Pastry with a Thousand Spellings

I mentioned yesterday that there are a lot of spellings for bisteeya. Of all of the ones that are pronounceable in English, it seems to me that “bisteeya” is the most misleading of the bunch. For based on what I’ve been discovering over the last few days, the most common pronunciation of this pastry is something akin to “pastila.” That brings it a lot closer in look and sound to the Spanish word “pastel” which means “cake” in that language. Interestingly, if you look around the Mediterranean you can find more than a few baked items — including many savory pies — that sound quite similar.

Turkish Jews have a meat pie called “pasteles.” The Syrians have one by the name of “pastellis.” A pie called “pastilllus” was popular in northern France in the 13th Century. There’s even a new world meat pie — made in Puerto Rico — that goes by the name of “pastelis.” All of these words are derived from the original Latin word pastillum which means a bread roll. When you consider that Rome pretty much owned all the territory where these dishes occur (except of course for Puerto Rico), it’s pretty easy to see how the word found its way into so many different culinary traditions.

But that makes me wonder: was there a Roman proto-pastela that spawned all these iterations? It would at least make intuitive sense, though it’s hard to see where a loaf of bread stuffed with meat leads to a pie. This will take some more thinking about…

7 thoughts on “Pastry with a Thousand Spellings”

  1. A loaf of bread, no, but it’s not much of a jump to go from some kind of flatbread with topping to flatbread with the topping stuffed inside. And from there, it’s a matter of enriching the bread with fat, and a little more fat, to the point where you get something that looks like pastry.

  2. I suspect it’s more a matter of parallel evolution. Pretty much every culture I know of that has grain has some kind of “dough wrapped around stuff” – wontons, empanadas, samosas, pasties….The words probably all derive from the same Latin root, but the idea itself is pretty universal.

    1. I think that’s probably correct. Dough makes a very handy carrying case. It’s no surprise many people have thought of the idea.

      Thanks, Jane!

      – Joe

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