Daily Archives: March 11, 2012

succotash, pakora

Last night Aina and I and a couple of friends had dinner at the home of Sherman Hesselgrave, bon vivant and Anglican priest. He commenced the foodstravaganza with some hors d’oeuvres, among which were succotash pakoras with home-made chutney.

Yes, succotash pakoras. I want you to say that at least six times, one for each of the ones I ate: succotash pakora, succotash pakora, succotash pakora, succotash pakora, succotash pakora, succotash pakora. Are you drooling yet? Even if you’re not sure exactly what they are, it’s pretty hard to say that without working up a spit. It’s a lively mix of ingredients: two voiceless fricatives, four voiceless stops (two at the back, one on the tongue tip, one on the lips), one liquid; six vowels, mostly reduced to the central unstressed one in normal English, none of them high in the mouth.

But succotash pakora is really two words with two origins and two concepts to get down. I’ll start with pakora. You may know what pakoras are – if you like Indian food, you’ve probably had them from time to time, possibly under the name bhaji. They’re vegetable fritters. You take vegetables, dip them in batter made from gram (chickpea) flour, and deep-fry them (or, if they’re small enough, just pan-fry them in lots of oil). It’s a great way of taking something annoyingly healthy-sounding – vegan and gluten-free – and making it pleasingly fatty. (If you have a silly and tolerant sense of humour and resilient eardrums, you may enjoy seeing Vegan Black Metal Chef’s demonstration of how to make them and two other Indian dishes at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxKtBDKasgM.)

The word pakora is Hindi and comes ultimately from Sanskrit pakvavata, from pakva “cooked” and vata “little lump”. Thus it has no relation other than sound coincidence to pecora “sheep”, which is the source of pecorino as in pecorino Romano, that Parmesan-like cheese made with the milk of Roman sheep. In truth, I’ve always found pakora rather éclatant – perhaps because it has en echo of popcorn. It also gives a faint echo of pagoda, but that’s another country again.

Succotash is also an Indian word, but in this case by Indian we mean North American Indian, or more specifically Narragansett. I’m sure you’ve heard of succotash, if nowhere else then in Warner Brothers cartoons: Sufferin’ succotash! is Sylvester’s stock exclamation (often uttered when he fails to apprehend Tweety). Thus you, like me, may reflexively associate this food with sufferings. But do you know what it is?

In my youth I assumed it must be some kind of succulent hash, perhaps made with mixed chitterlings and who knows what else (grits, maybe?). But little did I know that I was eating it every so often without knowing that succotash was what some people called what I was having: mixed little vegetables – classically corn and kidney beans. And I should say it’s not inevitably vegan; it’s often mixed with pork fat and perhaps even some meat. But Sherman’s involved corn and carrots and, I think, beans but no meat. (The meat was to come later – a big ham. Fitting, given that Sherman’s daughter – also present at the table – is an actor and I, too, am a big ham.)

So there is no taste of Sukothai (a city in Thailand) in this dish, though there is in the word. And whether you find the mixed vegetables to have a succulent dash is quite up to you. The word sounds a bit like a whip crack, which suits just the fact that you can whip up some succotash fairly easily. The word, as I mentioned, comes from Narragansett, which was spoken in the New England area (though succotash has long been more popular in the American South); the source word appears to have been msiquatash, which may mean “boiled corn”. No one speaks Narragansett anymore, so there’s a little extra work required for the reconstruction.

So what Sherman did, then, was take his succotash and mix it into the pakora batter and make patties, and fry them in a pan in sufficient oil. It was an excellent execution, and went well with the martinis that I and some of the others present were warming up with. I recommend trying them yourself – if for no other reason, then so you can say to your guests, “I expect you’ll partake of a succotash pakora?”


Today’s question: In terms of effect on the hearer, is sounding like something as good as actually meaning that something? We know that if a person doesn’t know the meaning of a word, they may decide on the basis of what it sounds like. But what if they do do know the meaning? Is the phonaesthetic or visual effect as good as if they didn’t? To what extent is resonance tantamount to significance?

We have, over the years, covered some words that have had their meaning influenced or even determined by what they sound like, and other words that have sounds and tastes and overtones apparently quite at odds with their meanings. Today’s word is more towards the latter set. As word taster Elin Cameron says, tantamount “doesn’t sound like what it means. It sounds military, like a bugle call and command to an army, and I think it looks like a line of soldiers on foot with standard bearers on horseback at each end and one part way along.”

Yes indeed: the bugle, tan-tan-taraa, leading the soldiers in a paramount moment, all perhaps perched high on a promontory like a catamount, ready to charge down. The patter of the drums, a rat-a-ta-tat-a-tattoo, thundering like timpani or perhaps clamouring as tam-tams. A regal tantrum on a mountain, ready to issue forth in tandem on their mounts from a camp of tents. But, again: are these massed forces of phonaesthetics and paronomasia tantamount to intimating the overtones? We must believe that tantamount can be used without a rant on tarantellas and tarantulas. But the more usable overtones – do they not creep in?

I certainly think it’s hard to use a word such as tantamount without a thought to the perky, percussive sounds it has. We could always say as good as rather than tantamount to, of course. And we often do. But tantamount has a sound that is not simply officious or belligerent. It carries extra savours for those who know French: tant, “as much”, and amount, the English word, first a verb and then a noun and only finally then an adjective, tracing back through French to Latin.

Not that etymon is tantamount to meaning. But meaning is certainly strongly subject to patterns of usage. Tantamount is normally followed by to: we get tantamount to saying, tantamount to a declaration of war, tantamount to suicide, tantamount to death, tantamount to suicide, tantamount to torture… In other words, “You might as well do it; you’re already there.” If you have the troops ready to swoop, it’s tantamount to open war…