International & Historical Culinary Confusions
In Contemporary Written Recipes

Confusions can arise when reading (or writing) recipes written in English by people whose native language is not English, or by English speaking people who are ignorant of the language appropriate to the recipe. This is a standard problem of communication on the Internet.

There are also national variations of English where words mean different things in different countries, though all are still ostensibly in English. Perhaps surpring to USians is that the English of UK, IE, AU, NZ, IN have rather different vocabularies. As US English often borrows from its indiginous people, so does the English of IE (celtic/gaelic), AU (many indiginous languages), NZ (Maori) and IN (several hundred languages of various origins). Mostly, USians have not noticed this, much less taken the reality to their breasts. On the other hand, neither has anyone else.

English has the largest standard vocabulary of any language ever spoken, for the purpose of being precise and exact - and yet, "speakers" and nonspeakers alike seem to have no knowledge of this, or no care of it.

We attempt to add some precision and accuracy to the situation here, while explaining to some extent how the need for such attempts came about.

The Spanish of Mexico borrows a good deal of its culinary terms from various and many Uto-Aztecan languages, notably Náhuatl, Mayan, Zapotecan and Michoacán. Mexican Spanish is no longer simply Spanish, any more than Indian English is simply English, or Japanese has ever been simply Japanese.

There is a general and major problem with recipes written in English by people from the Indian subcontinent, which has more languages and dialects squeezed into it than anyplace else. First, people simply tend to use the words they know for various foods, many of which are unknown in the West. Second, the people writing are rarely chefs, and almost never linguists, and sometimes don't even know the language to which the word belongs. If they are knowledgeable and merciful they give the Hindi word and say so - otherwise you need to learn to be both chef and linguist - or find people who are.

Anyone who is literate in India is likely to know Hindi, Sanskrit, English, and their own local dialect. Most USians barely know English, and rarely know where that comes from.

These aformentioned languages have incorporated words that do not exist and cannot be expressed in the imposed language. There are problems in what words mean between English speaking countries, which can even depend on when a recipe was written; this, even regarding measures.

British teaspoons, i.e., spoons used in serving tea, are smaller than those used in the US. In Britain, a tablespoon is a soup spoon, which is a bit smaller than in the US. These more loosely defined British spoon measures leave 2 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon, while the more specific US measures have 3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon. TSC keeps to the US standard, as these volumetric measures are the most prevalent. Catching up, and it is the more accurate way of working and specifying, is the tendency to give all measurements of quantity, by weights and not by volumes, though volumes are easier to measure, and in a sense more immediate and intuitive.

Often a word used in one country has various meanings for which there is simply no single English word that matches. Simple cognates ("sounds like") sometimes fail. "Gift", e.g., is the German word for poison.

Here are a few of the disambiguated confusions regarding what is what, to whom, that every international chef should be aware of.

	chili powder
	There are several questions to ponder when this is called
	for.  What is the basic ethnicity of the dish?  What is the
	ethnicity of the author?  What is the level of literacy of
	the Author in English and in his native language?  What kind
	of a cook (or not) is this?  For any ethnicity not of the
	Americas, a good guess is that chili powder means a powder
	made simply by grinding some form of hot chili pepper.
	After that, the question is, which chili pepper?

	If the author comes from the Carribean, the suspected chili
	will be the habanero, the hottest chili variety there is.

	If the author is East Asian or Indian Subcontinent, you can
	bet the fundamental chili is pretty damn hot, but not as hot
	as an Habanero.  (No, I have not forgotten the tildes over the
	'n's: this is a chili, not a dance.)  Most other ethnicities
	outside the Americas, you can fairely safely assume that the
	chili powder is ground Cayenne chilis.  These are middlingly
	hot, and almost a normative world standard for "hot chili".

	If any ethnicity associated with the dish is Texan, SW US,
	Mexico or South of Mexico, "chili powder" will mean a commercial
	or home concocted powder from which one makes a dish that in
	US Tex-Mex parlance is called "Chili".  This powder comes in
	many varieties and always contains and assortment of various
	chilies, some not hot at all, oregano, often onion and garlic
	powders, and even modica of coriander and cumino.  Some of the
	commercial powders are meant to be used exclusively in the
	making of a Chili, no other spices or herbs required; others
	are intended to be a Mexican kind of curry powder: a basic
	neutrally oriented flavor from which you can diverge according
	to taste, adding more of any given component to highlight it,
	or adding entirely new flavors.

	It is obviously important to figure out which of the two main
	meanings is intended for any given recipe.

	black cumin
	There actually is such a spice, but to some the phrase is used
	to denote nigella.

	fennel, anise seeds (Hindi. saunf) are confused in many Asian
	languages.  In appearance, fennel seeds (which are actually
	little dried fruits) are the size and shape of straightened,
	thickish caraway seeds with a pale green color (Apparently,
	the brighter the green, the better the quality); anise seeds
	are much smaller and a whitish cream color.  In their
	licorish flavor, fennel is softer.  Some languages don't
	even distinguish dill from fennel or anise, giving yet more
	trip ups to international recipe reading.

	Context will almost invariably distinguish the use of "fennel"
	for the fruit, from its use for the celery like vegetable
	(Italian. finochio) from which this fennel fruit comes.

	nigella (Hindi. kalonji)
	Because they look a bit like onion seeds, nigella seeds are
	often called "black onion seeds", while the nigella plant has
	nothing to do with onions.  Traditionally, you will find
	nigella seeds flavoring Armenian String Cheese.  They flavor
	some rice dishes, and are part of the classic Beganli spice
	collection called Panch Phoron.

	To a USian this is almost meaningless: the word is too
	old.  To an Indian, it can often mean Yoghurt, while to
	a Brit it often means a very thickened (more than a simple
	pudding, but less thick than a jelly) confection involving
	fruits, especially lemon.  There are both wonderful (with
	egg yolks) and terrible ways (with corn or potato starches) of
	making English curd.

	shallot		scallion
	If a Frenchman is writing in English, the word will mean
	what a USian will understand.  The French use a few varieties
	of shallot, while in the US, what is mostly only what a
	Frenchman would call specifically a "brown shallot".

	As a regional thing in Germany,  "Schalloten" is used for
	what USians call scallions, or sometimes "green onions",
	though there is a perfectly good German word for them,
	"Frühlingszwiebeln" (spring onions), which is what the
	Chinese writing in English might call them.  The correct
	German is more difficult to pronounce, and easier colloquial
	form has the caché of coming from French.

	Many asian people writing recipes in English call for
	shallots when they really mean scallions.  They can also
	call for leeks, when they mean scallions.

	green onion	scallion
	In the US, green onion, though mostly used as an equivalent
	for scallion, it can also mean a fresh (not dried) mature
	onion with its green stalks left intact.

	Spring onion	scallion
	Spring onion in the US can also mean an immature green onion,
	which is different from a scallion.

	leek		scallion
	A leek looks like an enormous scallion and some recipes
	that call for leeks really want scallions.  This seems to
	happen with Asians writing in English.

	lemon		lime
	It seems that only in the US do these two words apply
	rigorously to the yellow and smaller green citrus fruits
	respectively.  There are also key limes, and limes of the
	Yucatán, but mercifully, these are never called lemons.
	There are also the strange Meyer lemons, that can get
	confused with everything.

	coriander	cilantro	(coriandrum sativum)
	The seeds, flowers, leaves and roots of the coriander plant
	are all used in cooking.  The roots are ground to a
	paste for some Thai curry pastes.

	Many recipes will write "coriander" when they mean
	what a USian and an Italian calls cilantro, a disambiguating word
	that we have taken from Italian, but pronounce
	according to English rules, using an 's' for initial
	sound instead of the 'ch' as it would be required in Italian:
	naked 'c' before a soft vowel.
	In US English, coriander generally denotes the seed,
	either whole or ground, and cilantro for the parsley like
	leaf of the plant.  English has no special word for the
	root of the plant often used in Thai curry pastes.

	fenugreek	methi
	Fenugreek, almost universally, means the seed of the plant.
	Some Indian cooks will, however, use fenugreek instead of
	their own distinuishing Hindi word "methi" for the leaves
	of the plant, or use "methi" when they mean the fenugreek
	seed.  Do you have a headache yet?

	Has so many meanings, depending on to whom you are talking,
	and what region of what country they may or may not
	have come from.  Your only bet is that it will have at
	leat one spice in it, may or may not be piquant, and may
	or may not have a sauce.  One etymology of the word
	is from Tamil, where it can mean "sauce"; on the other
	hand not all Tamil curries have sauce.  If someone calls
	something a curry, your silent thought should be "whatever".

	Another possible derivation is from the "kari leaf";
	but, very few, if any, curries actually have kari (curry)

	curry powder
	There are many curry powders and curry pastes from which one
	can make curry dishes, where the meaning of curry varies from
	culture to culture.



	Any combination of flours, or any dough made from such
	flours.  Many recipe writers seem to think it only means
	exactly and precisely what they intend it to mean, but
	never tell you what that may be.  Look to what is purported
	to being made as a guessing guide.

	corn		maize
	To a Brit, and those who have learned English from them,
	"corn" means any grain, and not necessarily the corn
	of the Americas which they all incorrectly refer to as
	"maize".  Maize is a specific and primitive form of American
	corn that was widely used by N. American indigenous peoples.
	Many hundreds of types of corn were bred in S. Mexico,
	particularly the Chiapas region over many thousands of years.

	"To corn" as in "corned beef" is yet another, metaphorical
	meaning that refers to the "corns of salt" that were pressed
	into the meat in this preservation process.

	corn flour	cornstarch
	Europeans often use potato flour as a thickener where USians
	use "cornstarch", a silky fine flour derived from corn.
	Many, outside the US have no idea of cornstarch, or corn flour
	and will freely prescribe "corn flour" when they mean cornstarch.
	Using Corn flour where cornstarch is required is, of course, a
	culinary disaster, so when you read "corn flour", be careful.

	eggplant	aubergine
	Eggplant comes from Asia where there many different kinds
	of different sizes, shapes, colors and flavors.  The only one
	that a USian is usually familiar which is a specific globe
	eggplant "aubergine", as we call it from the French, the
	word being derived ultimately from the Persian "Badenjan".

	For most Westerners, basil always means the basil used in
	Italian tomato sauces, and maybe more specifically the
	basil from Luguria used the famous Pesto Genovese.

	There are, however, other kinds of basil that are regularly
	distinguished in the cusines of Thailand: it's "sweet basil"
	and its "holy basil".

	oregano		or not to oregano!
	There are at least three culinarily recognized varieties of
	origanum, vulgarus, onites, heracleoticum, and a
	fourth misnomer, Mexican oregano, which is not an oregano
	at all, but lippia graveolens.  To make matters worse,
	various other herbs like savory and marjoram are routinely
	called "oregano" by people over the world, so sometimes you
	may have to work at finding out what was actually intended.

	mint		peppermint or spearmint
	When "mint" is prescribed, almost invariably, for other
	than sweet things, peppermint is what is intended.

	"ghee"		"usli ghee"
	To a Brit and their lingual children, ghee merely means
	clarified butter.  To many Indians, ghee means any cooking
	oil, or any combination thereof, and this can give rise to
	some confusion since some Indian cooks will specify ghee
	when what they really mean more specifically is "usli ghee",
	or pure ghee that is pure butter fat in which the milk solids
	have be roasted slowly and then strained out.

	Things become more complicated when an African uses the word.
	They can either mean the sloppy Indian usage, or indeed the
	usli ghee preparation, but with added spices, as, e.g., cloves.

	"fish sauce"
	There are more fish sauces, Horatio, than are dreamt of in
	your philosophy.  They vary in so many ways from culture to
	culture, brand to brand, that they are impossible to cover.
	A good place to start is a reputable Thai fish sauce called
	Nahm Plah (spelled variously) that should be a clear and
	thin medium brown liquid.  In Thailand, it is used as a
	salty table condiments, as well as a standard salt addition
	to prepared dishes, as in Chinese cuisine one would use a
	soy sauce.  You may find a similar idea in S. China, while
	in N. China there is still a reluctance to mix fish with

	"shrimp paste"
	Shrimp pastes are as varied as fish sauces, with varying
	degrees of "pungency", which is a function of the degree
	to which the shrimp has been permitted to rot.  Some realities
	may better be left unknown.

	soy sauce
	All such sauces *should* be made from soybeans, and you
	should be careful to buy only reputable brands.  The methods
	of making the sauce vary from country to country; some are
	fermented, some are not.  TSC's preferance is, in all cases
	a mainland Chinese brand, Amoy.  Wander from that with
	suspicion.  We dislike the metallic taste of the cheap
	Japanese Kikkoman light soy and the worse "Chinese" 
	"La Choy" ConAgra Kaka - awful!

	sesame oil
	There are two basic types, those pressed from toasted sesame
	seeds (the dark fragrant Chinese type), and those pressed from
	untoasted seed.  The first is an instrument of flavor, and
	should never be subjected to any unnecessary heat.  The second
	is well used in India as a preferred cooking oil; it is lightly
	golden, while the fragrant oil is discernably darker.
	For the darker oil, use only 100% pure sesame oil, and avoid
	all mixtures.  More confusingly, there are very nice roasted
	sesame oils available that are what they say, but are a far
	cry in intensity from the proper fragrant Chinese oil.

	That is Monosodium Glutamate, also called "gourmet powder".
	It is a salt of glutamic acid, one of the most ubiquitous
	amino acids (that build proteins) in all life forms.  An
	actually allergy to such a thing, and the idea of "Chinese
	Restaurant Syndrome" (CRS) is fairly ridiculous.  What is not
	ridiculous is an unpleasant reaction to a vast quantity
	of anything.  CRS is mostly a psychologically induced
	disturbance, an opposite of the placebo effect.  A small
	and appropriate amount of msg in certain dishes is not
	going to hurt anyone.  That idea is just too stupid for
	words.  For some people, like me, msg can actually have
	a distinct taste.  If I can taste it, it's too much. Try
	getting Taco Bell frijoles refritos tested for glutamate
	radicals.  I can't eat the stuff, and can taste the msg
	(OK that was almost 20 years ago, and I never went back),
	but I've never heard of Taco Bell Syndrome.

	As an aside, glutamate is manufactored in human bodies in
	in very large quantities and is a plentiful neurotransmitter.
	Interestingly, this glutamate neurotransmitter is apparently
	toxic to injured neurons.  In cases of spinal cord injury,
	in hospitals where this is known, a large burst dose of an
	estrogen variant is administered as soon as possible in order
	to mitigate damage to the spinal cord during the most
	critical period.

	If you have any severe spinal cord damage, go to the hospital
	and not to Taco Bell.

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Created: June 26, 2007
Last Updated: May 14, 2008
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