How fish sauce traveled the world and became ketchup in The Language of Food

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It took a while for academia to acknowledge the role food of in history. In his 2003 memoir, The Apprentice, Jacques Pépin tells of the long-ago Columbia University professor who forbade him to focus on the history of French food when the then-young chef was studying for his Ph.D. (Yes, it’s Dr. Pépin, to you.) When Pépin became a celebrity chef, he had his revenge: he co-founded Boston University’s gastronomy program, the first of its kind at a major university.

Now, of course, food history is hot. There are books and articles on the history of everything from amaranth to za’atar, and you can find classes at top colleges and in your local adult education catalog. The role of food as a driver of world events—and vice versa—is widely accepted.

Enter Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics and computer science at Stamford University. His new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu (W.W. Norton & Company, September 2014), takes the concept to another level. He suggests—convincingly and with great charm—that the very words we use to describe food can reveal volumes about human history and aspiration.

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Jurafsky, the winner of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2002, examines a handful of subjects—the language of menus, the origins of the words “entree,” “ceviche,” “ice cream” and others—to show how words develop along with the foods they describe, and how both are influenced by what’s happening at particular moments in history. Along the way, he explains a good deal about the art and science of linguistics.

To cite just one example, Jurafsky chronicles the origins of ketchup, tracing its birth to the development of fermented fish sauce in southern China several thousand years ago. Chinese traders transported it throughout Southeast Asia, and at some point it acquired the name of ke-tchup. Ke, he tells us, is the Hokkien dialect’s word for preserved fish, while tchup is the word for sauce. How ke-tchup became the name for the tomato product we slather on French fries is quite a tale. Chinese settlers established fish sauce factories in Indonesia, where the name became kecap.  With time, however, that word became a generic name for all sorts of regional sauces, a linguistic development that Jurafsky notes is known as “semantic bleaching” (in which the meaning of a term moves from specific to general). But ketchup still had to cross oceans before assuming its current form, and that happened when early British traders encountered it on their voyages to the East. 

On English soil, the import became the trophy condiment of its day, and soon enterprising British manufacturers were producing less expensive knockoffs—mushroom-based ketchup, walnut-based ketchup and, in the 19th century, tomato-and-anchovy-based ketchup, which, once it had landed in the U.S., morphed into the fishless tomato-sugar-vinegar sauce that it is today. All of which is interesting on its own, but it’s particularly instructive, says Jurafsky, because it disproves the traditional Western notion that China walled itself off from early global trade and languished in isolation until its rediscovery and rescue by the West.

Just as intriguing as Jurafsky’s forays into history are his descriptions of modern linguistic science and how computers have enabled the field to find patterns and meanings among hundreds of thousands usages that would once have taken lifetimes to analyze.

It’s complex stuff, but Jurafsky makes it accessible and fun. The Language of Food is a beguiling look at how two subjects so elemental to human life intersect in ways we would never expect.

Karen Berman is a writer and editor who specializes in food and lifestyle topics. Her books include Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family and Easy-Peasy Recipes: Snacks and Treats to Make and Eat. She has worked as an editor on some 35 cookbooks and written more articles than she can count. She holds a certificate in cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and her culinary travels have taken her as far as the Thai House Cooking School in Thonburri, Thailand. Among her current titles are senior content editor of TheWeiserKitchen.com and managing editor of NYFoodstory: The Journal of the Culinary Historians of New York. She is mom to daughter Jessica, her best food critic.

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