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Q & A: The big deal over little Ladino food names.

masapan and mustachudos (2)

To be enjoyed one bite at a time!

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. Continue reading

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