The Dish on Food and Language — Mysteries Explained (Ketchup was Originally Chinese!)

smallbookcoverpeople who follow me on Twitter are probably sick of me sharing snippets of the book i just finished, but i can’t help it. it’s just so damn fascinating! those same people also know i love to eat, but what many of y’all might not know is that i was a linguistics major in college (and studied computational linguistics in grad school, more on this at the bottom!) and am someone who is fascinated by language and languages.

so, when i heard about a book (thanks @wintersweet!) that discussed them both, how could i say no, despite the fact that i only read maybe a book or two a year? The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu is a breezy but captivating and enlightening look at the history of food, cultural reflections of food (or vice versa), and how modern ways of thinking about food have evolved over time and what they can tell us about how we think about food.

i don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say i’ve never highlighted a book so much — Kindle tells me i have 74 highlighted passages in a book that took me less than four hours to read. (i’d originally wanted to read it on a plane, but i couldn’t wait. so much for that.)

when i lived in Germany, i thought this promotion McDonald’s had going on, where they mashed up “Asian” flavors with (“American”) burgers, was at the very least odd, and at the worst, perhaps even a bit disparaging or pejorative.

Einfach Mal Asien

The names are punny, too. For example, Fernköstlich = Fernost “Far East” + köstlich “delicious”

but after reading this book, i think i have a new appreciation for the way food has constantly been mashed up and reappropriated through the millennia. like, indeed, how ketchup came, after many iterations, from what is now China and is a distant relative of Vietnamese fish sauce. YES.

in any case, i highly recommend this book — you’ll find out the following, and more:

  • what the words used on a menu can tell you about a restaurant — sight unseen
  • how SO many of today’s foods that we take as “American” (or “British” or “Peruvian”…) can be traced back to Babylon or Persia.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos-2

The Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) in Lisbon

  • the Portuguese origins of tempura
  • how “dessert” as we think of it is not a universal idea (Chinese cuisine traditionally never had a dessert course) — and indeed how the sweet course evolved and moved around in the order of meals in Western cultures. (i knew something was awry with this Air China ad!)

  • how the history of fireworks and ice cream are intertwined
  • how turkey got its name (yes, from Turkey, despite coming from the New World)
  • the psychology (and language) behind good and bad Yelp reviews and why certain types of food get described with ‘sexy’ adjectives like “orgasm-inducing” and others with ‘drug’ adjectives like “addictive” and “like crack”.
  • what the words “lord” and “lady” have to do with bread, how “flower” and “flour” used to be the same word, and how so many words can trace their origins to ‘salt’ — including sausage and salad.
  • why describing something like this sundae via sensual metaphors and imagery might not work in other cultures, or indeed, even be appetizing

i’ll leave you with a quote from the end of the book that sums up the linguistic, culinary, and historical adventures to be had in its pages:

Ketchup, syrup, aspic, turkey, macaron, sherbet, and arrack are linguistic fossils of the high-class meals of Persian shahs, Baghdadi caliphs, Provençal princes, New York Astors, but also of Fujianese sailors, Egyptian pharmacists, Mexican nuns, Portuguese merchants, Sicilian pasta-makers, Amherst poets, and New York bakers, as each food passed along and changed to comply with the implicit structures of the borrowing cuisine: macaroons and marmalades losing their medieval rosewater and musk, fruit sharbats becoming luscious ice cream, vinegary meat sikbāj becoming Christian fish dishes suitable for Lent. Although the foods change, the words remain behind, mementos of our deep debt to each other from our shared past, just as the word turkey reminds us of tiny Portugal’s obsession with naval secrets 600 years ago and toast and supper remind us of medieval pottages and toasty wassails.

oh, and i do need to corroborate one thing the author mentioned: the Portuguese egg tarts you can get from KFCs in China are totally legit shit. the best outside of Portugal!

My dad ordering Portuguese egg tarts at a KFC in Beijing. Even my parents were convinced!

My dad ordering Portuguese egg tarts at a KFC in Beijing. Even my parents were convinced!

sidebar: the author’s name sounded familiar… that name rang a bell, Dan Jurafsky. where had i heard it before? OH YES. in grad school! he wrote the compact introductory Bible of computational linguistics and natural language processing!

4 Comments on "The Dish on Food and Language — Mysteries Explained (Ketchup was Originally Chinese!)"

  1. Everything I read before “Portuguese egg tarts” went out of my brain. There is sausage involved, right? Because now I want Portuguese sausage. With eggs. In a tart.

    • hahahaha sadly no sausage involved :(( they’re like the “regular” chinese egg tarts you’d get when eating dim sum, but slightly different. i can’t tell you exactly what (because i don’t know), but with the portuguese kind the tops of the custard are a little browned and i think they’re slightly sweeter? mmmmm!

  2. Thx for letting me know about this book! I’m going to try to listen to the author’s talk tomorrow!

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