Шашлык: shashlyk,
grilled meat

Let’s say
you’re on a getaway weekend in St. Petersburg. You’ve splurged on a hotel —
canal views — and have just given a scalper half a month’s salary for great
seats at the Mariinsky Theater. So you are feeling rather poor. But hungry. You
look around for a cheap bite to eat. You suddenly have a craving for some
classic street food: a gyro. What do you ask for?

Okay, this
is a trick question. If you’re in Moscow, you want шаурма (shawurma, stress on the last
syllable). In St. Petersburg you want шаверма (shaverma, stress on the
middle syllable). Why does the same food have two different names in the two
Russian capitals?

I’m not an
Arab speaker, so I’m relying on commentary by Russian scholars who actually
know something about this. Arabic, they explain, is a consonantic language,
which means that it is written as consonants with diacritical marks placed
above or below the letters to indicate the vowel sounds. This food is spelled
something like SHWRM with vowel sounds as marks above and below the letters.
Russian doesn’t have the “w” sound. It gets transliterated either as a Russian “В” — Dr. Watson is Ватсон — or the Russian “У” — Oscar Wilde is Уайлд. So that “w” gets transliterated
two ways: шаверма and шаурма.

That makes
sense, but it doesn’t explain how the transliteration turned out to be
different in the two cities. Here happenstance seems to have played a role.
According to one source, the first gyro stand in St. Petersburg was opened in
1992 by two brothers from Syria. One of the brothers thought it would be easier
for Russians to pronounce as шаверма, so that’s what they painted on their sign. But in Moscow their
compatriot — профессиональный шаурмист (a professional shawarma-maker) —
had already opened a stand and called it шаурма. And
that’s how it has gone down in culinary history.

So when you
are listening to folks in St. Petersburg, one might tell a story like
this: Уличный торговец-армянин отдал им
шаверму бесплатно, “дэвочки, на сдаровье!” (The Armenian street food vendor
gave them a shawarma free, saying, “Gurlies, jest for yous!”) But in Moscow,
someone will tell you: За 100 рублей мы взяли мегаогроменную шаурму (For just
100 rubles we got a mega-huge shawurma!)

Today there
are Turkish stands making more or less the same dish — vertically grilled meat
popped into a pita bread with a bit of lettuce and sauce. But they have painted
Донер Кебаб or Дёнер Кебаб (doner kebab) on their signs.

Just so you
know: they are called gyros in parts of the English-speaking world because the
first stands were opened by Greeks, and that’s what they called them. In
centuries past, Greeks had used the Turkish name, but changed it due to
political considerations, thus reminding us how politics get into everything,
even street food.

In Russia,
pieces of meat grilled on skewers are called шашлык, now sometimes transliterated as shashlyk
instead of translated as kebabs. That word is, however, not native Russian,
even though the concept of grilling meat over an open fire is certainly as
Russian as it gets. The earliest version of the Russian spinning gyro dates to
the 18th century, when it was called верчённое мясо (rotisseried
meat, from the verb вертеть — to turn). Even though today shashlyk is associated with cuisine from
the Caucasus, the word is a Russification of the Crimean-Tartar word шиш (skewer). One source explains:
“Шишлык”
– это буквально “что-то
на вертеле” (Shishlyk is literally “something on a
skewer.”)

As
linguistic proof that the word was from the Tatar language, the Georgian and
Armenian names for skewered and grilled meat are different — mtsvadi and
khorovats, respectively.

The person
who makes the шашлык is шашлычник, a masculine verb for a masculine profession, because as everyone
knows, only men can be entrusted to grill meat properly. It’s, like, a law or
something.

Incidentally,
you may be amused to know that in the 1990s шашлычник was also slang for any kind
of small business owner, then an owner of a кооператив (cooperative).

You may
also be amused to know that шашлычница, which could conceivably be used to describe a female meat griller, is
more commonly used to describe a plug-in rotisserie. This is what you dig out of
the back of the pantry and put on the porch at the dacha when a downpour soaks
your fire wood.

But who
cares where the name came from? As a Russian journalist in New York once wrote,
appropriating a line of poetry about Moscow by Alexander Pushkin: О! Шашлык! Как много в этом звуке! (O!
Shashlyk! How resonant is that sound!) Шашлык is the sound and smell and spirit of summer, an entire
evening conjured up by just a few words: Разводили на берегу костёр, жарили
шашлыки (We made a bonfire on the banks of the river and grilled shashlyk.) Ели шашлык, пили коньяк, заказывали музыку и угощали друг друга анекдотами (We ate shashlyk, drank cognac,
asked the band to play songs for us and treated one another to jokes.) “Выезд на
природу” ― это рыбалка, охота, шашлыки и обязательные возлияния (“Going out into nature” is fishing, hunting,
shashlyk and the prerequisite drinking.)

This is the
last weekend of summer, folks. Go out and get some шашлык, хоровац, мцвади, дёнер кебаб, шаурма, шаверма or gyros. And enjoy.

Michele A.
Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, author of “The Russian
Word’s Worth,” a collection of her columns. Follow her on Twitter
@MicheleBerdy.