Hello, faithful readers! It’s been a while. Today we turn from social and political analysis to two of my favorite hobbies, which are etymological research and eating (it’s always a party around here).
One of my favorite things about exploring the cultures of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia has been learning just how extensive a Sprachbund of food-based vocabulary they have. The same staple dishes can be found from the Levant through Persia to Central Asia, under names that are borrowed or calqued; fruits and vegetables carry their names, sometimes with shifting vowels or consonants, from India north through Eurasia to Russia; and food traditions are shared from the Balkans to the Caucasus and beyond. (As a side note, this is why it is ridiculous that UNESCO enters foods onto its Intangible Heritage list by country.) While studying in Turkey, I was delighted to learn that my host mother’s mother, a native of the eastern Anatolian city of Erzurum, called a drinking glass – usually a bardak in Turkish – an istakan. I related this story to a friend – hey, people in Erzurum, which was once under Russian control, use the same word for “drinking glass” that Russians use! – and was even more delighted when he, a Persian speaker, informed me that this word is almost the same in Persian, and probably was borrowed from there. Well, maybe – it appears to have been an old Turkic word originally, borrowed into Russian and from there into Persian. It could have then been reborrowed from Persian into some dialects of Turkish. Or from Russian into Turkish.
So yesterday, overcome by the plump, tender piles of new summer squash at my local farmer’s market, I attempted my first-ever batch of Russian икра из кабачков, ikra iz kabachkov – literally “caviar made from summer squash,” sister to the somewhat richer баклажанная икра, or eggplant caviar. This morning, while nursing a summer cold and reveling in the deliciousness of this spread served cold over rye toast, I was poking around the internet reading about the various similar recipes for eggplant- and pepper-based spreads from the Balkans (which are incidentally available at Trader Joe’s). It turns out that ajvar, the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian and Macedonian name for this type of spread, like the Russian ikra, means “caviar,” from the Turkish word havyar, which is the ultimate source of English caviar, as well. The English Wikipedia entry explains that the spreads were given this moniker with a bit of a sly wink, after home production of actual caviar was outlawed in the Balkans in the 1890’s. The story I have always heard in Russia is that vegetable spreads are called caviars because they are the poor man’s substitute for fish roe – as illustrated by a sight gag in the classic Soviet comedy Ivan Vasil’evich Changes His Profession, where a feast at Ivan the Terrible’s court features huge piles of actual red and black caviar and a tiny dish of eggplant caviar.
So, did the South Slavs and the East Slavs come up with the fish roe/vegetable spread connection independently? My guess would be that the Russians borrowed this dish from points south, and calqued the name from BSC or Macedonian when they did so. But has it really only been around, and referred to as ajvar/ikra, since the 1890’s? Well, my copy of Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives, the 19th-century classic of Russian cookery, makes no mention of vegetable caviar, so it seems possible. Darra Goldstein thinks the dish came to Russia from the Caucasus – but she also makes a specious connection between the Russian kabak, tavern, and kabachok, squash (the latter comes from Turkish kabak, squash, while the former is an unrelated 17th-century Germanic borrowing), so it’s possible her book, which is full of great recipes, is not the best-researched. Lynn Visson’s The Russian Heritage Cookbook gives six vegetable caviar recipes, some sourced from emigres who left Russia around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution – so the dish must have been known to Russian cooks by then. I would love to research this question farther, but I think the internet has taken me as far as it can, and I would need to read more old Russian cookbooks to find a clearer answer. In any case, vegetable caviar is now a staple of appetizer tables in both the Balkans and Russia – and also a great way to put up several kilos of the eggplant or squash you’ve grown at your dacha for the winter.
PS: The Bulgarian word for at least one of these vegetable spreads, kyopoolu, totally baffled me until I realized it’s from the Turkish köpoğlu, a yogurt and eggplant appetizer whose name literally means “son of a dog” (and yes, its meaning is similar to the English expression S.O.B. – though with additional shades of craftiness, deceit or cunning). Figure that one out!