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‘That was until we discovered congee, the soupy rice porridge which is to East and Southeast Asia what oatmeal is to Scotland.’

While I was going through the examples for the word Congee in the Oxford dictionary, I bumped into the sentence. I am not sure how I should understand or parse the sentence to make it grammatically correct? And what is the sentence trying to tell us?

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    The sentence is grammatically correct. It is about porridge, which in Southeast Asia is made from rice, and in Scotland is made from oatmeal. – Weather Vane Nov 29 '17 at 8:25
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The sentence is setting up an analogy, and what is a placeholder for the relationship of the food to the place:

A is to B as C is to D
A : B :: C : D

congee (the soupy rice porridge) : East/Southeast Asia :: oatmeal : Scotland

[The role congee plays] in the East/Southeast is what [i.e. the role oatmeal plays] in Scotland.

The horse-drawn cart was to the 19th century what the truck was to the 20th, a vehicle to haul goods and produce.

If the sentence above had stopped at "20th." then what would refer to an unspoken, implicit idea, which we could make concrete: "a vehicle to haul goods and produce". When the relationship is not made explicit, there is only a blank, what.

Congee, the soupy rice porridge is to East and Southeast Asia what oatmeal is to Scotland, a staple food.

  • Can we just use as, instead of what for this kind of analogy? Or both as and what are interchangeable for this usage? – dan Nov 29 '17 at 10:52
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    Without the placeholder, what, the listener expects the speaker to say what the two have in common. Baseball in America is as cricket is in England. That's grammatical and expresses a similarity. The similarity could be "they are both televised", "they are both dwindling in popularity", "they are both becoming more popular", whatever. On the other hand, with a placeholder, Baseball in America is what cricket is in England, the listener would assume the speaker means they have an analogous role in their respective contexts. The listener isn't waiting for anything more. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 29 '17 at 11:24
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That was until we discovered congee, [the soupy rice porridge] which is to East and Southeast Asia what oatmeal is to Scotland.’

When we have to explain something unfamiliar to the layperson we can use the following type of construction, [term] + is to [Z] what [nearest equivalent] to [A]

Polenta is to Italians what cornmeal is to Americans
Akvavit is to Sweden what vodka is to Poland and Russia

  • As I asked in the other answer: Can we just use as, instead of what for this kind of analogy? Or both as and what are interchangeable for this usage? thanks! – dan Nov 29 '17 at 11:15

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