Spotlight on: Каша
Каша is usually translated as porridge, but that is more of an umbrella term for the following four main types:
- Манная каша: made by cooking milk and semolina with a lot of sugar, tricky to cook and not healthy.
- Гречневая каша: made with buckwheat, which is particularly popular as a savoury side dish with beef stroganoff and liver, but also works well with milk and sugar in the morning. It is hypoallergenic and the first solid food children are fed.
- Рисовая каша: rice pudding’s Russian cousin. Takes more time, and requires more supervision as it is cooked firstly in water then in milk.
- Овсяная каша: oat porridge, but in supermarkets you’ll find it labelled ‘Hercules’ because it gives you strength.
Dishes like oat porridge and rice pudding are relatively widespread in Europe, but they reach new levels of popularity in Russian culture. That is understandable considering каша has been a staple for centuries – it was the essential ingredient before peasants discovered potatoes.
And what do key pillars of culture tend to do to a language? Infiltrate it, of course. Any foreign learner of Russian will be familiar with the doubly wonderful and frustrating mass of idiomatic expressions (reactions to which tend to go something along the lines of – what on earth are those words doing in a sentence together? … Oh, that’s so poetic). Incidentally, каша on its own has entered Russian vocabulary to mean a disorder, jumble or mess, but has also lent itself to many expressions. Here are a few examples to help you sound like a true native who avidly follows the cult of каша:
Заварить кашу [za-va-reet’ ka-shoo]
The verb here is usually used in the context of tea or coffee to mean ‘to brew’, but stick it next to каша and it means ‘to stir up trouble’, usually about a person who has done something brash without thinking of the consequences for themselves and those around them.
Расхлёбывать кашу [rass-khlyob-ivat’ ka-shoo]
Going anywhere near каша can be the beginning of all your problems but also the end of them – this expression means ‘to put things right’. The verb itself has no direct English translation but the verb хлебать is another verb for eating specific to liquids (like каша or soup) that you slurp. If the metaphorical solution is at the bottom of the bowl, you should eat until you see the bottom and, therefore, the solution.
Now put the two together and you have the Russian equivalent of ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’: сам заварил кашу, сам и расхлебывай! The expression originated from a kind of lesson in manners which Russian peasants were taught, taking the expression literally: if they went to visit a neighbour and were served каша, they were meant to politely decline, claiming that he needed the food more. By Chekhov’s time it had taken on the idiomatic meaning, he used it in his short story «шведская спичка» (The Swedish Match).
“Ну, так делай, как сам знаешь, а меня избавь! — пробормотал Чубиков, вставая и отходя к окну. — Не могу! Ты заварил кашу, ты и расхлебывай!“
Щи да каша пища наша
A bit of self-irony here, while Russians are acutely aware that their national dishes are basic, this is also a source of pride as it is part of their national identity. For example, if you serve a simple dish to a group of guests and they comment on how little time you’ve spent cooking, this expression serves to point out that yes, it is basic, but that does not mean it isn’t delicious.
У него/неё каша в голове
When someone’s head is a mess you can say they have porridge in their head.
У него/неё каша во рту
A graceful way to say someone is mumbling is to say they have porridge in their mouth.
Мало каши ел(а)
If someone has only eaten a little каша it means they are young and inexperienced, or can be used when someone tries to complete a task they are physically incapable of (lifting something heavy, for instance).
С ним каша не сваришь
Literally ‘you cannot cook porridge with him’, this one doesn’t mean the afore mentioned person can’t cook, but that you won’t get anywhere with them in general, because they are completely unreliable.
Кашу маслом не испортишь
The verb портить/испортить means to spoil/damage so this literally means you won’t spoil porridge with butter, and is the Russian equivalent of ‘you can never have too much of a good thing’.
«Каша из топора» is the title of a fairy tale where a soldier, coming home from war, stops by a cottage and asks its miserly inhabitants for food. The old lady maintains that they have none so the soldier offers to make porridge for them using only an axe. While it is ‘cooking’ and the water is boiling away, he gradually asks for salt, then oats, then butter, and naturally ends up with porridge, but the old lady is still certain that the sole ingredient was the axe. So, this expression means achieving a result regardless of the inadequacy of the ingredients or foundation by relying solely on wit and talent. Read the fairy tale in full here.
This post was brought to you by Claire, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz.