The curious case of the Potato Starch

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A while back, someone asked in a group chat what ‘katakuriko’ meant. Of course, I turned to my favorite Japanese dictionary site, jisho.org, to find out.

Turns out that katakuriko, or 片栗粉, means potato starch.

Eh?

Potato starch?

But potato is じゃが芋 (jagaimo)… How did potato starch become 片栗粉?

So I did my research. Not that I have to look far though, because the second definition listed for 片栗粉 is ‘starch of dogtooth violet’. And sure enough, 片栗 is dogtooth violet (Erythronium japonicum). So… What’s a ‘dogtooth violet’, and how did dogtooth violet starch become potato starch?

Thankfully, helpful google is on hand to answer the question.

Dogtooth violet

The dogtooth violet.
Photo by JM Planchon – Own work (Photo perso), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4754615

Dogtooth violet, or more specifically Erythronium japonicum, is a hardly spring flowering plant with pink flowers.

Erythronium japonicum

Erythronium japonicum Photo by Kropsoq (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the past, the bulb of this wild plant is used to make starch, hence the term katakuriko 片栗粉, which literally means dogtooth violet flour. However, owing to the low quantity and availability, potatoes have come to replace the ingredient used for making flour. The name more or less stuck however, and 片栗粉 has evolved to mean potato starch.

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