I got another birthday present today (I like these birthdays that stretch on and on): Alan Davidson’s magisterial Penguin Companion to Food (available in hardcover as The Oxford Companion to Food). I have been keenly interested in this book ever since I learned about Davidson, but I didn’t think I’d actually get my hands on it except at a library. Now I can play with it to my heart’s content; my first of what will doubtless be many quotes from the book is the entry “Laksa” (by Charles Perry, “the leading authority on early Arabic cookery”), which will give an idea of the interest the book has for me as a lover of languages:
Laksa a term which derives from the original Persian word for noodle, lakhsha (meaning ‘slippery’). Although Iran has not been a heavy consumer of noodles, it has an ancient history of noodle-making; indeed, there has been speculation that the Chinese learned the idea of noodle-making from the same Persian merchants who introduced the flour mill to them during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The term lakhsha was certainly used in medieval Arabic and has shown considerable powers of survival. It is still used in E. Europe (Hungarian laska, Russian lapsha, Ukrainian lokshina, Lithuanian lakstiniai) and in Afghanistan (lakhchak).
Also, it is known that Arab traders or Indian Muslims had spread the use of pasta to Indonesia in perhaps the 13th century. The old Indonesian and Malaysian name laksa shows that this pasta originated in Persia, not from a Chinese source (as in the case of the modern Indonesian name mie).
A quaint Persian tale retold in a 10th-century Arabic recipe collection has King Chosroes I offhandedly inventing laksha during a hunting expedition in the course of a discussion of how to flavour a soup of wild ass’s meat. However, by the 13th century, reshteh (‘string’) had supplanted it, and this is now the usual word for a flat, sliced noodle in the Near East.
I can’t resist quoting a cautionary note as well:
The fact that something is mentioned in the book as being eaten or having been eaten by humans does not in itself imply that to eat it now or in the future would be appropriate, legally permissible, or safe.
Kids, don’t try this at home!