Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kömény Madness!

This is a picture of caraway fruit, yes they're fruit...

So I've had this problem trying to figure out the difference, in Hungary, between cumin and caraway. This is not a problem when specimens of either one of the two fruits are in front of me: the appearance, smell, and of course, taste are all unique to either fruit. Now this has eluded me ever since I was told some pálinka I was drinking in Transylvania was cumin flavored, it definitely was not! Why would a VERY intelligent Hungarian native speaker with a near native fluency of English make such a mistake and tell me I was drinking pálinka made from cumin? And how could this EVER be a confusion in the first place?

So what we have here is a good 'ol fashioned cultural and linguistic mystery. I turned to my dictionary, two of them actually, a matching set written by the same Hungarian language experts: one is Hungarian to English (Magyar-Angol), the other English to Hungarian (Angol-Magyar). So I started from the Hungarian side of the equation by looking up the presumed word for cumin: kömény. The dictionary tells me that this is the Hungarian word for caraway, yay! No more confusion! But that was a little TOO easy, and it didn't account for the entire misunderstanding in the first place. So I dug into my English to Hungarian dictionary and looked up cumin: kömény. What!? No help there, so I turned to caraway and saw the very same entry: kömény. So I have one dictionary telling me that two very different spices are the same, while the other is telling me that kömény only means caraway.

With this mystery only half solved, if anyone looks these words up the authorities are telling them that one Hungarian word is just as good as two English words when in reality that just isn't true and it misleads good people seeking knowledge, I had to go deeper...

So, I did a little digging on the internet and found a site for spices and found a little history on the matter. To begin: caraway is more native and has been adapted on a far wider culinary scale in Northern and Eastern European countries. The opposite is true for the part of Europe and Asia where the cumin fruit reigns supreme. Some languages also have equal and opposite names for the two spices that include naming the native fruit by a local name, then referring to the other fruit by a similar name, but with an exotic twist. For example, in Hungarian you now know that caraway is called kömény whereas the foreign cumin can go by the exotic misnomer of egyiptomi
kömény: makes a lot of sense, right?

This is a picture of cumin fruit, yes, they're fruit too!

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