Ever eaten guinea plants or garden eggs? No? How about brinjal? If you’re still shaking your head, then let me ask you again: Have you ever eaten an aubergine or an eggplant? It’s quite likely that you’ve answered yes, by now. And yet, the question was the same all along – all the terms used above refer to the same purple, pear-shaped vegetable.
To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Juliet, “A food by any other name would still taste the same” – so why do some foods have more than one name? Granted, young Romeo’s sweetheart was making a serious point about humans from all backgrounds ultimately being the same, whatever they’re called (Montague and Capulet, in the case of the star-crossed lovers). But it’s a question worth asking in relation to food, too – purely because there are so many instances of multiple names being used for ingredients and even entire dishes.
Different courses for different horses
In many cases, it’s simply a matter of different terms being used by people in different countries – as we can see in this intriguing table of fruits and vegetables deemed to be suitable for feeding to iguanas! Oddly enough, we get a lot of examples of this sort from England and America, which share an otherwise “common” language. In the UK, you might go to a greengrocer and buy coriander, courgettes, peppers, and green beans, whereas an American shopper would come home with cilantro, zucchini, bell peppers, and snap peas.
Chicken embryos, anyone?
Alternative food names also provide handy euphemisms for people who can’t quite cope with the reality of what they’re eating. You might not order “the liver of a force-fed duck,” “cow’s intestines,” or “fish eggs,” for example. Yet the prospect of being served “Foie gras,” “tripe,” or “caviar” seems so much more acceptable. It doesn’t just happen in restaurants, either. If you’ve ever seen the film Coneheads, you might be reminded of the phrase “chicken embryos” every time you dip a soldier of toast into a boiled “egg.”
Even where the main ingredient isn’t the stuff of nightmares, the name by which it is known can affect how likely we are to eat it. The hairy little fruit we know nowadays as a kiwi was once better known as a Chinese gooseberry. Until a team of marketers from New Zealand got to work on it, that is, and ran a hugely successful campaign that effectively changed its name across the globe.
In defence of multiple names…
Then there foods that are completely different in nature, which share the same name. For many, the word “yam” can be used to describe any one of a whole family of tuberous root vegetables (a family which, to many others, comes under the heading “sweet potato!”). Yet ask for “yam” in Thailand and you’ll be given a salad-like dish containing some kind of protein, vegetables, herbs, spices, and noodles. Unless, of course, you specifically order a “yam salat” – in which case you can forget any notions of eating exotic food, since this term is used to describe the kind of salad you’d get in the West.
Of course, there are certain to be many, many other instances of multiple names being used for the same food item and vice versa – and Dr. Foodle would love to hear about them! Give us your examples in the comments section below…