There are so many wonderful ways to enjoy food – eating it, of course, is best. But talking about it comes a close second. They say we eat with our eyes, and a well-presented plate does, indeed, set the saliva glands going, but what about eating with our ears? Isn’t there something equally beguiling about the names bestowed on certain foods and dishes? From the romantically derived moniker of Italian ‘carpaccio’ to the more grounded Gaelic heritage of our own ‘colcannon’ and ‘champ’ right through to the biblically associated ‘John Dory’ and the more linguistically challenging ‘asafoetida’: we hunt down the meaning behind them.
How a dish of wafer-thin slices of raw beef came to be known as ‘carpaccio’ is a well-told story. They say that it was invented in Harry’s Bar in Venice, by Giuseppe Cipriani, when a countess named Amalia Nani Mocenigo visited the Bar in 1950. The countess had informed Giuseppe that due to ill health her doctor had recommended she eat only raw meat, so the restaurant served up a very simple dish of finely shaved uncooked beef, drizzled with a cream-coloured, piquant sauce.
The story goes that the brilliant reds and whites of the dish reminded Giuseppe of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, who was renowned for his vivid use of these tones, particularly reds, and so named the dish after him. It is also said that Cipriani, with his interest in 15th-century art, invented a (now much-loved) Prosecco and white peach juice cocktail, and christened it Bellini after the artist Giovanni Bellini. Today Harry’s Bar still serves a mean Bellini and carpaccio is enjoyed the world over in its myriad guises – carpaccio of tuna, courgette, beetroot … just slice it and name it.
Another fine food that boasts a noble background to its etymology is our humble John Dory, known as St Pierre in France and Pez de San Pedro in Spain. This large, thin fish might look a little strange, but the signature black mark on his side denotes a dignified legacy. It is commonly said that St Peter left his thumbprint on the fish when he picked it out of the water; once caught the fish made distressed noises and St Peter was moved to throw it back into the water. Why the fish is known as John Dory in these parts is anyone’s guess. One popular theory alluded to by Jules Verne in his novel An Antarctic Mystery is that “The legendary etymology of this piscatorial designation is Janitore, meaning the ‘door-keeper” (a reference to St Peter, the gate keeper of Heaven)” – and John Dory is thus presumed to be an Anglicisation of Janitore.
The names of our own native dishes boast less fanciful roots but some wonderful words: colcannon, boxty, fadge, farl, coddle, drisheen, champ… and then champ alone can also be called bruisy, cally, goody, pandy or poundies depending on what part of the country you’re enjoying your bowl of moistened mashed potatoes, flavoured with chopped onions, scallions or nettle tops in. A dish of champ (and its counterparts) was traditionally made by mashing the potatoes with a ‘pounder’ hence the name ‘poundies’, it was also a dish made to be attractive to children, hence its many playful names. Similar to champ, colcannon is made from mashing boiled potatoes and cabbage or curly kale together, flavoured with cream, milk and butter and sometimes scallion or leek. The word ‘colcannon’ derives from the Gaelic cál ceannann which literally means white-headed cabbage. Its English counterpart is known as ‘bubble & squeak’, perhaps also an allusion to its popularity with children.
Less popular with children, undoubtedly, is the somewhat unpronounceable spice ‘asafoetida’. This pungent, sour smelling spice gets its name from the Persian aza meaning ‘resin’ and the Latin foetida meaning ‘stinking’. This ‘stinking resin’ gum (procured from the root of the giant fennel plant) is available most commonly as a powdered spice that is hugely popular in Indian cuisine. Once added to hot oil, the spice changes character and gives off an odour and flavour of onion. It is an integral ingredient in Indian Pakora, Kofta and Poori and is rumoured to be one of the secret ingredients in Worcestershire Sauce.
Now you can savour the flavour of the names as well as the smells and tastes of your favourite foods. Having an inkling into their origins adds a certain secret spice all of its own.