Vexing Vietnamese #2: Food name origins and the pitfalls of grocery shopping

Names of things often tell a great deal about the origin of the item, or the paths through which it reached the homeland of the language spoken. Vietnamese is no exception, and the names of certain plants and animals in Vietnamese can reveal a lot about Vietnam’s historical position in trade networks.

In Vietnamese, items from Europe or the New World are often called “Western” or “Siamese”. The Western label is obvious – many of these products were brought in by western merchants or came with colonialism and were named accordingly (with tây, meaning west or western) . Because of this, potatoes are Western sweet potatoes (khoai tây), asparagus is western bamboo shoot (măng tây), etc. The Siamese appellation is a little more confusing and requires some historical background. Ayutthaya was a major trade centre in Southeast Asia, and many of these products came to Vietnam through Siam (now Thailand), leading them to be called Siamese. Examples include Siamese duck (vịt Xiêm, or Muscovy duck in English, which is equally confusing, as these ducks came from Mexico, not Moscow) and Siamese sugar apple (mãng cầu Xiêm, known as soursop, graviola, or guanabana in English, with origins in Central America). Some New World fruit, while widespread, retain their native names through loanwords, with Mexican sapodillas known as sapôchê (from French sapotier, which ultimately is derived from Nahuatl tzapotl; however, following the Siamese theme, it is also known as hồng Xiêm, or Siamese persimmon), and the South American lúcuma retains its name as lê-ki-ma (also known as quả trứng gà, or chicken egg fruit, due to the yolk-like consistency of the fruit’s interior).

Lúcuma to the uninitiated, courtesy of Wikipedia

Oddly enough, that perennially famous new world fruit, the pineapple, somehow manages to have at least THREE names in common use in Vietnamese, none of which indicate an obvious foreign origin (dứa in the North, thơm in the centre, and khóm in the South, although some southerners have told me khóm can refer to a particular cultivar). Fruit and vegetables, whether native or imported, seems to have confusing names in general in Vietnamese – a plum is called mận where I’m from in central Vietnam and đào in southern Vietnam, while a water rose apple is called đào where I’m from and mận in southern Vietnam (northerners call them mận and roi, respectively, and đào usually refers to a peach in the north). Cassava? Take your pick between sắn and khoai mì. Mint? To this day, I still am unsure what Southerners actually call mint; when I use the word from Central (and Northern) Vietnam, bạc hà, I end up with something quite unlike mint. All those fresh vegetables that accompany Vietnamese dishes? Good luck trying to replicate them in another region without knowing the local names. Even tofu gets a few names – in the North, it is referred to as đậu phụ (Sino-Vietnamese reading 豆腐); however, it is called khuôn đậu in Central Vietnam, and tàu hũ in Southern Vietnam (possibly from Cantonese influence due to the number of Cantonese immigrants in Saigon). Soy-derived products in general seem to fall all over the place. Dessert tofu? Tào phớ in the North, đậu hũ in the Centre, and tàu hũ in the South (although they are prepared slightly differently). Soy sauce? Choose between nước tương and xì dầu (the latter is based on the Cantonese reading of 豉油, which is incidentally is also used by Peruvian Spanish under the spelling sillao). Confused yet? I know I am – along with any Saigonese grocers unfortunate enough to deal with me. Language often is just simply weird.

Wait, what am I even buying?

Naming foods after their perceived place of origin not a phenomenon exclusive to Vietnamese. The orange is a great example of this. While some languages allude to the fruit’s Chinese origin (such as appelsien in Dutch or апельсин/apel’sin in Russian), others refer to oranges with names deriving from Portugal, presumably because the Portuguese were among the first to bring the fruit to several regions (portakal in Turkish or portocală in Romanian). Similarly, the innocuous turkey seems to have a bewildering range of names (and is native to the Americas, not Turkey), including dinde (d’Inde, from India) in French, hindi in Turkish, and perú in Portuguese (Vietnamese, incidentally, simply calls turkeys gà tây, meaning “western chicken”). Another well-known example is the names for tea around the world, which is generally derived from either cha (from Cantonese) or teh (from Hokkien), both of which are simply different readings of the character 茶. This reflects classical trade routes – most western European countries use some variation on teh (tea in English, thé in French, te in Spanish, Tee in German, etc.), with the notable exception of the ever enterprising Portuguese, who use chá. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, names are generally derived from cha, such as Turkish çay or Russian чай (chay). Vietnam does not fit neatly on this divide due to extensive historical ties with China, and tea can be called chè or trà based on dialect and variety of tea (trà being the Sino-Vietnamese reading for 茶 and thus is another variation of the teh vs. cha theme, whereas chè appears to be native and gets its own Nôm character 𦷨); in my experience, Northerners tend to use chè to refer to both the plant and the drink, whereas people in the Centre and South tend to use chè for the plant and trà for the drink. That said, I have also heard trà used for the drink in the North, and I would also use chè to refer to a drink made from fresh tea leaves. However, my knowledge of tea is limited, so use my guidelines with caution when talking to a real Vietnamese tea connoisseur.

So next time you’re doing your groceries (also known as having your weekly dose of public interaction/anxiety attack during social distancing), pay attention to the names of what you’re buying – they might reveal a lot about how they ended up at your grocery store.

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