At an uncountable number of lunches and dinners on my visits to China, I’ve had this conversation:
me: This is delicious! What is it?
Chinese host: Um, 蔬菜 — green vegetable.
me: What kind?
Chinese host: I don’t know how it’s called. It’s just green vegetable.
The ubiquitous 蔬菜 — (green) vegetable — is rarely the same. There are three types of green vegetable that I’ve seen. My U.S.-developed vocabulary will deem them: lettuce-type, bok choi-type, and broccolini-type. I’m sure I’ve eaten at least 5-10 varieties of each type in the last year.
Just now, I took a mini-field trip to the market near the office with X. We went to look at the fish, which I had asked about at lunch today, but we ended up looking at everything (of course). The egg vendors have signs detailing all kinds of specifics about their different products: 100-year-old egg, salted egg, free range duck egg, free range chicken egg, quail eggs, eggs from battery chickens, etc. Same for the tofu vendors: different degrees of soft/firm, fresh/aged, smoked, fried, etc. But when it comes to greens, the vegetable vendors just have signs with prices, or no signs at all. I asked X about this, and she said she thinks it’s because it doesn’t matter. You cook them all the same. She had a Chinese name for a few of the stranger lettuces — e.g., one that looked like a spikier, bright green Romaine — but lumped all the others together. (I’ll add a photo or two to this post later.)
I could attribute this to individual indifference to names, but that’s not really the case. Plus, it’s so exceedingly common when I ask this question at meals, that I think it’s just … that’s how it is.
Talking to X, though, I started wondering a couple of things:
(1) Was the same true in the U.S., historically? The heirloom movement and seed banks and foodie culture, in general, has done a lot to bring back some of the genetic diversity of plants that used to exist in backyard gardens and small farms. But did our grandparents and farming forefathers have all these names for the varietals, or were they just, you know, “tomatoes”?
(2) What’s the relationship of naming varietals to their continued market success and, as a result, genetic survival? Naming and cataloguing species has long been part of the Western conservation tradition, but is it possible that naming varietals then excludes un-named varietals from admiration and protection? (I’m sure I’m not coming up with an original question here, but I’d love to know of any books or journal articles or essays on this topic, if you know of them.)
I think you can see something similar with fish, too. In a lot of cultures where people eat a LOT of fish, they eat a lot of different KINDS of fish. Go to Greece, or here in China, or other places in the world, and there are certainly favorite kinds of fish, but there’s also just fish. You could substitute fish into my dialogue above, but where the vegetable is “green,” the fish is “freshwater, farmed, or ocean.” What kind of fish it is doesn’t usually matter to the preparation; where you are in the country seems to matter a lot more.
By contrast, modern fish consumption culture is focused on consuming not just “fish” in general, but on consuming specific types of fish. We eat fish today like we ate our tomatoes 10 years ago: Romas, Early Girls, Beefsteaks. Today, we eat tomatoes of all stripes — quite literally, in some cases — and lump unknown varietals under “heirloom” and call it good. If we ate “fish” more broadly, would we be doing fish conservation efforts a favor? Or, should we be focused on trying to name and describe all the “fish” that currently go unnoticed, to better enable protection and conservation for them as wild species and, perhaps, to encourage their consumption by brand-obsessed eaters?
And, finally, a couple of related things I thought about while writing this:
- Sarah Rich’s awesome series on the success of the mandarin orange, parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven.
- Paul Greenberg’s excellent book, Four Fish. I saw him speak about it at a fundraiser in San Francisco and then read (and enjoyed) it myself.
- The saga of Kona Kampachi, which seems to have taken a curious twist since I last checked into it.