Daniel Monterescu, Rafi Grosglik, and Ariel Handel investigate for Haaretz (archived) an Arabic term that has diverged in usage in Israel. After describing its use as an upscale signifier in Tel Aviv restaurants (there’s one called Baladi Chic) and as a down-home symbol among Palestinians, they continue:

Is baladi in Hebrew identical to baladi in Arabic? How did the term evolve from signifying rural domestic produce into a sexy trend in Tel Aviv – and what does that say about Israeli identity? […]

The term baladi is derived from the Arabic word “balad” (بلد), which means village, city or geographical area.

Balad, explain Orphee Senouf Pilpoul, Jad Kaadan, Vered Shimshi and Ido Fuchs in an article recently published in “Mafte’akh: A Lexical Review of Political Thought,” symbolizes multiple meanings that denote “place,” but also the dim and at times ambivalent attitude toward place. Balad is the village (الكفر), the city (المدينة), the land (الأرض), but never the state (الدولة).

At its heart, the term stands for the intimate connection with the land and the community. Whereas in Arabic balad comprises a complex conceptual array that relies on textual strata that go all the way back to the Koran, in today’s spoken Hebrew, balad has become “baladi” – which, as they see it, represents a “fabricated authenticity.”

Baladi, as it is used in Hebrew, has been severed from “balad” and instead became a stand-alone adjective detached from any specific spatial significance. Like “organic” or “terroir,” baladi is also a term with multiple meanings. But baladi seems to be particularly difficult to translate, and has therefore been preserved in its Arabic form in other languages as well. […]

The first cookbook in Hebrew to bear the word “baladi” in its title is a thick volume published in 2016, “Baladi: Four Seasons in Nazareth,” co-authored by Dukhul Safadi and Michal Waxman. Among all the recipes and stories found within the book, the word “baladi” does not appear even once – only in the book’s title. That is not a coincidence. One assumes that the authors or publishers must have felt that the term would be obvious to Hebrew speakers – along with an understandable hope to rid a cookbook aimed at the wider Israeli public of any political disputes.

Conversely, in the cookbook “Baladi: Palestine – A Celebration of Food from Land to Sea,” published in English in 2018 by Joudie Kalla (a British chef and author of Palestinian descent), which is primarily aimed at an international audience, the term is immediately explained in the introduction.

“I love the word ‘baladi,’” Kalla writes. “As with most Arabic words, it has many meanings, but above all it means, ‘my home, my land, my country.’ To me, Palestine is all of these things, and not just in a geographical sense, but in the sense of my life and my family, too. It has been home for my family for hundreds of years, and embodies everything that I am and everything that I have been raised to be.”

The term “baladi” arose from the need to differentiate between local and foreign. The scholar Limor Yungman found that the term, in its culinary context, already appeared in texts from the Middle Ages published in the Middle East. For example, “Kitab al-Tabikh” (a Baghdad cookbook from the 13th century) features a recipe for a faux fish paste called “Baladiya” (in the sense of local or rural). An Egyptian cookbook from the 14th century, meanwhile, features items such as baladi rosewater and a recipe for local granola called ka’ut baladi.

In the 19th century, a distinction was made in Ottoman Palestine between two types of oranges: fransawi (French) and baladi; it seems that the Jaffa orange, of the famous Jaffa Shamouti variety, developed from the baladi variety. […]

References to the word baladi can be found in the Hebrew press from the late 1800s on. Like other words, the Jewish minority embraced terms from the Arabic language, which was the spoken language in Ottoman Palestine. Thus, one can find references in the Hebrew newspapers to a local flour (tahin baladi) or to local baladi dates (as opposed to the “hiani” variety, which was considered better). The Jews of Yemen even have a prayerbook called “baladi version.”

The researcher Yoni Mendel notes that the word baladi was even appropriated into popular expressions in Yiddish, like ‘Ihr het a baladi?’ (“Is he baladi?” Or, in other words, “Is he a member of the Ashkenazi community who was born in one of the four holy cities?”). […]

It would seem that for the Israeli and international public seeking authenticity, baladi’s charm is the fact that it is ‘the food of the Other.’ The Other that, deep in our heart, we yearn to resemble: local, authentic, confident of one’s place in the world. […]

It was during these years that baladi also penetrated the food industry: baladi spice mixtures; baladi olive oils; mass-produced sandwich spreads like baladi pickled lemon; pickles out of a can that were described as “baladi pickles with spicy pepper and garlic.” Baladi eggplant sandwich spreads began to appear in restaurants and coffee shops, while wholesale suppliers would call themselves “shuk [market] baladi.”

In most cases, none of this had anything to do with baladi agriculture in the real sense. Baladi became a marketing ploy. […]

The story of baladi also unravels the roots work of the Zionist project. Jews who arrived in Ottoman Palestine from the end of the 19th century onward sought to reinvent themselves as the authentic natives. In doing so, they sought to resemble the natives, but also to differentiate themselves in order to preserve their identity. The flirtation with the Arabic language and Palestinian food is part of a process of acquired indigeneity that blends imitation with separation and invented traditions. […]

Over the past 150 years, baladi has been transformed from an apolitical term into one with numerous meanings that take on and then shed different forms. Baladi is authentic, local, communal, rural and simple – but also healthy, organic, delicious, unique and sought-after. Not only has baladi become Tel Aviv chic; at times, it is even marketed back to the Arab consumers. Thus, in an ad placed in an Arabic newspaper by the Israeli Strauss company to mark Ramadan, readers were offered a recipe for “baked baladi eggplant in Danone yogurt sauce.”

There’s much more at the link, including mouthwatering images; I love this kind of deep dive into historical semantics.


  1. I have also seen the form biladi. I don’t know where the different vowel comes from. It appears as this Lebanese-British food distributor, and as this U.S.-marketed Mexican-manufactured tahini (an excellent brand, by the way, if you like more subtle-tasting tahini).

    (And I just learned that sésamo in Spain and the Southern Cone is ajonjolí in Spanish elsewhere.)

  2. You astonish me! Apparently it’s from Andalusian Arabic الجُلْجُلِين‎ (al-juljulín), from Arabic جُلْجُلَان‎ (juljulān, “sesame seed”). I’d never have known what it meant.

  3. In a primarily agricultural society, ruralness is considered coarse, backwards, and uncultured. That’s how we get the word villain. Peasant food is primitive and unappetizing. However, in a primarily urban society, where few people have direct experience with food production, the countryside is more likely to be seen as a romanticized Arcadia. Old-fashioned, down-home cooking becomes traditional, natural, and more slowly, caringly done.

  4. Biladi is repeated 3 times at the beginning of Egypt’s anthem and is generally popular in Arabic patriotic songs. And then there’s this song which became a hit of Russian internet. Apparently in Palestinian Arabic first i is elided… (SFReader already posted about it somewhere in the bowels of this blog).

  5. Y: bilaad is exactly the political, “state” sense that the quoted article says balad shuns. Used very prominently in the Egyptian national anthem turned Palestinian national fighting song.

  6. Related is French bled ‘village, countryside’, borrowed from Algerian Arabic. Such consonant clusters due to vowel elision are typical for North African Arabic; it gets worse the further west you go…

  7. What D.O. said:-) I saw people sharing it and I remembered it during the kurvasan discussion (even before that, in the context of consonant clusters). What amuses Russian is that Arabic /l/ sounds to us similar to soft Russian l, and blyadi means “whores”. Bilaad is not just political, I think people here must have seen it in classical geographical names in the form “the land of …”. Originally plural.

  8. Spanish borrowed baladí from Andalusian Arabic, but its meaning quickly shifted from ‘locally-produced’ to ‘coarse, rustic’ and then ‘unimportant, trivial, worthless’. In a vaguely ironic way, it’s ended up being a very hifalutin’ word to describe lofalutin’ stuff.

    TIL about MEng valadyne, to describe ginger not obtained from Kollam or Mecca.

  9. USEng distinguishes domestic v imported beer; does this use extend to other domūs or products?

  10. This makes me think of the pejorative meanings of ballad,

    French baladin “A.− Vx. Danseur de théâtre ambulant B.− P. ext. 1. Saltimbanque, bouffon, comédien ambulant 2. Au fig., vieilli. Mauvais plaisant de société, sot. Faire le baladin.

    Could the Arabic word be the origin of the sense “coarse”?

    Or, to follow the limb even further out, was a bal(l)ada a “country song”, folk-etymologized as a derivation of the verb bal(l)ar in Occitan/Catalan?

    FWIW my Latin dictionary doesn’t know ballō in the sense “dance”.

  11. OED calls it “late Latin (Isidore).”

  12. Thanks. Isidore was from Spain, so I might hypothesize that ballar and balad merged in Iberian Romance after the Arabic conquest and spread with the ballad tradition. If so, it’s the same route as supposed for the (end) rhyme.

  13. Trond Engen says

    Of course, it would help my case if al-balad was used for the “folk” or “country” type of culture in medieval Arabic. But that would probably have been picked up long ago.

  14. FWIW my Latin dictionary doesn’t know ballō in the sense “dance”.

    Well, the Romans were famous for not thinking much of dancing, so they didn’t feel a need to distinguish it from ordinary jumping around; the Classical verb was salto — as in nemo saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit.

    But I thought ballo was older than Isidore. Lewis and Short say it’s in Augustine.

  15. Lewis and Short say it’s in Augustine.

    They say ballo is in Aug. Serm. 215, but it ain’t there in sermo 215, nor is anything about dancing.

    In the enarratio in psalmum 91 we’re hoppin’ again: Melius est enim arare, quam saltare. I tentatively render this as “a plough stick is better than a pogo stick”.

  16. nemo saltat sobrius,

    ergo bibamus.

  17. Here is the beginning of paragraph 2 of Sermon 106, Sermo ad eos qui in festivitatibus sanctorum per ebrietatem multa inhonesta committunt, in the edition of Mai of 1852:

    Sunt aliqui, qui pro hoc desiderànt ad natalicia martyrum convenire, ut inebriando, ballando, verba turpia decantando, choros ducendo, et diabolico more saltando, se subvertant, et alios perdant; et qui deberent opus Christi exercere, ministerium diaboli conantur implere.

    Here are links to the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae with citations for ballo and derivatives ballatio, ballator, etc. Click on the lemma to open a scan of the page.

  18. desiderant, not desiderànt

    Sorry about that. Some kind of OCR error in the file, and my shattered iPhone screen doesn’t help in correcting it.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    my shattered iPhone screen

    Another liability of diabolico more saltando. Perhaps something more sedate is indicated.

  20. Lewis/Short goes back to Forcellini’s 18th century Lexicon Totius Latinitatis (via Freund’s German translation, which is also the basis for Georges’ Ausführliches Handwörterbuch (last update in 1913, there were hardly any changes in the 2013 Neue Georges)), so if you’re out of luck, they will cite some long out of date edition.

  21. If this article to be believed, baladi in a sense “local” entered Palestinian Yiddish in a phrase er iz a baladi “he is a local”, which meant not a recently arrived Jew, at the break of 20th century. The reference is to Mordecai Kosover Arabic elements in Palestinian Yiddish which I couldn’t find in free access quickly.

  22. In Spanish, baladí is a rather snooty word meaning “vulgar in a rural way.” Interesting remnant of Moorish days.

  23. Rodger Cunningham says

    Or “countrified,” more briefly.

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