Both Levantine and Egyptian dialects are filled with phrases and idioms that reference food, and in some cases, the word used to describe a certain food item can have an entirely different meaning in other contexts. Because it is understandably confusing the first time you hear a person’s sleeping patterns compared to a dead, fermented fish, we’ve compiled some of the most common food words/phrases in both dialects here.
كوسة – kosa: Egyptian
You’ll probably recognize this word as describing a zucchini (or ‘courgette’ for our British friends), but in Egyptian dialect, kosa can also refer to useful personal connections (or وسطة – wasta) you have. In practical terms, if you have enough kosa/wasta at Mogamma El Tahrir, you can get yourself a longer visa extension or even avoid waiting in the stamp line entirely, saving yourself hours of misery in your own personal hell.
بتنجان – baatengan: Egyptian
بتنجان is the Egyptian version of باذنجان, the MSA word for eggplant. However, a baatengan can also mean a bullshit excuse or explanation. If you’re trying to convince your friend to skip an obligation for example, you could press them to come up with اي بتنجان (any old excuse) to get out of it.
عنب – ‘enab: Egyptian
This literally means ‘grapes,’ but my soccer (football?) coach always says it when I’m doing something right (which, unfortunately, is not very often).
زبيب – zabib: Egyptian
In the kitchen, a zabib is a raisin, but it is also the term used to describe the greyish blackish bump you find on some Muslims’ foreheads (apparently in English this is called a ‘prayer bump,’ which is a significantly lamer term, in my opinion). It is basically developed from lots of praying, but can also be a sign of insulin resistance, fun fact.
In Syria, this is rather more blandly called الطبعة السودا ‘the black imprint’. Cultivating it was apparently never as popular a fashion in Syria, though.
عوجا – 3ooja: Syrian
This is a pretty obscure kind of Levantine finger food which is apparently a kind of green almond (?) soaked in water. Some people pronounce it 3ooje (and probably spell it عوجة). Apparently along with kuusa (less often), Syrians use this to describe chaos or mess: الدنيا عوجا. This is probably related to the word a3waj ‘bent’ (whose feminine is 3ooja too), maybe from the plant that it grows on, I don’t know.
بطيخ baTTiikh: Syrian and Egyptian
Used to call someone an idiot in a way that isn’t swearing but is nonetheless kind of offensive: yaa baTTiikh! To be fair, watermelons don’t have particularly developed cognitive skills.
Relatedly, in Syria: لا… ولا بطيخة laa… wala baTTiikha ‘neither… nor a watermelon’ means ‘neither X nor anything else!’ For example, if somebody calls you his 7abiibti, you might respond laa 7abiibtak wala baTTiikha!
ما حدا بقول عن زيته عكر maa 7ada bi2uul 3an zeeto 3éker: Syrian
Literally ‘nobody says their olive oil isn’t pure!’ There are apparently lots of local variations, including maa 7ada bi2uul labano 7aamiD ‘nobody says their laban is sour’. This expression means something like ‘nobody says that stuff they’ve produced is bad’, and is usually used to demonstrate somebody’s honesty when they’re saying bad things about projects they were personally involved in – I believe what he’s saying, because nobody would say their own oil wasn’t pure unless it wasn’t!
مهبر méhber: Syrian
From la7@m habra ‘high quality (red) meat’ or ‘de-boned meat’. Someone who is méhber (maybe this means that he only eats red meat?) is rich.
بله وشراب ميته béllo w shraab mayyto: Syrian and Egyptian
In Egyptian, bellha wishrab mayyitha
‘Wet it and drink its water!’ There used to be an amazing video from an Egyptian talk show demonstrating exactly what this meant, but it seems to have been taken down. It means ‘forget about it’, ‘it doesn’t matter’ or – with the right context, I guess – ‘you can take that idea and stick it up your arse!’
(OK perhaps this one only marginally counts as food but whatever, billo wshraab mayyto imo)
خبز وملح khébz w mél@7: Syrian
‘Bread and salt’. Usually used in the expression في بيناتنا خبز وملح fii beenaatna khébz w mél@7 ‘there’s bread and salt between us’. This means that you owe the other guy some loyalty because you’ve eaten together! I guess this was originally a reference to hospitality norms, but now it often means ‘we’re friends’ or ‘we know one another’. I might’ve done you a favour, but don’t mention it – there’s bread and salt between us!