The yam question

My thanks to those brave few people who actually answered the yam survey. (For those who had no idea there was such a thing, please consult and answer the questions!) I did promise Felice Wyndham I’d post the results, so here’s what I uncovered.

The whole haggis hunt was set off by the need to prepare a Māgh Saṃkrānti feast at our house in Aberdeen. That’s one of the only solar, as opposed to lunisolar, feasts in the Newar ritual calendar, and among other things one should eat ही [](in Newari) or तरुल [tarul](in Nepali)—that is, Dioscorea root. Bhāwanā and I had a long conversation about exactly what plant was involved, and what other tubers might be confused with it.

Particularly confusing to me was the listing in several Newari dictionaries of a term चकु ही [caku hī]—that is, a sweet Dioscorea—referring to Ipomea batatas. Neither Bhāwanā nor her father had ever heard that term (even though it was listed in Sugat Das Tulādhar’s little dictionary from the 1950’s) and both were sure that Ipomea was the wrong food. Strangely, K Shrestha’s Dictionary of Nepalese Plant Names didn’t give any Newari word for Dioscorea or Ipomea, though to be frank, it’s not much good for Newari language terms. It made formal sense that in Newari, Dioscorea was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas thus became a ‘sweet Dioscorea’, while in North America, Solanum tuberosum was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas was thus a ‘sweet Solanum tuberosum’ — except that it was only dictionaries, and not real people, who actually had the term. When we talked about Ipomea batatas with the Nepal family, everyone used the Nepali word शकर खण्ड [śakar khaṇḍ] and my suspicion is that चकु ही is a hyper-Newari back formation associated with the Newar language movement, much like च्वसा [cvasā] for pen instead of the ‘Nepali’ कलम [kalam](actually from the Persian قلم (ghalam), so predating the much-resented Gorkha conquest).

Being a Californian, to me Ipomea batatas was either a ‘sweet potato’ or a ‘yam’ – I had no English word to refer to Dioscorea spp. tubers. English language dictionaries confirmed this: although ‘yam’ should refer to Dioscorea tubers or plants, for North Americans, ‘yam’ was an orange-fleshed Ipomea batatas and a ‘sweet potato’ was one with white flesh. That was news to me: I had never encountered either with anything other than orange flesh. Since we’re reading Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s The Yearling at night just now, I’m hoping among its other intricate descriptions of animals and crops she’ll let slip a hint of whether the Baxter grew and ate white or orange Ipomea…but I’m getting distracted here.

I trundled down to our local Asian shop on King St., by a little bit worried that I would get the wrong thing.

When I got there, this is what I saw (with apologies for quick iPhone shots and messy stitching):


From left to right, what you are seeing are the roots of
Ipomea batatas, Manihot esculenta, Dioscorea spp., and Colocasia esculenta.

Of course, I had no idea what word they would use to refer to ही so I just pointed, and that’s when it got interesting. Given that the staff at City Spice, who are a mix of Scots, Bangladeshi and sometimes also Nepali, need to sell this range of tubers in English (or Scots) to folk from Scotland, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, they have unambiguous words for each. For them, what you have here are:
Sweet potato, cassava, yam, and taro.

The shopkeeper confirmed that a significant number of customers used the word ‘yam’ to refer to Ipomea batatas and he thought they were mostly North American.

I bought my ‘yam’, after a long conversation about names for these, trotted home, and wrote the survey. It seemed to me that migration and changing foodways might well be driving a change in how people distinguished these roots. It made sense that the proprietors of shops that sourced and sold foods to a wide range of migrant populations would need to have clear distinctions, but would that also apply in urban centres elsewhere as global cuisines began to spread? I assumed that the sorts of people who would answer the survey—because I publicized it through my own social networks—would be unusually mobile, highly educated, from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and have a wide exposure to different foods. Would there be a clear consensus?


To begin with, I had only 9 responses. To those of you that saw my pleas to do the survey and moved on, well, fine. I guess I shall simply have to write more appealing surveys. I was able to follow up with a handful of those responses. Here’s a brief summary:

1. One respondent had never encountered ‘yam’ at all, whether as food or as commodity, and before the survey had suspected it was a fruit.
2. Three of the respondents distinguished between ‘yam’ and Ipomea batatas; two identified it as Dioscorea, and one was sure that it was not a ‘sweet potato’.
3. Two respondents said that ‘yam’ was a sweet potato or a variety of sweet potato.
4. While I had hoped to pick up further distinctions through asking ‘What other tubers are like yams’, this didn’t work the way I had expected. Seven respondents, including some who said yams were sweet potatoes, listed sweet potatoes among tubers like yams. One person used this answer to record their confusion as to whether a yam was a sweet potato; another used the ‘when you last ate a yam’ question to do the same.
5. Three respondents distinguished yams by country of origin, and two also by similarity to some other tuber. Responses included (a) ‘Old World version of American sweet potato’; (b) ‘South American tuber’; (c) ‘potato-like tuber of African origin’.
6. Almost everyone saw their yams in supermarkets. One person saw theirs in a CSA delivery box.

7.Three respondents had cooked their own; two of these identified it as Dioscorea and one as Ipomea batatas and all were confident of their answers.

8. Of the remaining six respondents, four had been fed by a relative or friend and were less sure of their answers. One had eaten it in an Indian restaurant, and was sure it was not a sweet potato.

Just from this, it is clear that among the respondents there is still a division in the use of the term between kind-of-Ipomea and Dioscorea. Three answers were markedly confident, but for the rest, just asking these questions exposes respondents to considerable doubt as to their answers.

In one response where I was able to ask further questions, it became clear that the respondent had learned what a ‘yam’ was through playing Farmville, on Facebook—and thus although they were not from North America, had internalised ‘yam’ as a kind-of-Ipomea through virtual agriculture (!).

Without a much larger response pool and a more carefully crafted survey, not much can be done; but I suspect as a result of this exercise that there are two trends at work. One is, as I suggested above, the movement of foodways through migration and globalisation. The other—which I didn’t expect—is the possibility for unfamiliar terms to acquire a firmly held definition through internet or mass media socialisation wholly divorced from the actual crop or food item.

However, if anyone does care to pick this project up, I propose that seeking changes in just the English terminology would be comparatively unrevealing. Given that the hard work of constructing immigrant foodways often happens in retail transactions at ‘Asian shops’ (where I often meet as many African cooks as I do South or East Asian) it would make sense to look for changes in several languages where those languages are the lingua franca of shopkeeper or hotelier networks, such as Cantonese, Punjabi, Bengali, or Spanish. In each of these communities there will have to be adjustments to a wider inventory of food types as well as a complex clientele; will they move in parallel within each major urban region?

(With thanks to those of you who responded, and thanks to the kind staff at City Spice Shop.)


8:30 AM, January in Aberdeen: the brightest stars are still clearly visible, the eastern sky red and black with long strings of clouds torn to tatters from their long journey from the Atlantic, across the Cairngorms, to the cold North Sea. It’s unusually warm this morning, 5°, and I stood out back with a steaming cup watching the birds. There are no surprises this far north—there simply isn’t enough diversity for there to be anything unexpected. Once one’s eyes have learned to distinguish rooks from crows, greater seagulls from common, dunnets from sparrows—well, that’s about it. The vagrants really stand out, and most species are recognizable from their outlines.

After a few months back in North America, the sheer paucity of life in northeast Scotland really shocked me. Toronto was a brutally vibrant human place; all the dogs were purebreds and it was hours on the bus out of town before one shook free the infectious tendrils of housing tracts. But in the markets and back gardens of the groin of the city there was a staggering diversity of food unfolding, and as Bhāwanā observed, this was the northern limit of Three Sisters agriculture. One could, were one so minded, grow maize and beans and squash in one’s back garden right in the middle of the city. The research community was welcoming in a way that we have not encountered for many years. As for Florida, walking and canoeing around the rivers and sandy forest in the company of like-minded, broad-hearted folk there was bliss. It helped, certainly, that we were among friend gathered from all across the world to work on shared interests and altruisms—but the coyote, the oaks, the vultures, the oranges, the jays and armadillos were signs of home. Feeling, hearing, smelling, seeing the quantity and variety of life-forms showed me how numb and disconnected I have become in the past few years.

One pigeon this morning, perhaps a member of the homing pigeon stable that lives two streets over, was playing against the wind. After turning into the wind it would fall and draw its wings together with an audible slap, then rise, turn, and prepare to loop again. My eye was drawn to a more distant black blob moving with the wind, fast, past our suburb and out over the dunes. No matter how I strained I couldn’t scry out its wing shape or the rhythm of its flight. Was it a lone duck, obscuring its wings with the bulk of its backside? Eventually I gave up: it was too far away now, my eyes had failed me, I was getting old and blind. From over my shoulder came another oddly lumpen shape, this one pink, dragging a string along, then one more. Three balloons, foolishly truant early on a Sunday morning, were stolen by the wind and hurled into the wrathful sea.

Summer in Aberdeen.

Our garden has achieved a near-perfect balance between weeds and cultivation. Bhawana and Śraddhā Jyoti brought in two big tubs of fresh strawberries yesterday evening. The apple trees have got plenty of fruit on, but show no signs of bending after last year’s pruning. A cat has moved into the long grass growing in front of the house—perhaps hunting the fieldmice? or the occasional rabbit?— and there are a few unusual weeds out there. We’ve actually got a well-established ant colony, though only in the west-facing garden; it’s just too cold anywhere else. The Buddleia still hasn’t really taken off; but the Himalaya Birch trees, savagely attacked by caterpillars, were rescued by sparrows who came and ate most of them. The Orange Hawkbit has taken off in the back, and the Tansies are thriving. The real reward: tonight a bat, probably a pipistrelle, came and hunted happily for about a half-hour. When we first arrived here I remember the occasional bat would pass by our garden and given it one or two disdainful loops; now we’re good for quite a few plump moths and beetles and a good long stay.

Compared to the riotous biodiversity of a ranch in the California hills, with hundreds of bird species to choose from, or the nocturnal acoustic chaos of Nepal, it’s not much. Every day I look out from this place and see, very clearly, that Aberdeen is a frightened, brutally industrial city in the far north of the world, politically sterile, cold and sullen and not much given to life. The trees in summer scramble to get their leaves out before the bitter blasts return. But for a cool grey summer’s evening in a cold, barren place, a good harvest of strawberries and one happy bat is adequate riches.

July foggy dawn, NW England.

On the train from Aberdeen to Oxford this morning, in seated accomodation as they call it. Better than a coach, and I’m tall enough so that the beds (which cost £50/night at best) are a bit too short for comfort. After Preston, where the various we in seated all sat up unsure, most everyone slumped back into sleep. Opposite me was an older man, khakis, navy blazer, and regimental tie who’d got on with his wife at Arbroath. Somehow he maintained dignity even when asleep. I stayed half-in, half-out. The train was running late and I didn’t want to miss my connection at Crewe. We escaped the grim Lancashire houses and found ourselves meeting goods trains in misty farmland. Being summer in the north of the world, the sun was somewhere below the horizon but the sky was lightening, and then there emerged the bowlegs of a morning rainbow in the mist. Amazing.

Submarine or Banyan?

Like most folks, I suppose, I’ve been alternately amazed and horrified at the way in which the rapid present-day connections that emerge from tools like Linked In and Facebook may thwart years of careful effort at compartmentalization. To me, my life is a series of chambers through which I have passed, and each chamber is tightly sealed off from the others. Very few indeed are the friends who have come with me from one period to the next, in part because quite often I find that the sign of moving from one period to the next is that all my friends are still each other’s friends, but I no longer have enough in common with any of them.

In my bleaker moments it feels something like the watertight hatches that one might slam shut in order to prevent a submarine from sinking. Down there, below that hatch, are the connections and memories of a place I have left. That place, in turn, was made by closing the doors on a prior, past. And all the time, the water keeps seeping in.

That seems a Bad Way To Do Things, a form of dishonesty that I regret. As an alternative, I would like to think in terms of the banyan: a tree that grows up within another tree, sends down its own roots, creates a trunk, then beings to spread; and as it widens, sends down alternative trunks until, if it’s lucky enough to grow to a grand old age, it becomes a maze of trunks and spaces between them. Each of those newer trunks is a different point of contact with the earth, and the spreading geometry of trunks is particular to just that banyan tree. So each trunk is distinct; but the tree is a whole.

To return to Facebook and all that: the effect of these find-a-friend technologies is to present me as having one undifferentiated network to which all my ‘friends’ belong. That may be fine for an 18 year old student who has just discovered their First Real Friends; but actually, I don’t actually want my work buddies to know who my old school buddies are, nor my university friends to know who my geek friends are. That compartmentalization is a vital social strategy for me as an ordinary social person with a long social history and multiple social lives.

Facebook, of course, works on the idea that it’s a desirable experience to go snooping around in other people’s friend sets looking for interesting people—indeed, to judge people by their friends. I really value Facebook’s ability to help find lost folks—I have discovered some folks long lost who I’m saving for a rainy day, others whom I am rather shy to contact. I dislike, intensely, the fact that any of my friends can either see all of my friends, or none, without my being able to conceal or reveal those connections as I see fit. There must be some happy medium in this, a way to search (related to what Linked In does) the cloud of people in 2nd and 3rd order links around, but not to specify through whom those links are made.

In any case, here’s a link to my own past that I discovered while looking for something else: me as absurdist actor in a Latino theatre company. Look under Douglas; I was’t married then.

Of course, the whole question of being forced to stare at adverts and be targetted for adverts as one sets about having a social life is utterly disgusting—the worst kind of pornography. I am greatly cheered by the prospect of Diaspora and the anti-Facebook movment. Bhawana, my wise and sometimes edgy wife, finally decided she couldn’t stand all the stupidity of Facebook and deleted her account. As she put it: in Buddhism, repeating rumours is against the precepts yet that’s exactly what Facebook is for— and I might add, building on criticism I made in my article about technology for the journal of Buddhist Ethics, it’s also about deliberately becoming unmindful.

Sadly, I need Facebook’s connections to keep in touch with colleagues for now, as much as I dislike it.

Brutal irony

Saturday was Buddha Pūrṇimā, the international holiday that celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing. The UN Secretary General issued a message calling for solidarity and the alleviation of suffering.

In Sri Lanka, the military decided to celebrate the holiday in true Colt Peacemaker style, by launching a Gaza-style offensive against the last remaining enclave of Tamil separatists. Don’t get me wrong: in my opinion the LTTE is one of the worst terrorist organisations on the planet. That does not, however excuse the slaughter of civilians. The horrific triumphalism of the Asian Tribunes article celebrating the ‘liberation’ of the northeast of the island stifles any attempt at black humour. Hundreds are dead.

In the Swat Valley, thought to the birthplace of Padmasambhava, the Pakistani army continued a thorough offensive to dislodge the Taleban. I have not seen any reliable reports on how many are dead. At least a million people have become internal refugees.

At Bodhgaya, protests erupted because the shrine there, sacred to Buddhists worldwide, is controlled by a Hindu-majority board backed by government decree. The governor chose to chastise the Amebedkar-Buddhist protestors telling them that they were not showing ‘tolerance and inclusiveness’.

Here in Aberdeen our small saṅgha had a picnic.


In response to a survey of UK projects in Second Life I sent in a brief blurb about Emptiness Hall and I’m delighted to see that we merited a mention on Virtual World Watch. I start teaching the class tomorrow: what will the students think?