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!


  1. And also the jewish lokeshen pudding!

  2. Davidson’s Penguin fish books – Mediterranean Seafood, and North Atlantic Seafood – are invaluable to us as we divide our time between Britain and France
    He gives the names for each fish or other seafood in up to a dozen languages.
    for a lyrical description of ‘Mediterranean Seafood’, for example.

  3. R Devraj says

    I found this explanation at Wikipedia: ‘ The name may originate from the Sanskrit word laksha (लक्ष), meaning “many” and referring to the soup’s many ingredients; the word is also the origin of the Hindi term lakh’.
    I doubt this is true though: according to Achaya (Indian Food: A Historical Companion, you may want to read it once you’re done with the Davidson) the Sanskrit word is sevika. Sev, seviyan, semiyan are common words in India today. Lakhshan, from the persian, is defined as ‘slippery’ in my dictionary: no mention of noodles.

  4. It is still used in E. Europe (Hungarian laska, Russian lapsha, Ukrainian lokshina, Lithuanian lakstiniai) …

    Zaelic reports that laska is a Transylvania-ism, rather than general Hungarian.

    Besides Yiddish lokshn mentioned in the comment above, there are even more descendants: Old Uighur laqša, Tatar lakša according to the OED entry for lokshen quoted here. The OED says further that Ukrainian lokshina (and similar words in nearby languages) are re-borrowings from Yiddish “with reinterpretation of the Yiddish plural ending ‑n as Slavonic ‑ina, ‑yna, suffix forming nouns.”

  5. I just checked my Humungous Hungarian Dictionary (Országh László, Magyar-angol szótár) and found this entry:

    laska n, 1. [ metélt ] ribbon noodle(s) 2. [ pászka ] azym(e), matzoh, unleavened bread

    No indication that it’s dialectal, which would be (táj).

  6. David Marjanović says

    Old Uighur laqša, Tatar lakša

    Pronounced the same, BTW; the historical k/q allophony isn’t written in Tatar Cyrillic (but it is in all the Latin-alphabet orthographies because loanwords made it phonemic long ago… the Cyrillic orthography deals with such words by lying about their vowels).

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