Tastes like Empire

My language acquisition usually begins on the menu. I don’t speak French but when it’s cold in Paris I look for a boisson chaude. I don’t speak Turkish but every morning in Istanbul I want kahvalti. And I wasn’t too long in Kyrgyzstan before I knew what qazi is. But I ran into a problem in Romania.

Romanian has two words for soup. Who needs two words for soup?

The first was easy. “Supa” is a cognate with English, and when it’s written properly it has a little bowl over the -a. Supă! Could there be a better mnemonic than a word for “soup” written with a bowl at the end?

(My friend’s supa crema de rosii, cream of tomato)

But the soups on offer seemed a little…spare. This made no sense, because Romanian cuisine is definitely not a barebones affair. On the contrary, it’s characterized by strong flavors, bold ingredients, and enough onions and garlic to make you love the chef and pity poor Dracula. So where were the heartier options?

Next to supa on the menu was “ciorba.” Here were the more substantial bowls of meat and vegetables, servings to make you sit back in your chair, sigh, and pat your satisfied belly. So what’s the story? I asked my Romanian friend who used to run a restaurant.

(Ciorba acra de pui, sour chicken soup. Only sour in that it has a little lemon in the broth)

“Supa is mostly clear; if you cook it with meat then you take that out before serving, if you make it with vegetables they are mashed, sometimes with a little noodles or dumplings, but mostly just the liquid. For ciorba we leave the meat and vegetables in, and usually use lemon juice, or bors (fermented wheat bran), or something else to give it a tart flavor.”

So basically supa is broths, bullions, and creamy soups like tomato, while ciorba is the heartier dishes replete with meatballs, chunks of potato, sweet red pepper, that kind of thing.

Menu mystery mostly solved, but the question remains: who needs two words for soup?

A country with as much cultural heritage as Romania, that’s who. Because while “supa” is a clear cognate from familiar western European languages (and the Roman Empire that paved its roads), people familiar with languages further east like Turkish or Greek will see the cognate in ciorba instead, since the word (and recipes) came up from Asia Minor with the Ottoman Empire. The crossroads of history, right there on your table.

Romanian language acquisition can still start on the menu, but you get a side of culture and a shot of history with your appetizer.

(Ciorba de fasole, white bean soup)

(I’ll make sure we have some good chances for supa and ciorba on our small-group Best of Romania Tour, next August.)