pörkölt

Let’s start with what this isn’t: namely, a heavy metal band. Sorry! Does look like it, though, doesn’t it? It’s the umlauts – but they make such a nice effect on the o‘s, too, like a pair of eyes with bushy eyebrows, or perhaps two steaming pots viewed from the side.

Well, you can guess how they’re pronounced: like [e] (as in eh) but rounded – like in schön. Now guess the next thing from that: do you think this word has anything to do with pork?

Well, consider that pork comes from French porc, and ultimately from Latin porcus. Next, consider that rounded front vowels written with umlauts are not something one finds in Romance languages. (It’s not that they don’t have rounded front sounds; it’s that they don’t use the two dots to signify them – those are used for other purposes.) Could a porcus–derived word have been borrowed into another non-Romance language? Oh, it could have. But not in this case.

But it’s no surprise if people think that it does have to do with pork. After all, pörkölt is a meat stew. Mind you, the stew is most commonly made with beef (though it can be made with pork, or rabbit, chicken, road kill, whatever…). This gives rise to a situation just like with hamburger: why ham – and why pörk – with beef?

Well, it’s like this. There’s a verb, pörkölni, which means “roast” or “singe” or, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, “roast the surface to the point of almost burning” (my paraphrase). This word pörkölt comes from that. So is this stew made with meat that has been nearly burned? Well, no. It just happens that in the early 1820s, when paprika was first imported to where this stew was invented, it was discovered that meat rubbed with it before cooking had just that hot-roasted kind of flavour they liked. So the stew – basically meat, onions, and paprika, and maybe some tomatoes – became very popular. In fact, it came to be served often to visitors from other countries. It’s a pretty common dish even in North American cuisine now.

Not heard of it? Well, what we call it is a name that has been transferred from a soup made with the same kind of meat and seasoning but extra liquid and some potatoes. That sort of soup was named “herder’s meat” (or “cowboy meat”), gulyá hás, which shortened to gulyás. But the s in this language is said like English “sh”, while the [s] sound is written sz. So, with the /l/ losing the palatalization, the name we generally use for this kind dish is goulash. And we often stick extra things in the dish, like noodles. When I was a kid, the “Hungarian goulash” we had was ground beef, noodles, onions, tomatoes, paprika, and I’m not sure what-all else.

By the way, if you’ve heard of paprikash (as, for instance, in When Harry Met Sally: “Waiter, there is too much pepper in the paprikash, but I would be pleased to partake of your pecan pie”), or paprikás as it’s spelled in Hungarian, it’s the same as pörkölt but with sour cream. Mmm!

But I like the word pörkölt, and not just because it’s misleading (and looks a bit like a pair of Elton John’s glasses), nor just because it sounds like it could be Turkish, nor because it sounds just a little like a bad word in Finnish (perkele), nor because at any rate it’s not from an Indo-European language – Hungarian is related to Finnish and Estonian (not too closely) but not at all to, for instance, German – but just because of the sound of it. And I don’t mean how it sounds like people who worship that noise cats make (purr cult). It just has a forced kind of feeling, with that second vowel exactly the same as the first, and both leading into liquids, and the word bookended with voiceless stops. Maybe like riding a bike down a couple of steps (a longer set of stairs would be like helter skelter). And it’s abrupt: those vowels are not to be held too long. If they were, the double dots would become double accents – and the word would look very surprised, pőrkőlt, and sound like slamming on the brakes at high speed and skidding to a stop.

I gotta say, though, a good bowl of pörkölt – like a good word – is worth stopping for.

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One response to “pörkölt

  1. Pingback: stracotto | Sesquiotica

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