Cooking Language

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!

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