Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Greeks have a
word for it: (5) yogurt

Yogurt on the shelves in my local supermarket in Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The Economist reported recently how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey wants to rid the Turkish language of Western loan-words.

He started by ordering the word ‘arena,’ which reminds him of ancient Roman depravity, removed from sports venues across the country. Turkey’s biggest teams complied overnight. Vodafone Arena, home of the Besiktas Football Club, woke up as Vodafone Stadyumu. But critics wondered what the Turkish language had gained by replacing one foreign-derived word with another.

The first major purge of the Turkish vocabulary purges came in the 1930s when Ataturk replaced the Perso-Arabic alphabet for a Romanised one and banished thousands of words with Arabic or Persian roots.

Because so much abstract vocabulary in Turkish had come from Arabic and Persian, Ataturk almost created a new language. From one generation to the next, Turkey was cut off from much of its cultural history.

This has been a blow to the sense of identity among Turkish-speaking Greek Muslims in Kos, for example, where I found younger people are unable to read the gravestones of their ancestors.

No language can ‘purify’ itself and remove foreign influences. Turkish loan words in English include horde (ordu), kebab, caviar and turquoise.

It is said that Greek has over 800 Turkish loans, and another 25 to 30 or more Arabic and Persian words.

Greek had many more Turkish words in the past, but after the independence words of Turkish origin were often replaced by others with Greek roots. However, many words are still remembered and people know their meaning even if they are rarely used and regarded as low-status words used by illiterate peasants.

Some popular words of Turkish origin in Greek include ντουλάπι (dolápi), closet; ντιβάνι (diváni), a kind of bed; φλιντζάνι (flidzáni) from fıncan, for cup; and ρεζίλι (rezíli), humiliation.

Many swear words in Greek also come from Turkish, such as μπουνταλάς (budalás), stupid.

But so too do many words for foods and sweets, including: χαλβάς (halvás), σουτζούκι (soutzoúki), λουκούμι (lokoúmi), which Greeks would never call Turkish Delight, μπακλαβάς baklavas, and ιμάμ μπαϊλντί (imam bayildí), one of my favourite aubergine-based dishes.

The language used in old rebetiko songs still uses many Turkish loan words. Rebetiko was developed by people who lived on the margins and many rebetiko composers came from Minor Asia. These songs also drew on the language used in the 1920s and 1930s, just a decade or two after places like Thessaloniki and Crete moved from Turkish rule into the modern Greek state.

When Greek-speaking people were expelled en masse from Anatolia in the 1920s, they were shocked by the prejudice and exclusion they experienced in Greece. This discrimination was expressed in pejorative language, and they were called τουρκόσποροι (tourkosporoi), ‘Turkish seeds,’ ανατολίτες (anatolites), ‘orientals,’ and γιαουρτοβαφτισμένοι (yiaourtovaptisménoi) – ‘baptised in yogurt.’

The Greek word γιαούρτι is derived directly from the Turkish yoğurt and is related to the verb yoğurmak, ‘to knead’ or ‘to be curdled or coagulated; to thicken.’ The Turkish sound ğ was traditionally rendered as ‘gh’ in transliterations of Turkish from the early 17th century.

In Greece, strained yogurt (στραγγιστό γιαούρτι, strangistó giaoúrti) is found in food all the time. It is the base for tzatziki dip and as a dessert served with honey, sour cherry syrup, walnuts or sweets often served on top. A few savoury Greek dishes use strained yogurt.

In Greece, strained yogurt, like yogurt in general, is traditionally made from sheep’s milk. Fage International S.A. began straining cow’s milk yogurt for industrial production in Greece in 1975, when it launched its brand ‘Total.’

As for ιμάμ μπαϊλντί (imam bayildí), the Turkish name, İmambayıldı, literally means ‘the imam fainted.’ This dish is made up of whole aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes, and simmered in olive oil.

The story is told of a Turkish imam who swooned with pleasure at the flavour when presented with this dish by his wife, although other more humorous accounts suggest that he fainted when he heard the cost of the ingredients or the amount of oil used to cook the dish.

Another folktale recalls that an imam married the daughter of an olive oil merchant. Her dowry consisted of twelve jars of the finest olive oil, which she used each evening to prepare an aubergine dish with tomatoes and onions. On the thirteenth day, there was no aubergine dish at the table. When he was told that there was no more olive oil, the imam fainted.

This dish is served at room temperature or warm, and it is best served with a large and generous dollop of yogurt on the side.

Yogurt is an everyday food and pleasure in Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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