How food has evolved a fancy vocabulary of its own

There are now many more kinds of classifications of people by the food they eat, or don’t

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By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 23 Jun 2022, 4:50 PM

One subject we might think doesn’t need words, since it expresses a human need far more elemental than language, is food. After all, people are hungry before they need to (or even can) speak, so food has existed before language was even invented. Still, food has evolved a fancy vocabulary of its own, with unusual words for various ways of preparing it, and even more exotic terms to name or label each dish. And then there are words to describe you, the eater, depending on your food preferences.

In the old days when I was growing up, the world was divided into two kinds of people — vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Vegetarians didn’t eat meat; the ‘non-veg’ folks did. In those less-complicated times, the simple ‘veg/non-veg’ distinction was straightforward and clear, or so we thought. But with growing worldly sophistication, that’s no longer enough. There are many more kinds of classifications of people by the food they eat, or don’t. A vegan, for instance, doesn’t eat animal products of any kind. Whereas a vegetarian only objects to consuming a creature that has been killed, and has no ideological problem with milk or eggs since the animal is not murdered for his meal, the vegan diet eliminates meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products, as well as other animal-derived products, such as honey. On this diet you also avoid rennet, gelatin, collagen and other types of animal protein. Even soup made of animal stock or fats derived from animals are taboo.

Vegetarians themselves have become far more complex than just people who refuse to consume animal flesh products, whether fish, meat or fowl. Now there are several sub-types of vegetarians. Most common are the Lacto-ovo vegetarians, who won’t eat meat, fish and poultry but are happy to consume eggs and dairy products (I am one of those). Less common are the Ovo-vegetarians, who reject meat, fish, poultry and dairy products but eat eggs. Next are the Pescatarians, who in my book aren’t vegetarians at all because though they abstain from eating all meat and animal flesh, they make an exception for fish. It’s almost impossible to find a Bengali vegetarian, but if you do, the odds are that he is actually a pescatarian. Most Bengalis seem to think fish is a sea-vegetable!

Recent years have seen the advent of flexitarians, who eat mostly vegetarian but are quite willing to lapse on occasion. When it suits them — they claim rarely — they do eat meat. Such people are also referred to as semi-vegetarians, though a simpler word for them might be hypocrites. On the opposite end of the flexibility scale are the devotees of macrobiotic food, a diet made popular by the Japanese. The macrobiotic diet isn’t just about eating certain foods — mainly organically-grown whole grains, vegetables, legumes and beans like tofu and tempeh — it’s also about achieving balance in your life through food choices. Macrobiotic dieters are told they must eat regularly, chew their food thoughtfully, use their mind to listen to their bodies, be active and maintain a positive mental outlook. For all their prohibitions — strictly no dairy, eggs, poultry, red meat, refined sugars, tropical fruits, spices, alcohol or coffee, nor anything refined, processed or chemically-preserved — they do make an exception for fresh fish and seafood. No wonder it’s a diet popular mainly among the Japanese!

These terms all relate to choices people make about food, but there are also food phobias — endured by people who suffer extreme anxiety when faced with some kinds of food they fear or have aversion to, including panic attacks, irregular heartbeat, sweating, and nausea. You can enhance your vocabulary, though not your waistline, by being familiar with these fears and aversions: lachanophobia (fear of vegetables); carnophobia (meat); alektorophobia (chicken); mycophobia (mushrooms); alliumphobia (garlic); ichthyophobia (fish); and the even more specific ostraconophobia (fear of shellfish).

Some phobias, though, border on the extreme — acerophobia (fear of sourness), phagophobia (fear of swallowing) and geumophobia (fear of taste) — or the esoteric: consecotaleophobia (fear of chopsticks)! And some, frankly, are absurd, like arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth. Many may suffer from mageirocophobia (fear of cooking), but the worst of all would be cibophobia or sitophobia, the fear of food and eating altogether. Such people would need tranquilizers before every meal. Even macrobiotic dieters would feel sorry for them…

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