flour from an African market up the street in Brighton; sadly the store did not last for long. They also had a good selection of palm oil, which carnivorous friends who wouldn't hesitate to eat a fried steak rebuked as unhealthy when they saw we had some.) Of course, in this context, since it is clear we are talking about native Japanese food, we know that they are Asian yams. At times when the show needed to be specific, they did dub in 'yam potato' and Dr. Hattori sometimes mentioned 'mountain yam.'

A trip to one of the local Japanese markets in Cambridge finds bulk sweet potatoes and taro, labeled さといも "taro potato", that is, 里芋 sato-imo. And slices of yam wrapped in plastic with no particular signs. Well, it is midwinter. A bigger market is needed. Search finds an online version in 野菜通販.com yasai tsūhan 'vegetable mail-order' and its 山芋 yamaimo section. (Of course, online there is no one to ask, "What is this called?" or "What is the difference between x and y?") Most are of the long variety, variously labeled, but mostly 長芋 nagaimo. It even has, for those in a hurry or planning a trip to space, フリーズドライ 山いも粉末 furīzu-dorai yamimo funmatsu 'freeze-dried mountain yam powder.' In another similar place is a picture showing three varieties of 山芋 yamaimo: bulbous, long, and hand-shaped.

The Japanese Wikipedia page for 卵かけご飯 tamago kake gohan has a link in the toppings subsection labeled とろろ芋 pointing to ヤマノイモ yamanoimo or 山芋 yamaimo, which gives the name of the plant as Dioscorea japonica. This plant is not listed on the English Yam page; but Dioscorea opposita is, whose own page has 山芋 yamaimo. This page points out the important fact that this species of yam can be eaten without cooking after a brief acidic bath, which is consistent with some of the preparations on the show.

Good Food from a Japanese Temple, an English-language book on shōjin ryōri, has an entry in its Ingredients chapter, yams, mountain (yama no imo, Yamato imo) … species Dioscorea, with the type best suited for the recipes called, variously, Yamato imo, itchō imo, te imo, Busshō imo (botanical: Dioscorea esculenta), etc. … shaped like a large hand or ginkgo leaf, … sweeter, … somewhat harder to find and less expensive than the long yam (naga imo; D. batatas) and an accompanying line drawing of Yamato imo and naga imo.

The handy A Dictionary of Japanese Food by Richard Hosking has an entry yamanoimo やまのいも  山の芋  薯蕷 yam Dioscorea japonica, … with cultivated varieties nagaimo and ichōimo 銀杏薯 (shaped like a ginkgo leaf), … also called yamaimo やまいも  山芋、薯蕷. The nagaimo entry says ながいも  長薯 Chinese yam Dioscorea opposita. Given the evident contradiction, it is worth noting that, in the Introduction, this book sagely observes, "My experience writing this book suggests that scientific names are the cause of more headaches than anything else in this world!" I assume that the purpose for giving three different 'plant' Radical Kanji for imo is to show all that the reader might encounter, although they are not laid out in any way that might suggest this. I don't think it's that uncommon for a native Japanese speaker to not know the Kanji for some foods and to have only seen them in the store in Kana. (After all, American stores are full of creative spellings of some foods.) These particular yams are common, though.

To try to help clear up the botany, there is the seriously cool Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database. Non-Roman scripts use images and Japanese only gives Kana, but it's usually clear from a dictionary. Dioscorea batatas has synonyms Dioscorea japonica, Dioscorea opposita and Dioscorea oppositifolia. Chinese: 山药 shan1 yao4, 薯蓣 shu3 yu4; English: Chinese yam, Chinese-potato, Cinnamon vine, Cinnamon yam, Common yam, Japanese yam, Long Chinese yam; Japanese: 長芋 nagaimo, つくね芋 tsukune imo, とろろ芋 tororo-imo, 山芋 yamaimo; Malay: Ubi. There is also an entry for Dioscorea esculenta: Chinese 甘薯 gan1 shu3; Japanese トゲドコロ togedokoro. That is not the vegetable in question, although it was mentioned by one of the books above. Also one of its English names is Chinese yam, illustrating an earlier point. If only the M.M.P.N.D had a Unicode version, and more Kanji.

I have not been able to find "Ichiaimo" online except on the fans' page, I assume it is the same as ichōimo; hapax legomena are still not unheard of in Google, so this is not conclusive. Interestingly enough, there are no other hits for "Knuckle Yams," either.

Anyway, how about this? Theme ingredient: Japanese Mountain Yam; specific varieties Long Japanese Yam and Ginkgo Yam. Here are some Google Image searches: 山芋 yamaimo 'Japanese Mountain Yam'; ながいも nagaimo 'Long Japanese Yam'; イチョウ芋 ichōimo 'Ginkgo Yam.' I don't know of a way to do multi-word or searches in other scripts, so I have chosen whichever got more hits between Kanji and Kana.

Here is the menu, based on the detail pages linked to above, with a few annotations.

  • 山芋飯 yamaimo mesi — Yam Rice
  • すいとろsuitoro (some way of preparing grated yam) — Muscat and Watershield in grated yam
  • 吉野和えyoshino-ae — Yoshino Salad
  • 長芋のゆば包み揚げ nagaimo no yuba tsutsumi-age 'long yams wrapped in beancurd-skin and deep-fried' — Fried Yam in Yuba (Prawn Imitation)
  • かまぼこもどき (蒲鉾擬き) kamaboko-modoki 'mock fish paste' — Grilled Yam

The proverb for the battle? 山薬は人肌 yama kusuri ha hitohada — “the mountain Medicine should be kept at body Temperature”: serve yams not too cold and not too hot; plus a bit of Buddhist μηδέν άγαν.

I imagine that some of the Valentine's Day chocolate all-dessert battles had vegetarian offerings by accident. The only other dish that I recall being consciously vegetarian was in show #42 8/19/94 with challenger 小林カツ代 Kobayashi, Katsuyo. Kobayashi had her own TV show and is also the author of a number of cookbooks. Her specialty is simple Japanese housewife cooking. The theme ingredient was another tuber, ジャガ芋 jagaimo 'potato.' The dish in question was 畑のつみれ hatake no tsumire, fried balls of potato and tofu. Normally, tsumire is made with fish. (Though Hosking does mention the yam and tofu variation in the tsumire つみれ  摘入 entry.) When one of the male judges (politician 栗本 慎一郎 Kurimoto, Shinichiro or Rosajin scholar 平野 雅章 Hirano, Masaaki) complained that there didn't seem to be any fish in the dish, Kobayashi replied that she had intentionally made one dish "Monk's food" (精進料理, I assume, although all I have to go on is the dubbing), adopting the "I know what's best for you" tone that mothers everywhere use on their sons no matter how old or how powerful. She easily defeated Iron Chef Chen, who developed a reputation for (only) losing to women.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Coconut Cafe

There are three Thai restaurants one trolley stop from here in either direction.  One of them is named Coconut Cafe.  It has a couple of unique appetizers: a Coconut Pancake (think Scallions Pie with coconut added) and Grilled Tofu with a choice of one of the standard curry sauces.  And they do a fine job with standards, like Pad Thai and Pad Kee Mow (ผัดขี้เมา 'Drunken Noodles' — there is a small typo in the entry for this dish in the comprehensive Thai Food Glossary, but since this is the internet, it's probably fixed by now).

The menu is in English, with the names of the dishes in transliteration or description.  That is the norm around here, certainly for take-out menus; it probably isn't worth finding someone in Boston to do the page layout and printing in Thai.  At the top of the menu (and on some of the signs and business cards) the name of the restaurant is given as โคโคนัท คาเฟ่; that is all the Thai on it.  Using the transliteration scheme of the invaluable thai2english.com, that is koh-koh-nát kaa-fây.  In other words, the English name of the restaurant transliterated.

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Cafe is not too surprising as a Thai word.  Everyone is going to need a word for coffee and French or English is a likely source.  Japanese カフェ; Chinese 咖啡; Vietnamese cà-phê.  As European (well, yes, it is Italian caffee from Turkish kahve from Arabic قهوة qahwah)  words go, the syllables aren't too bad.  Tahitian ends up with taofe and Hawaiian with kope.  The word café covers some semantic ground from 'coffeehouse' to 'restaurant' and sometimes the imported word or extensions of it ended up covering that too.

But there isn't much more typical of Thai cuisine or important as an economic foodstuff than coconut.  Of course it has an ordinary word, มะพร้าว má-práao.  (Since neither the SEAlang Library Thai Dictionary nor the Royal Institute Dictionary says anything about etymology, I assume it's a native word.  Lao, another Tai language, has ໝາກພ້າວ mak pow.)  But Google finds a number of other restaurants, inns, and so on in Thailand named โคโคนัท.

The English word coconut and all the related European words, some of which have the same form as the English (French noix de coco, German Kokosnuß), come from Portuguese côco 'grinning skull', referring to the holes at the base.  Many Indian languages have words related to one another: Hindi नारियल nāriyal; Urdu ناریل nāriyel; Bengali নারকেল nārakela; Gujarati નારિયેળ nāriyeḷ; Marathi नारळ nāraḷ; Nepali नरिवल् nariwal; and Punjabi ਨਾਰੀਅਲ nārial; all from Sanskrit नारीकेल nārikela, which does not appear to have an Indo-European source.  Likewise Telugu నారికేళము nārikēḷamu and Kannada ನಾರಿಕೇಳ nārikeḷa; but Tamil தேங்காய் tēngāi (tree is தெங்கு tengu) and Malayalam തെങ്ങ് thenga.  Khmer ដូង doung and Vietnamese dừa.  Burmese အုန္‌း oun:.  Tagalog niyog; Malay nyiur; and Hawaiian niu. Swahili mnazi.  Chinese 椰子 ye1zi5 is about as straightforward as it could be: fruit 子 of a tree 木 that sounds like 耶 ye < *zia.  Persian is نارگیل nārgil, from one of the Indian languages.  Other Middle Eastern languages declare an Indian origin explicitly: Turkish hindistancevizi; Arabic جوز الهند jauz al-hind; Armenian հնդկական ընկույզ hantkakan engouz, all of which mean 'Indian nut'.  In fact, this is how it was known in Europe as well until the time of Vasco da Gama at the end of the 15th Century.  All of which is as one would expect for a word describing a food that was disseminated but was not rare enough to have a recognizable single point of origin.  Coco and cocoa became particularly confused when their entries were accidentally merged in Johnson's Dictionary, though really it was a confusion just waiting to happen, and we're still living with cocoanut today.

Part of the answer is that Coconut Cafe is the name of the restaurant and one does not usually translate names.  A common experience with online translation is that the program has interpreted a proper name as a common noun and translated it into something that makes no sense.  (For example, today's entertainment section on Google News China points to an article about 李湘 Li Xiang, who is evidently a well-known CCTV presenter.  Google translate offers a headline about "Xiang pyramid."  AltaVista is sure that proper names ought to have three characters, and so gives Li Xiangchuan in the headline, followed by Li Xiangdang, Li Xiangjiang, Li Xiangyi and Li Xianghen in the body.)  Not that this is entirely wrong in principle, especially in fiction, since sometimes names suggest something to the reader.  Apparently a lot of effort goes into coming up with character names in translations of the Harry Potter books.

There are always unique factors like colonialism and wars, but I imagine that Thai has a similar relationship to English as most other modern languages in the world of globalized business and culture.  Some words like คอมพิวเตอร์ kom-piw-dter 'computer' and ไมโครเวฟ mai-kroh-wêf 'microwave' are to be expected.  As well as less specialized words in certain registers.  Naturally, there is a semantic shift sometimes.  Just like Japanese マンション manshon, which means 'large apartment.'  แฟน faen means 'fan', 'supporter', but more usually 'girlfriend', 'boyfriend'.  Here is a paper from around the dawn of the present internet (1992) on the use of English words in Thai magazines of various sorts.  The process of using foreign words in Thai is known as ทับศัพท์ táp sàpsàp is one of the words for 'word'.  táp sàp can also just mean 'transliterate'.  One way or another, that is what is going on here.

I believe that some of the senses of táp have to do with 'on top of' and are influenced by the English top.  This paper on Thai Word-Games (JSTOR access required) describes a game played by schoolchildren where each successive Thai word must rhyme with the English meaning of the previous word.  For instance, กบ gòp 'frog' - หอก hòk 'spear' -  เมีย mia 'wife' - ให้ hâi 'give'.  (The spear has to be non-rhotic.  /jf/ in wife is too complicated for the end of a syllable and gets truncated.  Similarly when borrowing: 'mile' is ไมล์ mai).  As in many languages, rhymes or near-rhymes are popular for neologisms.  I think táp sàp qualifies.

My Thai Vegetarian Café is the latest in a series of all-vegan Asian restaurants in Brookline.  It began as a Cambodian / Vietnamese restaurant with an extensive vegetarian selection, then went all vegetarian, then successively Chinese, Vietnamese, and now Thai.  They use various kinds of mock meat of the sort known as 素肉菜式 su4 rou4 cai4 shi4 in Chinese, the result of kitchen alchemy on tofu and wheat gluten.  I doubt these actually taste much like real meat, though I am a poor judge after thirty years, but they have interesting tastes and textures.  My Thai seems to be a popular choice for a restaurant name and Google quickly finds ones in California, Toronto, Brisbane, and Dublin.  I have to assume that in addition to the rhyme and the personal feel, Mai Tai and the usual English pronunciation of มวยไทย Muay Thai 'Thai boxing' were factors.

Right across the street from My Thai is another Thai restaurant, Dok Bua ดอกบัว 'lotus'.  This started out as a Thai bookstore, then Thai market, to more supermarket, added a Thai snack-bar and now is just a restaurant.  Of course, with the internet, a Thai bookstore in Greater Boston is no longer sustainable.  But it was nice to have.  I got a few cookbooks, a colorful Thai alphabet poster for children and a similar one for spelling fruits and vegetables that hangs in our larder.  The "A is for apple," "B is for boy" pictorial learning aide is standardized in Thai; the sample words are always the same.  One of these charts with pictures is usually for sale as a poster or T-shirt on eBay.  The same consonant sound occurs in different letters in different classes determining the tone of the syllable, so these words are actually needed to give the letter a unique name and end up part of the Unicode standard names for Thai glyphs.

In the summer of 2006, Rirkrit Tiravanija, the artist born in Argentina, the son of a Thai diplomat, who grew up in Ethiopia and Canada as well as Argentina and Thailand, and who now works in Bangkok, Berlin and New York, put on Ramakien: A Rak Opera, performed by contemporary Thai musicians.  The Ramakien รามเกียรติ์ is the Thai version of the Ramayana रामायण, the story of Prince Rama rescuing his wife Sita from the demon king of Lanka.  It is read by every Thai student in school.  The title is a pun; รัก rák is 'love' and indeed the Ramakien is a story of love and devotion.

It seems that similar creative uses of English can sometimes be found in Thai pop songs on eThaiMusic.com, a guilty pleasure that proposes to have one learn the Thai language by watching videos and listening to songs while following along with the lyrics.  The same videos show up on cable TV on "What's up, Thailand" on AZN, which is inexplicably sometimes part of basic cable here.  For instance, this, น้ำลาย náam laai 'spit', which won some Best Video award last year, is of the classic silly suggestive surreal music video variety (the YouTube one even has subtitles) and, if I get the lyrics page right, plays off of the English word lie(s).

Our small collection of Thai contemporary art includes Spiderman and Maiyarap, playing on the same theme of traditional versus global culture.  The same artist did the completely over-the-top Superman and Rama's Struggle over Sita, which I think ended up in a museum.

Earlier, in the spring of 2006, Tiravanija recreated the Peace Tower of 1966, a protest against the Vietnam War, this time under the auspices of the Whitney Biennial and against the Iraq War.  A comparison of the two wars is difficult and probably ultimately distracts from what is important; and in any case is not something I would attempt here.  But it is worth comparing the contexts of the two artworks, conceptual issues of appropriation and post- -isms aside.  In particular, the original Peace Tower was not reported on by the art world establishment, such as Art in America or Artforum, until five or more years later, by which time public opinion was pretty much universally against the war.  The new Peace Tower is within the context of the well-established Whitney Biennial and was reported on as soon as editorial schedules would allow.  No one is incensed by the new tower, certainly not enough to try to burn it down.

Update: At LanguageHat's suggestion, I've tried to do a better job of indicating long vowels in transliteration.
Update: In a comment, Suchi gives a Tamil correction, which I have incorporated.

Saturday, January 6, 2007


Another old LanguageHat post concerned Portobello, the large mushrooms that must be the savior of standard American chefs pressed to come up with a vegetarian dish, since they can almost be cooked and served like steaks.  The post pretty much left open the question of the word's origin.  Another open question of etymology, Pok-a-tok, got resolved by the September 2006 quarterly update to the OED.  Remembering this, I checked the December 2006 update and sure enough, they've got it.

Here is the new entry:

Brit. /ˌpɔːtəˈbɛləʊ/, U.S. /ˌpɔrdəˈbɛloʊ/  Forms: 19- portabella, 19- portabello, 19- portobello. [Perh. alteration of Italian pratarolo meadow mushroom.] 

    More fully portobello mushroom. A large brown variety of the common edible mushroom, having an open flat cap and a distinctive musky smell.

1990 Doylestown (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer 28 Oct. C12/3 Out of darkness now emerge the cream-colored and fuller flavoured crimani..the wild tasting portobello and the soft-for-soup oyster mushroom. 1998 Scotl. on Sunday (Nexis) 26 July 32 Before grilling, stuff meaty Portabello mushrooms with oil-soaked crumbs and grated Parmesan or crumbled goat's cheese. 2004 Phytochemistry 65 671/2 Tyrosinase, laccase, and peroxidase were detected in portabella mushrooms, a brown strain of Agaricus bisporus.

All we need to do is keep finding mysteries in alphabetical order starting in the middle of the alphabet.

I have to say that even though the earlier discussion did deal with how surprisingly recent this word is, I am amazed that the earliest quotation they could come up with is from 1990.  Of course, I don't have any documents at hand that show it earlier, so it must be one of those standard memory tricks.

Friday, January 5, 2007


I collect vegetarian cookbooks from around the world.  I prefer them published locally, in the local language, and concerning a traditional local vegetarian cuisine or a vegetarian adaptation of a traditional cuisine.  I have to give in on one preference or another regularly.  But I only give in on vegetarian as a last resort, because that's what absolutely determines whether there is any chance I will ever cook and eat something from a given cookbook.

We keep track of our books in LibraryThing.  I think it might be fair to say that LibraryThing is a site for people who accumulate books, rather than collect books.  It does not so much concentrate on conditions and editions as finding books to read and things about the books you read by connecting with other people through their libraries.  A social site for readers, mediated by their books.

By default, libraries on LibraryThing are public.  Anyone can be like Thomas Jefferson or Martha Rosler.  Some users opt to make their library private.  Others wish for features that would let them hide certain aspects, such as some tags or comments.  Personally, I reason that if you know me you can come over to my house and see my books on the shelves already and if you do not then all you know is that someone somewhere has this particular set of books.

Using the LibraryThing database for our library, I can mash-up with Google Maps to draw a map of where our veggie cookbooks were published.  It's a little trickier than it might be geocoding library information, since records to not explicitly make some distinctions, like Cambridge, Massachusetts versus Cambridge, Cambridgeshire.  (You tell by the publisher.)  The gory details are here.  It is fairly easy to make a new map from any set of books with an interesting geographical distribution; for instance, here is a widely translated author.

One thing that is obvious from the map is that I have not managed to find any cookbooks from Africa.  There are cookbooks of North African vegetarian cuisine published in France.  And vegetarian adaptations of sub-Saharan cooking from the USA.  But not much from the continent itself, at least that I can find.  I have seen a book written by the owners of a popular South African vegetarian restaurant, but it is apparently hard to find even in that country.

Update: The Globe reports on an important collection of vegetarian books and ephemera just acquired by the Schlesinger Library.  There is no mention of anything in foreign languages, though.  The closest thing I have to anything rare (as opposed to unusual) is Yiddish cookbooks from New York in the '30s.  (h/t PhiloBiblos)

Thursday, January 4, 2007


TV food programs are one of the few places left where diversity is celebrated without controversy.  Regional accents abound, and not as broad stereotypes.  Immigrants aren't a menace to our culture.

The other day, on a rerun of "$40 a Day," Rachel Ray was in Milwaukee and visited Three Brothers, a Serbian restaurant, where she had a burek (it had meat, but they should come in spinach and cheese versions).  They showed some footage of it being prepared in the kitchen, clarifying how a round pie results from square dough sheets.

This reminded me of another old LanguageHat post.  It was on parkour, a French word that has been imported into English with a k.  A digression within the thread discussed bri[c]k, another French import with k.  I'll summarize it again here, with some updates.

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As for spelling, Google finds feuilles de brick, bric, brik, and brique; but the first gets the most ghits.

brick is already a French word from the English 'brig'; this is the first sense in the Petit Larousse. The more common brique is from the Dutch, just like the equivalent English 'brick', which is cognate with all those 'break' words. (Except that as an adjective, it only means 'brick-colored', not 'made of brick'.)
The second brick entry says, "n.m. (de l'ar.) Gallette très fine à base de blé dur. (Cuisine tunisienne.)" That is, brick is from the name of Tunisian dish.

In French and English, brick is also used to mean the round sheets of pastry.  Properly, these are called ملسوقة (malsouqa). Since they come in stacks wrapped in cellophane, they look like bánh tráng, Vietnamese spring roll wrappers, but in wheat instead of rice.
Other terms for the dough are warqa and dioul. ورقة is just 'leaf' or 'sheet of paper'; wrq is 'to grow leaves'. So it's the same as phyllo < φύλλον. My vocabulary isn't good enough to figure out dioul (or d'youl). One page I found with a bilingual recipe has dioul in the French, with أوراق in the Arabic. In the accompanying photo they look like samosas, but sweet.

This comes from Turkish börek, which then appears in various forms as a word and a dish throughout the former Ottoman Empire.  Serbian and Bosnian burek.  Macedonian бурек.  Albanian byrek.  Bulgarian бюрек.  (It's risky even to name the languages and word boundaries here.  The single Wikipedia article uses Serbo-Croatian in one place and separates elsewhere.  No offense is intended by my choices.)

A local Turkish restaurant in Brooklike makes sigara böreği, cigar-shaped rolls filled with cheese.

The Armenian is transliterated variously as boereg, boerag, boerek, and byorek.  There are evidently competing dialects and competing transliteration schemes at play here, so I'm not sure how to write it in Armenian and do not find it in any of the dictionaries to which I have access.  Only the last form, բյորեկ, appears online: on menu.am, a site that gives information on restaurants in Armenia is Armenian, Russian, and English.  The BPL has a trilingual Russian / English / Armenian Kitchen Dictionary, which might be just what I need.  But the foreign language stacks are a total mess: half the books don't have spine labels; they aren't in anything like call number order; the Armenian books are mixed in with the Arabic and Bengali books; this book is not in the Russian (or English) cookery sections, either.  I guess it will be easier to find someone in Watertown to ask.

Anri Sala, the Albanian video artist, has a work entitled Byrek, featuring an old Albanian woman in Brussels making byrek, mostly in close-ups of her hands.  His grandmother had sent him a letter with her recipe but it was far too difficult for him to make himself, so he had to track down someone who could make them.

Чушки бюрек chushki burek is Bulgarian chile relleno.  Чушка is hot pepper; I'll have loads more to say about them another time.

Hebrew בורקס (borekas) are spinach or potato turnovers sold in falafel places in Israel and their exported Northeastern US copies. סרטי בורקס (sirtei burekas) is a genre of Israeli film of the '70s about the clash between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. The term is mentioned in a Linguist list posting from a few years ago as a near-calque on "spaghetti western".

Although bierock or pierogi < пирог 'pie' has a roughly similar phonetic shape and some claim the word is from the Turkic, Vasmer dismisses that because the word does not occur in South Slavic.  So I'll save them for another day.

The Turkish word might come from the Turkic root bur(a)- 'twist'.  If you're into Altaic, múra will get you 丸 maru 'circle'.  Or it might come from Persian بورك būrek; the only dictionary I can find with an entry for that says, "A kind of food; a sort of triangular pasta or macaroni; money given to a bystander at dice; mouldiness of bread."  There's a story there, but I don't know it.

Since that post last spring, the Wikipedia entry and the related ones it links to have grown to include much of the above information.  (And I took the liberty of adding a bit more.)  The entry gives pride of place to foods from the former Yugoslavia, since it appears that is the one into which Turkish etc. have been merged.

But somehow I originally managed to completely forget Γαλακτομπούρεκο (Galaktoboureko), one of my wife's favorite desserts.  It's custard between phyllo sheets with syrup.  (The Wikipedia burek page was missing a galaktoboureko link, so, yes, I added it.)  This word has μπ, momentarily strange for those of us who studied Ancient Greek, for /b/, because β has become /v/.  Which marks it as an import, presumably from Turkish.  galakto- is 'milk', as in galaxy, The Milky Way.

Cambridge old-timers will remember when The Middle East was just a restaurant and not a music club and there was a Greek pastry shop at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Brookline Ave.  That was Vouros.  They are still around, but in Roslindale.  And they still have galaktoboureko.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007


Wikipedia contains errors.  Encyclopedia Britannica contains errors.  It is in the nature of information that some of it is erroneous.  People, and well-designed systems, develop strategies for dealing with incorrect or incomplete information, such as verification, validation, and rough probabilistic measures of confidence.  Less well-designed systems can compound errors until someone notices.  This leads to amusing human interest stories, such as 105-year olds being reminded to enroll in kindergarten and million-dollar residential utility bills.  Which is a good thing, because sometimes it takes media embarrassment to move an intransigent bureaucracy.

A potential problem with Wikipedia is the lack of authority.  Conventional encyclopedias are written by people who should be qualified to write them; that is how they are selected.  Wikipedia entries might be written by anyone.  But this does not seem to be as much of a problem in practice.  Partisans and other people with an agenda betray themselves by claiming the totally outrageous and not just the somewhat improbable.  People who don't know what they are talking about usually do a poor job of trying to explain and often just write poorly.  Moreover, things do improve over time.  Absent active vandalism, facts are corrected and up-to-date knowledge is added.

No, the real problem with Wikipedia, I find, is the lack of editing.  Everyone is encouraged to put in new pieces of information.  The result is a lack of balance and consistency.  Disproportionate space is taken up by secondary information, in extraordinary detail.  The implied commitment to find all the similar entries and add the corresponding information is not fulfilled.  And things do not get better over time.  What is needed is a major rearrangement of whole areas of the encyclopedia.  There are capable resources willing to do this for only some topics.  And even when it does happen, it only takes a little bit for things to get out of whack again.

Which brings me to okra.

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Sir Richard F. Burton, like other Victorian travelers of his sort, tries to occasionally take careful note of what everyone is eating. In Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, "The principal vegetables are Badanjan (Egg-plant), the Bamiyah (a kind of esculent hibiscus, called Bhendi in India), and Mulukhiyah (Corchoris olitorius), a mucilaginous spinage common throughout this part of the East."  In Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, "The vegetables are 'Mbongwe' (yams), koko or Colocasia esculenta, Occras (Hibiscus esculentus), squashes (pumpkins), cucumbers, beans of several sorts, and the sweet potato, an esculent disliked by Englishmen, but far more nutritious than the miserable 'Irish' tuber."  Esculent hibiscus, that's okra, right?  bhendi is clearly what I see more often spelled bhindi.  And occra is equally clearly the same word. (Save that potato crack for another day.)

After enjoying another bhindi masala, or maybe the okra stew special at the local Lebanese place, I looked into it a little more, in reference books — more and more of which are online every day, and online-only sources like Wikipedia.

As always, Hobson-Jobson has a comprehensive entry, giving Indian and Arabic forms and citing Burton and Lane.

According to Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World, "The Spanish Moors appear to have been well acquainted with this plant, which was known to them by the name of bamiyah. Abul-Abbas el-Nebati, a native of Seville, learned in plants, who visited Egypt in 1216, describes in unmistakable terms the form of the plant, its seeds and fruit, which last, he remarks, is eaten when young and tender with meal by the Egyptians."  That is, Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati; this page has an entry on that vegetable with his name (I cannot make out whether it is a quotation).

Some fun with Unicode:
In Arabic: بامية bamiyah, which is in Wehr, but I cannot find it in Lane's Lexicon. (The okra stew is بامية بالزيت bamyeh bil-zayt.)
Similarly in Persian: باميه bamiyeh.
And Greek: μπάμια bamia.
And Bulgarian: бамя bamya.
And Armenian: բամիա bamiya.
In Hindi: भिण्डी bhinḍī.
Similarly in Tamil: வெண்டைக்காய் veṇṭaikkāy (i.e. Anglo-Indian bendi-kai), which feature in this online lesson from UPenn, including video of buying okra.
Crum's Coptic Dictionary lists ϫⲁⲡⲟⲣ as 'kind of mallow: بامية (hibiscus, althaea)', suggesting that the Arabic may apply to several different plants.  Černý's Coptic Etymological Dictionary does not give one for this word.
In Thai: กระเจี๊ยบ grà-jíap, actually the name for several Hibiscus plants, including okra and red sorrel, whose leaves and flowers are dried to make a tea-like drink.  To refer to the vegetable more specifically is apparently กระเจี๊ยบเขียว grà-jíap kĭeow.
In Chinese: 黃秋葵 huang2qui1kui2 or just qui1kui2 '[yellow] autumn sunflower'.

One of the reminders is a restaurant in Back Bay named Bhindi Bazaar, or 'okra market', which is evidently the name of a commercial area in Mumbai.  Robert Nadeau gave one of its okra dishes his "Best eponymous entrée" award in 2002.  (It's owned by the same people as Rangoli and Tanjore and the former Bombay Bistro.  Someone really should do a genealogy of Boston Indian restaurants, including families and chefs who have gone on to open their own restaurants, and how Oh Calcutta! moved from Cambridge to Framingham and created Taj and then Ethnic Gourmet frozen foods, which got bought by Heinz and then spun out into Hain.  Maybe a Wikipedia page.)

The Wikipedia okra entry is admirable over all.  It has pictures of the plants and pods.  It explains the origins and uses.  But when it comes to listing some of its names, it gives the Arabic but not the Persian and the Tamil but not the Hindi, which is the form I would expect one would encounter much more often in restaurants in the US and the UK.  The only mention of gumbo is inexplicably qualified with Charleston; is it not in Louisiana gumbo, too?  There is a brief mention of pickling and then later a description of an "Okratini"; aren't pickled okra mainly just standalone snacks?

The automatic objection whenever you complains about Wikipedia is that you are free to fix whatever you think is wrong.  And indeed, if you look at the entry now, you will see that I did add the bits that I felt were missing.  But in a very real sense, I actually made things worse by adding more disconnected pieces.  And I could not bring myself to remove anything, since I was not undertaking the bigger job of redoing it all.

Perhaps I am supposed to think of Wikipedia not as a coherent presentation of its information, but as information stew — or gumbo.

Monday, January 1, 2007


One of the particularly fun aspects of LanguageHat's site is that comments are encouraged.  Even when they are not right on topic, which is good because things are as likely to invoke tangential thoughts as anything else.  Since everyone expects this, the EPU problem is avoided.

One LH post concerned the word vegan.  Primarily, it dealt with the debate on how to pronounce it.  But along the way, it mentioned the coiner and the word in other languages.

Many languages have words for 'vegetarian' that resemble vegetarian, from the same source.  Most of those seem to have just taken vegan, adjusted to fit the local morphology.  Spanish and Italian vegano; Portuguese vegan (oddly enough); German Veganer; Dutch veganist; Polish wegani; Romanian vigăn; Russian веган; Esperanto vegano.  And even a few with no particular word for vegetarian or one from a different base.  Greek βήγαν (but χορτοφάγος also at least one site gives βήγκαν); Finnish vegaani (but kasvissyöjä); Swahili mvegana; Shona muvegan.  An exception is French, which has végétalien contrasting with végétarien.  The French word also has significant seniority; it first appeared in Larousse in 1890, more than fifty years before vegan.  Related forms also show up elsewhere, but not quite as firmly established, and so tending to lose out to the above ones.  Spanish and Catalan have vegetalista, first appearing in the RAE Usual in 1914; Italian vegetaliano; Esperanto vegetalano.

Now there are cultures where the cuisine does not traditionally use dairy.  So when there is a vegetarian variation, it is vegan.  But if the vegetarianism has a religious significance, there may be other additional characteristics, such as the restrictions may avoid other things at the same time, such as spicy or aromatic food.  For instance, the Buddhist cuisines of Japan's 精進料理 shojin ryori, Thailand's เจ jay, and Viet Nam's ăn chay.  So these words and phrases aren't strictly speaking translations.

That post was in February of 2005; Donald Watson died the following November.  Here is his obituary from The Guardian.  He was 95, which sounds like a pretty good endorsement of his ideas.  All of which would make a good coda to the discussion.

In the good old days, threads would usually remain open indefinitely.  Then comments could be added days, weeks, even years later.  And pick up again for a few more comments.  Old friends would appear on the recently commented list.  But now, because of the scourge of comment spam, this has had to stop.  And even when comments do appear on something still open but not brand new, the suspicion has to be that that's what they are.  It's really too bad, but that's the way it is.

What are respectable citizens to do when everything closes early before hoodlums take over?  Well, apparently, if I want to comment on things, I'm supposed to do it in my own blog.  The connections aren't as seamless, but there are ways to get around.  I guess I can't come up with a good reason why not.  I've been using the net for more than thirty years.  I wrote two email systems: a text one in the heyday of timesharing, and a graphical one when personal workstations came along.  I briefly had an office across the hall from Jake Feinler's NIC and down the hall from the NLS group.  I worked on one of the first networked hypertext systems.  I really do need to get with the new program.

So here we are.

Happy New Year!