Zo sashimi

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From June Teufel Dreyer:

When I went to the supermarket yesterday for my weekly sashimi fix, I noticed that the preparer seemed to have cloned herself.  It was her brother (the preparers wear caps concealing their hair and the two looked virtually identical). Sister was instructing brother on exactly how I like the sashimi in a language that sounded unfamiliar. Ever curious,  I had to ask.  “Zo,” she replied “Z, O.”  I looked it up this morning, discovered that these Chin tribes are related to the Naga who, with the Mizo, were part of a longstanding effort by the Chinese to torment the Indian government.

Sometime when there aren’t other customers waiting—this may never happen—I’ll ask how she and her brother got to Miami and my neighborhood Publix store.

Yes, there really are a people called "Zo".  They are a sizable congeries of Tibeto-Burman peoples scattered across the northeastern states of India, northwestern Myanmar (Burma), and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.  They are also called Kuki, Chin, Lushai, and most prominently Zomi ("highlanders").

Hearing the latter name rings a bell for me, since it reminds me of the geographical term "Zomia", coined by the University of Amsterdam  historian Willem van Schendel on the basis of the ethnonym.  By this term, van Schendel intended "the huge mass of mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands".  (Source)

The term "Zomia" was later taken up by Yale political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott who developed:

the concept of Zomia in his 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia to argue that the continuity of the ethnic cultures living there provides a counter-narrative to the traditional story about modernity: namely, that once people are exposed to the conveniences of modern technology and the modern state, they will assimilate. Rather, the tribes in Zomia are conscious refugees from state rule and state-centered economies.


So here we have this Zo brother and sister from highland Southeast Asia preparing a sophisticated type of seafood characteristic of the islands of Japan in a fashionable coastal city of Florida.  Indeed, one wonders how they got there and how they became involved in the preparation of this highly specialized type of cuisine.  It makes me think of Nepalis fresh from the Himalayas selling coffee distributed from Seattle in the Hong Kong International Airport or serving Indian food in Washington, DC and Philadelphia.  And we must remember that where all of these people go — in the span of one generation — they take their languages with them.

Finally, today's topic, "Zo sashimi", brings to mind our post about Coventry daddy sushi cum friggin' Chinese shish kebab of two days ago:  "Awesome sushi barbecue restaurant" (8/8/19).  And so it goes with sushi, sashimi, teppanyaki, tempura, etc. chefs and servers around the world.  Few of them that I encounter can speak Japanese.  On the other hand, I'm often surprised that the owners, cooks, and waiters at humble ramen shops in cities and towns large and small are real Japanese people who speak real Japanese language and serve honmono no Nipponshoku 本物の日本食.


  1. jin defang said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 8:09 am

    Thank you, Professor Mair, for the fascinating lesson. Not only do these Zo prepare sashimi expertly, but their not-necessarily-authentic sushi creations are culinary works of art.

  2. Chris Button said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 2:11 pm

    In terms of nomenclature…

    "Zo" is the ethnonym. It occurs in a variety of phonological reflexes in (and even as) many of the names for the different related languages/dialects. "Mizo" (in which "mi" means "people") is traditionally known as "Lushai" on the Indian side, and it is but one–albeit the most widely spoken–of these many languages; the name is essentially the inverse of "Zomi" (literally "Zo people"). The notion that "Zomi" means highlander (as if "Zo" means highland) is somewhat popular but unfounded, and van Schendel's coining of "Zomia" is rather unfortunate as a result (ironically in terms of Scott's application of the term, it was actually the Chin–unlike the Karen, Kachin, Shan and Mon–who did not originally demand an independent state once Burma gained independence from the British in 1948. The colonial scholar Gordon Luce even suggested that "Chin" was connected to the Burmese word for "friend" although inscriptional evidence into the original phonology makes this unlikely). "Kuki" is the exonym used on the Indian side to refer to "Zo", while "Chin" is the exonym (although F. K. Lehman claims to have found an indigenous source) used on the Burmese side.

  3. Chris Button said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 2:19 pm

    "Zo" is the ethnonym

    I should have specified this as "endonym" in contrast to the other "exonyms"

  4. Noel Hunt said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

    'Nipponshoku'? I don't believe I have ever heard that. I think the general expression is 'nihonshoku'. The 'nippon' reading is motivated in someway, in an advertisement, e.g., 'Nippon "Shoku no Jin"' and probably written in kana, as this is: (にっぽん食の陣, nippon Food Camp). One is equally likely to hear 'wa-shoku' 和食.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2019 @ 6:57 am

    From Randy John LaPolla:

    Zo is a recent name that speakers of mostly Chin languages have been pushing to have a unified presence that they didn’t have before, sort of like “Naga” and "Kachin”, which aren’t linguistic groupings but political groupings.

    Scott’s idea of Zomia encouraged a lot of thought about various issues, but hasn’t found much empirical support. The reality is just that historically weaker groups got pushed up the mountains by stronger groups, so in some places you have mountains where there are different groups at three or four different elevations. There is little uniformity as a polity.

    The statement from the woman that the Chin are related to the Nagas, who "were part of a longstanding effort by the Chinese to torment the Indian government” is a bit problematic, in that it might be misunderstood that the Chinese sent the Nagas and Chin to NEIndia to cause trouble, and that the rebellion in Nagaland is somehow controlled by the Chinese. In fact the Chinese aren’t involved, and aren’t even near there.

    It also seems strange that people would find it odd to find people from many different places around the world in a major city. I think they just aren’t paying attention. Linguists have been documenting this diversity, and have found, for example in New York, 800+ languages. A survey is being done in Houston as well, with similar results.

  6. Eric Henry said,

    August 11, 2019 @ 7:53 am

    More than a decade ago in Ithaca NY, many of the sushi chefs at the local Wegmans were refugees from Burma. We sometimes got a discount because my colleague could speak to them in the Shan language.

  7. Chris Button said,

    August 11, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    @ Randy LaPolla

    I think it's worth pointing out that while that's true when being used by a speaker of a language in which the word "Zo" is not represented as such ("Zo" being the reflex in several northern varieties), the word itself is reflected in various forms in the names and languages of numerous varieties (Cho, Hyo, etc.) and is very much pervasive and indigenous.Confusingly, although expectedly based on the above, there is even a "Zo" language (very closely related to Tedim) which is a specific variety rather than a reference to Kuki-Chin as a whole.

  8. Andy Averill said,

    August 11, 2019 @ 8:51 pm

    So she sells sashimi by the seashore?

  9. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 12, 2019 @ 2:59 am

    Button’s monograph on Proto Northern Chin begins (p. 12) with a brief discussion of the names Zo, Chin and Kuki, including some remarks on the etymology of ‘Chin’. The languages under study indeed include Zo sensu stricto.

    One wonders what is known about the etymology of the name Zo and its cognates, in Northern Chin or elsewhere in Sino-Tibetan.

    The Pau Cin Hau scripts are perhaps worth mentioning here.

  10. Chris Button said,

    August 12, 2019 @ 8:16 pm

    One wonders what is known about the etymology of the name Zo and its cognates, in Northern Chin or elsewhere in Sino-Tibetan

    Well, if it helps, the onset would have been *j- which could then be projected back into Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) unchanged. Assuming *jw- is permissible as an onset-medial combination (as it was in say Old Burmese) then the word would go back to something like PST *jwəɣ. My only concern there is that -jw- is not permissible as a medial combination (you could only have one medial -j- or -w-), but here at least it is an onset followed by a medial. Otherwise I suppose it would have been *jəw, although this could have given "u" rather than "o" in "Zo", unless of course those cases with "u" actually went back to *-əʁ rather than *-əw (both of which had completely merged in Old Chinese where we have solid evidence for an *-ʁ coda since -aw and -aʁ remain clearly distinct).

    Incidentally, the language "Hyow" (mentioned above) has led some to speculate that there might originally have been an aspirated *ʰj- phoneme in Kuki-Chin. However, this is just a reflection of Hyow developing *j- to *ʝ- with the fricated portion of the latter then being phonologically reanalyzed as aspiration like the other aspirated onsets. Initial clusters with *s- often gave aspiration in Proto-Sino-Tibetan (e.g., *sp- > pʰ-, although unfortunately most Old Chinese reconstructions don't yet reflect this), but with *sj- the *j- onset was treated as a medial with the *s- then reanalyzed as an onset (as a side note, Pulleyblank had already noted that the lack of a phonemic *j- in Old Chinese goes back to it being assigned a pre-vocalic glottalic onset ʔ- as *ʔj-).

    The statement from the woman that the Chin are related to the Nagas…

    Kuki-Chin and Naga should be kept separate. However, there are interesting cases like Lamkang which is a Kuki-Chin language spoken by people who identify ethnically as Naga.

  11. dainichi said,

    August 14, 2019 @ 4:27 am

    > a language that sounded unfamiliar. Ever curious, I had to ask. "Zo," she replied "Z, O."

    This threw me off, since I thought she'd asked what language they were speaking :D

    > 'Nipponshoku'? I don't believe I have ever heard that.

    Me neither.

    > I think the general expression is 'nihonshoku'. […] One is equally likely to hear 'wa-shoku' 和食.

    I'd say there's a difference. Ramen could arguably be classified as 'nihonshoku', since supposedly it was modified from whatever Chinese dish it was inspired by enough to classify it as "invented in Japan". But I think fewer would agree to call it 'washoku', since it's not "traditional Japanese cuisine".

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