Beyond Words - Language Blog

Palates in Translation

As we in the U.S. prepare our turkeys and stuffings for Thanksgiving, it seems like an appropriate time to consider popular dishes from around the world.

The names of certain traditional dishes can sizzle on one’s tongue, often making them difficult to capture with translation. Even if the name of the dish is easy to translate, the mixture of curiosity and suspicion that often greets the first mention of an exotic dish usually ends with one question: “What’s in it?”

Here is a list of popular dishes from around the world whose names are as fun to say as the meals are to eat:

Khachapuri [Georgia]
In Georgia, every dinner ritual begins with khachapuri — a warm, thick and flaky bread, layered with different kinds of cheeses. There is an abundance of dairy in Georgia, and some attribute the longevity of the Georgians to their high volume of yogurt consumption. The horn-full of locally produced wine is offered with khachapuri. It is a tradition to serve wine in the horn instead of the glass—as a sign of respect to his host, a guest must drink his wine without setting it aside.

Jansson’s Frestelse [Sweden]
Jansson’s Tempatation is a traditional casserole made of potatoes, onion, pickled sprats and cream. Pickled sprats, known as “ansjovis,” have often been mistranslated into English as anchovies or herring. There is a controversy over the origin of the name: some believe it is named after Pelle Janzon, a Swedish opera singer of the 19th century, who was also a famous gourmand.

Borsch [Russia]
Borsch is a traditional soup of the rich dark red color, thanks to beets and tomato paste. It was an ultimate peasant food because the soup is filling and all the ingredients are basic: besides beets and tomatoes, there are potatoes, carrots, onion, cabbage, and beans… everything is thrown together and cooked slowly in meat bullion. As the famous saying goes, not one borsch tastes the same, and housewives are reluctant to give away the secret to their special borsch. Usually, it is consumed with a splash of sour-cream, rye bread and a piece of garlic, or tiny browned garlic buns, pampushki.

Salo [Ukraine]
Simply put, salo is salted, and sometimes smoked, pork fat. It is non-rendered, unlike lard, and has almost no meat. Sometimes, the top layer is covered with spices such as pepper, paprika, or garlic powder. Salo can be consumed with a piece of dark rye bread, glass of vodka, garlic, green onions or just by itself. It is believed that, besides being exceptionally nutritional, salo is a panacea for common colds and weakened immune system. Ukrainian exaggerated love for salo is stereotyped and ridiculed: in popular folklore tales and anecdotes, the man is happy to exchange his wife for a slab of salo.

Wurst [Germany]
Wurst is a German sausage. There are approximately 1,500 different varieties of sausage, smoked or cured, plain or covered in spices. Frankfurters, or simply franks, are named after the city of Frankfurt where they originated. Brätwurst is usually served grilled or fried and derives from brät- which is chopped meat and -wurst, sausage. Weisswurst, or white sausage, is popular in Bavaria and is boiled in water, bullion or white wine. Other popular sausages are Rrindswürste, Blargenwürste, Knackwürste, and Bockwürste.

Couscous [Tunisia]
Couscous is a dish made out of finely ground wheat or semolina, steamed with spices. It is also popular in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Lybia. The etymology of the word couscous is debatable: it may derive from the Arabic word kaskasa, “to pulverize,” or from the Arabic name for the perforated earthenware pot used to steam the couscous, called a kiskis (couscoussière in French). Another theory postulates that couscous is onomatopoeic—it resembles the sound of the steam rising in the couscoussière.

Chin chin [Nigeria]
Chin chin in this case is not the name of the local Chinese restaurant. It is small fried pastries, flavored with sugar and spices, popular in Nigeria and West Africa. Cut in small squares and typically shaped into bows, it is often served on the street corners and as a snack with palm wine.

Feel free to suggest your favorite international dish!