9 of the Strangest International Food Sayings, Idioms and Proverbs

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Have you ever thought about just how many sayings, idioms and proverbs have to do with food? Even just in English — cool as a cucumber, easy as pie, bad egg, bring home the bacon, eating humble pie. Food is central to our lives, to our society; it’s no wonder that it pops up so often when we’re trying to think of a way to convey things, and therefore that food sayings are so common.

But did you know that food sayings are also common in other languages? Better yet, did you know that the food sayings that we have in English are far from being the same — or often, even similar, to ones that exist in other languages? Here are 9 of our absolute favorite food sayings and idioms, translated literally for your amusement and translated truly for your consideration.

1. Mind your own onions (French) – Occupe-toi de tes oignons.

We have a similar expression to this French gem — mind your own business or mind your own beeswax isn’t all that far off from the French command to take care of your own onions. But what do alliums have to do with it?

The expression apparently dates back to the 20th century, when women were allowed to have their own plot of land to grow onions. This was a sign of their independence, something that men at the time were finding a bit hard to swallow. This meant that when women started talking about things that men thought didn’t concern them, they’d tell them to “mind your own onions,” or take care of your garden plot, but keep your feet out of mine.

2. I ate the closed door soup. (Chinese) – 吃闭门羹

“Eating the closed door soup” is a very poetic way of describing being turned away or kept out of a party or gathering. It stems from the Mandarin tradition of offering a welcome soup of sorts to guests: in the West, we’re accustomed to getting a welcome drink when we go to someone’s house for dinner, but in China, particularly in Mandarin culture, you get soup instead. (Not surprising, considering the fact that the traditional way of saying “Hello” is “Have you eaten yet?“) To “eat the closed door soup,” then, is to eat no soup, or to be kept out of a party or gathering.

3. Everything has an end; only a sausage has two. (German) – Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.

It seems only appropriate, somehow, that the German way of expressing the sentiment of “everything must come to an end” has to do with sausage. This saying is pretty self explanatory, though it does add a touch of optimism that the English version of the saying doesn’t have… if you eat sausage, that is.

4. Easy as a pancake. (Swedish) – Lätt som en plätt.

The Swedish expression for the English “piece of cake” or “easy of pie” seems to make more sense — after all, a pancake is far easier to master than a perfect cake or a lovely pie.

That is… until you realize that the English expressions both refer to eating cake, not making it. In which case, we think cake, pancakes and pie are all equally easy to eat… but Swedish pancakes really do take the cake.

5. Getting in the way like parsley. (Italian) – In mezzo come il prezzemolo.

How clearer could you get? It’s no surprise that parsley is the herb cited in this Italian expression; when you think of that decorative but useless sprig of curly parsley in the center of an otherwise perfectly lovely pasta dish, you’ll have understood exactly what is meant by this expression.

6. Go fry asparagus. (Spanish) – Manda a freir esparragos.

Go jump in a lake? In Spanish, you’d tell someone to go fry asparagus. Why? Who knows? The root of this expression is hard to get to, just like that of the English version, but in essence, the idea is to tell someone to go do something else — anything else — as long as it’s far from here!

7. Hanging noodles on someone’s ears. (Russian) – вешать лапшу на уши

Ever thought about what you’re really saying when you tell someone you’re pulling their leg? The same sentiment is expressed in Russian in slightly noodlier form. This expression comes from the end of the Soviet period, when new Russian idioms were developing from street slang. Lapsha, which means noodles, had started to also be used to refer to a scrap of cloth. Putting a scrap of cloth on someone’s ears made them “deaf” for awhile, meaning that you could tell him anything you wanted and still have him believe you, seeing as he couldn’t hear you. From this, the true meaning of lapsha came through, and now it’s not cloth but noodles that you hang on someone’s ears when you try to tell them a tall tale.

8. He thinks he’s the king of dark cocada. (Brazilian) – Ele se acha o rei da cocada preta.

To say to a Brazilian that he thinks he’s the king of dark cocada is like saying he’s full of himself. But why? Dark cocada is a tasty traditional sweet, so in essence it would be like telling someone he’s the king of toffee or fudge. Why?

According to Brazilian folklore, a kingdom called Cocada Preta exists, a kingdom on a small island where the inhabitants have very little. Regardless, they think it’s the best place on earth, and the king, therefore, thinks he’s the best of the best. In both cases, both with the idiom and the folk story, the monarch thinking highly of himself is presumed to be wrong.

9. Like washing potatoes. (Japanese) 芋を洗うよう

Ever felt packed into a place like sardines? In Japan, this sensation is all too common, as you likely know from viral pictures of the Tokyo subway, but it doesn’t elicit images of sardines but of potatoes. The expression comes from the tradition of washing potatoes in a barrel, crammed into a small space much like people in a small space.

Did we miss any of your favorites?

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Image: Confused Girl courtesy of Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco