Have you ever noticed how many strange words there are to describe different food dishes or styles of preparation?
Even though many of us only speak English, most of us know these common terms from menus, cookbooks and general usage. I think I learned what “à la mode” meant even before I started school.
For anyone who doesn’t know, “à la mode” is an addition that can be made to many dishes, giving them a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Pie, cake, waffles… all of them can be given extra flair with this simple phrase meaning “in (the) fashion”.
Much of this started in the 19th century, when American restaurants jumped on the trend of including classic French definitions for listing menu items. Instead of having a lengthy explanation on the preparation of the dish, these terms were like a code. Classic phrases like “a la King” (in a creamy sherry sauce with mushrooms), “a la Milanese” (breaded and fried, like in Milan), “a la Bordelaise” (with a rich meat stock enhanced with red wine, as in Bordeaux) joined with newer additions like “a la Maryland” (in a cream sherry sauce – I guess people in Maryland don’t like mushrooms).
Many of these phrases, and styles of cooking, fell out of fashion and were no longer used. But there are other terms that are still common, and even more broadly used (much to the chagrin of people like my chef hubbie, who still believes we should honour classic techniques.)
• Fricassée: A dish of meat and/or vegetables fried first in a pan, and then smothered in a cream sauce to finish the cooking (often done with chicken – I think I learned this one from the Galloping Gourmet).
• Bisque: Originally this was a rich, creamy soup made with shellfish stock, most famously lobster. Nowadays it has come to mean any creamy soup that has a smooth consistency (e.g. tomato or squash bisque – but not if you ask (hubbie) Chef Martin)
• Tarte tatin: Another modified term, originally an apple pie made upside down in a pan by sautéing apples with sugar, creating a caramel; then covering with pastry and baking in the oven. Nowadays it refers more to the technique – you can make a savoury butternut squash tarte tatin (recipe link: https://prue-leith.com/butternut-squash-tatin-with-harissa-butter/ )
There are also terms that have come from other languages, often just having an anglicized pronunciation. Sometimes colloquial terms can become classics too, and it’s worth knowing these especially if you travel.
• Chop suey: This dish is made in a Chinese style, but it is a variation that was created by American Chinese cooks for Western tastes. One legend has it an American Chinese chef in a California mining camp needed to make a dish with not much left in the kitchen. He tossed bits of everything in a wok and called it “tsa sui” or “broken little pieces”. This later became chop suey.
• Nachos: Another innovative fellow, a restaurant manager in Piedras, Mexico created this popular snack. Ignacio (“Nacho” was his nickname) whipped these up back in 1940 for a hungry group of ladies whose husbands were stationed at a military base just across the American border. His cooks had gone home but he tossed fried tortilla chips topped with cheese and pickled jalapenos into the oven. The rest is history.
• Bubble and squeak: This is possibly my favourite colloquial dish name. The British love melodic or onomatopoeic nicknames for people and things, and this sounds much more interesting than warmed-up cabbage and mashed potatoes, don’t you think? (Don’t knock it till you try it, it’s a soul warming side dish. Recipe link: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/bubble-squeak ) Tatties and neeps come a close second – potatoes and turnips for those of you who aren’t good at solving riddles.
• Wiener schnitzel: Did you know that there isn’t a wiener in sight for this classic Austrian dish? Its name is protected by law in Austria.You are guaranteed a breaded veal cutlet tenderized and gently fried if this is what you order. Schnitzel in general refers to the tenderizing of the meat, then breading and frying it – a technique that goes back as far as ancient Rome.
• Russian dressing: If you are of a certain age, like me, you’ll remember this term. Otherwise, you likely know this condiment as Thousand Island dressing, its more modern relative. It is also sometimes called “secret sauce” or “special sauce”. The original recipe from around 1900 did include caviar, hence the Russian moniker. You don’t need that in this equally tasty version (recipe link: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/bubble-squeak )
I could take all this information a few different ways. Some might say all this dressing up of names is just making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Maybe it’s just marketing, but a foodie like me can’t help but enjoy all the culture that gets swept up in even the most unassuming bit of fast food (with special sauce) or that piece of pie at your favourite diner, served à la mode of course.
Life is meant to be celebrated.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.