Wednesday, February 11, 2015

naming alien foods

the so-called 'columbian exchange,' in which species from old and new worlds crossed to the other side after 1492, brought new crops to all parts of the world. in China and Taiwan, their names sometimes reflect this alien provenance.

green onion, which is native ('cong'), has a 'foreign' (yang) added to it to mean 'onion' -- 'yangcong' 洋葱 (foreign cong).

tomato has two names: one, 'fanqie,' 番茄 is something like 'savage eggplant,' with the 'qie' 茄子 meaning eggplant. the other, 'xihongshi,' 西红柿 used more in North China, translates something like 'western red persimmon.' persimmons are native there, and do look somewhat like tomatoes.

'potato' has three names that i know of; 'tudou' 土豆 or 'earth bean,' is used in North China, 'malingshu,' 马铃薯 whose origin or meaning i don't understand, is used in Taiwan, and 'yangyu,' 洋芋 or 'foreign taro,' is used in Taiwan when naming potato chips. finally, sweet potato is usually called digua/地瓜, or 'earth gourd,' but sometimes in Taiwan, 'fanshu' 番薯 or 'savage shu' (i suppose 'shu' is a class of tubers).

there are many other foreign-origin plant foods whose names do not reveal foreign origin. pineapple, for example, is called 'fengli' 凤梨 ('phoenix pear') in South China/Taiwan and 'boluo' 菠萝 in North China. corn is called 'yumi,' 玉米 or 'jade rice.' Sara heard corn on the cob referred to as 'clubs' at a market in Jinan, Shandong.

The book '1493,' by Michael Mann, has a fascinating chapter on how New World crops impacted agriculture in China, allowing cultivation of marginal hilltop lands (corn, sweet potatoes), which increased population, deforestation, and flooding -- problems to this day.

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