Food & Drink: How food can tell you where it's been

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have always been interested by the language of food: its history, its inventiveness, the traces it leaves in literature. Well, not always: say, since I first read Otto Jespersen on the English language and realised what an imperial affair the language of food can be.

How did our ox, cooked, became boeuf or beef; our calf, veau or veal; our pig, porc or pork? There can be few more compressed ways of saying that, when the Normans came, they took over our meat, so that when we cook it we use a French word, but for husbandry we use the Anglo-Saxon.

This is the civilising mission of cultures with a higher cuisine. Unfortunately, like most generalised rules, it will not do. If the hamburger is universal, it is not because American food culture is superior, only that its marketing is. The Normans did not open restaurants and start serving filets de boeuf when we wanted roast ox. We adopted the French word because it was more genteel.

Now we are anti-elitist, so a movement has sprung up to translate menus into plain talk. A new Bible speaks of Jesus dunking his bread in his wine; in another art, Papageno is made to say, 'Oh shit]' The idea is that there should be as few barriers as possible between art and consumer. That is why waiters pester us with the specials of the day: you cannot trust the name of the dish, you have to know its ingredients and, as the Health Fascists grow ever more powerful, the waiter will no doubt be reciting the purported dangers of what we might order.

The truth is, there is a mystery to the nomenclature of food. Dishes are named as progeny is named by proud parents. But the stuffs of dishes remain basic: egg, milk, flour. Techniques of cooking, readily transferable, are often loan-words. We have sushi and tempura. The Japanese say furai ni suru for 'fry', which we borrow from Latin; sosu is 'sauce'. Tagalog-speakers eat pato (Spanish) as we eat duck, and Italians eat anatra, from the Latin. Thai pang is Portuguese pan. Where power goes, food follows.

But if it is by linguistic imperialism that our cooking is to be known, English has a mixed record. We have contributed pudding (basic meaning, stomach or entrails); the zuppa inglese (trifle); creme anglaise (custard); l'assiette anglaise (cold meats); the sandwich (preferable to canape); afternoon tea, le rosbif and bacon (a back-rendering from old French).

Culinary language is forever renewing itself. Within my lifetime 'new' technical terms have come to the fore: some from old techniques transferred, as in to 'reduce' a sauce, a pure Gallicism; others from new technology, such as to 'microwave', a 'blender', to 'freeze' and 'defrost', to 'rehydrate' and 'homogenise'.

Other words remain implacably foreign: salt cod will not do for bacalao; a pizza will always be a pizza, a meringue a meringue and Bratwurst bratwurst. As we grow more ethnic in our tastes, foreign words gain acceptance. As our parents understood kitcheree (it has half-a-dozen spellings) to be a legacy from colonial India, we accept bok choi, the different forms of satay, and kebabs and risotto. We have long lost the original languages of tomato and potato.

When noble speeches are made about the 'united colours' of the world and multicultural diversity, we should recognise without cant how food has achieved the same aim. We eat however and wherever we like, and are naturally international: this is because our food sources and the words now migrate much faster than political power.

Most nations have little that is purely indigenous in their food language, and the more basic the food, the greater the likelihood that the word will be ancient. Bread is of Teutonic origin, but older still is loaf; milk, too, and egg (modern German Ei). Honey is our version of miel; basic enough before the Normans came, it remains in its older Germanic form, as does ale.

In as restless an art as cooking, this form of linguistic conservatism tells us something about our character as cooks: that as much as we alter - in cooking and language - the way we handle our basic foodstuffs, the heart of our art remains profoundly rooted in the past. We may not recognise names, but we would not be shocked to eat a Sumerian meal: grains, pulses, the onion family, lettuce, mustard, mutton.

There may be several thousand varieties of sausage, some exceedingly local, but the basic word is nearly universal - except for the German wurst. Russians may say kolbasa, but also sosichka. And few words are as universal as those for our basic drinks: wine, coffee, tea (beer makes it into Japanese, but not the Slavic languages).

Truly new foods are extremely rare, and generally we owe them to cross-breeding or hybridisation. These, too, language follows - with the nectarine, apple-banana and many more. The exotic is often metaphorised - sometimes brilliantly, as in pineapple.

As I have remarked before: oh for a decent dictionary of food, say an OFD (Oxford Food Dictionary) - based on historical principles, of course.