I yam not taro

A look at some food names and terms that we Malaysians use and the way these names differ from other usages.

YES, I know: the title is grammatical nonsense, but with a purpose. I yam – sorry, I am – trying to make the point that yam is not taro, and, for that matter, that some other food names and terms we use in Malaysia are at odds with those used elsewhere. Let me elaborate.

Yam vs taro

We use the word yam to refer to a commonly available tuber called keladi in Malay. Correctly, it is taro. It comes from a short plant whose aerial parts arise like a rosette of leaves springing from the ground. Just below soil level it develops a vertically longish tuber, cylindrical in shape but somewhat bulging towards mid-length. Botanically, taro is the stem-tuber of several species of the genus Colocasia, of the family Araceae.

The yam, also available in Malaysia, is a different plant altogether, of the genus Dioscorea, of the family Dioscoreaceae. Unlike the taro, the yam is a vine, its slender stem twining round the stems of woody plants or other support. The stem develops from a tuberous base which later develops into a large misshapen globose structure, a stem-tuber – which is the true yam.

Yam bean vs turnip

That which we erroneously call “turnip” is known as sengkuang in Malay, bang kuang in Chinese/Hokkien, and sah kok in Chinese/Cantonese. We in Malaysia do not have nor use turnip, which is the root-tuber of the plant Brassica rapa, of the cabbage family (Cruciferae).

Our so-called turnip is properly called yam bean – “yam” because the edible tuber develops like a yam, and “bean” because the plant, Pachyrhizus erosus, is of the bean family (Leguminosae). The name yam bean is awkward. In Latin America, it is called jicama (pronounced /hikama/).

Lady’s finger

The unfortunate name, lady’s finger – suggestive of milady’s amputated finger – is known as bendi in Malay. It is the longish, immature fruit of the plant, Hibiscus esculentus, which is eaten as a vegetable. (The botany-inclined will note that the yellow flowers of the plant are structured very much like those of the common hibiscus.) An alternative name for the vegetable is okra.


The brinjal (terung in Malay) is the fruit of Solanum melongena, eaten as a vegetable. (The plant belongs to the same family, Solanaceae, as the chilli and the tomato.) It is known in North America as eggplant. The term “eggplant” is unfortunate for two reasons: (1) brinjals come in several colours (white, yellow, purple) and in different shapes and sizes, not necessarily egg-shaped nor egg-sized; and (2) “eating an eggplant” suggests eating the plant and not the fruit. Another name for the vegetable is aubergine. (Incidentally, the potato (ubi kentang in Malay) is the stem-tuber of Solanum tuberrosam, which, like the brinjal, belongs to the family Solanaceae – but not the sweet-potato (ubi keledek in Malay; botanical name Ipomoea batatas) which is from a different family, Convolvulaceae.)


There have been several queries about the terms used in connection with the banana. In Malay, the harvested bunch is called tandan, the individual clusters on the bunch sikat or sisir, and the individual fruits pisang. In international trade, the corresponding English terms are bunch, hands, and fingers.

Four miscellaneous food items

Our so-called dragonfruit, the fruit of a cactus of the genus Hylocereus (e.g. H. undatus, H. ocamponis, and H. polyrhizus) is known as “pitahaya” or “pitaya” in its place of origin in Central America.

Papaya, the fruit of the herbaceous tree Carica papaya, is also known as pawpaw.

What we know as tapioca (ubi kayu in Malay; the root-tuber of the shrub Manihot spp.) is also called cassava and manioc.

With our British colonial history, we use the term maize for the cereal known in Malay as jagung (botanical name Zea mays), which yields large grains set in rows on a cob. The Americans know it as corn, arguably a better name.

After all, the following expressions trip more easily off the tongue: corn on the cob (rather than maize on the cob), cornfield (rather than maize field), cornflakes (rather than maize flakes), cornflour or cornstarch (rather than maize flour or maize starch), cornmeal (rather than maize meal), corn oil (rather than maize oil), corn silk (rather than maize silk), and corn syrup (rather than maize syrup).

Padi and rice

The word “padi”, so spelt and whether italicised or otherwise, does not appear in English-language dictionaries, but we nevertheless use the term, non-italicised, in an English context – as we would in the original Malay – in reference to the plant, Oryza sativa (as well as O. indica and O. japonica) to mean the grain in the husk. The word “rice” is then taken to mean the grain with the husk removed. Our usage, in English, of the terms “padi” and “rice” is much influenced by Malay, for which the equivalent terms are padi and beras. Malay goes one better: nasi is the term for cooked rice.

Let us see how English uses the term paddy, which patently is derived from the Malay but which has somewhat deviated from the original meaning. With reference to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2004), paddy (so spelt) is a field where rice is grown. (The equivalent in Malaysian lingo: A padi-field – called sawah in Malay – is a field where padi, rather than rice, is grown.) A second definition in the dictionary gives paddy as rice still in the husk. (The equivalent in Malaysian lingo: Padi is the grain still in the husk, while rice is the hulled grain, uncooked.)

Okay, English uses paddy as a generic term for the cereal, in which case the second definition in Concise OED is understandable. However, the first definition is divorced from the original meaning of the source word.

To recapitulate, the words “paddy” and “rice” used in standard English are somewhat different from the “padi” and “rice” of Malaysian usage. I think that the twain will never meet, and that we Malaysians shall continue to use the terms “padi” (still not italicised as for a foreign word not yet assimilated into English) and “rice” in the manner elaborated above.

Closing remarks

To wind up, we come to our seeming obsession, “hawker food”. There is the matter of definition. “To hawk” is to go about in a push-cart or a motorised vehicle to sell goods (e.g. pots and pans; fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and fish; cooked food); and “a hawker” is someone who sells things from a cart or vehicle. For some strange reason, we Malaysians do not use the verb “hawk” any more; and we use the noun “hawker” almost exclusively in relation to food, as in “hawker food”, “hawker stall”, and “hawker centre”. Furthermore, “hawker” no longer carries the sense of a peripatetic occupation, so that “hawker stall” and “hawker centre” – where “hawker food” is sold in a fixed place or site – are contradictions in terms.

Incidentally, what we call hawker food is called street food elsewhere.

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