I can’t ask anyone from the vast Salonican Jewish community that existed before WW2… why they gave such diminutive names to all their food.
Thus borekas were called borekitas, sfongato=sfongatico, enkiousa=enkiousica, pastel=pastelico, samsada=samsadika, nogada=nogadika, and so on.
The only unavoidable name in this series are the kalavassicas (zucchini, courgettes, κολοκυθάκια), to distinguish them from the kalavassa amariya (pumpkin, potiron, courge, κολοκύθα). – Ino Alvo
That’s a great question, Ino. I’ve touched on it in other posts, but it’s worthy of a few paragraphs. The use of diminutives is common in Ottoman Sephardic culture, and it has some very specific applications to our food.
The first is the most obvious: anything that’s a physical miniature version of something else is called “little,” which is indicated by a diminutive suffix. This is the meaning of the –ico/-ica (or –iko/-ika) ending you refer to. (As an aside for those not familiar with Ladino, the “o” on these suffixes is pronounced “ū” as in who.)
The second is to distinguish different varieties of the same thing, as in the example you’ve given for kalavassa, which is the generic name for gourds and squashes. To be a little more precise about this example, note that kalavassica is diminutive of kalavassa (calabaza in modern Spanish) – the generic word for all soft squashes – but not of kalavassa amariya (yellow gourd, or pumpkin), which is a different kind of plant altogether.
The third reason is like the second, but has to do with recipes rather than raw foods; the diminutive indicates that a recipe is “smaller” or lesser in that it’s a mock, altered, or abbreviated version of something else. If boyos are filled buns, boyikos are unfilled. Arni or armi is a lamb stew (arni is Greek for lamb), but armiko would be that style of stew made with chicken instead. And so forth.
The fourth reason has to do with the culture of eating, and the Sephardic sensibility regarding good table manners. Sephardic cuisine has many finger foods. They’re made small and meant to be eaten in small bites. Think not only of the size of our savory pastries (they’re gone in very few bites), but of the dainty spoons used for eating spoon sweets. You get to satisfy your palate tasting many different flavors and textures at one sitting, but without overeating… maybe! A good Sephardic host must feel sure you’ve satisfied your hunger, and if need be will keep feeding you until there’s nothing left in the house. To be a good guest in a Sephardic home, you keep accepting the food you’re offered until you can’t possibly manage another bite. (It’s cause for concern if you don’t). But nobody wants to seem vulgar. When everything is either truly small or referred to in the diminutive, even if you wind up eating a huge amount of food, you’ll never be made to look or feel gluttonous, because each morsel is “just a little.”
And now, a little story about diminutives: My great grandmother couldn’t read, so she had no concept of how words are constructed, i.e. from strings of letters. One day in Rhodes she dictated a postcard to family already in New York. Rather than send “regards to all,” she felt it was only proper to name each person individually. There were so many people to name that my great aunt, who was writing the card, ran out of room when there was still one person left: David, whom they called Davichón – Big Dave.
“There’s no more room on the postcard,” said my great aunt.
“You can make room,” said Great Grandma. “Just put ‘Davichoniko!’”