Daily Archives: June 1, 2010


This word displays what Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food (1999), calls “the unusual appearance of Basque words.” It just happens that Basque – we should really call it Euskara – has three voiceless fricatives in the neighbourhood where English has two (“s” and “sh”); it spells z the one made with the blade of the tongue behind the teeth, s the one made with the tip of the tongue (thus the tongue concave) just by the ridge, and x the one that’s basically the same as English “sh”. And Basque likes to use these sounds. The result, when combined with the morphology of Basque and the commonality of the sound /k/, spelled k, is something that to English eyes looks like numerous small electric zaps. Here’s an example from euskadi.net:

Lehengo egunetik bakailao beratzen utzi da, ura hiru aldiz aldatuz gatza kentzeko. Txorixo piperrak beratzen egon behar izan dira ere bai gutxienez bost orduz haragia ateratzeko. Buztin ontzi batean baratxuri lurrinduta xigortzen utzi. Ondoren, prest badago piper berdea erantsi, arin lurrindurik. Biguna dagoenean bakailao izpitua bota, txorixo piperren haragia eta ogi xigortuarekin batera, salda pixka batekin estaliz. Egiten den bitartean nahasi eta sakatu masa bat lortu arte. Bukatu baino zerbait lehenago arrautzak irabiatu gabe bota gehitu masa gainean egin daitezen. Arrautzen gainean perrezil xehatuta bota eta sutan utzi arrautzak egin arte.

It puts me in mind of Davidson’s description of Basque women. He is explaining possible reasons for the men-only nature of Basque gastronomic clubs:

perhaps to some extent a male desire for peace and quiet (Basque women being not only beautiful but formidable)

Indeed, is not this tongue beautiful but formidable? It is not even evidently related to any other language: it is an isolate, and odd theories abound as to its ontogeny.

But of course these angular characters are unexceptional to Euskaran eyes; it’s a matter of what one is used to. And the sounds they represent are not so shocking, and not necessarily so foreign. See this word in the middle of what I quoted: txorixo. Remembering that x is like “sh”, say it aloud. Yes, it’s the Euskara version of chorizo, as in the pepper (not the sausage).

This far in and I haven’t even gotten to the word I’m tasting yet! Well, I have, in a way, but it’s a bit circuitous. That block of Euskara up there is the cooking instructions for a soup made with garlic, salt cod (bakailao, which again may look a little familiar), peppers (piperren – along with the zaps, Euskara purrs, as there is a distinction between r and rr), oil, onions, and bread, and topped off with an egg – or more than one egg, depending on how you’re serving it. And its name, I am given to understand, comes from the word for “wood oven” (zur is “wood”), which apparently it was once made in, though all the recipes I’ve seen have it made on a stove. It is, yes, zurrukutuna.

I haven’t eaten the soup – I first saw the word just today, in Tony Aspler’s latest Spanish travelogue – but I have a clear sense of its flavour, and the (to our eyes) angular tang and electricity of the word would seem to be matched by the peppers and salt. We may also take note that it is a word that may be said while blowing on hot soup, as the vowels are /u/ all the way through until the end and there are no labial consonants. Just be careful not to spit on it with the /kutu/.

It is a sort of male-dining word, isn’t it? The zurru brings to mind Zorro, moustache and swagger; the u‘s are convivial cups. The k kicks in the door and drags a chair t to the table n. There’s just the issue of that tuna – too healthy for dude food, really. Replace with salt cod. Ah, there we have it. Now we can eat our food and hide from the women in peace… (Clearly these fearful gastronomes need the sort of advice doled out by this sign.)