Sunday, September 23, 2007


Some of the spare time allocated for posting here got used last month for gazpacho and shark over at LH.

There used to be a falafel place in Brookline Village called King Tut (with just a bit of the cheesy decor that name implies). We didn't eat there much, since it was pretty much weekday lunch only. Not too long ago, the people who run the yoga studio nearby bought the place out and made it over into more of a coffee shop, redoing the interior to add some tables and extending the hours to Saturdays. They still have falafel, but they also added a signature dish from the new owner Ali's native Iran, kookoo sabzi. Kookoo also lends its name to the new café.

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Kookoo (کوکو kūkū) is a thick filled omelet, cut into squares, along the lines of Italian frittata or Spanish (not Mexican) tortilla. It is also compared to quiche or souffle, although the filling is more important and there isn't as much air. John Fryer, in A New Account of East India and Persia … 1672-1681 (published in 1698), writes (Letter V, Chap. XIV: EEBO; reprint preview):

They have a Diſh they call Cookoo Challow, which is dry Rice and a Fritter of Eggs, Herbs, and Fiſhes.

That is, کوکو چلاو (kūkū čalāv). The two main kinds of rice in Persian cuisine are chelow (چلو < older چلاو čalāv), plain boiled rice, and polow (پلو < older پیلاو pīlāv), rice with something (usually meat) already mixed in. There is also kateh (کته), sticky rice. The first two correspond to challow and pallow, the two kinds of rice in Afghani cuisine. And through Turkish pilav, English gets pilaf.

Kookoo sabzi (کوکو سبزی kūkū sabzi) is a kookoo of greens. It is traditionally made with ones like scallions (پیازچه piyāzača), parsley (جعفری jaʿfarī), coriander (گشنیز gašnīz) and dill (شبت šibit); there are lots of recipes online in English and Persian (and vegan versions using tofu for eggs). It is one of the dishes served at the Nowruz Iranian New Year feast mentioned in the garlic post. You can even buy a mix in a can.

The Kookoo Sabzee (to use their spelling) at Kookoo Cafe is predominantly spinach, still with a bit of parsley and coriander, plus the expected seasoning with fenugreek (شنبلیله šambalīla) and barberries (زرشک zerešk). So it is perhaps a cross with a recipe like the kukuye esfanaj in Jane Grigson's classic Vegetable Book (preview) or the کوکو اسفناج kūkū isfināj on this page. (To be absolutely clear, it is very good and I am not questioning the authenticity. I am not much persuaded by arguments on authenticity anyway. 1. Vegetarian adaptation often requires some changes. 2. With the possible exception of French cuisine, there are no canons. Such arguments tend to ignore the variability that exists within the authentic time / region. Furthermore, even if the food at Mary Chung does not correspond to that of any restaurant in Szechwan, it is no more different from them than they are from one another. 3. Globalization means everything is fusion these days. I am a fan of the Indian version of Chinese food, which used to only be available here in New England in aseptic packaged form — Indian bachelor chow, but now has shown up at some local restaurants — perhaps a subject for another post.)

Spinach appears to have originated in the Iran / Afghanistan part of Asia. I have not seen a clear statement of how the cultivated and wild Spinacia species are related. De Candolle says (English; French) that a S. tetandra is known in Persian as schamum, citing Boissier's Flora Orientalis, but the sixth supplemental volume, which is the only one not in Google Books; this is perhaps Steingass' شومين shūmīn. Spinach is botanically interesting because even though it is basically dioecious, populations consistently contain monoecious plants; or, in tabloid terms, it has three sexes.

The word spinach (and the older form spinage, which represents how the final part tended to get voiced, as it still does) comes from Old French espinache from Medieval Latin spinarchia / spināchium. It is clearly the same as Arabic اسبانخ isbānaḫ / اسفاناخ isfānāḫ / اسفانخ isfānaḫ / سبانخ sabānaḫ / sabāniḫ from Persian اسفناج isfanāj / سپاناج sipānāj / سپاناخ sipānāx (whence also Turkish ıspanak). The various forms are spread out in time and space, though I have not seen a clear description of how. They also additionally cover the space of related vegetables like orach and goosefoot, as do some of the European forms. (Suggestions welcome on a source of a clearer layout of the correspondences. This is the area where lexicography is always a bit weak.)

A number of sources say that the Persian derives from ispanai meaning 'green hand'. For example, this page. I have no cause to doubt this, though none of them seem to give references. This book is by an Iranian and based on research in Iran, so perhaps that is the current theory there and yet to make it into (non-botanical) works in English.

I think it is generally accepted that the Latin comes from the Arabic and so from Persian. That is the simple situation laid out by the AHD. OED1 had a note on other possibilities and the associated difficulties, which is carried over into OED2 and so still appears online until they get to the sp's in a few years.

[ad. OF. espinage, (e)spinache (also -ace), = Catal. espinach, Sp. espinaca, It. spinace, Roum. spenac, med.L. spinachia (-achium), spinacia (-acium), of doubtful origin. Cf. MDu. spinage, -agie, -aetse (Du. spinazie, Flem. spinagie), LG. spinase, -axe, obs. G. spinacie, -asche, G. dial. spinaz, MHG. and G. spinat (whence Da. spinat, Sw. spenat).
 The difficult problem of the ultimate origin of the word is complicated by variation of the ending in the Romanic languages. In addition to espinache, -age, OF. had also espinoche (still in dial. use), -oce, = med.L. spinochia, and espinarde, espinar (F. épinard), = Prov. espinarc, med.L. spinarium, -argium. Pg. exhibits the further variant espinafre. By older writers the stem of these forms was supposed to be L. spīna, in allusion to the prickly seeds of a common species. De Vic considers the various forms to be adoption of Arab isfināj, Pers. isfānāj, ispānāk, aspanākh (Richardson), but it is doubtful whether these are really native words. It is difficult to explain either the Romanic or the Oriental forms from the synonymous Hispanicum olus recorded from the 16th cent. and represented by older F. herbe d'Espaigne (Cotgrave).]

The 1893 edition of Skeat's Etymological Dictionary gives particular insight into the process, which is lost in the sanitized entry in the modern edition. Page 581 of the main work has the spīna derivation, with the printer just finding room to slip in “But see Addenda. [*]” There, on page 829, he goes over to the Persia via Arabic theory. He was persuaded by “a remarkable article in Devic, Supp. to Littré, p. 33, s.v. épinard.” In the online XMLittré, it refers to Devic's “Dict. étym.” And fortunately his Dictionnaire étymologique des mots français d'origine orientale is in Google Books where we can see the article. He observes that spinach was not known to the ancients, and points to Jean Bauhin (brother of Gaspard, who was quoted in the potato post), whose Historiae plantarum universalis says (Book II, pg. 964):

Quibus hæc vocabula diſplicent, Atriplicem Hiſpanienſem vocant, Mauritani Hiſpanach, id eſt, Hiſpanicum olus, fortaſſe quòd inde primum duxerit origem, ad cæteras tandem nationes tranſlatum

Those whom these words [Spinacia, etc.] displease, call it Spanish orach, hispanach to the Moors, that is, the Spanish herb, perhaps because they consider its first origin from there, in the end carried to the rest of the nations

He then points to a passage in Razi from the end of the 9th century (significantly before it shows up in European works) and quotes it in a delightful footnote:

Voici le passage, pour faire plaisir aux amateurs d'épinards: الاسفاناخ ‏معتدل جيد للحلق والرية والمعدة والكبد يليّن البطن وغذاوه جيد جيدا «Les épinards sont tempéré, bons pour la gorge, le poumon, l'estomac et le foie; ils adoucissent le ventre et constituent un excellent aliment.»

Here is the passage, to please spinach lovers: al-isfānāḫ muʿtadil ǧayyid lil-ḥalqi waʾl-rriyyati waʾl-maʿidati waʾl-kabidi yulayyin al-baṭna wa-ġaḏāwah ǧayyid ǧayyida “Spinach is temperate, good for the throat, the lungs, the stomach and the liver; it sweetens the belly and is a good, beneficial food.”

A somewhat similar sentiment is expressed in Thomas Tryon's Wisdom's Dictates (1691), a shorter version of The Way of Health, an early English treatise on vegetarianism, to which he added a list of “recipes,” making it almost able to claim to be an early English vegetarian cookbook, though it is really more like a meal planner. For spinach, he says (p. 144-145; p. 134-135 of the 1696 edition, which also corrects various printer's errors):

23. Spinnage boiled, or ſtewed, and buttered and eaten with Bread, makes a brave cleanſing Food, eaſie of Concoction, and generates good Blood, and ſweetens the Humors, moves and opens Obſtructions.

24. Spinnage, and the young buds of Colworts boiled in plenty of good Water, with a quick briſk Fire, and eaten only with Bread, Butter and Salt, is fine pleaſant delightful Food, affording a good clean nouriſhment.

25. Spinnage boiled with the ſound tops of Mint and Balm, ſeaſoned with Salt and Butter, and eaten with Bread, makes a Noble Diſh, of a warming Quality, and gives great ſatiſfaction to the ſtomach, affording an excellent nouriſhment.

26. Spinnage, Endive, and young Parſley, boiled and eaten with Bread, Butter, and Salt, is a brave friendly exhilerating Food, generating good Blood, and fine briſk Spirits, cleanſeth the Paſſages, and looſens the Belly.

This is not much different from a modern advocate promoting that spinach has iron and vitamins or even more modern that it has calcium and fiber.

On the other hand, Thomas Elyot, in his 1539 The Castel of Helth, discussing “a diete preſeruatiue in the tyme of peſtilence,” does not recommend leafy vegetables (p. 87):

Cheſe very fatte and ſalt is not commended no more is colewortes or any kinde of pulſe excepte chittes: greate peaſon rapes nor ſpynaches is good. Alſo there be forboden rokat and muſtard …

Sometimes food writing repeats the same few interesting facts. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but the details can get rubbed off with all that handling. An example is that the Arabs (sometimes, specifically, Ibn al-Awam) called spinach, “the prince of vegetables.” Alton Brown (or his researchers and writers) even put this in a recent episode of Good Eats, “American Classic I: Spinach Salad.” This particular salad has bacon in it; I have to say that sometimes I do not get TV foodies and bacon. On the recent No Reservations episode where he was hosted around Cleveland by Harvey Pekar, including a visit to the impressive Zubal Books (online in comic form), Anthony Bourdain could not keep from making some wise crack about tempting vegetarian Pekar with bacon. And on the quirky show with Dweezil Zappa, Lisa Loeb used to declare herself a vegetarian, except that she ate bacon. Now anyone is free to define their own rules, but that seems particularly strange. I did not find myself entirely persuaded by the Good Eats theory that the American spinach salad originates with the Pennsylvania Dutch substituting spinach for dandelion greens in a traditional German salad. For one thing, spinach has been an on-again off-again participant in salads since it was first introduced. For example, in John Evelyn's 1699 Acetaria, a Discourse of Sallets (list in EEBO, but not scanned; fortunately transcribed on, says:

Spinachia: of old not us'd in Sallets, and the oftner kept out the better

Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn al-'Awwam al-Ishbili أبو زكريا يحيى بن محمد بن أحمد بن العوام الإشبيلي lived in Moorish Spain (Ishbili is Seville) at the end of the 12th century and wrote a treatise on agriculture, كتاب الفلاحة Kitab al-filaha, that is one of the earliest surviving works to describe spinach in detail. The bilingual edition with the Arabic text and a Spanish translation by J. A. Banqueri from 1802, Libro de Agricultura, su autor el Doctor excelente Abu Zacaria Iahia, is surprisingly hard to find, even though there have been reprints as recently as last year. (I am almost tempted to just buy an HCL card, but they are insanely expensive for non-affiliated people.) Fortunately, a reprint of the 1864-67 French translation by J. J. Clement-Mullet, Le Livre de l'Agriculture d'Ibn al-Awam, is at the BPL and armed with that, one can get the right snippet in Google Books. The translator has fortunately chosen to include the key phrase in the original. What ibn al-Awam says is that, “according to Abul Khair [of Seville] and others, spinach is called رِيس البقول raīs [i.e., رئيس raʾīs] al-buqūl 'prince of green vegetables'.” He then goes on to mention an entire work on spinach by Ibn Haddjāj, which I believe is lost. Now بقل baql is 'herb' or 'legume' and not every kind of vegetables. Lane (p. 236) quotes a definition as herbs or plants that grow from seed but not on a permanent root, which lets in cucumber. Spinach's principality is somewhat smaller than usually suggested in English.

Another early Arab work that is frequently referred to is Kitab-al-Jāmiʻ li-mufradāt al-adwiyah wa-al-aghdhiyah كتاب الجامع لمفردات الأدويةة والأغذي by Ḍiya’ al-Dīn abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Bayṭār ضياء الدين ابو محمد عبد الله ابن احمد المعروف بابن البيطار, translated by Lucien Leclerc as Traité des simples, originally issued in three parts in the Notices et Extraits des Manuscrits de la Bibliotheque Nationale, XXIII (1877), XXV (1881), XXVI (1883). But frustratingly, Google Books only has the third volume, not the one with spinach. This work is notable for the unsubstantiated claim that spinach was known in Nineveh and Babylon. This type of book is an extension of the work of Dioscorides, who of course did not know about spinach. So information about it was added by Arab scientists. And these works were translated into European languages just as spinach was becoming known there. For example, Yaḥia ibn Sarāfiyūn يحيى بن سرافيون, known in Europe as Johannes Serapion, not to be confused with the geographer Yūḥannā ibn Sarābiyūn يوحنا بن سرابيون, known the same way, in Liber aggregatus in medicinis simplicibus (1473) (s.v. spinachia) says that it is fri[gi]da 'cold' and hu[m]ida 'moist' and good for the chest and lungs.

The most famous of these authors is Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā أبو علي الحسين بن عبد الله بن سينا, known as Avicenna. His The Canon of Medicine was published in many editions in many languages, a number of which are online. For example, cap. dciii of a 1483 Latin edition and cap. 604 of a 1555 one, which agree that spinach is fridiga and humida There is even a online scan of an edition of Kutub ʼal-qānūn fī ʼal-ṭibb كتب القانون في الطّب printed in Arabic in Rome in 1593. It says (p. 136):

✠ الماهية ✠ معروف ✠ الطبع ✠ بارد رطب في اخر الاولى ✠ الافعال والخواص ✠ ملين وغذاوه اجود من غذا السرمق اقول وفيه قوة جالية غسالة ويقمع الصفرا وربما نفرت المعدة عن ورقه فيروق ويوكل ✠ اعضا النفس والصدر ✠ نافع من الصدر والرية الحارة اكلا وطلا ✠ الات المفاصل ✠ ينفع اوجاع الظهر الدموية ✠ اعضا النفض ✠ ملين للبطن


: al-māhīyah : maʿrūf : al-ttabʿ : bārid raṭb fī ʾāḫiri al-ūlā : al-afʿāl waʾl-ḫawāṣṣ : mulayyin wa-ġiḏāʾuh ʾaǧwad min ġiḏāʾi al-sarmaqi ʾaqūl wa-fī-hi qūwah ǧālīah ġassālati wa-yaqmaʿ al-ṣṣafrāʾa wa-rubbamā nafarat al-miʿdah min waraqi-hi fayurawwiq wa-yūʾkal : ʾaʿḍāʾ al-nnafasi waʾl-ṣṣadri : nāfiʿ min al-ṣṣadri waʾl-rrīʾati al-ḥārrati ʾaklʾa wa-ṭilāʾa : ʾālāt al-mafāṣili : yunaffiʿ ʾawǧāʿ al-ẓẓahri al-ddamawīata : ʾaʿḍāʾ al-nnafaḍi : mulayyan lil-boṭṭni

  • nature: well-known.
  • temperament: cold and moist in the first degree.
  • actions and properties: laxative and its food is better than orach's food, I say; and in it there is clearing power for cleansing and it prevents cholera; and perhaps the stomach is adverse to its leaves, so that it purifies as it is eaten.
  • breathing organs and the chest: useful against chest and lung fever both eaten and as a compress.
  • joint apparatus: back pains can use the [increased] blood.
  • digestive organs: laxative for the stomach.

Johann “Ammonius” Agricola, a Bavarian doctor, in his 1539 Medicinae herbariae libri dvo, says (p. 323) that spinach is not the same as blitum 'orach', but rather recently discovered, and references specific passages in both Avicenna and Serapion. Here, as elsewhere, Spinach was gaining popularity as much as a medicinal herb as a food.

Waverly Root's valuable Food squeezes a broad range of spinach history into a few columns, with perhaps just a little too much discussion of the relative merits of smooth- and prickly-seeded varieties. Unfortunately, when more detail is wanted, the format of his book does not lend itself to footnotes and the bibliography is mostly just other secondary works. Thankfully, some of these sources give fuller references, in particular, Sturtevant's series “The History of Garden Vegetables” in The American Naturalist (all of the installments are in JSTOR) and the posthumous Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World (also online), though the footnotes tend to be of the older, inconsistently abbreviated, sort. (There are whole books on the history of footnotes. Mostly, one can manage without them in a blog, using parentheses and hyperlinks.)

When Root writes, “Ruellius, in 1536, gave the impression that it was then new in France,” it is easy enough to find Jean Ruel De natura stirpium libri tres (1536), which says (Lib. II Cap. LIII, Atriplex, p. 359):

quod recentiores Græci ſpanachia nominant, uulgus ſpinacia, ueteribus (quod magnopere demiror) incognitum

which more recent Greeks call spanachia, the common spinacia, unknown to the older ones (which I very much wonder at)

Likewise that Matthiola said it was new to Italy in the 16th century. Pietro Andrea Mattioli Commentarii, in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei (1554), says (p. 246):

Credidere recentiorum quidam Atriplicem, & Spinaciam uulgò dictam, eiuſdem eſſe generis. Verùm ij, meo quidem iudicio, falluntur apertißimè. quippe præter id, quòd Spinacia nouum in Italia olus eſt, & foliorum, & caulis, & ſeminis forma, atque colore ab atriplice maximè differt, ſicuti et ſapore.

Some of those who are younger believed orach and what is commonly called spinach to be of the same genus. But, in my judgment, these quite obviously lack truth. In fact, besides that, because spinach is a new herb in Italy, and the shape of the leaves and the stem and the seeds and the color differ from orach a lot, and likewise the taste.

But Crescenzi had already written in the 13th century that it was better than orach and sowed in the autumn. There are a number of incunabula editions of Pietro Crescenzi's Ruralia commoda online: without pictures or with. Gallica has an Italian translation, whose title has a woodcut of Crescenzi and his patron Charles (why this matters in a minute). From the Latin:

Spinacia optime ſerunt de menſe ſeptembris et octobris … et meliora ſunt ſtomacho quam atripices.

Spinach is best sown in the months of September and October … and they are better for the stomach than that orach.

And the Ménagier de Paris says that a species of chard called espinoches was eaten at the beginning of Lent. From the 19th century edition that is online (p. 141):

Une espèce de porée, que l'en dit espinars et ont plus longues feuilles, plus gresles et plus vers que porée commune, et aussi l'en appelle espinoches, et se menguent au commencement de karesme.

A species of chard, which is called espinars and which has leaves that are longer, skinnier and greener than regular chard, and which is also called espinoches, is eaten at the beginning of Lent.

Trickier is that Albertus Magnus described the plant with prickly seeds. But Sturtevant gives a page reference to the [Meyer and] Jessen edition that happens to be in Google Books; plus it has a full-text index. (Long before such amazing tools, Laufer — see below — faults Schrader for failing to give a specific reference to where Albertus Magnus uses spinachium.) De Vegetabilibus Libri VII has (p. 563):

Spinachia vocantur folia herbae, quae est sicut borago, nisi quod est spinosa. Et est semen eius valde spinosum, et flos eius sicut plantaginis. Et est frigida and humida.

Spinachia is what the leaves are called, of a plant which is like borage, except that it is spiny. And its seed is exceedingly spiny and its flower is like a plantain's. It is cold and moist.

Root just says that spinach appears on a 1351 list of vegetables for monks on fast days. For this, Sturtevant says, “According to Beckman.” Well, Johann Beckmann, in his Beytræge zur Geschichte der Erfindungen does have a chapter on kitchen vegetables, where (p. 116) the relevant footnote on says, “Du Cange.” (The English translation, A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins, is also in Google Books. Beckmann also says that Johannes van Meurs' Glossarium graeco-barbarum found a medieval use of σπινάκιον in a poem that he often named but didn't sufficiently report; this dictionary isn't online or easily accessible that I know of.) There are later editions of Charles Du Fresne Du Cange's Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis in Google Books and Gallica, where s.v. spinargium, he lists:

Transactio inter Abbatem et Monachos Crassenses ann. 1351. ex lib. viridi fol. 53: Debet dare dictus hortulanus quotidie conventui… de herbis domesticis horti, aliquando de bonis, aliquando de aliis, sicut sunt caules, Spinargia, porri, etc.

Transaction between the abbot and monks of La Crasse in 1351 from the green book folio 53: The said gardener must give to the monastery daily from the cultivated herbs of the garden, now from the good ones, now from the others, thus they are cabbage, spinach, leeks, etc.

Particularly troublesome is that, “Arnauld de Villeneuve had listed it among common foods in the thirteenth century.” The problem is that over the years lots of works have been ascribed to Arnaldus de Villa Nova (there is a 19th century bibliographic study in Google Books). Gallica has many editions of his annotated version of the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum; he does expand on some of the foods listed in the verses, but does not, so far as I know, mention spinach. On the other hand, the similarly named Regimen sanitatis Magnimi, does:

Spinargie ſimiles ſunt attriplicibus niſi q[uod] meliores ſunt ſtomacho:

Spinach is similar to orach, except that it is better for the stomach:

In that printing, it is ascribed to Maino de Maineri, that is Magninus Mediolanensis, another fourteenth century physician. But essentially the identical work is included in Arnaldus' Opera, prefaced with:

Incipit liber de regimine ſanitatis Arnaldi de villa noua que[m] Magninus mediolanenſis ſibi appropriauit addendo & imutando nonnulla.

Here begins the health regimen book of Arnaldus de Villa Nova which Magninus Mediolanensis appropriated for himself with some additions and changes.

So that same spinach description occurs in the 1504 edition. And translations are also often ascribed to Arnaldus. For example, an Italian Opera utilissima di Arnaldo di Villanuova di conservare la sanita, also in Gallica. Lynn Thorndike believed that Maino was the true author (see his study of another work of his in JSTOR).

Arnaldus' name is associated with a series of early herbals, beginning with the 1491 Tractatus de virtutibus herbarum. These are illustrated by quaint, somewhat primitive, woodcuts, with text repeating Materia Medica like Avicenna's: spinach (“fridiga & humida”) appears in Chap. CXXIII, Most of the woodcuts for this herbal are from the 1484 Latin Herbarius: compare its Chap. cxxiij. The cause of the confusion is the title page: the printer has taken the aforementioned woodcut of Crescenzi and Charles II (15th century clip art) and labeled it as Arnaldus de Nova Villa and Avicenna, leading some to believe that Arnaldus was the author. In subsequent editions, the woodcut was removed but the names remained, even furthering the confusion. A nice-looking, not quite incunabula, 1502 edition is available for sale (or to drool over) online. This same edition was one of the source for this study of medieval plant names, with the authors labeling that dataset Arnoldo.

Arnaldus is also of interest to this blog because he wrote De esu carnium, an early defense of a meatless Christian diet and specifically of the Carthusians (in French, Chartreux, whence Chartreuse the liqueur and so the color), whose austerity (even the sick abstained) was being attacked by the Dominicans on theological grounds. The general environment is discussed from a religious studies point of view by Diane Bazell in this paper, where Arnaldus' work only gets an oblique mention in a footnote. It was the focus of her thesis, which analyses the manuscripts, gives the text and English translation, and covers the history, which does much to fill in the gap between the Pythagoreans and the Renaissance in most histories of vegetarianism; she then edited the critical text as v. 11 of Arnaldi de Villanova Opera medica omnia. Arnaldus' work first appeared in his Opera in the edition of 1520, where it is available online.

Two related facts from China are often included in summaries of spinach history: that the earliest recorded mention of spinach is from China and that spinach is called 'Persian vegetable' in Chinese. Grigson leads off her spinach section with a fuller version of the story. But there are complexities even beyond what she can fit in.

It is easy to find various Chinese names for (types of) spinach. The Wikipedia for 菠菜 bo1cai4 includes 菠柃 bo1ling2,鹦鹉菜 (traditional 鸚鵡) ying1 wu3 cai4 'parrot vegetable' ,红根菜 (trad. 紅) hong2 gen1 cai4 'red root vegetable' and 飛龍菜 (simplified 飞龙菜) fei1 long2 cai4 'flying dragon vegetable'. It then goes on to say that it came to China from Persia in 647 and in the old days was called 波斯菜 bo1 si1 cai4 'Persian vegetable', which of course is an oversimplification. Similar names include 赤根菜 chi4 gen1 cai4 again 'red root vegetable', 珊瑚菜 shan1hu2 cai4 'coral vegetable', 波斯草 bo1 si1 cao3 'Persian herb' and 波稜 bo1leng2. The 純陽呂真人藥石製 Chun2yang2 Lü3 Zhen1jen2 Yao4 Shi2 zhi4 'Pharmaceutical Manual of the Adept Lü Chun-Yang', which lists elixir plants, all of which are some kind of 龍芽 long2 ya2 'dragon sprout', has spinach as 赤爪龍芽 chi4 zhao3 long2 ya2 'red claw dragon sprout'. (An English translation is in Chinese Science, a series of essays in honor of Joseph Needham; snippet.) So the basic ideas behind the naming are reddish roots, Persia, and something that sounds like bo1leng2 (Classic *pwâləng per Cikoski), spelled with various characters,  菠 / 波 薐 / 棱, of which the ones with the plant determiner denote spinach exclusively.

The earliest botanical reference to spinach is in 種樹書 (simp. 种树书) Zhong3shu4 shu1, from the 7th or 8th century, which despite its name 'Book of the Art of Planting trees', covers a variety of grains, vegetables and fruits. This is listed in Emil Bretschneider's Botanicon Sinicum (p. 79; this book hasn't been scanned in anywhere I can find, but fortunately the librarian at the Harvard Botany Library was extremely helpful). Like many of its sort, the work only survives in the form of quotations in later works that added to it. A more extensive treatment is given in Berthold Laufer's monograph Sino-Iranica, which is in Google Books, with section 36 (p. 392) covering “The Spinach.” (It seems to me that Laufer is the major source for Grigson's spinach introduction.) I do not have access to the original sources, but a little searching around finds several useful Chinese web pages (like these here), which I imagine were copied from secondary sources. Since I am not sure that even text given as a direct quotation is really the original in simplified characters, rather than a paraphrase, I will include it as found rather than restoring the traditional characters. So, the Zhongshu shu said that 菠薐 bo1leng2 came from the country 菠薐國 bo1leng2 guo2.

The earliest datable reference to spinach (anywhere) is in the 唐會要 Tang2 hui4 yao1, which records for the 21st year of the 貞觀 (simp. 贞观) zhen1 guan1 period (647 CE):


tai4zong1 shi2, ni2po2luo2 xian4 bo1leng2 cai4, ye4 lei4 hong2lan2, shi2 ru2 ji2li2, huo3 shu2 zhi1 neng2 yi4 shi2 wei4

In the time of Taizong, Nepal sent the vegetable “spinach,” with a flower like safflower, and fruit like Tribulus terrestris; well cooked it is a beneficial and tasty food.

The emperor had requested that all tributary nations present their best vegetables. That Nepal considered it worthy suggests that it was a novelty there too.

The Tang dynasty 嘉話錄 Jia1 hua4 lu4 'Record of Auspicious Words' by 劉禹錫 Liu2 Yü3xi2 is cited by the 太平廣記 Tai4ping2 Guang3ji4 as saying (chapter 411; simplified):


shu1cai4 zhong1 de0 bo1leng2, ben3lai2 shi4 you3 yi1ge4 xi1yu4 mou3 guo2 de0 seng1ren2, cong2 ta1men0 na4li0 ba3 ta1 de0 zhong3zi0 dai4lai2 de0, jiu4 xiang4 mu4xu0 he2 pu2tao0 shi4 Zhang1Qian1 cong2 xi1yu4 dai4 zhong3 hui2lai0 yi1yang4. bo1leng2 ben3lai2 shi4 cong2 po1ling2guo2 nong4 lai2 de0, jiao4 ta1 “bo1leng2” shi4 yin1 wu4 chuan2 er2 zou3 yin1. hen3duo1 ren2 dou1 bu4zhi1dao4 zhe4 shi4 de0 yuan2wei3.

The Chinese vegetable spinach originally existed in some Western country, whence a monk brought the seed, in much the same way as Zhang Qian brought the plants alfalfa and grapes from the Western region. Since spinach originally came from the country Poling, it was called “Spinach [Boleng]” and in this way the mistake spread as the word as passed along. Many people are completely ignorant of the whole story of this matter.

As for the Persian connection, it does not appear until the Ming dynasty, in the 本草綱目 Ben3cao3 Gang1mu4 'Detailed Outline of Materia Medica', which says:


fang1 shi4yin3 bo1cai4 ming2wei4 bo1si1 cao3 yun2.

Fang Shiyin says that spinach is named as “the Persian herb.”

Porter Smith and Stuart, in Chinese Materia Medica : Vegetable Kingdom, based on the Bencao Gangmu, (reprints; the Dover reprint, which is on sale for 60% off this week, is titled Chinese Medicinal Herbs and is itself a reprint of an edition that does not appear to have acknowledged that it was a reprint of the earlier edition of this work; the two are identical up until the appendix and even that is very similar) all but dismiss this, saying (p. 417):

As the Chinese have a tendency to attribute everything that comes from the south-west to Persia, we are not surprised to find this called 波斯草 (Po-ssŭ-tsʻao), “Persian vegetable.”

But, in fact, spinach does come from Persia. Perhaps it was just a lucky guess, further motivated by extending bo1, short for bo1 leng2, to bo1 si1. Still, there does not seem to be any fundamental reason to reject the possibility that during the Yuan or Ming, the Chinese learned of its origins through new Silk Road sources and added that name to their botanical literature.

But what of 菠薐 bo1leng2? It cannot really be 波稜 'waves and edges' because of the shape of the leaves; the earliest sources say it was borrowed. Laufer points out an obvious similarity that I have not seen noted elsewhere, perhaps because everyone who knows enough rejected the theory long ago. Anyone who has eaten in an Indian restaurant knows that 'spinach' is pālak, Hindi पालक or Punjabi ਪਾਲਕ. There was no Sanskrit word for spinach, so an existing word was used पालङ्कः pālaṅka / पालङ्क्य pālaṅkya / पालक्या pālakyā, meaning the greens variously known as Indian Spinach, Spinach beet, or Sea beet. Likewise, in Nepalese, 'spinach' is पालुङ्गो pāluṅgō. Laufer goes on to observe that there is a country known from inscriptions named पालक्क pālakka. So, the monks from Nepal who brought the emperor's spinach also brought its name 菠薐 bo1leng2 and their own folk etymology for its origin in 菠薐國 bo1leng2 guo2. And this got shorted to today's 菠菜 bo1cai4.

Spinach's Chinese nature is not all that different from the “cold and moist” in the West. The Tang 食疗本草 Shi2liao2 Ben3cao3 by 孟诜 Shen1 Meng4 says (similar text on p. 155 of this book):


bei3 ren2 shi2 rou4, mian4, shi2 zhi1 ji2 ping2; nan2 ren2 shi2 yu2 bie1, shui3 mi3, shi2 zhi1 ji2 leng3. gu4 duo1 shi2 leng3 da4 xiao3 xiao3 chang2.

The Northerner eats meat and noodles, his food is calm; the Southerner eats fish and turtles and wet rice, his food is cold. A lot of cold food affects the size of the intestines.

Which I believe is meant to explain why spinach is more popular in the North.

Latham's Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources gives dates a hundred years before Du Cange: 1250 for spinarchia and 1270 for spinachium (-a also 13th century, but apparently not found until 1622). But being a single volume, it cannot afford actual citations. Niermeyer's similar Mediae Latinitatis lexicon minus does not have spinach at all. The larger, multi-volume works, Mittellateinisches Wörterbuch and Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, do not go up to the sp's (yet).

The earliest citation for épinard in the TLFI is from 1256 (as espinaces). The work is Aldebrandin de Sienne's Régime du corps; I couldn't track down the reprint to see what it says.

The earliest quotation in the OED is John Palsgrave's 1530 Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse, which lists (fol. 66) “spynnage an herbe” as “espinars ma.” The earliest as an herb / vegetable is in William Turner's 1538 Libellus de re herbaria nouus, which is in Latin, but says:

Seutlomalchon a quibuſda[m] ſpinachia, a n[ost]ris Spynache no[m]i[n]atur

seutlomalchon: called spinachia by some, spinach by us

The same author's New Herball (1568) has an entry (III p. 71) “Of Spinage,” which notably says:

Spinage or ſpinech is an herbe lately found & not long in uſe but it is wel knowen amongeſt al men in al countrees that it nedeth no deſcription it is well knowen from other herbes by the indented or cut leaues pricky ſede and wateriſh taſte I knowe not wherefore it is good ſauinge to fill the belly & louſe it a little.

But that is forgetting uses in Middle English, some of which are from the turn of the 15th century. Of the quotations in the MED, perhaps the most interesting is from the Forme of Cury, a medieval cookbook. It has a recipe for Spynoch yfryed (p. 81 of Pegge's 1780 edition): here is a modern interpretation. In addition to those in the MED, it is also in William Caxton's Vocabulary in French and English (1480; this phrase-book is known by a number of different names; there is also dispute as to who really wrote it — here is a recent article on the subject). In the list of plants (EEBO; reprint), espinces is translated by spynache. This book is a (not very good) translation of a French / Flemish phrase-book from Bruges, called Le Livre des Mestiers, where (reprint) Espinage was translated by Sinage.

Spinach shows up in medieval manuscripts, such as the illustrated Tacuinum Sanitatis: here is one with Latin text and here is an original illustration to which a modern English translation of its (similar) text has been added; as expected, it is cold and moist in the first degree. However, in Mediaeval Gardens (copies of which command high prices on ABE, which is probably why the BPL has lost theirs), Harvey points out (p. 166) that spinach cannot be relied upon to refer to actual spinach in medieval inventories, even when illustrated. Some of the illustrations look like Toadflax and some of the synonym names refer to Wild Colewort or other varieties of Brassica oleracea. Likewise, the MED supposes a Cichorium for two of its quotations, where it is described as like a dandelion and as having a blue flower.

Before leaving spinach (there may be enough leftovers for another post), it is worth mentioning the slang sense of spinach as 'nonsense' in America in the first half of the 20th century and similarly in England in the middle of the 19th. The standard quotation for the earlier occurrence is Dickens; for instance, David Copperfield (p. 107):

“What a world of gammon and spinnage it is, though, ain't it!”

For the later, it is Alexander Woollcott's While Rome Burns (snippet):

This eruption of reticence, whether dictated by the aforesaid chronicler's own instincts, or enforced upon him by the families affected, will, I am sure, be described by certain temperaments as an exercise in good taste. I do not myself so regard it. I say it's spinach.

The OED2 lists these two close senses as letters below the same number. Partridge only lists the single sense, citing OED1, perhaps simply missing its American [re-]emergence. Cassell's Dictionary of Slang gives the American sense for spinach by itself, with the British one defined under gammon. Which prompts me to ask, what ever became of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang? The Online Etymology Dictionary says explicitly that the American sense originated with the New Yorker cartoon that is the OED's first quotation for that sense, but it may just be over-abbreviating the OED. Fortunately, in a blog it is easy to link to the cartoon itself (you need to click on the artist and back on the title to get the picture since the referring site is outside). “Gammon and spinach,” which can be associated with one another simply as foods, is part of the refrain of the nursery rhyme, “A frog he would a-wooing go.”

With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (p. 179) says that the “rowley-powley” part does not appear before the 19th century. It then references a Notes and Queries correspondent (No. 35, Sat. June 29, 1850, p. 74) who remembered seeing somewhere, “that rowley powley is a name for a plump fowl, of which both ‘gammon and spinach’ are posthumous connexions.” The fowl sense is not given by the OED s.v. roly-poly, but is consistent with the 'plump' meaning. The entire Notes and Queries (“A medium of inter-communication for literary men, artists, antiquaries, genealogists, etc.”) discussion, in that volume and the prior one, is entertaining: it reads like a Victorian group blog of the MetaFilter sort. “Gammon and spinach” is used by Dickens a number of other times. It is the name of a chapter in Sylvie and Bruno, where by being used somewhat literally it turns the allusion back on itself.  Likewise, in the Lestrygonians episode of Ulysses it both signifies something about Irish politics and reminds that Bloom is getting hungry.

Both the dictionary and the Wikipedia point out that in Persian slang, زرشک zerešk 'barberry' (a few of which give kookoo its tartness), means 'bullshit', in the sense of doubting the truth of what has just been said.

I have not found any suggestion for an etymology of کوکو kūkū. It also means 'dove; sound of a dove', which is presumably onomatopoetic, cf. English cuckoo and coo. In fact, in the earliest Persian to some European language dictionary I can find on the net, Edmund Castell's Lexicon heptaglotton Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum, Samaritanum, Æthiopicum, Arabicum, conjunctim; et Persicum, separatim (1669), the only sense listed (col. 482) is palumbes 'ring dove'. This dictionary is only in EEBO because it was produced in England. There is no sign of Christian Raue's 1645 Specimen Lexici Arabico-Persici-Latini: not even in OCLC. Or Franciszek Meniński's 1680 Thesaurus linguarum orientalium turcicæ, arabicæ, persicæ. Based on a snippet of a translation, there was a mention in Ange de Saint-Joseph's 1684 Gazophylacium linguae Persarum. An 1852 revision by Francis Johnson of John Richardson's 1777 A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English is on It gives (p. 1030), “کوکو kūkū, A fried egg, fritter. The cooing of a dove.” Note that an otherwise very helpful survey of Persian dictionaries makes a mistake with Meniński, putting him a century too late in 1780 instead of 1680 (perhaps because of a mistake in AH calendar arithmetic or perhaps because of a later edition), and so missing that he was Richardson's major source.

Another Boston-area Persian restaurant, Lala Rokh, usually has a kookoo appetizer; I have never seen it at the other three local Persian restaurants that we go to. Lala Rokh is named after the Thomas Moore poem, Lalla Rookh (which is in Google Books, as is the historical description of the visit by the king of Bucharia (Eastern Turkestan) to Aurangzeb that Moore says was the rough basis for the frame tale). لالہ رخ lāla rax means 'tulip cheeks'. رخ rax (several Persian homonyms) also gives the English words rook (the chess piece) and roc (the mythical bird). لاله is usually pronounced lāleh in Modern Persian, both as the flower and a girl's name.

The Arabic equivalent of kookoo is عجة ʿuǧǧah, often transliterated as eggah. By way of comparison, Richardson & Johnson's definition is (p. 840), “عجّة ‪ع‬ujjat, An egg-fritter, omelet; to which they add sometimes a little meat, onions, and pepper.” It is from the same root (e.g., Lane p. 1955) as عج ʿaǧǧa 'to cry', though I am not completely clear why. As expected, search (and image search) turns up various recipes, including some for عجة الأعشاب ʿuǧǧa al-aʿšābi
 'herb frittata'. An English translation of the medieval cookbook كتاب وصف الاطعمة المعتادة Kitāb Waṣf al-Aṭʿima al-Muʿtāda, which is an expansion of the كتاب الطبيخ Kitāb al-Ṭabīḫ, is included in Medieval Arab Cookery. The introduction to the section on مبعثرات mubaʿṯarāt 'scrambled [eggs]' and عج ʿuǧaǧ 'frittatas' lists among their kinds عجة حامضة ʿuǧǧa ḥāmiḍa 'sour frittatas' and عجة حلوة ʿuǧǧa ḥulwa 'sweet frittatas', but alas no recipes for ʿuǧǧa are actually in the text. This book is published by the same people as Petits Propos Culinaires (which I wish some local library had the complete series of). They have also just published Eggs in Cookery; I will probably wait for the library to get that, since I am more concerned with the vegetables than the egg binder.