I was following the directions for a spinach raita, but using kale, common winter vegetable, as a substitute. The resulting flavor was milder, but still rich with greenery. Where does “kale” come from, I idly wondered – idly enough that thoughts of languages unknown to me flickered through my head; I didn’t think of the German word Kohl, the etymologically-related kohlrabi, or the English cole-slaw.
In Middle English, kale or cale or cail or calewort was a generic name for cabbage variations, with its earliest documented from around 1300. (OED) A sixteenth-century naturalist (but not a pirate), William Turner, wrote, in The names of herbes, that “Brassica is named..in englishe colewurtes, cole or keele.”
In Scotland, the vegetable was ubiquitous enough that, like the word for rice in Japanese, kale became synonymous with meals more generally. The kale-bell was the dinner bell, with kale-time synonymous with dinner-time. Water-kale was any broth made without fat or meat, cabbage-variants entirely optional. (Robert Henryson refers to it in “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”) As a result, the kale-pot, known by that name, was used for cooking up soups and stews, not just broth and cabbage.
As of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the “kailyard” was, as you would expect, a yard, or vegetable plot, where kale was grown. The term was used to derogatorily brand a group of Scottish writers, sentimental for rural life, including the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie. (As I learned from eat the seasons.)
I see that the Kale industry encourages me to “Discover Kale“, from which I learn that Lincolnshire is a hotbed of kale-growing. March is the tail-end of its growing season in the UK, so it may be several months before I have much cause to think on kale again, whether as cabbage, meal, or literary movement.
Now that the first shoots are up and snowdrops are blooming, it’s about time for the foods of spring.
After a day of fast food, I was pining for plants. Rhetorically, I vowed to eat only vegetables the following day. “Broccoli for breakfast! Lettuce for lunch!” And then I stalled. I couldn’t think of a single vegetable beginning with D. Dill and dandelion leaves were not compelling options.
I was in the car at the time, but when I arrived at our destination, our host kindly got out her copy of The Complete Book of Vegetables to search out an answer. (There are several books by that name; I didn’t think at the time to check author and year.) That’s how I first heard of both dasheen and the doodhi gourd.
“Dasheen” is a name for the tubers of the taro plant, members of the Colocasia genus. I know taro; I’d never heard dasheen. The word seems to have originated as a creole version of the French phrase “de Chine”, that is, “from China”. In other words, like the turkey, it is a plant named for its supposed place of origin.
In French, the plant isn’t called “dechine”, however, in the same way that turkey is “dinde” (lit. “from India”); it’s called “taro” or, after its Latin name, “colocase”. Funnily enough, it would be more accurate to call taro “dinde” than it is to call it “dasheen”, since the root’s cultivation originated in India at least 7000 years ago, according to The Oxford Companion to Food. At least “dasheen” is not as wrong as “dinde”, since the turkey bird is from the Americas, an entirely different continent, while taro really has been cultivated in China, from sometime before 100 BCE.
The OED gives the earliest known use of “dasheen” as 1899, when it had long since been established in the Caribbean, as well as in the tropical parts of Central and South America. With the exception of my original source, the other reference sources I consulted all listed “dasheen” under “taro”, rather than vice versa. The name is widely used for the root vegetable in parts of the West Indies.
So: “Broccoli for breakfast, lettuce for lunch, and dasheen for dinner.” The Complete Book of Vegetables alleviated my alliterative lack even if, as a diet, it lacks a great deal.
© S. Worthen 2009