Autumn 2000 (8.3)

Father's Words
Proverbs About Food

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Hundreds of proverbs in the Azerbaijani language refer to eating or name specific foods or dishes, such as kababs and pilaf. Though the content of these expressions reflects the nature of such foods and society's attitudes towards them, proverbs are really all about telling people how to behave correctly.

It's one thing to reprimand someone's inappropriate behavior straight to his face, but quite another to suggest the accepted conventional wisdom as formulated in proverbs.

Left: Traditional cuisine comprised of kababs and stuffed vegetables served at the Caravansarai Restaurant in the Inner City of Baku.

The literal translation for the word "proverb" means "father's word". Obviously, the proverb - often with internal rhyming or rhythmic patterns - is far more graphic and memorable, and thus much more persuasive.

Here are a few samples. On the surface, they appear to be describing the nature of food. At a deeper level, they provide clues to what is considered culturally appropriate.

Strong vinegar will break its own vessel.

Refers to aggressive people, suggesting that they only hurt themselves in the end.

It's impossible to hold two watermelons in one hand.

Understand your limitations. Stay within them.

He lost both Ali-pilaf, and Vali-pilaf.

Refers to people who "bite off more than they can chew" and who succeed at nothing.

Bad Luck
When things don't go right, even halva will break your tooth.

Halva, made of butter, sugar and flour, is so soft that it doesn't require chewing. But when things are going wrong, even the simplest tasks require a great effort.

He can't crumble dumplings for himself, yet he cuts noodles for others.

Refers to people who can't do the simplest things for themselves but who insist on advising others about complex matters.

He who burns his mouth on milk will blow on yogurt when eating it.

Once someone has had a bad experience, he will always be cautious.

If you don't have honey, have a honey tongue.

If you aren't wealthy, at least, be charming and clever.

My little pilaf and I won't have headache.

I'm satisfied with what I have and don't want to any hassles.

To be hungry is better than to be in debt.

Better to eat cheese and bread than pilaf that is given as a favor.

He who pities his lamb can't eat kabab.

Don't be too "soft-hearted" or you won't be able to accomplish what is necessary.

The molla saw pilaf and forgot about the Koran.

Refers to people who are highly motivated and well-intentioned but who easily get distracted.


I bought doshab; it turned out to be honey.

Doshab is a thick syrup made from boiling grape juice. This expression means something turned out better than expected. For example, a mother-in-law might say this about her daughter-in-law of whom she is very pleased.

Neither cooked at home nor brought from the neighbor's.

Refers to something absolutely new, absolutely different, meaning people are totally unfamiliar with it.

Gift Giving
Give a token (gift), never mind if it's a rotten nut.

Azerbaijanis consider it impolite to go empty handed to someone's home. They always take a small gift, even if it isn't an ideal choice. Any gift, though imperfect, is far better than none.

He is a man who gives bread.

Refers to a charitable, noble person.

No one calls his ayran sour.

Ayran is a naturally sour drink made by diluting salted yogurt. The proverb suggests that people will not expose their own weaknesses.

The curd seller will come to our yard, too.

Peddlers used to sell wares door-to-door. This expression reflects optimism that everything will turn out to be fine in the future.

When a tree bears much fruit, it bends low.

People who are truly great and productive are humble.

You haven't eaten the goose's meat, so you don't know how it tastes.

Used to challenge people who don't know what they're talking about.

You don't have a cherry orchard so how do you know what kind of bird a quail is.

Don't judge things that you don't know first hand. Another version of this proverb refers to "apricot orchard" instead of cherry orchard.

Don't offer "bahmaz" to someone who has honey.

Bahmaz is concentrated grape or mulberry juice. Honey is more valued. Understand hierarchical relationships and act accordingly.

How can a donkey know what saffron is?

Saffron is one of the most delicate and expensive seasonings. It is used to flavor rice. Expression refers to people's stupidity.

He has his bread on his knees.

He is one who treads on bread.

Both of these proverbs refer to people who are unappreciative of what others have done for them and who don't reciprocate kindness.

You don't give milk to the child who doesn't cry.

Similar to the English expression, "The squeaky wheel gets the oil." Let your needs be known. Those who make the biggest noise will get the most attention.

Your mouth won't get sweet just by saying "halva-halva".

Halva is a traditional sweet but you have to work to create it. There is no magic.

Lack of identity
Neither meat, nor fish.

Wishy-washy, impossible to categorize, usually describing someone's personality, but can also be applied to situations.

We cut salt and bread together.

Our friendship is sealed. We've shared in each others' lives and will be loyal to each other.

Say "hello" 40 times to the place where you have tried salt at least once.

Always remember those who have extended hospitality to you.

Even if your relative eats your meat, he will never discard your bones.

Azerbaijanis count on their relatives as being loyal-abusive sometimes, perhaps, but rarely traitorous.

Apricots in the orchard brought so many greetings.
When the apricots were gone, so were the greetings.

Be hungry, but don't beg.

Count the chickens in autumn.

Similar to the American expression: "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

Whatever you put on your pilaf will appear on your spoon.

Similar to the Biblical expression: "You reap what you sow."

Risk Taking
If it works, yogurt; if not, ayran.

Ayran is a beverage made of diluted yogurt and salt. Dare to take risks. You have nothing to lose. Either way, you will benefit.

Even if the onion is sharp, it has its own place on the table.

Even simple things have their place and value in life.

Today's egg is better than tomorrow's hen.

Use the opportunities that exist today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

My advice to you: grind your own grain.

Don't depend on others. Do things for yourself.

Status quo
Don't put garlic on your head if it doesn't hurt.

In traditional medicine, garlic is tied up around the forehead to alleviate headaches. English equivalent expression: Don't fix something that doesn't need fixing.

You can't make stew with cheap meat.

You can't get something for nothing.

Don't eat "turshu" in front of a sick man.

Turshu is pickled relish made of vegetables in brine. As it is very sour, a sick person should not eat it. Be sensitive to others, especially those who are suffering or poor.

He gets wool from eggs.

He scoops cream off water.

Both of these proverbs refer people who are so talented that they seem to work miracles.

When you're young, carry stones. When you're old, eat pilaf.

Work hard while you have the ability so that when you get older, you can enjoy life.

Milk pilov is good ­ one day at our place, the next day at your's.

Don't be a free-loader. Carry your share of work and expenses.

He doesn't pay for the meat, but grabs the biggest "kuftas".

Kuftas are meatballs. In Tabriz, they can be as large as a soccer ball.

I neither kneaded nor baked, but I found a ready cake.

Both expressions above refer to people who appear on the scene after all the hard work is done.

For more Azeri expressions: Click on "Learning Azeri." Aynur Hajiyeva and Farida Sadikhova also contributed to this article.


Azerbaijan International (8.3) Autumn 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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