A Taste of Urdu Food Idioms
Amelia Bedelia was my favorite human of all times when I was in fifth grade. I had just immigrated to America from Pakistan and my English was not that great. Reading Amelia Bedelia books made me feel so understood. I laughed and related to her when she took idioms at face value. Through her I learned what it means when one says, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. I used this expression to death whenever I splished spalshed in the rain.
My daughter in second grade is learning about idioms now. We worked through some homework assignments and it felt so great that now I can finally share my love for Amelia and she would get it. At the same time, I was working through crafting book titles. My book is a journey of burning containers to arriving at a level of making edible Pakistani food. I share Pakistani recipes and behind every recipe is a story.
Talking about idioms, book titles and Pakistani cooking, a light bulb went off. There are so many idioms in the Urdu language that are heavily based upon food and feasting. It’s no surprise because Pakistanis are big time foodies. Maybe I can use these food idioms as the book title? What a marvelous idea! Or not. It was a challenge to translate the Urdu idioms to English and still have them make sense. Nevertheless, I went down the rabbit hole of searching up Pakistani food idioms and what they mean. Here are my delightful findings.
1. Pait kaat kay tumhay baraa kiya hay- I made you grow by cutting up my stomach.
This is a saying that parents usually say to their children or caretakers say to their dependents. It’s used in the context when a parent is angry or disappointed with their child. What a burden to know that your parents raised you by cutting up their stomachs? What did they do with the cut up stomachs? Did they feed it to us? This is veering into cannibalistic territories. A far away relative of this idiom is, “How could you do this to us? You are our own flesh and blood.”
2. Khiyaali Pilau Pakana – Cooking imaginary pilau.
Pilau is a rice dish that is made with meat or vegetable stock. It’s an easy and simple favorite comfort food across all boards. If someone is off in dream land, this phrase is often used. My question is that why would I be making food even in my dreams? Even daydreams lead to making food if one is Pakistani. Close English equivalents are giving into flights of fancy or building a castle in the air.
3. Ghar ki murghi daal barabar- Home-made chicken is equal to lentils.
This roughly means that what we have, we don’t value. How did such a profound life lesson come from chicken and lentils? This needs to be dissected. Chicken was thought to be a higher end cuisine back in the day. Lentils were more affordable. This idiom is trying to say that a chicken dish made in the house is the equivalent of cheap lentils. We don’t value what we have and tend to value that which is outside of our reach. I’m offended because I prefer lentils over chicken. For me, this idiom would have to switch around. A close English cousin to this idiom is, “The grass is greener on the other side.”
3. Asmaan say gira khajoor may atka- A person fell from the sky and got stuck in a date palm tree.
There had to be a date palm tree idiom for sure. After all, it’s what we are kind of known for although it’s what Saudi Arabia is famous for. Confusing South Asian and the Middle Eastern cultures is very easy (ie: Disney’s Aladdin). The equivalent of this saying in English is, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire”. If I was free falling from the sky, I’d want a date palm tree to grab me and break my fall. I’d think of the rest afterwards. Given the fire and fry pan choice, I’d stick to staying in the fry pan for sure. When one wants to express that there is a problem following another problem, this idiom will suit the circumstance.
4. Kharboozay ko dekh kar kharbooza rang pakarta hay- A watermelon takes its color from another watermelon.
It’s time to get fruity. Truth be told, I thought this was an actual fact. It was said so often in my household. I was today years old when I found out that this is an idiom. This means I can stop placing watermelons next to each other in hopes of one stealing its color like an artist from the other. An English equivalent of this idiom is, “birds of a feather flock together.”
5. Chador dekh kay pao phaylao – Spread out your feet by first taking note of the chador.
To understand this phrase, one must know about the chador. A chador is a staple for a Pakistani. Any oversized cloth can be a chador. Some chadors are intricate works of art that we like to drape around our bodies. Think pashmina shawls. Some chadors are recycled bed sheets that have seen better days and are now demoted to the floor. In this context, chador here is referring to a table spread that is placed on the floor to eat a meal or to just lounge on the floor. Pakistanis love a good picnic and so they have chadors ready to be splayed out to enjoy meals in a park or in their homes. Imagine spreading out a chador and a person spreads their feet all over the place outside the bounds of the chador. That’s strange. One remains in the bounds of the chador. This phrase means to live within your means. A close English equivalent is: “Cut your coat according to your cloth”.
6. Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad? – What does a monkey know about ginger’s taste?
This idiom makes me feel sad for the monkey. Ginger is an acquired taste for refined people. A monkey can’t appreciate the taste of ginger because he doesn’t know what it is. An English equivalent is, “Casting pearls before swine.” This idiom means that one must take care in not wasting time offering something that the other doesn’t value and does not have an appreciation for. For some reason, I think monkeys have evolved quite a lot over the years. If given the opportunity, they might grow to love ginger. Just my two cents.
It was a fun ride to come across each Urdu food idiom and decipher them Amelia Bedelia style. They won’t make the cut for the book title. Perhaps there is a Pakistani Amelia Bedelia out there. There’s an idea for a book. It’s probably taken just as I learned from crafting up book titles.
Which food idiom was your favorite? Do you have an idiom that you grew up hearing? I would love to know about them. Extra brownie points for coming up with idioms that were related to food.