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Jan 27, 2008 12:47 AM

How Important to You is Pronunciation? (vis-a-vis Food)

I live in the Midwest, and consequently pronounce "casserole" as "hot-dish." <g>

Still. I prefer to call a dish what it is in its native language insomuch as I can. The paella is pronounced in the Spanish (more typical, I admit), the Finnish dishes I make are pronounced in the native tongue as well, and I happily gurgle out in my first -year German those dishes in that idiom. And on and on.

Are we who do this elitist (I have been accused of this)? I find that the original name of the dish, in whatever tongue, is so very descriptive, I wish to use it. So I do. Is this something Chowhounds do, or am I being ridiculous?

Maybe paella is chicken-shrimp-(whatever)-hotdish-with-peas.

How do you describe a dish outside your immediate ethnicity or your guests' experience? Or, do you have to?

So curious,

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  1. LoL
    I find that I am irritated with a lot of food names if I am not familiar with them, but this stems from my own lack of knowledge.
    When I hear people talk about Korean foods, I get irritated when they use say "Korean hotpot" when referring to some of the boiling soups like Doenjang Jjigae (soy bean paste soup) or to Dol Sot Bibim Bap (Rice and vegetables cooked and served in a hot stone bowl).
    I think the elitist (snob) tag depends on how you use the terms. Some people use the ethnic/cultural terms in a "superior" tone or manner which is a major turn off. Others use it in a natural way.

    1 Reply
    1. re: hannaone

      Taking the time to understand a dish and learning it's original name and using it when ordering is a sign of courtesy and respect (even if one's pronunciation happens to be incorrect). It all comes down to one thing: showing oneself to be an insensitive oaf or a person willing to make the effort (accordingly, service may vary).

    2. I don't think calling dishes by their original names is elitist; I think it's respectful of the culture. I'm an American living in Japan, which means that I'm learning how to cook Japanese food and consequently, blogging about it. I call things by their Japanese names, but include parentheticals describing the cooking methods and ingredients, rather than comparing them to some other, perhaps more familiar to my readership, dish. This is partly because the Japanese is my experience and partly because I find the comparisons both annoying and inaccurate. For example, I've frequently seen okonomiyaki called "Japanese pizza," when it really doesn't seem like pizza at all. If you had to compare it to anything, frittata would be more apt, if not exact.

      If I'm trying to describe a Japanese dish verbally, I might say something along the lines of "it's like (insert other dish here)," but I wouldn't say "it's Japanese (insert other dish here)."

      26 Replies
      1. re: Xochitl10

        I completely agree with you on Okonomiyaki. I spent a year in Japan and never understood the "Japanese Pizza" thing. Yes, it's mostly round and flat, but after that there's not much else that they share.

        I always went with "A sort of thick savory pancake that also has vegetables and meat involved".

        1. re: Jennalynn

          I explained Okonomiyaki to my dad as "Japanese Pancake," which I hear almost as often as Japanese Pizza. Then he saw how much cabbage the chef was chopping up (looked like a whole head for each one) and FREAKED because he doesn't care for cabbage. He got through it though. And I won't call it Japanese Pancake any more.

          1. re: jennywinker

            I think it's important to note that the "Japanese pizza" translation is from Japanese folks trying to offer up English for this dish. It's not from foreign folks attempting to pin a corrupted name on it. Also, the translation comes from how it looks when cut into wedges rather than the ingredients. However, it is a base which is covered with a wide variety of toppings (generally varying by region) so the preparation is not entirely different from pizza.

            It is closer to a savory pancake than anything else. The problem is that a translation is necessary as long as a word hasn't entered the vernacular of a different culture. Sushi can be referred to as sushi because it's known well enough in the West now, but okonomiyaki is pretty much a mystery to most folks. I don't think it's rude to try and translate something. The thing is that most people can't even pronounce okonomiyaki (and other foreign words for foreign dishes). They're not trying to be disrespectful, but just trying to understand.

            After all, I could go around saying "satsumaimo" instead of Japanese sweet potato cake, but then I'd just confuse people. What would the point of purposefully confusing them be? To show off my knowledge of Japanese cuisine? It's just pretentious in cases where the words aren't well known.

            1. re: Orchid64

              I thought satsuma-imo was sweet potato...not sweet potato cake?

              1. re: Orchid64

                Quite a few places around me have started calling scallion pancakes Chinese Pizza" which seems equally inappropriate.

          2. re: Xochitl10

            How do you describe a dish outside your immediate ethnicity or your guests' experience? Or, do you have to?

            Like Xochitl10, I use the native/original word for the dish and the descriptor parenthetically. The native/original gives context to where the dish originated; I think it's important and respectful.

            I don't know why, but botching up a name, to me, is rude. Call me sensitive.

            As for Mr OCAnn, he could care less. To him, a croque monsieur is pronounced, "croakie monsewer." I'm not French, but it bugs me...but I let it go.

            1. re: pikawicca

              You can always order by number :) I'll have 'combinacion numero once'.


              1. re: paulj

                Or you can point to the item on the menu. That's what I have to do when I have NO idea how to pronounce a foreign word.

                1. re: danhole

                  I do this too. Or I try to pronounce it, which gets giggles. (YOU go to a Burmese place and try to pronounce "dan bauk htaminh"!!)

              2. re: OCAnn

                Your husband and mine went to the same French school.
                I think he does it to annoy me knowing I like try to get it right -
                Rock-Fort dressing, for example

                1. re: stellamystar

                  Oh please.... they ALL do it to annoy us. I was married to someone who cooked well (and knew it) but still called a quiche a "quickie" just to hear me groan.

                  1. re: Cheflambo

                    Hee! I have a friend who insists on calling creme brulee "creamy bully."

                    1. re: whirlygirly

                      Oh, yeah. After twenty years, I still annoy my wife by calling the long-handled Chinese spatula used in wok cooking (whose Chinese name is "chun tzay") a "Chun King". Gets her every time!

                    2. re: Cheflambo

                      every one knows is :kuee cha lol

                  2. re: OCAnn

                    i'm a native french speaker, so when people try to pronounce 'croque monsieur', it drives me nuts. seriously. I'm all for trying to pronounce the original food name when applicable, but to me, a 'croque monsieur' in english is best pronounced 'an open-faced grilled cheese and ham sandwich'.

                    my mother's vietnamese, so i know how to say Pho' properly, but with my english-speaking friends, i say "let's go for foe". at least then, they know what i'm talking about. At the restaurant with the vietnamese staff though, like paulJ, it's "i'll have a large number 29." :)

                    Generally speaking, i'll only try to pronounce foreign words if they refer to a specific dish, rather than just the ingredients. If the menu says 'arroz con pollo' or 'pasta con le vongole', i'll still be saying 'rice and chicken' and 'pasta with clams', especially if i can gather that my server is not latin-armerican or italian or whatever. whereas if the name refers to a dish, like gnocchi or enchiladas, i'll probably try my hand at butchering the dish's name.

                    1. re: marcopolo

                      Interesting. In Paris, the French preferred us to at least TRY to speak French. On many, many occasions, he was rebuffed when his attempts were in English (they'd walk away or ignore us); however, to be served, I had to reorder in broken French.

                      To each his own; what's important is that we get our food! =D

                      1. re: OCAnn

                        agreed OCAnn.........same goes for Montreal in general. Attempts to at least use the language are appreciated.

                          1. re: im_nomad

                            Shortly after the separatist PQ was elected in Quebec in 1976 (and thousands of Anglos moved to Ontario and points west), one wag wrote a short book called "The Anglo's Guide to Survival in Quebec". It was quite hilarious; one chapter in particular described an Anglo trying to order some cheese in the local depanneur (that's a corner grocery/bodega for my American friends).

                            The "Two Solitudes" Approach:
                            Anglo: One pound of cheese, please.
                            Clerk: Un livre de fromage. Voici.
                            Anglo: How much is that?
                            Clerk: Quatre et quarante
                            Anglo: $4.40. Here you go.. (gives him $5)
                            Clerk: Votre monnaie. Merci. (handing back change)
                            Anglo: Thank you. Good night.
                            Clerk: Au revoir.

                            The Accomodators:

                            Anglo: Bone swar. Une livre de fromage, silverplate.
                            Clerk: One poun' cheese, yessir.
                            Anglo: Uh, comb bean pour le fromage?
                            Clerk: That comes four dollars and forty.
                            Anglo: (silently offers $5 bill)
                            Clerk: An' your change, sixty cent.
                            Ango: Merci, bone swar.
                            Clerk: T'ank you, 'ave a good nigh'

                            The Hardliner

                            Anglo: A pound of cheese, please
                            PQ Clerk: Quoi? (what?)
                            Anglo: Oh, uh, un livre de fromage.
                            PQ Clerk: Quoi?
                            Anglo: Oh, damn, how do you say it? Uh, je veux acheter un livre de fromage.
                            PQ Clerk: Certainement! Quel type de fromage voulez-vous?
                            Anglo: Uh, uh, un livre de cheddar, silverplate.
                            PQ Clerk: Oui monsieur. Doux, medium, ou fort?
                            Anglo: Dew? Four? What the hell is that? Uh, uh, medium, silverplate.
                            PQ Clerk: Certainly. Here you go, sir, one pound of medium cheddar. That will be $4.40, please.
                            Anglo: Tabernac!!

                            1. re: KevinB

                              OMG that is hilarious! I almost spit out my cup of tea while reading your post! I have seen all 3 scenarios played out in France! With the Parisians, I have seen that the Accommodator method gets the best results and most friendly smiles.

                          2. re: OCAnn

                            Agreed here as well, OC. We went to one particular off-the-beaten path resto in Paris; the waiter apparently wasn't bilingual until I ordered in my less-than-perfect French, at which point he leaned down and whispered, "You know those are sweetbreads, right?" in perfect King's English.

                          3. re: marcopolo

                            I think yours is a sensible approach.

                            1. re: marcopolo

                              "i'm a native french speaker, so when people try to pronounce 'croque monsieur', it drives me nuts. seriously. I'm all for trying to pronounce the original food name when applicable, but to me, a 'croque monsieur' in english is best pronounced 'an open-faced grilled cheese and ham sandwich'.".............marcopolo

                              But if you ask for an open-faced grilled cheese and ham sandwiach, you will NEVER get a croque monsieur! '-)

                              I suspect a slip of the typing fingers.

                              1. re: marcopolo

                                I think it definitely depends on who my server happens to be. If it is obviously an American (especially a teenager, nothing against teenagers but I've seen some interesting habits from them as servers) I'll order using the most simplified English version. If I can muddle through in a language I don't know I'll attempt. As a habit though (being a Spanish teacher) every time I eat in the Mexican restaurant with Mexican servers I pronounce food properly even if it is arroz con pollo. I've actually been asked many times if I speak Spanish and the servers get all excited (it's a very small town) and usually want to start a conversation.

                            2. re: Xochitl10

                              I'd love to read your blog. Where can I find it?

                              1. re: Atomica

                                The link's now in my profile. Thanks for asking!

                            3. jfood loves hearing the name and geneology of dishes. if he knows the name he uses it, if he does not and can ask, he does.

                              Let's take CH for an example. Many people refer to many dishes in their native language, and jfood, being from NJ, has no clue what everyone is speaking about. He did not know what Pho was until a few months ago.

                              So if everyone can keep posting the names, and google and wikipedia can stay current jfood will be extremely happy. More happy if he could actually try Pho, but being from NJ let's let him crawl before running.

                              12 Replies
                              1. re: jfood

                                Never had pho??? Get recs for a great pho place before your next trip, jfood. You are in for a heckuva treat!!!

                                1. re: pikawicca

                                  And--speaking of pronunciation--remember to ask for "phuh" rather than "phoo" as in "foo(l)".

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    Thanks Sam, jfood thought it was pronounced foe.

                                    1. re: jfood

                                      I thought it was "foe" too until I mentioned to my Vietnamese manicurist that I had been to the new "foe" place in the neighborhood and she cracked up laughing. :"You white people need to learn pronunciation!" she giggled. She took out the menu and gave me a quick tutorial on the dishes and their names.

                                      On the other side .... I recently had lunch in an Italian place where you order and pay up front (from an English menu, I hasten to add), and they bring your food to the table with order numbers. A waiter came around bearing several dishes up high, and calling out the names of the food ... in Italian (this guy was obviously American). He walks past me and says "spee-nak-ee?" I shook my head -- I had ordered spinach salad and I thought he was offering me some sort of gnocchi. "I ordered spinach salad" I said. "Oh... here you go" he brings down the plate so that I could then see what was on it, and sure enough... spinach salad. "Spee-nak-ee is spinach in Italian" he says, in a slightly condescending way. "Spinach is spinach here in the US" I reminded him.

                                      1. re: Cheflambo

                                        Hmmm. I could use both a manicure and a VIetnamese lesson - can I get an appointment?

                                        Good topic, OP. I agree it's being respectful to try to use the correct pronunciation of dishes from other cultures, not elitist, and I always try to. Sometimes waiters and owners don't care - they just want you to enjoy the food and tell others - but I think it may tend to promote better service.

                                        1. re: brucesw

                                          I too agree that it's mostly about respect and not elitist.

                                        2. re: Cheflambo

                                          Wow, he wasn't even pronouncing it correctly in Italian. It's spinaci (so, spin-ah-chee).
                                          I try to pronounce things correctly in their native language - but I only know for sure what I'm doing in French and Italian. I will never pronounce chilaquiles correctly, no matter how often I order it.

                                          1. re: Cheflambo

                                            Even though this comment is 2 years old, I can't help but note that it's actually "spee-nach-ee." If you're gonna be pretentious, at least get it right.

                                        3. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                          I have frequently been fooled by not putting the proper "fuu" in "Foh", deriving from "pot-au-feu" from the Francais.

                                          The Brothers Grimm of the fairy tales had a similar problem when they sent young Jack up the Beanstalk to the encounter the "Fee Fi Fo Fum" mumbling giant... obviously those Grimm Boys were Fooled by having never been to Indochina to sample phu, or pho, steaming and phresh phrom the phire.

                                          DisemVowelment can be a real problem, as demonstrated by the quintessential Dan Quayle when he put the "e" in potatoes.

                                          I once sat around a table of mixed Vietnamese and Caucasians where the contest turned to the proper pronunciation of "Pho" as the soup was being served. Pheeling a bit phoolish, I demured from competition, and sipped the feu-pho-phu instead.

                                          Vowels are very tough. Consonants can kill. And those DipThongs... they are a phinally just Sandals worn by a Nerd.

                                          1. re: FoodFuser

                                            Indeed, and according to cheflambo's post: "You white people need to learn pronunciation!"

                                            Those wacky French, what did they leave behind in Viet Nam: pho (pot-au-feu derived), banh mi (basically baguette with pate, mayo and local ingredients), damn fine coffee, and unrelenting bureaucracy. I love the smell of croissants in the morning.

                                          2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                            which of course is why several Pho restaurants get mentioned in this thread:


                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                              Speaking of the pronunciation of "Pho," there is a place in San Diego on El Cajon Boulevard called "Pho King."

                                        4. The original comment has been removed
                                          1. Mid-westerners pronounce "casserole" as "hot dish"?

                                            Well, many Americans seem to pronounce "sashimi" as "sushi".

                                            As to "paella", most Americans seem to insist in the Mexican "pie-a-yuh"; although in the Andean region that would be "pie-ail-yuh" and in Argentina "pie-a-zhuh".

                                            And what's with the Brit's "filleT" and the American's "fillay".

                                            Of course, the English speakers of India and the Philippines outnumber Americans and pronounce things in ways quite different.

                                            40 Replies
                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                              Sam I find it worse when they say: "sushimi"

                                                1. re: Sui_Mai

                                                  I just read on another thread that "expresso" is a viable alternate pronunciation, particularly in France. Ah here it is:

                                                  1. re: grayelf

                                                    In French the term is "un cafe express", however, since the default drink is espresso, "un cafe normal" works well too.

                                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                I thought 'paella' was pronounced 'arroz a la valenciana'. :)

                                                At least that's what I encountered in Ecuador years ago. Apparently that is also used in Nicaragua.


                                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                  How do you pronounce sushi? My dad pronounces it as "zushi." While I first thought it was his imperfect English talking, I'm realizing more and more that his pronunciations are actually correct while Americans usually get it wrong -- eg. "ah-sigh-e" for acai and "alo-uh" for aloe (actually both pronunciations are acceptable). Any Japanese care to input?

                                                  1. re: Miss Needle

                                                    Aren't acai and aloe both New World plants?

                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                      Acai is from brasil -- very common in northern brasil -- it's pronounced: ah -sigh- ee

                                                      1. re: karmalaw

                                                        Look five entries down. Same pronunciation.

                                                    2. re: Miss Needle

                                                      Dad is right. Goodness, how do Americans pronounce "acai"?

                                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                        Thanks. So I guess most Americans are butchering "sushi" as well.

                                                        Americans usually pronounce acai "ah-sigh." I haven't heard this pronunciation, but I can picture some saying, "a-kai."

                                                        1. re: Miss Needle

                                                          Not really butchering "sushi". The "z" sound is somewhat between the American "z" and "s".

                                                          But too bad about "acai". Well spoken Brazilian Portuguese can be so melodic, pretty, smooth. "Ah sigh" or "a kai" sound dreadful!

                                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                            Okay, you two. So how DO you pronounce it? I've been saying "ahsah-ee," with sort of a glottal stop between the "ah" and "ee". So what *is* the correct pronounciation?

                                                            And you're right about Brazilian Portuguese, Sam. I think it's more melodic than continental Portuguese. But then I'm of the bosa nova generation... The guys who did my granite countertops were all Brazilians, and I've been trying to figure out what else I can have covered in granite just to get them to hang out and talk to each other. But a Berlitz CD would be cheaper...

                                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                              Yes, tell us how to pronounce acai. I have a package in the freezer, it gives the pronunciation as "ah-sigh-ee".

                                                              1. re: steeltowngrl

                                                                Now would someone help me with the proper pronunciation of aioli? I have a horror of mis-pronouncing words when ordering - don't want that patronizing waiter put-down stare!

                                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                                      yeah, that'll do well. hooked on phonics ;-D

                                                                            1. re: visciole

                                                                              Accent-wise, Sui Mai has it right. Accent on the last syllable.

                                                                              1. re: Parigi

                                                                                Hmm, my Italian teacher always put the accent on the penultimate syllable....

                                                                                1. re: Parigi

                                                                                  Ah, that's the answer: the French say eye-oh-LEE, and the Italians say eye-OH-lee. So I guess which one is correct depends upon what cuisine you're having ;)

                                                                                  1. re: visciole

                                                                                    Actually the French say ah-ee-oh-lee; it's spelt "aïoli" in French ; the double dot (trema) over the i means that the a and the i are pronounced separately.

                                                                                    *I'm not sure how to put italics in my comments

                                                                                      1. re: ricepad

                                                                                        Ricepad: best pun I've heard in a long time!

                                                              2. re: Miss Needle

                                                                It's pronounced "zushi" when used in compound form as in "nigari-zushi" or "chirashi-zushi". Same as "tofu" becoming "-dofu" as in "agedashi dofu" or "goma dofu".

                                                                When used independently, it's "sushi", rarely mispronounced by anyone. . "Zushi" is a seaside town on the Miura peninsula near Hayama and one of the royal residences. I used to bike to Zushi in the summer time ages ago...

                                                                1. re: Silverjay

                                                                  ..hmm, of course I can pronounce things, just can't spell them. I meant to write "nigiri-zushi", not "nigari".

                                                              3. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                Sam, LOL. Having lived in Japan for a couple years and doing my best to learn and not butcher the language, I have a peeve for the way most people seem to pronounce "udon." Drives me nuts when they say it like it rhymes with "con," instead of like it rhymes with "bone." But they've already gotten after me for trying to correct their chopstick (hashi) technique, so I don't bother anymore. I just order a "nothingness" sake and shut up.

                                                                Oh, and when I order agedashi tofu, I have to pronounce it "agedashi dof" or it doesn't seem right.

                                                                1. re: jennywinker

                                                                  Don't tell people here that. They'll start saying agedashi "doff". Folks, terminal vowels are generally quite reduced, but aspirated, something like, "A GE DaShh DOFffu".

                                                                  1. re: jennywinker

                                                                    If you're going around telling people that they are using chopsticks incorrectly, and mispronouncing words that have been (incorrectly) transliterated into English, you're being very rude. Stop it.

                                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                                      Jeez louise...if I was doing or pronouncing something incorrectly, I would have no issue--and would appreciate--someone correcting me, as would most people who are open minded.

                                                                    2. re: jennywinker

                                                                      And I haven't met anyone in the US that does not know how to pronounce tofu.

                                                                    3. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                      Are Americans really "insisting" on a Mexican vs. Andean vs. Argentine pronunciation? Paella is an Iberian dish, so shouldn't the issue be whether the Americans are using correct Castilian pronunciation?

                                                                      1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                        You are completely correct. My sincere apologies for using "insisting". Indeed, "paella" might best be spoken using a Castillian pronunciation. On the other hand, this thread is about food pronunciation; and in my limited experience, Americans are largely only familiar with the Mexican pronunciations of "rr", "ll", and the, like, depriving them of being able to play around with the wealth of other pronunciations.

                                                                        In my early experience and after having grown up speaking mostly Mexican Spanish, I initially couldn't hear some of the phonemes my Bolivian friends were trying to get me to hear and to correct my prounciation. Lessons learned in Bolivia about even simple language features helped me in learning several other Asian and African languages after that.

                                                                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                          I have a feeling that regional variations are rife in languages, Sr Sam :-) but I feel your pain re Mexican pronunciations being picked on by South Americans. I learned my Spanish, such as it is, in Mexico and my Chilean friends sometimes give me the hard eye :-).

                                                                          My favourite example of trying to be "authentic" in pronunciation comes courtesy of my very well travelled parentals. The first time they went to Indonesia years ago they came back saying "Jawa" which is apparently the way that island is pronounced there. All I could think of was those little creatures in the Star Wars movies, and let's just say it didn't stick when referring to coffee either :-).