Culinary Anthropologist


  1. Oil, vinegar and phonological assimilation

    1 Comment


    Some olives in Morocco. Although they could
    just as easily be in Spain.

    I’d always wondered why the oil and vinegar seemed to be labelled wrong in Spain.  If, like me, you’re more familiar with Italian than Spanish, and you see two bottles on the table, one labelled “aceite“, you’d be pretty sure that was the vinegar.  You’d be wrong, though – although admittedly you’d work it out pretty sharpish if you saw that the other one was labelled “vinagre“.  Or just tasted it, I suppose.

    The Italian aceto (vinegar) comes from the Latin acer meaning ‘sharp’ or ‘sour’, and that’s where we get English words like acid and acetic from too.  (Even the word vinegar comes this way, in fact, via the French vin aigre or ‘sour wine’).  Similarly, the word for ‘oil’ seems to have Latin origins in most European languages – the Latin oleum gives us oglio, oil, Öl, huile and so on.  So why would Spanish (a Romance, i.e. Latin-based language) be so different, and where does their word for ‘oil’, aceite, come from?  Well, now that we’ve made it to Morocco, all becomes clear …


  2. To Romania in a spoon


    Smspoonberries0001.jpgWhile staying in the Carpathians with our friends Anca and Eduard, we had a lot of conversations about jam.  I don’t possibly have space here to tell you about everything we learnt (although I’m sure Anna will try soon) – but here’s two things.  First, Romanians have a lot of words for jam.  Second, two of them, dulceață and șerbet, are things we don’t really have in the UK, involving interesting ingredients like green walnut and aubergine, and mysterious old social rituals involving teaspoons and glasses of water.

    It’s often tempting to try to make what you see fit with what you already know.  So, given what we already knew about Ottoman influence on Eastern European cuisine, we quickly jumped to the conclusion that this must be a Turkish phenomenon – șerbet is a Turkish word, after all.  And when we reached Turkey, we did indeed find delicious walnut and aubergine jams.

    But something didn’t quite fit.  Why use a Latin word – dulceață – for something Turkish?  And although we saw plenty of şerbet in Turkey, we never got offered it in spoons or water.  Well, now that we’ve arrived in Greece, we’ve realised it’s much more complicated than we thought …


  3. Ottoman or not?

    Leave a Comment

    Now that we’ve spent some time in Turkey, some in Romania and Bulgaria before that, and now some in Greece, it’s been interesting to try to spot various culinary connections between them.  It’s not all pleasant, but they have a lot of shared history via the long presence of the Ottoman empire in Eastern Europe.  Greece was under Ottoman control for hundreds of years; and while Romania (and especially Transylvania) was nominally independent for much of that time, the word “nominally” should be stressed.


    Ottoman chefs: could they tell their
    aubergines from their tomatoes?

    In some cases, of course, there are clear similarities in techniques and ingredients, but there’s really no way to know whether Romanians influenced Turks, or Turks influenced Romanians, or whether they both just thought that spicy meatballs tasted nice.  But in others, you can get some help from the language: if a stuffed vine leaf in Greece has an originally Turkish name, the odds are that it has at least some Turkish origins.

    But sometimes we have to do a bit more detective work.  In Romania, the word for tomato is “red” (roşie), and the word for aubergine is “purple” (vinete): so you might ask your greengrocer for a kilo of reds and a kilo of purples.  This does sort of make sense – tomatoes are red, after all, and aubergines are purple – but why just these two?  They don’t call cucumbers “greens”.  And tomatoes certainly aren’t the only red things in a Romanian kitchen, what with all those peppers around.  Well, a conversation with Anca in the Carpathians, a conversation with Özge in Istanbul, some dictionary work, and all became clear …


  4. Something to do with tea

    Leave a Comment

    Smteaglass0001.jpgAs we’ve been collecting recipes in the various countries we’ve travelled through, we’ve noticed that not only does the food itself change as we move, but the way of talking about it changes too.  People tend to measure volumes, for example, in terms of the utensils they’re used to and have handy.  In the UK people might talk about pints; in the US, they tend to think in cups.  Here in Turkey, they talk about glasses and cups – but, of course, they’re Turkish glasses and cups.

    This means they’re much nicer to look at.  It also means they’re not the size you expect (even if you recognise the name).  And, of course, it means we need to work out what to call them.

    Tea is çay; a glass is a bardak.  So is a tea glass a “çay bardak“?  Not likely – this is Turkish …


  5. Meatballs, kebabs and more vowels

    1 Comment

    Smbaklavaci-kofteci.jpgWell, after my initial excitement about Hungarian and its way with vowels, I’ve been even more excited to be surrounded by people speaking Turkish.  As with Hungarian, it’s unrelated to any of the European languages I have experience with, so most of the words are unrecognisable (although there’s some noticeable French influence which makes a few things a bit easier), and the basic structure is very different too (verbs go at the end, for example). 

    Importantly, this means it manages to rival Hungarian in the unguessability of its word for “wine”: I think şarap is just as hard to spot as bor for an English-speaker; although “beer” comes as the disappointingly obvious bira rather than Hungarian’s near-unbeatable sör.

    Even more excitingly, there’s vowel harmony here too.  But it’s even better


  6. Beer, wine and vowel harmony

    Leave a Comment

    Smborozosorozo0001.JPGThe Hungarian language is fascinating, and nowhere is this better reflected (for me at least) than in the words for ‘bar’: a borozó is a wine bar, and a söröző is a beer bar. 

    At first sight, perhaps, you might not agree that these words are particularly fascinating.

    But you’d be wrong. And here’s why.