Around the World in 30 Food Expressions

"Just blueberries", a Norwegian expression illustrated by Melina Josserand.

Whenever I host a giveaway, I strive to craft a question that will encourage creative and thoughtful responses: this is both so you’ll feel engaged in the conversation and, more selfishly, so I get to read through your entries and learn and smile and be inspired.

When my latest book Edible French came out last fall and I gave away copies, you were entered by submitting your favorite food-related expression in any language you liked.

I know you share my love of languages so I wasn’t surprised to see you come through with dozens of curious and delicious expressions. Since then I’ve been meaning to draw a short selection to highlight in a post, and this is it! Many thanks to all who contributed, and feel free to share more in the comments!

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Edible French

Poland: Letting someone in the raspberry bushes (Wpuścić kogoś w maliny) means that you knowingly set someone up for difficulties, getting lost and confused, losing their way, etc.

Korea: Someone is described as chicken skin (느끼해) when they’re super cheesy. The expression refers to super oily and greasy bland foods that make you feel gross.

Poland: Being served duck blood soup (Czarna polewka) means being rejected romantically. Duck blood soup was served by the parents of the young woman to the man whose proposal was being turned down.

Holland: Having an apple to peel with someone (Hij heeft een appeltje met hem te schillen) means having a bone to pick with someone, i.e. bringing a complaint against someone.

Germany: Having raisins in one’s head (Rosinen im Kopf haben) means having big ideas.

Germany: A freshly baked mom (Frisch gebackene mama) is used for a woman who’s just had a baby.

Spain: Being even in the soup (Estar hasta en la sopa) is said of someone who’s overly present, such as a celebrity appearing in every talk show.

Pakistan/India (Punjabi): You are like a blob of soft butter, a bowl of fresh cream and a crystal of sweet sugar (Makkhan de pedeo, malaai de duneo, mishri di dali) is a flirtatious expression for a pretty village belle.

"One day honey, one day onion"

“One day honey, one day onion”

Norway: Just blueberries (Bare blåbær) means something small, simple or not important.

Romania: As important as salt in the food (Esti important ca sarea in bucate).

Greece: In regard to craving, zucchini pie (περι ορεξεως κολοκυθοπιτα) means there is no accounting for taste.

China (Cantonese): A lump of rice refers to someone who’s lazy or inactive, not reacting to any situation. It tends to be used in the context of, “Don’t just sit there like a lump of rice!”

Hebrew and Arabic: One day honey, one day onion (Yom asal, yom basal) is a reminder that life is a succession of happy days and sad days.

Germany: Sugar comes last (Zucker kommt zuletzt) means saving the best for last.

Yiddish: Like chickpeas to the wall (Vi an arbes tsum vant) means that something doesn’t make any sense, or an argument doesn’t hold water.

Chickpeas on the wall, half oranges, and stale bread.

Argentina: Your half orange (media naranja) is your soul mate.

Russia: You can’t ruin kasha with too much butter means you can’t have too much of a good thing.

Italy: Being like parsley (essere come il prezzemolo) refers to a person or thing that is present everywhere, or a person who constantly interjects him/herself, even when his or her input is not being sought.

India (Hindi): The monkey doesn’t appreciate the taste of ginger (Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad) means that it takes a certain kind of person to appreciate something. It is often said to get back at one’s critics.

New Zealand: Something has sucked the kumara means it is broken or not very good. Kumaras are a type of sweet potato.

Australia: She’ll be apples means everything will be alright.

Spain: It is the parrot’s chocolate (Es el chocolate del loro) means “That’s peanuts” when comparing a small amount of money against a must bigger one in a negotiation.

Canary Islands: When you don’t like something, your plate gets full of it (Cuando no te gusta algo, tu plato se llena de ella) is an illustration of Murphy’s law.

Holland: I can’t make chocolate from that (Daar kan ik geen chocola van maken) is used when something is illogical, or so incoherent, incomprehensible or strange that the information is useless.

"Freshly baked mom", a German expression illustrated by Melina Josserand.

“Freshly baked mom”, a German expression illustrated by Melina Josserand.

Vietnam: You chop at the cutting board when you can’t hit the fish means misdirecting your anger: you can’t lash out at the person you really want to, so instead you take it out on the person (or thing) that can take your blows.

Italy: Having salami slices over one’s eyes (Aver le fette di salame sugli occhi) means wearing rose-colored glasses.

Ireland: Hunger is the best sauce (Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras) means that being hungry makes everything taste a lot better.

Spain: For a strong hunger, there is no stale bread (A buen hambre, no hay pan duro) means that we’re willing to overlook shortcomings when we’re in real need of something (this seems very similar to the Irish saying just above).

Italy: Either eat this soup or jump out of the window (O ti mangi questa minestra o ti butti dalla finestra) means “Take it or leave it.”

Holland: I cannot say “porridge” anymore (Ik kan geen pap meer zeggen) means you’ve eaten so much you cannot even speak anymore.

For more idiomatic fun, check out my latest book Edible French, this list of 25 Hindi expressions related to food, and these 40 idioms submitted by TED translators.

  • On the miniature the blueberries look like sleeping cats. :)

  • Funny! I especially like the Italian essere como il prezzemolo. Never heard it before but its meaning is really clear once you hear it. It’s like “Right! Exactly what I thought”

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  • Sara A.

    In Yiddush, we use “schmaltz” or “schmaltzy” for overly emotional acting for example “I tried to watch the Bridges of Madison County, but it was so schmaltzy!” Schmaltz is rendered poultry fat usually chicken.

    In American English, when a woman has a bun in the oven, she’s expecting a baby.

  • Love the Italian expression [either eat this soup or jump out of the window] – what colorful extremes! Also the Polish [duck blood soup] – amused that instead of giving the suitor a direct ticking off, the parents took the trouble of making soup to convey their rejection. I wonder how a man who got served this soup would react – drink it up or fling it away?!

    I read ‘Edible French’. Enjoyed it thoroughly!

  • Ene T

    Chicken skin in Estonian (kananahk) means simply goosebumps. Good to know not to use it in Korea :-) I know I missed the draw, but not your wonderful book but here’s another saying from Estonia for “stark naked” – paljas nagu porgand – naked like a carrot. My kids used to just love it.

    • Angela Kim

      chicken skin in korean also means goosebumps. it goes both ways. :)

    • How cute! Like a peeled carrot, I assume? :)

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  • Wai Sim

    Hi, am sharing some Chinese words to do with food :-)

    In Cantonese, if someone says “I’ve eaten more salt than you’ve, rice” (lit. translation) – it means that I’ve more experience than you. The word for rice used in Cantonese is the uncooked form.

    If someone is a ‘chicken’ then they are a prostitute. And if someone is a ‘duck’ then they are a gigolo.

  • Angela Kim

    Koreans also say to someone they are marrying, “I want to live with you until my black hair becomes white as the root of a spring onion”. Cute, huh? oh and when someone has bean pod over their eyes, means that he/she is blinded by love.

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  • In Poland we have plenty of expressions with food: “obiecywać gruszki na wierzbie” – literally it would be translated into “promise pears on the willow”, but in English it is known as “pie in the sky”, or another: “wpaść jak śliwka w kompot” (to fall in like a plum into the kompot / stewed fruits), which means “to be in trouble” and is known as “be caught like a rat in a trap”. :)

  • Eva Christoffersson

    Can’t help but notice that you don’t have any Swedish expressions, so here’s the first that I can think of; “ett blåbär” (a blueberry) is a newcomer or beginner at something. Another one is “gå som katten kring het gröt” (walk around/avoid the hot porridge like a cat) which means that you avoid a sensitive subject in the discussion.

    • Love those ! Funny how staple ingredients or dishes of a particular culture appear in those expressions.

    • Lina Johnson

      We also say “gå rundt grøten” (walk around the porridge) in Norwegian – (as opposed to going straight for the butter in the middle) for someone who is avoiding and circling around the subject instead of getting to the point. And when in Danish something “ligger lige i smørhullet” (lies right in the butter hole) – it is just perfect, bullseye, is situated in the most comfortable spot.

      In norwegian we say that we have “en høne å plukke” (a hen to pluck (feathers)) with someone – it has the same meaning as the dutch “apple to peal”

    • Daniel Eliasson

      Another couple of butter related ones in Swedish:
      “Du ser ut som du sålt smöret och tappat pengarna” (You look like you sold the butter and lost the money) for someone who looks really down. I love this one–who can relate to selling butter these days?

      “Inte för allt smör i Småland” (Not for all the butter in Småland (region in southern Sweden that was once renowned for high quality butter)) — means “not for all the money in the world”

      And a fishy one:
      “Hal som en ål” (Slippery like an eel), used to characterise both things and people.

    • Stefanie

      Same one in German “Wie die Katze um den heissen Brei schleichen”

  • Lota

    Two more food-related sayings from Polish (both relate to pears, incidentally):
    1. Ni z gruszki ni z pietruszki (neither from a pear, nor from parsley): it means something idiotic, unrelated to anything else (that is not to a pear and not to parsley). This is very commonly used in Polish.
    2. Nie zasypiać gruszek w popiele (to not fall asleep while pears are in ash). Since it is very common in Poland to bake potatoes after a (bon)fire in hot ashes (wrapped in foil in modern times) during summer, it is possible that in old days pears were baked in hot ash. And since it could take a long time, after a meal, the pear-baker could fall asleep. So if you do not stay vigilant, you will miss the moment when pears are perfect. This is an old expression and less common now than the one above.


    what a delightful article with the added benefit of the comment section continuing the insight. loved and bookmarked. here are a few usa deep south phrases:

    all vines and no taters = all talk, no result (taters short for potatoes)
    let’s chew the fat = let’s talk
    breakin’ bread = sitting down to a meal together
    better than sliced bread = extremely useful
    as slow as molasses in january = slow x10000000
    he knows where his bread is buttered = understands priorities
    hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch = very, very, very hot

    cheers :-)

  • interesting and descriptive post. Just loved reading it all.

  • Stefanie

    Here’s another Dutch one “met de neus in de boter vallen” to “fall with your nose into the butter”, to be lucky. Something is “koek en ei”, that is “cake and egg” when everything is all right, when the atmosphere is a house of company is good.

  • snowmoonelk

    How about, “to come up smelling like roses” about someone who always does well, even in adversity.

  • Katarzyna Waluś

    Black soup of the ancient custom that has survived to this day..When young man go to the proposal marriage…parents can give him a black soup…

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