Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Persian Obsession with Soup

I'm a language fanatic and enjoy picking apart words, finding out where they came from, and trying to find cognates across different languages. I think language gives a lot of insight into a culture, much like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests. So when I was writing up a list of food related vocabulary for my Persian class, I noticed I had ashpazi kardan (to cook), ashpaz (cook), ashpaz khaneh (kitchen), and ash (the soup pictured above. Find the full recipe here.) All of these words clearly have ash (pronounced with a long a) in common. Then I looked at the literal meanings:

Ash is soup.

Ashpaz is soup maker.

Ashpazi kardan is to make soup.

Ashpaz khaneh is soup maker's house.

Soup also holds a special place in many Persian idioms/proverbs. Chickpeas are one of the main ingredients in ash reshteh (noodle soup). Because of that, we get the expression nokhode har ash- a pea in every soup- used to refer to a nosey person.

Then we have: ashe dahan zoozi nist, literally it's not a mouth burning soup. This is the English equivalent of it's nothing to write home about.

Ashe khodet ra ham bezan, literally stir your own soup. As you can guess, this proverb related to minding your own business, like the English Inquire not what boils in another's pot. 

Har che pool bedi, hamanghadr ash mikhori, literally, you eat as much soup as you pay for. This English equivalent would be He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Ashi barat bepazam ke roosh yek vajab roghan beiste, literally I will cook you a soup with lots of oil on top of it. This proverb means I will blow you sky high. When I read this expression, I imagine it being said very dramatically, with some accompanying hand gestures. 

The common English proverb Too many cooks spoil the broth also has a Persian version: Ashpaz ke dota shod, ash ya shoor mishe ya binamak, literally when there are two cooks (soup makers), the soup either becomes salty or bland. 

Har ashpaz yek joor ash mipazad, literally, every cook has his own way of making soup. Clearly this is like the English to each his own, everyone to his taste. 

Finally there is kase daghtar az ash, literally A bowl hotter than the soup it contains. This expression is similar to the English more Catholic than the pope. 

When you think of Persian food, chelow kabob definitely comes to mind first, but was soup at some point the staple of the Iranian diet? Thereby contributing to so much vocabulary and idioms? Possibly. I find it fascinating that it is used in so much of the language. 

Do you know of a word in another language that contributes this much? I'd be interested to know!



  1. The English and French evening meal, especially among rural folk, is supper, or souper in French, from "to eat soup." Dinner, or diner, comes from "to dine" and is generally used to refer to the largest meal of the day, which was the midday meal for rural folk, but the evening one for city folk. (Lunch was a city thing, too.) Farmers needed big breakfasts and dinners to get through all their work, so supper was light--hence often soup.

    1. My grandparents still use dinner for lunch and supper for dinner.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Kate! That makes sense. In Iran, lunch is also the biggest meal. For dinner, it's something light like bread and cheese, yogurt or fruits, but perhaps in the past it was also soup!

  3. In my 12 years of living with my Iranian former husband who was a decent Persian cook, he never made soup. I am still friends with a woman who is a wonderful Persian cook, but she has never served me soup. Even when my husband's parents were living with us a few months of the year for a couple of years, his mother never made soup. It is always rice and stew. I still make koo koo, gourmet sabzi,eggplant stew, dill rice, and other dishes, but no soup. I feel deprived now.

  4. Hi Renee, thanks for commenting! Wow, I can't believe you never got soup- not even during the winter months when it's popular! Since you still make some Persian dishes, perhaps you'd like to add Ash Reshteh to the list. Here's the slow cooker version of the link I posted. It seems a little easier (at least for me!)
    But of course there are many other soups, too. If you try one, I'd love to know what you think!

  5. Hi Pontia,
    Your blog is so cool and interesting. I am Persian and when I am reading your posts sometimes I feel wow I have never paid attention to my culture from this angle.

    To the above list you can add: ashe nakhordeh va dahan sookhteh.
    I am sorry but I also heard this funny one: ashesh nadareh eshkaneh goozesh derakhto mishkane which is used to desribe arrogant people.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Hi, thank you so much for your kind words. And thanks for adding to the list! I haven't those two before and the second one is really funny :)

      I'm really glad you are enjoying, and thank you so much for reading!!

  6. In Thai 'khao' or -rice- is used a lot.
    I never learnt much about Thai idioms but now I wish I had :P .
    I do know that Thai people don't say 'how are you?' so often, but instead 'have you eaten yet?'
    'khao' also means food in general - which is also interesting
    So 'have you eaten yet?' is 'gin khao rue laow?' or 'have you eaten food/rice already?' :P

    1. That's so interesting! I think these sorts of things say a lot about the culture. Thanks for sharing about Thai culture!

  7. How about "hamoon ash va hamoon kaseh" !


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