What is American cooking?

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Many people have asked me this. The answer is complicated.

The food in many countries is a mix of influences from other cultures. Japanese food includes Chinese influences. Taiwanese food includes influences from different parts of China, Japan, and the South Pacific. Spanish food includes French and North African influences, and so on. However, American food is especially mixed up. Few individual dishes can be said to be 100% American: invented in America and using only ingredients from North and South America. However, we can still think of certain kinds of dishes as being part of “American cuisine” because of their origins, techniques, and flavors, or even simply if something is very popular in the USA. There is definitely more to American food than hamburgers and hot dogs!

Due to request, I will be writing some about American food in the next few weeks. I hope you will enjoy it and that you will comment with any questions you might have. I’m going to include some recipes, too.

First, one note: Much of the cooking vocabulary in English originates from French. This is because since colonial times, Americans have held French cooking in high esteem. (Thomas Jefferson really loved French food.) Words like cuisine, sauté, and braise all come from French. You can look up most ingredients and techniques on Wikipedia; be sure to read the American definition if there is more than one.

If you want to get started reading about American food now, you can visit the Smithsonian museum’s excellent site about 500 Years of American Food. It has lots of short articles on different topics, so click on whatever you’re interested.

Book review: Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted (Trophy Newbery)

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, is a great book for anyone who likes fantasy novels. Many of my international friends have read fantasy novels like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings in their native languages, but they found the original English versions very hard to read. If you would like to try something a little easier instead, try Ella Enchanted. It’s a very creative and enjoyable story that is loosely based on the “Cinderella” fairy tale.

The main character is a teenage girl, Ella, who was cursed by a crazy fairy. Ella has to be obedient to everyone–she has to do anything she is told to do. This isn’t just annoying–it’s dangerous! How can she survive the curse? Even more, how can she overcome the curse?

Ella is smart and good with languages. I liked her right away (although I’m jealous of her language skills!). She is not a Disney-type princess, but more like a real person. Her relationships with other characters in the novel are realistic, too. I don’t want to say much about the romance in the book, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. I’ll just say that the love story is both sweet and realistic. How unusual! Somehow, the story feels like real life, even though it includes fairies, ogres, curses, and other imaginary things.

Gail Carson Levine is a good writer, because she held my interest even though the book was written for older children (probably around 12 years old). The vocabulary level is not too high, so if you can read this blog, you can probably read the book. Words such as “centaur” and “ogre” might be new to you, but you’ll get the idea quickly. Don’t panic if you see nonsense words in the book: Ella sometimes speaks the languages of other creatures in the book. These words look strange, like “aaTHaiUghkl” and so on. You won’t have any problems realizing that these are not real English phrases.

In an upcoming post, I’ll write about different genres (categories) of fiction (novels and other made-up stories). Fantasy is one of my favorite genres. If you also like fairy tales or fantasy novels, I hope you will give this book a try. Feel free to comment and tell me what you think after you read the book.

(If you live in the USA, your library or local bookstore should have it. This book is also linked to in the Readable Blog Bookstore.)

Good Words: Comfort food

“There is nothing, absolutely nothing that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I want to reach out with all my love to my husband, a dish of pasta and tomatoes is almost always in my hands. When I am worn out and the world isn’t such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta. When time is short but dear friends must be fed with joy and not pressure, I make pasta with tomato sauce.”

–Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Host of “The Splendid Table”),
speaking about comfort food for PBS’ The Meaning of Food

“Comfort food” is a great phrase! Can you guess what kind of food it is?

It’s not any one special food, because it’s different for everyone. It’s the food that comforts you. It might not be your #1 favorite food or the food that you think tastes best in the world. Instead, it’s something that makes you feel better when you are tired, sad, lonely, or sick.

For many people, their comfort foods are things they ate when they were small children, or that were treats when they were growing up. I asked five other Americans what their comfort foods are. Here’s what they said:

Me: macaroni and cheese, biscuits and gravy, flapjacks, hot French bread, royal milk tea, hot chocolate, warm homemade chocolate pudding, warm cinnamon rolls
My husband, Clint: macaroni and cheese, vanilla milk, spaghetti with meat sauce, pecan pie, hot links sausage, rice pudding, sushi (yes, really!)
My roommate and friend, Jenn: apple pie, chicken soup, split pea soup, fresh hot white bread, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, chicken pot pie, peach cobbler, barbecued ribs
My roommate and friend, Cory: pizza, lasagna, steak, ice cream, spinach and artichoke heart souffle
Cory’s friend, Jesse: meatloaf with twice-baked potatoes and brown gravy, fried okra
My friend, Paul: homemade (not microwaved) popcorn, homemade chocolate chip cookies

As you can see, there’s a variety of answers, but most of the answers aren’t healthy! These are the foods that you eat when you don’t care about the calories. Comfort foods are the ones that you miss when you go overseas for the first time. Sometimes people miss their comfort foods so much that they’ll pay lots of money at an international grocery store to get it, or they’ll ask their family members to mail it to them if possible.

(It’s also possible to gain a new comfort food during your life. When Clint started eating sushi after he moved to California, he just loved it, and he always felt like he was in a better mood after he ate sushi. So now it’s a comfort food for him. Royal milk tea is something I had for the first time in Japan, on the first day of our honeymoon, standing on a bullet train platform in Tokyo.)

If you want to read more about comfort food, visit PBS’ The Meaning of Food: Comfort Food. They asked some famous chefs and others to talk about their own comfort foods. Recipes are even included!

What is one of your comfort foods? Is it healthy or unhealthy? Do you make it or buy it? (Or do you ask a family member to make it?) Why do you think it makes you feel better?

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Comfort Food (Complete Idiot's Guide to)The Big Book of Breakfast: Serious Comfort Food for Any Time of the DayComfort Food (Step-by-step)Betty Crocker Comfort Food: 100 Recipes for the Way You Really Cook (100 Recipes/Way You Cook Today)

(After the health-food craze of the 1980s and 1990s, comfort food became a popular subject for cookbooks in the USA. Some people think it’s because Americans became more stressed out in the late 1990s. I don’t know, but the cookbooks are fun to look at! Please note: clicking on these images takes you away from this page, to the Amazon.com page about each book)

How to write a postcard in English

Here’s a photo of postcards for sale in Germany, taken by Shawndra and Simon.

Before, I posted about writing a postcard through PostCrossing. Here are some ideas about how to write a polite and friendly postcard in English. It’s easy! There’s not much space on the card, so you can only write a few lines.

If you use PostCrossing, you will be writing a postcard to a stranger. In that case, you could write something like the below example. Of course, the underlined sections are up to you.

Dear Hans Schmidt,

My name is Clarissa Ryan. I am an English teacher and I love to read and surf the web. I live in Fremont, California, USA, which is a medium-sized city near San Francisco. The picture on this postcard is a photo of the San Francisco Bay. I often see the bay when I drive around my town.

Anyway, I would love to hear back from you. My return address is: 123 Fake St., Fremont CA 94538, USA.

Clarissa [Lastname]

Here is another possible PostCrossing example, written for you by my former roommate, Jenn:

Dear Bob O’Reilly,

I found this post card and had to send it to someone. It was much too pretty to keep. I hope that you are well and will send me a postcard back.


Jenn W.
123 Fake St.
Fremont, CA 94538

(Thanks, Jenn!)

Anyway, I hope you’ll try PostCrossing.

Here’s another postcard example. It’s what I might write to a friend on a San Diego Zoo postcard:

Dear Tora,

I’ve been in San Diego for two days now. The weather is pretty nice and we’ve been having a great time. Yesterday, we went to the zoo. We saw some baby tigers–you would have loved them! Maybe we can go there together someday. Anyway, I hope you’re doing well! Take care!

— Clarissa

A postcard with a photo of a place in California that a Japanese friend liked to visit:

Dear Shu,

How’s everything going? We saw this postcard and thought of you. It would be great if you could come to California again sometime, or if we could go to Japan.
Take care!

— C. & C.

When I looked at postcard back in Google Images, I noticed that a lot of people sent postcard to themselves. These postcards just say “We were here!” and the date. I think I like choosing postcards more than I like writing them! I often buy postcards, but I forget to mail them. It’s a bad habit! So maybe I should send them to myself while I’m traveling.

Other people send very simple postcards to their friends. These just say things like…

Dear Carolyn,
Hi from Hawaii!!!
Love, Clarissa

So as you can see, writing a postcard in English can be VERY easy!

Note: This entry was re-written on January 26, 2010, to make it easier to read and more useful.

Postcrossing: Trade postcards across the world

Postcards Exchange

Postcrossing is a free system for helping strangers exchange postcards. 1. You register with the site. 2. Then you request an address to send a postcard to. 3. The site gives you someone’s address and a postcard ID number. 4. You write and mail the postcard, with the ID number on it. 5. The person who receives the card enters your ID on the website, which is proof that you sent a card. 6. Then your address is given to the next person who requests an address, so you should receive a postcard soon. (Many people privately send a postcard back to the person who sent them one, but the official Postcrossing system keeps things fair.) By trading postcards in English with people from all over the world, you get practice reading and writing. You might even make some friends.

It sounds confusing, but it’s very easy when you register. Just follow the instructions.

Some people have scanned and uploaded the images from the postcards they’ve received on Flickr.

According to the website, there are

  • 214,889 users in 204 countries
  • 29,874 males, 125,506 females; 58,43 prefer not to say
  • 6,214,658 postcards received
  • 210,346 postcards traveling at this moment

It’s free to register, but of course you’ll have to pay for postage. I’ll have to see if I have any international postcard stamps!

Edited to be easier to read, and statistics updated, on January 26, 2010.

Good Words: Authentic

Authentic (adj.): Most dictionaries will tell you that this word basically means “real, not copied; true.” Examples of this usage include “an authentic Van Gogh painting” and “an authentic account of the war, written by a survivor.” English teachers sometimes use the word to mean that something was created in English, by English speakers, for English speakers, and not created just for a textbook.

However, when people talk, they usually use it in reference to a culture. For example:

“Authentic Chinese food is hard to find in Arkansas. If it’s covered in a bright pink sauce and there are no vegetables, it’s not authentic Chinese food!”
“My friend, Nao, said that most of the costumes in Memoirs of a Geisha were not authentic at all. The dances weren’t authentic, either. The director just made everything up!”
“Where could I find some authentic Vietnamese silk dresses?”
“Sometimes I cook a stew that I call ‘fake feijoada,’ because it’s not an authentic version of the famous Brazilian dish.”
“My favorite Japanese restaurant has a Japanese chef and serves totally authentic Japanese food, but they mix different kinds of dishes on the menu. That part might not be authentic, but I don’t care because the food is so good!”

In these examples, the word “authentic” refers to whether something fits the expectations of the culture it is supposed to be from. Does most Arkansas Chinese food look and taste like Chinese food from China? Do the costumes look like something a Japanese person from that time would wear? Are the dances real geisha dances? Are the dresses made in the real Vietnamese style? Is my stew the same as Brazilian feijoada? Is my favorite restaurant exactly like a Japanese restaurant in Japan?

Basically, it’s whether something looks like or is done the same way as the original (in the culture that the thing is supposed to be from).

It’s a useful word in conversation, especially if you’re homesick (“I miss authentic ____!”) or if you want to introduce a new friend to something (“Have you ever tried authentic ____?”). Or, for that matter, if you want to warn someone about something (“Don’t go there! They don’t have authentic _____”).

I hope you find a way to use this word soon!

Noun: authenticity.
Opposite: inauthentic. (In conversation, people usually say “not authentic” instead.)

Introducing “Good Words”

I’m back! I graduated last Saturday with my master’s degree in English (TESOL). Things have been very busy since then, so I haven’t been able to post.

I’m starting a new feature here, which will be called “Good Words.” These are words that I think are fun, useful, or special to English. I hope you find some words that you can use. I might also start another feature called “Dangerous Words,” which are words to watch out for! Let me know what you think.

I’ll post the first Good Word right after this. Thanks for reading!

What do other people think about your hometown?

I enjoy reading travel guides, newspaper articles, and blogs about places I would like to visit and places I have visited or lived in myself. I like reading other people’s points of view about where I live. Sometimes they mention things that I didn’t notice. Other times I totally disagree with them. Sometimes I disagree so strongly that I write the author.

Try looking online for stories about your hometown or other places you have lived. The stories may be formal or conversational in style. Look for one that you can read easily enough. Of course, you’ll already know a lot of the words! If you spot an important mistake or if you have useful information to add, you should write a polite e-mail or post a polite comment to the author.

Here is an imaginary note I might send to someone who wrote an article about Fayetteville, the town where I went to college–

Dear Mr. Smith,

I really enjoyed your article about Fayetteville, Arkansas. I consider it one of my hometowns, but it's not well-known. I appreciate your taking the time to write about it. You included several of my favorite places in Fayetteville, like Hugo's (one of my favorite restaurants) and the University of Arkansas (where I went to college).

However, one place that I think should not be overlooked is Wilson Park, which includes the Wilson Park Castle. This is a miniature castle that visitors can walk around in. It's handmade from stone, glass, and concrete. It looks like something from "The Lord of the Rings!" It's a really surprising thing to find in a quiet place like Fayetteville. I hope you will add this to your recommendations. Thanks again for the article!

Basically, I start off with a compliment and end with a compliment or thank-you. I mention my connection to the place so the author knows why I’m writing. Then I add my suggestion or correction.

If you send in a correction such as the location of a restaurant, the correct name of a local food, etc., the author will probably be happy to receive it, if you’re nice about it. On the other hand, if you’re upset, it’s still good to be polite. If I were upset by something in an article, I might have said–

However, I object to your description of Fayetteville as a "country hick town." In fact, although Fayetteville is small and surrounded by countryside, it is relatively cultured. For example, Fayetteville has its own symphony and an arts center which hosts world-famous performers--from rock stars to classical violinists. Fayetteville's university has a respected creative writing program. Former president Bill Clinton used to teach at the university. The atmosphere on Dickson Street, which includes an excellent coffeehouse, a wonderful used book store, a New Age shop, art galleries, and even a safe-sex shop, is not the atmosphere of a "country hick town." It's true that Fayetteville is not as diverse or cosmopolitan as the San Francisco Bay Area, where I currently live, but I still feel that it's unfair to depict Fayetteville as totally unsophisticated.

Today, the San Francisco Chronicle’s website has a series about Seoul, South Korea. There’s the main article about Seoul, an article about food, and a gallery ofphotos. Are you from Seoul? What do you think about the article?

Check out the Chronicle’s Travel page, or the Travel sections of other newspapers, for stories about other places, too.

News! Read all about it.

First, I need to apologize for not posting often enough. I’m trying to finish my master’s thesis, and I only have two weeks left! I hope that by mid-June I’ll be less busy and I can pay more attention to Readable.

Previously, I posted about Learning Resources, a great site featuring news articles. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated in over a year. It’s still worth using, but there isn’t anything new being added to it.

A different website that you can try, which is still being updated frequently, is Breaking News English Lessons. This site is aimed at English teachers, but you can use it yourself (for free!). Find an interesting topic under “Latest Lesson” or “Recent Lessons.” Every lesson page includes a fact-based news story, an mp3 of the story being read out loud, activities, and quizzes. You can do the quizzes yourself, and if you have friends who are also studying English, you could even do some of the group activities together. (Answers are included at the bottom of each page.) The author of the site has chosen a wide range of article topics: the current list includes endangered tigers in India, politics in Britain, cars, and more. I hope you can find several stories you’re interested in.

5 Reasons for English Learners to Use Firefox

Firefox 2

1. Firefox is safer and more reliable. The internet is full of misleading websites that can infect your computer with viruses and worse. Firefox will protect your computer better than Internet Explorer can. Firefox also crashes less often.

2. Firefox handles non-English languages well, so it’s a better choice for multilingual people who may view e-mail and websites in several languages every day. For example, it handles Unicode much better than Internet Explorer does. In addition, you can download Firefox in many different languages.

3. Firefox is free, independent, and open source (read about the open source movement in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, etc.). It runs on MacOS, Windows, and Linux. If you are concerned about the negative impacts of globalization, consider using Firefox and other open source programs instead of those from companies such as Microsoft.

4. Firefox has lots of free, useful “add-ons” to help you organize your learning and find new ways to learn. The add-ons can be installed by just clicking the green Install Now button. Very easy! Here are two that I especially like. You will have to get a free account with each service to use it, but that is also easy.

  • StumbleUpon lets you share and discover sites on topics you’re interested in with other users all over the world. I’ve discovered some excellent English-learning resources there.
  • del.icio.us lets you quickly save and sort websites you want to remember. The bookmarks can be used from any computer with an Internet connection. If you often change computers, use computer labs or Internet cafes, etc., this is a wonderful thing. You can also search other users’ “tags” to find good sites, which is very useful. The sites tend to be of higher quality compared to whatever comes up first on Google, because they have been chosen and saved by real people rather than search engines. For example, here are my bookmarks tagged “useful,” and here are my bookmarks tagged “travel.”

5. Firefox has lots of free, useful “add-ons” especially for language learners and multi-lingual people. This page contains all Firefox language and translation add-ons. (I haven’t tried all of these.) GTranslate will translate English into other languages when you highlight a word or phrase. Converter will convert time-zones and measurements. FoxLingo, Translator, and several others will translate an entire webpage. Although you shouldn’t rely on auto-translation too much, it can be useful in many situations. Right now, some of my students are using Dictionary ToolTip, which displays an English<->English definition after you double-click on any word on a webpage. It’s really good practice for them when they find difficult words, because the explanation is given in English too.

If you try any of the other add-ons, please add a review on the Firefox site for other users to read. If you find a really good one, tell me about it and I’ll write about it in the future.

There are lots of other good reasons to use Firefox, such as its built-in spell-checker, its variety of useful search boxes, better pop-up protection than IE, etc. And it has a cute logo: Firefox 2 無料ダウンロード (You can even download wallpapers!. ;) )

Note: I don’t advise deleting IE, because a few websites will only work in IE. I keep an old copy around for those times, but Firefox is my default browser.

Click the button to get Firefox!
Firefox 2