What's this pickled cabbage?

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Semih İdiz, "The Uludere raid and pickled cabbage", Hürriyet Daily News 5/25/2012:

The American Ambassador to Ankara, Francis J. Ricciardone, made the headlines in Turkey, shortly after taking up his post in Ankara, when he used a local saying which is not easy for foreigners to understand, let alone pronounce in Turkish, as he bravely did.

“Bu ne pehriz, bu ne lahana turşusu” he said – much to everyone, except Prime Minister Erdogan’s, amusement. He was referring to the banning of a politically controversial book by journalist Ahmet Şık before it was even published.

The Turkish saying roughly translates into “How do you tally eating this pickled cabbage pickle your diet.” In other words it is meant to highlight a contradiction or an odd situation that simply does not add up.

That's how the start of the story read in the paper version, which I read over breakfast. And the cited Turkish saying, as translated there, is certainly hard for foreigners to understand: "How do you tally eating this pickled cabbage pickle your diet."

The online version offers a less inscrutable translation: "How do you tally eating this pickled cabbage with your diet."

Still, I felt that something in the original was missing, given the parallelism "bu ne … bu ne …". I'm sorry to say that I don't know any Turkish; but using various online sources, my guess at an interlinear gloss is something like the following (replacing the HDN's "pehriz" with the apparently correct spelling "perhiz" = "diet"):

bu ne perhiz bu ne lahana turşu+su
this what diet this what cabbage pickle+possessed
="its pickle"
What's this diet? What's this pickled cabbage?

The culturally-appropriate meaning of the saying — the suggestion of inconsistency — is indeed not completely transparent. Perhaps the "bu ne X bu ne Y" structure has a general implication in Turkish of "given X, what's the story with Y?"

The "pickled cabbage" here is a statement that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan recently made in Pakistan, urging a full U.S. apology for the mistaken air raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at the Salala border post last November. The contextual "diet" is the Turkish government's refusal to apologize for the mistaken air raid last December that killed 34 Kurdish civilians from the Uludere district on the Iraqi border.


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    Two additional urgent questions come to mind. Is this "pickled cabbage" what we call sauerkraut, or something close to it? And what sort of diet is it inconsistent with?

  2. Robert said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    Where I live in the UK there are plenty of Turkish shops but no specialist German shops so I buy lahana turşusu to eat with bratwurst and potato salad. It tastes the same as sauerkraut to me – they're both pickled using lactofermentation rather than vinegar. I have no idea what kind of diet it's inconsistent with – it's certainly not inconsistent with mine.

    [(myl) My interpretation was that the saying has in mind a bland diet aimed at dealing with digestive troubles, not a diet aimed at losing weight. Pickled cabbage might indeed be conceptually inconsistent with such a diet.]

  3. zoetrope said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    The last time I was in Istanbul, we went to lunch at a place that specializes in beans, and they served us pickled cabbage with the beans. My friend, a native of Istanbul, told us that they always eat pickled cabbage with beans to help digest them. It was quite a heavy dish, so maybe the implication is that the pickled cabbage is needed for heavy dishes, and eating such heavy dishes is inconsistent with being on a diet.

  4. Ross Presser said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    If the pickled cabbage is intended to aid digestion … then perhaps the aphorism is meant to point out that the contradictory situation is hard to digest? In English we would call it "hard to swallow."

  5. Mark F. said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    I've heard people say "Pot, meet kettle" by way of accusing someone of hypocrisy. That too would be a little hard to unpack from a translation without some etymological background.

  6. mork said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    This is how someone explains it on turkishclass.com (scroll to comment #49):

    In Turkish there is a saying, "Bu ne perhiz, bu ne lahana turşusu." roughly meaning something like this: You say you are on a diet but what about those cookies?

    Also in a long list of Turkish proverbs:

    Bu ne perhiz, bu ne lahana tursusu?.
    (What is this diet, what is this pickled cabbage?) Used to point out inconsistencies in one´s behaviour or words.

    (Strange, HTML preview doesn't like URLs ending in a number. I had to add a "#".)

  7. Hashir Majoka said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    I think the difficulty in understanding arises from the translation of "perhiz" as "diet"; if you see it as "restraint from harmful foods" then the meaning becomes a lot more apparent. "perhiz" [پرھیز] is a loan word from Persian which means "restrain" and when applied to diet (in Persian as well as Turkish & Urdu" it means "to restrain from forbidden (by physician) food".

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    Thanks to all who addressed my question. Thanks to Hashir Majoka for the etymology, but I definitely think of "diet" in this sense as implying restraint from eating certain foods. My question was why fermented cabbage might be forbidden.

    Mark F.'s comment brings up another question. Does every culture have proverbs or idiomatic sayings for accusing people of hypocrisy?

  9. ShadowFox said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 10:23 am

    @MarkF–"Pot, meet Kettle" is simply a playful variation on "Pot calling the Kettle black".

    More generally, trying to unpack the unidiomatic meaning of culturally-specific proverbs and then try to tie it to idiomatic meaning is a fool's errand. It's one thing to try to understand what it means and where–structurally–the playful element is, but connecting X to Y is not always possible.

    A dietary note. Turkish cuisine is closely connected to surrounding cuisines (e.g., Lebanese, Syrian and Armenian). Most are a jumble of traditional cuisines of the Armenian kingdom, the Caliphate, and the invading Turkic tribes that eventually formed the Ottoman Empire. Although the Empire also included much of the Balkans, most of the historical development was export to the Balkans, not import (but try to convince Greeks or Turks–or Cypriots or Armenians, for that matter–that their favorite dishes are someone else's invention). Most Balkan cuisines pickle their cabbage in vinegar, as they do with many other vegetables. Eastern and northern Slavic cuisines, in contrast, mostly use lactofermentation for their pickles, including cabbage (sauerkraut) and cucumbers. From Turkey and Armenia you get both, so it's difficult to decipher what is implied, unless you are aware of specific Turkish terms–I am not. What I can say from my ethnoculinary experience is that fermented vegetables are considered helpful in digestion, while acid-pickled vegetables are often used to spice the proteins they are served with and "cut" the fat (the same reason many Americans drink soft drinks with their fat-laden diets–when they actually think about it).

    So, unless someone is going to come out and say specifically which term applies to which kind of cabbage, I'm going to reject all the guesswork above (in the comments–MYL does not appear to be making the same mistake). Sorry! Little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  10. Levana Taylor said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    A Turkish friend of mine (a native of Ankara with relatives in Central Anatolian villages) told me the following: 1) When she pickles cabbage in vinegar, she calls it "turşu", and in her opinion, sauerkraut-style pickling is not a Turkish food; 2) To her, "pehriz" suggests a diet for weight loss rather than other health concerns; 3) She doesn't know of any alleged properties, either positive or negative, of pickled cabbage, and isn't familiar with the expression in question; 4) In the last few years, there's been a weight-loss fad in Turkey where you're supposed to eat nothing but plain, unsalted cabbage boiled in water for your lunch.

  11. Levana Taylor said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    Addendum: my Turkish source says that the idiom "Bu ne… bu ne…" is very commonly used with any pair of contrasting items, to indicate a ridiculous incongruity between the two.

  12. ShadowFox said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    Thanks, Levana–it makes much more sense now. The spicy pickled cabbage would certainly clash with a plain-cabbage diet. And that, in turn, works with the general expression.

    Waiter! There is a fly in my soup!

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

    Just in case things are getting too clear, this recipe says the vinegar is optional.

  14. David Fried said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    @Jerry Friedman–The Spanish equivalent of "the pot called the kettle black" is "the crow called the jackdaw black," Le dijo [negro] el grajo al cuervo." One thing that I like about language learning is the bizarre way in which some things stick. "Le dijo el grajo al cuervo" is the title of a chapter in Alarcon's19th century novella "El somebrero de tres picos," the "Tricorned Hat," better known as a ballet. I read it 45 years ago in high school, and although I don't remember it receiving the slightest emphasis, the phrase just stuck in my mind.

    And I'll bet virtually every language has an equivalent.

  15. Hashir Majoka said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    Jerry, perhaps "dieting" instead of "diet" would convey the meaning of the original better. As for why fermented cabbage might be forbidden, it has to do with medical system invented by Galen that is still practised by many in that part of the world and which stipulates that good health is a result of the balance between four humours, namely: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood – each0 of which also corresponds to to one of the traditional four temperaments. Thus all foods also have a characteristic (ta'sir) which also corresponds to each of these humours. If I remember correctly, that of pickled cabbage is phlegm. Thus if a person is becoming to phlegmatic in his personality or is suffering from cough, the traditional physicians would proscribe pickled cabbage (and all other foods relating to that humour).
    Incidentally, the word "turşu" which is used for pickles all over the Middle East, is also of Persian origin (تُرش) and means "tart".

  16. Mark F. said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    ShadowFox – Yes, of course. My point was that the playful version would be completely opaque to someone who didn't know the original expression.

  17. Violet said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    This construction appears similar to a lot of Indian language idioms with , "What is X? What is Y?", where X and Y are contradictory actions. Mostly to mean, "What are you saying? what are you doing?"

    Also, one of the 'Pehriz' meaning is 'abstinence'. Could it mean 'fasting'?
    Then it makes sense about indulging in pickled cabbage while the expressed intention is fasting. For me it roughly would mean, "What are you saying about fasting? (and) What are you doing eating pickled cabbage?"

  18. blahedo said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    A quick and very late addition to all of those who thought it was helpful to compare this seemingly-opaque expression to variants of "the pot calling the kettle black": how many pots, and especially how many kettles, do you have in your own kitchen that are actually black (i.e. cast-iron)? The English expression isn't particularly transparent either, even in its non-playful variant!

  19. Emily said,

    August 4, 2012 @ 1:31 am

    I know I'm a bit late, but as a university student minoring in Turkish, I can at least understand the language. The dictionary I use religiously for class, gives an alternate definition of "perhiz" to mean "fasting". The way I understand this idiom, is sort of like "Why are you eating cabbage if you are fasting?" I feel that interpretation makes the meaning of the idiom clearer for us English speakers.

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