Category Archives: research

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.


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?

What did Chief Seattle say?

In pursuit of historical veracity I came across extracts from F.J. Grant’s report (pp. 433-6 of his History of Seattle, Washington) of the speech of Chief Sealth—as translated from someone else’s Chinook translation of Sealth’s into English by Henry Smith, then printed in a now unreadable edition of the Seattle Sunday Star, 29 October 1887—the whole of which I found by looking at Furtwangler’s Answering Chief Seattle on Google.

As many removes away from some situated original as this might be, it is also a long, long ways from the widely reprinted text of “Chief Seattle’s speech” that circulates in the Green movement. What struck me was the sympathetic recognition of the burden of a bleak, unforgiving religion contained in this thoroughly hybrid text. Whether it is the voice of a white man, disenfranchised from the traditions of his forebears through some shattering encounter, or the voice of a chief seeing his people’s true doom, or some conversation between them, the description is painfully acute.

[p.14] Your god seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw him; never even heard his voice; he gave the white man laws, but he had no word for his red children whose teeming millions filled this vast continent as stars fill the firmament. No, we are two distinct races and must ever remain so. There is little in common between us. The ashes of out ancestors are [15] sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret.

Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry god, lest you might forget it. The red man could never remember nor comprehend it.

Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams of our old men, given them by the great spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.

Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, as soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in their tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

Wow. That’s much better than the cloying gleep that is usually reprinted.

As a child, I would find arrowheads and metates left behind by Gabrieleno or Chumash—and I give credit to my parents for making sure I knew those names. As an adult I have burnt and scattered both my parents, and I know exactly where they are, and what trees those ashes fed. That is not any practice their ancestors brought with them to Turtle Island, and although I know it’s a relatively new practice in my family, I do not know who taught us to do this.

Bats in motion

This morning’s trawl of news items about bats turned up a wonderful article in Science News reporting on work by T Kunz on how bats use their wings to move. The arguments are interesting, but the wonder of the article is the videos: bats flying, running, swimming. Great stuff.

Buddhist exclusivism in Sri Lanka

Is this modernism, exclusivism or fundamentalism? I’ve got a chapter coming out (in Sharing the Sacra, ed. Glenn Bowman) in which I discuss local responses to a similar attitude among Pharping Tibetans, but this is sharper still. While recent academic study of Buddhism shows that it has always included deities of various flavours, the uncompromising attitude shown by the author of this peace gives me little hope for flexible, collusive processes such as those I documented in Pharping. Surely Nāgārjuna was right to list worshipping the worship-ables right after the ten precepts in his Ratnāvalī.

Tweets and twinges

I’ve been using twitter, linked to SecondLife and to FaceBook, as a way of communicating publicly. It’s a good thing because the FaceBook pages act like a sort of commentary; others react and add their own opinions. Very satisfying. No historical record, though, and that bothers me; it seems exactly the kind of public document that deserves presevation.

On an unrelated note, I smashed my right ulnar nerve at the elbow yesterday, very frustrating. Hurt a lot then, hurts sharply sometimes now, but I can’t feel anything in my pinky, outside of my ring finger or the edge of my right hand. Makes typing really hard. It’s as though it’s permanently asleep. It’s distinctly unpleasant to touch. like pins-and-needles but worse, and I can’t really control the fingers well. Hope it goes away. I did it in the stupidest way possible, by treading on the blade of a hoe and thus thus flipping it upright, sharply, into my own elbow. White lights pain >bam!< I came reeling out of the shed.