54 | The Almost Universal Language of Food


Every industry has its own functional language. Sure, it might technically be English that the doctor, laywer, or programmer is speaking but for all intents and purposes it’s Greek to you! Whether you’re working with or needing work from someone in a different field, being able to understand some of the references they’re using, the jargon and buzzwords alike, will make it easier to accomplish whatever task is before you.

If you’re lucky, you’ll go long stretches without needing to understand medical or legal-speak, if ever! And even though computers are everywhere, there’s a good chance that your average individual isn’t going to need to hire a computer programmer (though IT services might be called for). There is one realm with it’s own vocabulary that almost everyone encounters ever day: the kitchen!

We all have to eat, and as more and more people are becoming aware of the effect food has on our daily lives combined with the continuous “feed” of cooking shows available for viewing, understanding food-speak provides a definite benefit. Here are a few words (by no means an exhaustive list) and the way they’re used in the kitchen.

Aromatic: as an adjective it refers to how something smells, but in cooking aromatics include herbs, spices, and some vegetables (like the trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper in Cajun cuisine) added to a dish to enhance the flavor and the aroma.

Cream: obviously the high-fat dairy product, but creaming is the first step to many cakes and cookies and entails mixing the butter or shortening with the sugar until it’s light and fluffy.

Dressing and Stuffing: A frequent debate around the holidays, they are essentially the same thing the name is determined by where it’s cooked! Dressing is cooked in a pan and then scooped out to “dress-up” or embellish the main dish while stuffing is, of course, stuffed inside the main dish (usually poultry of some sort, though you could conceivably have a stuffed crown of lamb or some such).

Filet and Fillet: the first (with one L) refers to a boneless tenderloin of beef while the second (with two Ls) refers to fish and may be boneless or not! They’re both pronounced the same and it also refers to the actual cutting of the portion.

Mince: as a verb it means to chop up very fine, into tiny pieces, but in England mince is approximately what we’d call ground beef (or other protein–usually beef though, from what I can tell).

Portion: sure, it’s the amount of food in a serving but it also the verb to divide a meal or item into individual portions. Like portioning a whole chicken into it’s 8 pieces or a pork loin into 2-3 oz cutlets, that sort of thing (and it’s also known as fabrication, which makes it sound something made in metal-shop).

Scale: as well as the tool used for weighing, to scale a recipe is to adjust it up or down to change the number of servings.

Temper: when dealing with eggs in sauces or creams that you have to be careful not to curdle, you temper the eggs by adding a bit of the hot mixture into the eggs to warm them up a bit before adding the tempered eggs back into the main, hot mixture. Meanwhile, in Indian cooking, tempering involves heating whole or ground spices in oil to bring out their best flavor before adding to the rest of the dish. And then there’s a way of treating chocolate meant for high-end processes that involves precise temperature controls to produce a certain texture and finish to the chocolate.

Of course, not all miscommunications in the kitchen are a matter of word usage. Aside from Metric measurements (admittedly far more accurate) and US Customary and the conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius and back again, I ran into the peculiarities of British Imperial measurements when I first started participating in the Indian Cooking Challenge. They use may of the same terms but their cup is 2 oz bigger than ours, and their teaspoons half as big again. You can see the chart I transcribed in When a Cup Is Not a Cup.

A friend of mine is an ESOL volunteer and has invited me to help go over food terms and US recipes with some of her students. After all, everyone has to eat and learning about a culture’s food preferences can act as a bridge for all sorts of other successful encounters. I’m looking forward to it and curious to see if they stump me with any of their questions!

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