The next installment in the Asian Verbal Impact” series written for the magazine Asian Global Impact.

There is nothing coy about rice and its link to Asia. Granted, it is a British kitchen staple and an illustrious player in the cuisines of Southern Europe and much of Africa but, unlike sugar, for example, it has not detached itself entirely from its geographical roots. I guarantee that when you think of Asian cuisine, whether from Kandahar or Kyoto, rice will be somewhere in your thoughts.

That said, rice has been on the British menu since the Middle Ages where it jostled with a host of exotic ingredients beloved of the wealthiest Normans – saffron, ginger, cardamom and cloves, amongst others. It found its way into the English dictionary in the mid-thirteenth century through a fairly typical route – its parent the Old French ris, grandparent the Italian riso and so on back to the Greek oryza, with any number of European cousins, such as the Dutch rijst and the Macedonian oriz, along the way.

From here things get murky. Rice, while not unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, was hardly commonplace and there is much debate about the history of rice cultivation in Europe. The Moors certainly introduced it in a big way to Spain, where it is cooked with saffron (another Moorish legacy) and seafood to make the country’s most famous dish, paella. Fittingly, Iberian words for rice (arroz, in Spanish and Portuguese, arròs in Catalan) are taken from the Arabic al-ruz which also occurs in the form oruz, clearly related to the Greek.

Where the Greeks and Arabs acquired their words is not clear cut. It is generally held that Classical Europe’s first brush with rice came from Alexander the Great’s expedition to India. Fittingly, one theory proposes a direct borrowing from arisi, the word for uncooked rice in Tamil, a Dravidian (South Indian) language. Temptingly plausible as this theory sounds, etymologists don’t tend to favour it, maintaining that Persia and Egypt were key stepping stones in rice’s westwards journey. Indeed, some argue that the Greeks took their word from an Old Persian form like vriz or vrinj which lives on in the Pashto (Afghani) wrizhe and the Farsi berenj. These words are thought, in turn, to have come from the Sanskrit word for rice, vrihi, which itself may be a distant cousin of arisi and have its origins in a Dravidian language.

Indian origins (Sanskrit or possibly Dravidian) are also proposed for the family of rice dishes called pulao in Hindi, pilaw in Persian, pilav in Turkish and pilafi in Greek. Nobody, alas, has managed to stretch this to lineage to paella, which probably derives, via Old French, from a Latin word (patella) meaning pan. Japanese, meanwhile, has a host of words for rice, one of which, raisu, seems to be a recent borrowing from English!

So much for the words. Rice itself doesn’t come from India, but China, which remains the world’s largest rice producer although India is a reasonably close second. A glance further down the list of the world’s top rice producers – including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and the Philippines – reinforces my original point. Pepper and sugar have been gone completely global, the orange is a rootless cosmopolitan, but despite the best efforts of Valencia and North Italy, Asia can still claim rice – the word and the grain – as its own.



This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact” http://www.agimag.co.uk/asian-verbal-impact/

There is a grand tradition of naming of naming foodstuffs after places. Think of Cheddar cheese. Think of Danish pastries. Think, for that matter, of Parma ham. There’s no guarantee that the name corresponds to the food’s place of origin –  what we call a turkey, the Portuguese call a peru, which is only marginally closer to the fowl’s actual ancestral home in North America. It should therefore not come as a complete shock that in many languages an orange is referred to as a “Portugal” – take the Greek portokali, for example, or the Arabic burtuqal. Oranges don’t come from Portugal, as it happens, but it was predominantly Portuguese traders who brought sweet oranges (probably from China) to Europe, and the name seems to have stuck.

No amount of etymological twisting and turning will get us from “Portugal” to “Orange” so for the main event we need to look back into history. Until the 16th century, the only oranges available in Europe were bitter oranges, first introduced by the Crusaders with their Arabic name tag – naranj – intact. This word is still used in Arabic, but only to refer to bitter oranges, and a similar usage in Greek has given rise to a preserve called nerantzi glyko. On an English breakfast table, meanwhile, bitter oranges are mostly likely to be encountered in the form of marmalade, typically made from a variety named after the Spanish city where it is cultivated: Seville.

In Spanish, however, Seville oranges are called naranja amarga (bitter orange) and we can instantly recognize the Arabic origin of the first word, which is now used to refer to all oranges, bitter or sweet. The same is true in other south European languages, where havoc has been played with the initial “n” giving us the Portuguese laranja, Catalan taronja and Italian arancia. To understand what probably happened in Italian, here’s an experiment: say “una narancia” over and over again getting faster each time and what do you get? Un arancia, in my case. The same is thought to have happened in French, where une narange ultimately became une orange, the form in which (fanfare, please!) it passed into English in the 13th century.

But the story doesn’t end, or begin, with Arabic. Naranj, in fact, comes from the Persian narang, which in turn comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “orange tree”, thought ultimately to derive from a south Indian language. Indeed, in many Indian languages narangi, or similar, is still used for some varieties of orange, while santra is used for others. There is a delicious theory that santra may actually be a corruption of Sintra, a town in Portugal, but this is not widely supported and a good rule of thumb for a budding etymologist is that if it sounds that nice, it probably ain’t true. Perhaps the Dutch and Germans have a better idea with sinaasappel and apfelsine respectively, both meaning “Chinese apple”. Likewise, in Puerto Rican Spanish, sweet oranges are simply called chinas, while Algerian dialects of Arabic use tchina.

And finally… in case you were wondering, the majority of the languages referenced here give the same word (or similar) to the colour as they do to the fruit. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.



This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 07: May/June 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.

If I asked you to list the food products in your kitchen with Asian names, I doubt sugar would spring to mind. And why should it? Sugar has been a bona fide English word since the thirteenth century and long since integral to British cuisine. Wealthy Tudors were notorious across Europe for their rotten teeth, and from the seventeenth century onwards sugarcane cultivation was a central feature of European colonialism in the Americas. Today, roughly a quarter of the world’s sugar is produced in Brazil.

Probing back into the word’s origins we start in disarmingly familiar territory. It is generally agreed that sugar derives from either the French sucre or a related Venetian term. Venice, in any case, was at the heart of European sugar production in the late Middle Ages, sourcing cane from plantations in Cyprus and Crete to fuel a love affair that had taken off with the Crusaders who brought sugar back as a souvenir from the Holy Land. Naturally they adopted its Arabic name, sukkar, which as al sukkar travelled into Spanish as azúcar.

Both the name sukkar and the method of turning sugarcane juice to granulated crystals came to the Arab world from the Persians. They in turn got their shakkar (probably in the 6th Century AD) from India where cane had been grown for centuries, although the plant is thought to have originated in Papua New Guinea. The ultimate parent word was the Sanskrit sarkara which originally referred to any gritty substance before taking on sweeter connotations. Outsiders, such as Alexander the Great, were more poetic in their appreciation and references to “honey without bees” and “honey-bearing reeds” can be found in contemporary travellers’ accounts. Indeed, the Macedonian army brought sugarcane back from the banks of the Indus in the 4th Century BC, and for 1,500 years sugar, Hellenised as sakharon, remained a little-known commodity restricted to the wealthy. Via the Latin saccharum the word lives on in English as saccharine (which has been used to refer to something cloying since the 19th century) and the artificial sweetener Saccharin.

Sarkara also passed into the South Indian language Malayalam as chakkara which ultimately mutated into the Anglo-Indian jaggery, an unrefined form of cane sugar consumed widely across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In some parts of India the word was less durable, and the modern Hindi name for granulated sugar is actually chini, meaning “Chinese” (a strange misnomer, since sugar almost certainly travelled from India to China rather than vice-versa), while sugar candy is called misri (“Egyptian”) in reference to Egypt’s monopoly over production in the Middle Ages. Elsewhere, the reach of Sanskrit has been impressive, and you can enjoy sheqer in Albania, siwgr in Wales and saaxarax in the Aleutian Islands. The awkward fact that in Chinese sugar is called tang, we’ll leave for another time…

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.

Aubergine: the classic Mediterranean ingredient. Melanzana to the Italians; eggplant to the Americans; and a fixture on the oven-trays of Britain’s chattering classes who serve it, lemon-drizzled, on cous-cous dreaming of warmer climes. But it’s big on Indian menus too, isn’t it? And in Middle Eastern cooking, surely? So where exactly does it come from?

Although the earliest written records of aubergines come from fifth century China, cultivation is believed to have originated in India. In any case, our story starts with the Sanskrit vatingana, loosely translatable as “vegetable that stops you breaking wind”. Drop the “t”, change a few consonants and vowels and shift forward a thousand years or so and you get baingan, the standard Hindi word for aubergine. But that’s just a sideshow compared to what happened when the vegetable travelled west into Persia. Modern Hindi is famously peppered with words borrowed from Persian and Arabic, so it’s worth remembering that this was a two-way trade, in this case resulting in the Farsi word bademjan – as in the famous Iranian aubergine and whey appetizer kashk-e-bademjan.

It is likely that the Arabs first encountered aubergines when they conquered Persia in the seventh century. In any case, in Arabic the word became al-badinjan (the al simply meaning “the”, and found in words like algebra and alcohol) and was syndicated across the Islamic empire. In the westernmost reaches it entered Moorish Spain and lost the al to become berenjena, still used in modern Spanish – try the gratinada version at your local tapas bar. Europeans regarded the vegetable with suspicion; indeed, it has been argued that the Italian melanzana is a corruption of the Spanish, re-interpreted as mela insana or “mad apple”.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese variant, berengela, travelled back East to become the Anglo-Indian brinjal, a word familiar to curry aficionados across the UK. In eastern Spain, on the other hand, Catalan-speakers retained the Arabic article and called it albergínia, a mouthful for their Gallic neighbours who couldn’t manage the “l” in “alb-”. Hence, in the same process that turned the Latin words falsus and castellus into faux and château, the name given to the delicacy favoured by faddish Parisian diners in the late 18th century was none other than the one that ultimately crossed the channel into the English dictionary: aubergine.

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.