Lexical Nourishment

March, 2018 Word Stories

Although the English language is a complex blend of diverse ingredients, the English-speaking world is not typically known for the richness of its cuisine. Our native culinary stock is particularly meagre when it comes to vegetarian and vegan options, which probably explains the large number of borrowings in this category. Meat-free anglophones borrowed two key components of their diet from opposite corners of the earth, helping themselves to their names while they were at it. Here are the stories of how tofu and quinoa have nourished the English lexicon.


One of the staples of modern vegetarian and vegan cuisine, tofu was developed in China around the second or first century BCE and then spread to Korea, Japan and, during the Middle Ages, Southeast Asia. Its popularization in the West is recent, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, and is strongly linked to interest in vegetarianism and meat-free cooking.

The American polymath Benjamin Franklin was the first known Westerner to publicly manifest enthusiasm for what he called “Chinese cheese”. In 1770, he writes in a letter to a friend: “[the idea of cheese made out of soybeans] so excited my curiosity that I caused enquiry to be made of Mr. Flint, who lived for many years [in China], in what manner the cheese was made”. James Flint, British diplomat employed by the East India Company and a speaker of Chinese, writes back, explaining in detail to Franklin “the method the Chinese convert Callivances [soybeans] into Towfu”. He explains the processes of soaking, grinding and boiling the beans, but omits the importance of using a coagulant (either saline or acidic). This is the first recorded use of the word in the English language (quoted in History of Tofu and Tofu Products (965 CE to 2013), compiled by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, 2013). Subsequent attestations occur at a much later time and are usually made in the context of Japanese gastronomy.

Japanese as well as Mandarin Chinese use “豆腐” for “tofu”, transliterated as tōfu for the former and dòufǔ for the latter. While both forms are from Middle Chinese etymons, the English word entered the language by way of Japanese. The word literally translates as “fermented [腐 or fu] beans [豆 or ]”.


Only recently introduced in Western cuisines, quinoa, whose binomial name is Chenopodium quinoa, originated in the northwestern portion of the Andes, where it has been cultivated since the second millennium BCE. It is a species of “goosefoot” (named thus because of the lobed shape of the plants’ leaves) belonging to the genus Chenopodium.

The English word quinoa represents a late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century borrowing of the South American Spanish quínoa (or quinua), itself a nearly unaltered borrowing of the Quechua noun kinwa (or kinuwa). All etymons denote the same plant recognized by modern botany as Chenopodium quinoa. The further etymology of the Quechua word is unknown.

English’s first attestation of the word quinoa (given as Quinua, one of its Spanish forms) is from 1598, in the travelogue Discours of Voyages into ye Easte & West Indies by Dutch traveller and historian Jan Huygen van Linschoten, translated by William Phillip.

The spelling quinoa is from the mid-1700s, again from various travelogues.

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