Tag Archives: Scotland

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 http://bit.ly/en05b4 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.)

One day later

Now that life has been rather stable for a while—we’ve been living in the same house for four years, Eleanor’s in school, and we haven’t had to negotiate burning barricades or tear gas for a little while—I thought I’d take advantage of the calm to undertake a proper rohatsu for the first time in a few years. The Rules: no food after noon, no television or music, no alcohol, and of course no meat, and as much meditation as I could manage in the morning, middle-of-the-day and late night slots.
Well, in a house with a small child, the no television rule meant hiding upstairs sometimes; and Bhāwanā felt obliged to give me huge bowls of broth at dinnertime. Fair enough. Most days I managed to put in two or three hours of meditation, sometimes waking early and sometimes after dinner. Two mornings, my daughter found me asleep across my zafu in some quiet corner of the house.

As it got closer to the 8th I tried, and failed, to step up the pace. I opened up Chodo Cross’s translation of the Zazengi. I made sure that I went out for long walks or runs every day. Because it’s December in Aberdeen, that meant running in the dark, which I find completely delightful even if I do fall over sometimes. One night I found myself running along the beach at high tide in a raging storm, plowing my way through runoff streams and getting slapped by waves that reached overfar. Sometimes the meditation went luminously well, sometimes it was just marking time. On the last night I found I had to help someone with a crisis rather than sit: well, an education in attachment, I suppose, and perhaps a reason to take robes someday. When I could finally sit I looked at the Zazengi: ‘Great Teacher Bodhidharma sat facing the wall for nine years.’ Then it was over; I woke up on Monday morning, read, and ate breakfast with my family. Nobody I talked to knew about rohatsu; for Bhāwanā’s family the full moon of Vaiṣākh is the important Buddhist holiday, not some Japanese holiday in December. Fair enough.

That day, a colleague walked by and when I asked him what he was up to, he said, ‘I’m wandering around. It’s one of the privileges of my job that I have to wander around.’ I told him it was an important day for Zen practitioners and that he had said something Zen people would enjoy. Two mature Japanese students talked to me for a while and we agreed we would talk some more about the relative merits of Shingon-shu and Soto-shu.

Tonight I went out for a run again. The tides have shifted, and the weather is calmer, though still cold. On the homeward stretch, coming down the beach, the sea had retreated and I could run for kilometre after kilometre along flat, open sand with the waves growling gently next to me. To the south Jupiter and Venus were up. I looked at the morning star and ran forever until the dog and I met the Don River, turned and went home.


Last week, Sunday 24 August, we had a gang of bairns round to test out the new trampoline. About mid-day on a hot day the shout went up: flying ants. I was delighted. After three years of woeful absence, I had seen a few ants wandering around the front garden—so we must have a nest somewhere nearby—and this means that the queen has perhaps bred and flown. I will be watching very closely in the next few days in the hope that we have’t lost our nest to the neighbours.

I honestly don’t know why there are so few ants here in Aberdeen, though my guess is that there simply isn’t enough solar radiation to sustain an underground nest. I’ve been trying to create a constructively messy garden, with trees and usefully lost bits of rubble for sheltering larger animals, but had no idea we might get ants in. These look like ordinary little brown ants, though I’m no specialist. Upcountry in the old Scottish woods we do have wood ants as well as slavers.

Yesterday, to add to the bounty, I found several new mushrooms. The Inkcaps that come up every year in the old Gordon Barracks have come up again, but I think I may also have found a Boletus sp. around as well as small rather spikey, globular mushroom that I haven’t yet identified. The small size of the N95 meant that I could actually get some great photos from ground level, “gnome’s eye view” so to speak. I’ll put them up over at Flickr later this week.

Holi freezing heck!

Okay: Bhavana had a great idea. Why shouldn’t the Anthropology Society, who are always up for a ritual, play Holi? The results speak for themself: see this, and this, and this. What the pictures don’t tell you is that it was snowing. Bleah. It’s one thing to be doused with abhir-water when it’s 35° – quite another when it’s 0° with a 50 km/h wind blowing sleet. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

What, so what, what for?

I discover with delight that my stated purpose here has aroused comment – over at Jinajik I’ve been chided for an apparent attack of despair. Now, Jinajik himself should know better than to question the relevance of ethnoecology to Newar Buddhism. As I will argue in Heidelberg in May, there are important and very deep connections between the landscape of Newar Vajrayāna and its praxis. The goad makes sense, though, and with apologies to him for using it as an excuse I will try to justify recent developments in my research. In short, both my recent criticisms of certain, but not all, conservative strands in Newar Vajrayāna and my return to work in ethnobiology are nothing more than owning up to the responsibilities of my particular ethical predicament.

Here in Aberdeen we’re supervising undergraduate and postgraduate research on Himalayan Buddhism, including ‘high’ Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhism, as well as lived Gurung, Ladakhi, Tamang or Newar Buddhism. I use ethnographic and textual sources to make it abundantly clear to the students here, and anyone else who will listen, that Newar Vajrayāna is alive, kicking, and must be accorded equal status as a distinctive type of Buddhism if we are to understand Vajrayāna. In research, I’m working on a series of articles, under the ‘Shared Shrines’ rubric spearheaded by Glenn Bowman at Kent, on the way in which Pharping Newars manage the refusal, by recently arrived Tibetans, to ‘do’ inclusive religion – why they reject ‘polytropy’ as defined by Carrithers; and still plodding on with work on Mahāyāna texts used in Newar Vajrayāna. Other lines of research—on ritualized literacy, on the regional identity of 7th-13th century Himalayan Buddhism, on trade in animal and plant materials—all derive from Newar material put into comparison or relation with neighbouring societies.

So when I declare myself to be working on Anthropology of Religion, things Himalayan, and ethnobiology I certainly don’t mean that I’ve abandoned work on Newar Vajrayāna. Fieldwork in that community is frustrating, certainly; and along with others (Todd Lewis in the 1998 Conference on the Preservation of the Buddhist Culture of Nepal Mandala; Rev. Takaoka in the 2004 conference of the same name) I have publicly deplored a particular conservative strain in Newar Vajrayāna. (For the curious, that deploration is in a 2007 issue of Matinā.). As a practising Buddhist with insider/outsider relations to the Newar Vajrayāna tradition, I deeply regret the hidebound failure of some of the Newar Vajrācāryas to leave behind the brutalities of caste, gender and race. As an anthropologist and historian of Newar Buddhism, those same prejudices are historical features of Newar society which ‘make sense’, but as a Buddhist scholar in conversation with the Newar Vajrayāna tradition it’s my moral duty to reject those attitudes.

There are problems in the Western academy as well. Where Jinajik worries about me, I grumble about the AAR panel on Tibetan and Himalayan Religions or the mission statement of the Aris Trust for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies – neither of which appeared to notice that the Himalayas is much, much bigger and more complex than ‘Tibet’. To that end Lauren Leve, may Jñānaḍakiṇī magically multiply her research funding!, has roped several of us into a panel at the AAR asking just why the North American academy seems so very determined to marginalize Newar Buddhism as a domain of enquiry.

On a different front, some Western scholars of Newar Buddhism have hung on to the rather Victorian idea that the problem is the Vajrayāna of it. Thus studies of Newar Theravāda often contain explicit or implicit comparisons of the Buddhist-ness of Newar Theravāda versus the Vajrayāna: the Theravāda is more egalitarian, a purer form of Buddhism, what have you. This seems to me a tragic failure of scholarship, insider, outsider or otherwise.

But let me get back to the question: why ethnobiology in particular? Four reasons, at least for now:

(1) Because it’s a return to a beloved domain of research: I was a ‘biologist’ playing with bones and learning to graft long before I was an ‘anthropologist’, ‘Himalayan specialist’ or even, so far as I understood the label, ‘Buddhist’. One of the privileges of working at a research university is, unsurprisingly, having the freedom to widen one’s research—and here I am retrieving an interest I had to suppress in order to get through writitng the DPhil, publishing the book and landing a proper job.
(2) It’s a natural development of my long involvement with Engaged Buddhism. When Franz Metcalf asked me why I was working on ethnobiology I cheerfully borrowed the title of his own book as an explanation. Would a Buddha these days teach Buddhism in a university? Somehow I think that’s just asking to be swallowed whole by the necessary hypocrisy of language – just the sort of thing Nāgārjuna meant by prapañca — and since I do actually teach Buddhism in a university, and mutter vows about somehow becoming a Buddha some æon, then it seems to me necessary to do find a way to do engaged research as part of a life teaching Buddhism—just as it seems to me necessary to refuse the automobile, to oppose wars, and all those other other obvious decisions.
(3) Because an anthropology which refuses to draw lines between human society and the wider community of which it is part is the first step towards a properly Buddhist anthropology.
(4) Actually, you can’t possibly understand Newar religion at all without a clear understanding of how it is situated in its ecology and its landscape. Where else are swifts considered gods? So it’s not despair—it’s delight.

Spring in Aberdeen

Nothing like it.

I was running at 6:30 this morning with Hakunica, thumping along the frosty beach with the tide drawn right back to expose the old stakes where the salmon nets were tied. Last night was a wonderful lunar eclipse, abhir-stained moon playing Holi with all of us. Yesterday morning Śraddhā and I wandered over to the old barracks and carefully dug up a few clumps of woodland hyacinth for our front garden. We moved the bedraggled mint into a pot where it would be happy, went off to the DIY shop to buy better light fixtures, came home and repainted the bird table. Today started cold, bright and clear: as I reached the end of my run the sun exploded, first dawn after the spring full moon.

Now it’s pelting down, chainmail sheets of North Sea rain dragging across the south side of the house.

The women at the bakery say, ‘Four seasons in one day.’

I wonder what it would be like to live someplace warm again.

Desperate weather (26 October walk)

The morning walk on the beach today was punctuated by unexpected animals.

I’ve not really been through a whole year here, and while I see the tide rise and fall along the Don, I often wonder what happens when all the dog-walkers and courting couples and aimless drunks clear off. When I came back to the morning walks after our research time in Nepal I heard from others that a seal had appeared, dead, some ways up the beach and rotted there for a few days. Eventually the tide must have been pulled back up the beach by the waxing moon and one day it was gone.

It was dark this particular morning – the clocks have not yet gone back – and Hakunicha and I stumbled across both a stranded seal and a young guillemot, I think. It was some sort of auk-ish thing that I only saw dimly as it clambered through the dark into the sea. I remembered The Sea-Thing Child and wondered whether Russell Hoban had ever lived in Scotland: the protagonists in that story could well be the ordinary denizens of our end of Balmedie Beach. Eels, seagulls, auks. A ways further on we met a seal, quite some ways above the damp sand left by the falling tide. The seal was remarkably sure of its place – it rolled around to face us and made a perfectly clear hissing noise.

It is a part of British middle class life, to which I have been rather inefficiently glued, to wonder what would happen if one were summoned to Desert Island Discs. Friday night I remembered the idealism of a California folk/hippy musical youth, and yesterday evening I dug into what happened next. I found Chris Cutler’s page at ReR and spent the next two hours weddling (web waddling?) through Recommended Records, Hannibal Records and who knows what else. Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, Tom Cora (I was there for a Skeleton Crew concert at Reed – I talked to Fred! – I pushed their drumkit back onto the stage when it threatened to fall off) – the West African marimba bands, who formed and reformed like the CBeebies bloblets but played four six hour sets; the Golden Palominoes, Pere Ubu, John Zorn a bit but boy was he full of himself. And now where has it all gone? I have written to Simon W-S to complain.