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Bureaucratic nonsense

I make a lot of kimchi. After moving to Dereel in July 2007, I went to the local supermarket to buy the main ingredient, Chinese cabbage. They told me they didn't have it. It turned out that they did, but some bright spark had decided to invent a new name for it: wombok, a completely new word. It's similar to the Cantonese “wong bok”, (黃芽白), but it's not the same, and anyway, Cantonese is a language that is deprecated for naming things. Clearly the person responsible couldn't understand that if he couldn't even copy the name correctly.

It seems that this has official sanction: on the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries web site you once could read Help is on the way for consumers confused by the wide array of Asian vegetables on sale, but they seem to have lost the documents. This help appears to consist of further muddying the waters by introducing a national obfuscation campaign. How many Chinese cook books are on sale in Australia? How many of them are printed in Australia? How many of those have succumbed to this stupidity?

One more way that the DPI confuses the issue is by referring to outdated links. At the end of the previous document, you can read:

Agreement has been reached on 14 commonly-used Asian vegetables including Wombok, Buk Choy, Baby Buk Choy, Choy Sum, Pak Choy and Gai Lan. Use of these names will be phased in nationally over the coming weeks.

Unfortunately, that link is dead, and I haven't been able to find anywhere they have put the document—neither has Google. The Internet Wayback machine has, though: it's here. To its credit, it shows some very clear photos of its victims.

This page also includes a link to a PDF file, saying they have applied this nomenclature to 14 different vegetables. Thankfully, the link is broken. Looking for it, I found a total of 8 links, most showing some different kind of web breakage. About the only one of interest was another commentary which also points out the futility of the whole exercise. But that's only part of the story: they're renaming other foodstuffs too.

But then, maybe this nomenclature is just a further example of the rank stupidity of producers who insist on inventing names or changing the meaning of existing ones. Here are some of the ones that particularly annoy me:

Conventional name     Obfuscatory name     Comments
Amaranth En choy This is from the link above. Amaranth comes from South America, but the bureaucrats don't seem to know that, so they've given it (probably an approximation to) a Cantonese name.
Chinese cabbage Wombok Seems to be a corruption of Cantonese wong bok (黃芽白)
Pok choy Buk choy I know this vegetable as pok choi (青菜), but transliterations vary; bok choy is also common, and I suppose one could accept Bok choi or similar. They're all pronounced the same, with a short o. Changing the spelling to suggest a u seems related to spelling changes made in Malaysia and Indenesia when they harmonized the spellings of bahasa Indonesia and bahasa Melayu. In the latter case, the reason was the underlying Arabic script, which has no letter o. That's a weak excuse for Malay and Indonesian; it smacks of stupidity in the case of pok choy. It's interesting to note that the Cantonese pronunciation is baak⁹ coi⁵.
Spring onion Shallot This has to be the worst of all. They've hijacked the name of another vegetable! How does that alleviate confusion? As I later discovered, even the people who made this mess are confused by it.
Shallot Eschalotte Another fantasy name, not quite French échalotte and also not quite German Schalotte, made necessary by the previous renaming. Google knows it primarily as a family surname, though of course Australian stupidity shows up there as well under the only 88 hits.

One example of the confusion that this terminology causes occurs even in the companies that promote this nonsense: Woolworths, one of the companies responsible for this nonsense, also sells vegetable seeds in their gardening department. There you can buy Chinese cabbage seeds, but not “wombok”. In the food department, you can only buy “wombok”. “Help”, indeed. Woolworths appear to have realized part of the problem, and Chinese Cabbage now have the suffix “Chinese Cabbage” on their labels:


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That doesn't make things less confusing, though. On 24 April 2008 I saw the following on sale at a Safeway (Woolworths) shop in Bannockburn:


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Here we have both pok choy and buk choy, as if they were something different.

As if that weren't bad enough, I've found yet another name, in two different books from Hermes House: “Chinese leaves”. They use it as a synonym for Chinese cabbage (and not [BP][ou]k Ch[ou][iy]), but Wikibooks probably sums it up best:

Chinese Leaves is an ambiguous term that can mean bok choy or nappa cabbage.

Even worse language

Things don't stop there. On 21 July 2008 I found the following on two different packets of spring onions:


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ALDI, on the right, does it right: they're marked “spring onions”. Woolworths still insist on calling the things shallots—or do they? In brackets there's also “Eschallots”. That's the first time I've seen that word, though it seems that it's more popular than Eschalotte; the SBS have a glossary entry about it. They're shallots (the brown bulb in the middle). In other words, far from achieving their aim of telling the world to use their own new names for well-known vegetables, they've ended up confusing themselves. We now have two different names for shallots and three for spring onions, two of them overlapping with shallots. And even the ABC have jumped on the Flying Dutchman of a bandwagon and stated in the Gardening Australia programme:

Now, thanks to national standards each individual vegetable is known by the one name and you'll have no trouble finding the vegetables we've looked at today.

Marvellous! They don't say which standards, but it sounds as if it's the same bad language as above—only they got confused too and introduced two further variations. They were talking about “bok choy” and “pak choy”, which, as far as I can tell, are different names for the same thing, the ones that the supermarkets call “buk choy” and “pok choy”—four different transliterations of the same Chinese word, 白菜! Admittedly, they're applying it to two slightly different cultivars, but I don't see any mention of such distinctions in my Chinese cook books. Probably it's yet another abuse of nomenclature.

But what good are national standards in an international world? And which of my cookbooks refers to “buk choy”? That quote should have read “Thanks to NSW standards we have one more level of confusion”.

Misleading terms

Arguably the stupidity of this renaming is just that, stupidity. I don't see any evidence of malice. Others, though, look malicious.

Solidified oil

Woolworths sell animal fat under the name “solidified oil”:


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To quote Wikipedia:

... "oils" is usually used to refer to fats that are liquids at normal room temperature, while "fats" is usually used to refer to fats that are solids at normal room temperature.

This fat is solid even at elevated room temperatures. There's no reason to refer to it as oil, especially since some chemical processes really do make fats out of oils, such as in the production of margarine.

Animal fats have negative connotations in many places, so it's reasonable to assume that they have chosen the term “solidified oil” for marketing reasons. But many people don't eat either any animal fat (vegetarians), or not pork fat (Jews and Muslims), or not beef fat (Hindus). Where's the clear indication? I can't see any indication at all of the origin of the fat. Bad, bad Woolworths.

Other silly terms

Apart from these bureaucratic terms, there are a surprising number of terms that have crept into English from other languages, in the process showing the limited perspective of the people who imported them. I'm still working on this section.

Chef      An English word which appears to have the meaning “cook with pretensions”. It derives from the French word for “boss” via chef de cuisine, head cook. A chef de cuisine doesn't normally cook: he has others who do the cooking, and he just directs them.


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