Friday, April 24, 2009

Some philological notes

Though I enjoyed writing about the Persian origins of chiftele in the last post, I suspect that etymological musings are a blatant infraction of the food blog genre. However, as I've been writing up the recipes below I've started to wonder about the origins of some Romanian food words. And if you know anything about Romanians, it's that they love etymology. (Romanians are not unlike the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a man who can prove that just about every word is descended from Greek!)

Also, it's my blog, and I'll write what I want to.

Some Romanian vegetable names come from other languages. Fasole verde, or green beans, comes from Greek fasóli (bean) and is modified by verde, from Latin viridis (green). Meanwhile, the word for zucchini, dovlecel, is a diminutive form of dovleac, pumpkin. This comes from Turkish devlek.

A number of vegetables are named, quite simply, after their attributes. The vinete in salata de vinete are named after their dark-purple-blue colour. Vânăt, descended from the rare Latin word venetus (blue? sea blue? blue-green?) means dark blue, vânătă is an eggplant, and vânătaie is a bruise! Tomatoes in Romanian are called roşii, singular roşie. This literally means "red things," since they are the colour roşu, or red, a word descended from Latin roseus (rose-coloured, red). Meanwhile, the ardei in salata de ardei copti get their name because they burn, in Romanian, a arde, another Latin descendant.

Zacuscă, it will surprise no one, is originally a Russian word. However, while Russian zakuski can be all sorts of appetizers, in Romanian the word only refers to the roasted vegetable spread. My favourite discovery when looking up these words was that the word fursec, which refers to little cookies and has the power to make me happy as few words do, comes to Romanian from the French petit four sec. Petits fours come in two varieties: glacés, or iced, and secs, or dry. At some point, Romanians must have corrupted the latter type to the simpler fursec. If they corrupted the word, however, I assure you that the cookies are still exquisite.

What I find so interesting is that a quick survey of the food words I've used so far reveals some of the foreign influences on Romanian culture and cuisine: Turkish, Greek, French, Russian. (And fear not, we'll have some German loanwords as soon as I cook something with potatoes or wurst.) They also show how the native Latin vocabulary was adapted to name imports from the Nightshade family: peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes were generally named after their notable attributes rather than with loanwords.