Cooking Language

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I’m sorry I haven’t written much. My husband got a new job (which is good!) and my friend has been very sick (which is bad!).

Did you know that different kinds of English have very different ways of talking about food and cooking?

I decided to collect some recipes for my friend who is sick. Another friend, J., sent me some recipes. J. is from South Africa. She is a native English speaker, like many South Africans. However, when I looked at J.’s recipes, I knew I would have to “translate” them into American English. Different English dialects use different words and different styles to talk about food. Actually, sometimes I have to change recipes from the southern parts of the U. S. A., too, because they use different words for some things. This happens in other languages, too–I know some vegetables have different names in Beijing compared to Taipei.

Using recipes is a fun way to practice your English and learn something about food culture at the same time. Just be aware that if you ask an American friend to help you with a British recipe, for example, she or he might be confused, too!

Anyway, here are some of the major differences you might find:

Measurements: Most American home cooks use an old-fashioned system of cups, teaspoons, and tablespoons to measure cooking ingredients. Most European and other non-American home cooks use weight instead, because it’s more accurate. In fact, I’ve heard that most American professional chefs also use weight. I don’t know why most Americans don’t. Anyway, even when we DO use weight, such as “3 pounds of potatoes,” we use the so-called “Imperial system” (pounds, pints, and ounces), not the metric system (grams and liters). Measurements will have to be converted, but there are lots of converters online.

Ingredient names: Different dialects have different names for things, even within the US. For example, some Southern recipes say “sweet milk”–this is normal milk, but Southerners sometimes say “sweet milk” to make it clear that they don’t mean “buttermilk,” a kind of thin, yogurt-like milk. Most varieties of British English use the word “aubergine,” but in the USA, people usually say “eggplant.” Wikipedia is a good way to check on ingredient names. Another good way is to check Google Images or Flickr, so you can see a picture of the item. These searches are also a good way to see what the finished dish you’re cooking should look like!

Ingredient substitutions: Of course, some ingredients are impossible to find in some countries, or you might have to buy something at an import market. A “substitution” is an ingredient you can use instead of another ingredient. For example, if an American recipe calls for pumpkin, a Japanese cook can usually substitute kabocha instead. I got a British recipe once that called for “custard powder.” This is extremely rare in the US, although I was able to buy it by going to a German grocery store near me. However, I could also have used a substitution, such as instant pudding powder. You can search Google for “substitution for …” to find a substitute. Usually, Google will have an answer!

Cooking terms: Vocabulary for cooking varies, too. Americans may say “mix” or “box” where a British person would say “packet,” etc. Fortunately, most of the verbs are the same. However, cooking verbs (like “sautee,” “braise,” and “simmer”) are very specialized. You may not know these words, even if you are very fluent in English (actually, a lot of these words come from French!). I didn’t know how to braise until recently, actually. To learn how, I looked it up in The Joy of Cooking. This book is for advanced English readers only–it’s very good and very big. It includes most popular American recipes and international recipes that many Americans like. It also includes instructions for most cooking techniques, such as braising. You can also search Google for “how to braise,” etc., of course.

Anyway, cooking is a great way to expand your English vocabulary and experience a different part of international culture. Just watch out for these differences before you start a recipe!

A Poem That Reminds Me of San Francisco

I stayed at a hotel in San Francisco this weekend. From the hotel room on the fourteenth floor, I could see the fog come in. In the San Francisco Bay Area, fog comes in from the ocean in the evening. The fog usually stays until morning, and then it goes back to the ocean. It helps keep us cool! I love the fog.

Here is a famous poem about fog:

by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Does it make sense?

The fog comes in silently, like a cat. The fog covers the city for a while. (To “sit on [one’s] haunches” is to squat [if you’re a human]. Just picture a cat sitting there.) Then it leaves.

Pitfalls: Funny

warning symbol of exclamation point in triangle, by zeimusu at

Funny looks like it should mean the same thing as “fun.” But it doesn’t.

“Fun” is an adjective for something you enjoy, something you like doing, something that makes you happy. Playing a game is fun. Going sightseeing is fun. It’s fun to play with a kitten. Skiing looks like fun. I had a fun day at the beach.

“Funny” is an adjective with two main meanings: 1) Strange or weird. This food tastes funny. This medicine makes me feel funny. It’s funny that you already know my brother. Your eye looks funny. I got a funny phone call.
2) Something that makes you laugh at it. That movie was funny. Your puppy is so funny. The kitten is funny when it plays with its tail. That movie looks funny. I heard a funny joke.

It can be hard to tell whether someone is using meaning 1 or 2 for “funny,” so English speakers sometimes have this kind of conversation:

Aiko: It was nice to meet your mother. She’s funny.
Ben: Funny-weird or funny-haha?
Aiko: Funny-haha! She has a great sense of humor and she told some great jokes.

When Ben says “Funny-weird or funny-haha?” he is asking a common question in English, which is to check on which meaning of “funny” Aiko is using. This phrase is pretty common in English, and you can use it too.

If someone is telling jokes and trying to make you laugh, then it’s fine to say that the person is funny. However, other times it’s not OK. It will make the other person feel bad.

For example, let’s imagine you come to my Thanksgiving dinner and you have a good time:

You: The dinner was really fun.
Me (with a smile): Aw, thank you. I’m so glad you came.

You: The dinner was really funny.
Me (frown): Really? Why?

In Conversation B, I’m not happy because you said “funny.” As a result, I think my dinner either was strange to you or made you laugh at it. I’m worried. What was wrong?

Laughing is usually a sign of enjoying yourself in American culture. However, laughing at something can also mean that you think it is stupid or not good. So be careful! If you say a party, a dinner, a gift, etc. was “funny” when you meant to say “fun,” you might make someone very unhappy.

(A comedy movie can be fun and funny, of course, because a) you’ll have fun watching it, and b) you are supposed to laugh at it.)

One way to help yourself remember this kind of difference is to remember the word in one sentence for each meaning. Pick natural-sounding sentences that make the meaning clear to you. For example —

“Your party was a lot of fun.” (fun)
“This purple-colored bread tastes funny.” (funny 1)
“That joke was really funny.” (funny 2)

Pitfalls: Most vs. Almost vs. Almost All

warning symbol of exclamation point in triangle, by zeimusu at

Watch out for these two phrases. Many students confuse them, but their meanings are actually very different. When you use “almost all (of)”/”most (of)” with a noun phrase, and “almost” with a verb phrase, the meanings can be opposite!

“Almost all (of)” means 80-99% (not all, but close to all).

“Most (of)” means more than half, maybe 55-99%.

“Most” and “almost all” are very close to each other. You can use them in similar ways. “Almost all” is a little stronger. If I say “I liked almost all of the food I ate in Taiwan,” it’s stronger than “I liked most of the food I ate in Taiwan.” But both sentences mean that generally I liked the food I ate there.

Let’s talk about “almost all (of)” and “most (of)” only with noun phrases for now. Here are some examples, with underlined noun phrases: most of my friends, almost all of the movies, most of the shops, almost all people, most kittens.

“Almost” means nearly, not quite, close to.

“Almost” goes with verb phrases very often. Here are some examples with just verb phrases,in bold: almost married, almost won the lottery, almost miss the exit, almost bought a car, almost died, almost finished eating.

Anyway, here are some examples of a sentence type where confusing “almost all/most of” and “almost” can really change your meaning:

  • Almost all of the students passed the test.
    Congratulations! The majority of the class members passed the test! There were 30 students and 28 received a grade of C or better. Great!
  • Most of the students passed the test.
    Congratulations! The majority of the class members passed the test! There were 30 students and 22 received a grade of C or better. Great!
  • The students almost passed the test.
    Oh, no. The students got very low scores. Their scores were close to a passing grade, but not close enough. All of the students got less than 50% on the test. They were very close to passing, but they didn’t, so they failed.
  • (And remember to use “all of,” “most,” or put “almost” in the right place every time. You can’t say “almost the students passed.” First, this is ungrammatical. Second, the listener will be confused and not know what you meant. The listener can’t guess whether you meant “almost all of the students passed,” “most of the students passed,” or “the students almost passed.” When you’re speaking English, you can often make small mistakes and still be understood, but not with this kind of phrase!)

  • Almost all of the flowers died.
    I went on vacation for two weeks and didn’t water my 20 roses. 17 of the roses died.
  • Most of the flowers died.
    I went on vacation for two weeks and didn’t water my 20 roses. 15 of the roses died.
  • The flowers almost died.
    I went on vacation. After one week, I remembered that my roses needed to be watered. I called my neighbor and asked if she’d water them. She said the flowers looked very bad! However, she took care of them until I got back. When I came back, my roses were fine. My roses came close to dying because I forgot about them.

Does it make sense? You have to be careful with this one, because you can accidentally change your meaning completely. Watch out!