Last week a friend from France was visiting, and we had bhindi vegetable for lunch. The conversation turned to what this vegetable was called, and how it was eaten, in different parts of the world– from crisply fried Lady’s Fingers, to Okra soup. This not particularly fancy nor exotic vegetable boasts of a long list of synonyms including gombo, gumbo, quingombo, okro, ochro, bamia, bamie, quiabo!
Fruits and vegetables are such an integral part of our daily diet, but most of us are not aware of their intriguing histories. Many vegetable names simply refer to their shape, colour and taste. In the case of Drumstick, this makes sense, but to imagine bhindi as Lady’s Fingers does take a leap of imagination!
The names of many vegetables and fruits in English have their origins in languages like Latin, Spanish, and French; and sometimes the original meanings lie hidden in their names.
Eggplant was given its name by Europeans in the middle of the eighteenth century because the variety they knew had fruits that were of a whitish or yellowish colour, and the shape and size of goose eggs. The purple variety that we are most familiar with, and call baingan or brinjal may have been derived from the Sanskrit vatimgana. This word travelled through Persian to the Arabic name al-badinjan, and further filtered through Portuguese and Catalan to become aubergine in Britain and Europe.
Cabbage gets its name from Middle French caboche which means ‘head’. It was derived as a diminutive from Latin caput which means head as it resembled the head of a person.
Orange, the fruit on the other hand, was not named for its colour, but the other way round. The word is believed to have its origins from the Sanskrit naranga; which explains why, in several Indian languages, it is called narangi.
Pineapple seems to be a simple joining of two English words–pine and apple. But surprisingly this word was originally used for what we call pine cone; although it is inexplicable why an inedible, hard piece of a tree should be called a pine ‘apple’. To confuse things further, melon is the Greek word for apple!
In a similar vein, Gooseberry has nothing to do with geese. It was originally gorseberry, derived from the ‘gorst’ which meant rough. This berry was so called because it grew on a rough and thorny shrub.
Raspberry comes from the German verb raspen which means to rub together or rub as with a file. The marks on the berry were thought to resemble file markings.
Strawberry is a corruption of ‘strayberry’ which was so named because of the way the runners from this plant stray all over the place!
Currants were so called because they first came from Corinth. Cherries got their name from the city of Cerasus. The term grape is the English equivalent of the Italian grappo, and the Dutch and the French grappe, all meaning bunch. Raisin is a French word that comes from the Latin racenus, a dried grape.
Kiwi however takes the cake! It is so called not because it originated in New Zealand—the home of the Kiwi bird. It is the Chinese missionaries who brought the fruit to this country, and they called them Chinese gooseberries because they were from China and similar in flavour to gooseberries. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when New Zealand began exporting the fruit, that people started calling it Kiwi fruit.
And then there is the tomato. In culinary terms we consider it a vegetable; but this is actually a fruit in terms of its botanical characteristics—it is edible, contains a seed, is at least somewhat sweet, and grows on a plant.
16 October is celebrated every year as World Food Day. This marks the date of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. Let each day be one of thanksgiving and celebration of the food we eat, by whatever name we may call it. After all, a mango by any other name will taste just as delicious!