Cooking in a Foreign Language

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Cooking in a ‘foreign’ language – British and American.

9654127_f260When I moved to America from England, I didn’t realize that I’d have to learn a whole new language.

Yes, I’m English and Americans speak English too, don’t they? Well, as a keen cook, it struck me almost at once that the words I’d grown up with in recipes just weren’t going to work here because of language differences.

Shopping for food became an amusing voyage of discovery, too. What on earth is an eggplant, I’d wonder? Why don’t stores here sell fresh coriander? You eat biscuits with gravy?

When I was a kid, mum would sometimes give me a couple of bob to go to the shop and buy ‘some pop and crisps’. Why don’t they have those here?

Eating out was fun too – what’s a Kaiser roll? ‘Would you like a cup or a bowl of soup?’ Why do I never see cheese on toast on a café menu? And of course, I’m vegetarian and saw some strange things on restaurant menus ‘Dolphin? You eat Flipper?’ What on earth is rutabaga? It sounds so very exotic. You have jelly in sandwiches? Isn’t that a bit messy? But the fun was just beginning…

Even pizza was a problem

How many pies?

I never expected pizza to be a problem. This wasn’t even cooking, this was getting a takeout, or a takeaway, as I’d call it. Except it’s delivered ….. After all, there were the same pizza chains in America as there had been in England. But no.

The first time I tried to order a pizza on the phone, I received chicken wings. I know I have a fairly heavy regional accent but I was trying my best – from pizza to chicken wings? Forget delivery, I decided it was safer to drive to the pizza shop in future.

Me: I’d like to order pizza please.
Pizza person: Sure, how many pies?
Me: No, I think you’re misunderstanding me. I don’t want pies, I want pizza.


When my English other half came along a few years later, I suggested that he might take over the task of calling for pizza. His accent was more mainstream English than mine. I was sure that this would work until he ordered pizza with black olives and it arrived sans olives but liberally topped with broccoli. Hmm.

Vegetables are straightforward aren’t they? Well, no…

Zucchini – courgette

In England, I cooked often with courgettes. That’s one in the picture above. They didn’t seem to be available in Floridian grocery stores though. Yes, there was something that looked similar but they were called zucchini. I’d no idea what they were. Of course, they are the same thing; courgette being French and zucchini being Italian. OK, I get it now.

Aubergine /eggplant

Of course one of my favorite dishes using courgettes, sorry zucchini, was ratatouille and for this I’d need aubergine. Like the courgette problem there was something that looked like aubergines but they were labeled eggplant. Right. This was getting tricky.

Rutabaga / swede

Rutabaga, it turned out, wasn’t some fancy cheese or other exotic food. It was simply common or garden old swede, that my mum used to try to force feed us when we were kids. Dreadful stuff. I wonder if we’d have liked it more with its exotic name?

Potato products

Chips, French fries and crisps

Spuds are a minefield. ‘Would you like chips with that?’ Oh yes, you reply and get a portion of crisps, not chips at all. Just where you expected a pile of lovely chips to be, there are crisps. Eventually you learn to ask for fries, French or otherwise. For crisps, you ask for chips. I was too old to learn a new language!

Mash / smashed

I’ve made mashed potatoes often. I mash them. I don’t smash them. That sounds too violent for me. But yes, smashed potatoes are mashed potatoes.

Phew. Getting there.

What about herbs?


Herbs – another minefield

The first question of course is are they herbs or ‘erbs? At first I thought I just knew a few odd people who dropped their aitches, but then I realized that in the US, the American pronunciation is ‘erb. Great, I thought until I asked for them in shops.


No, bay-sil not bass-il.


No, ore -REG -ano not orr-i-garno.

Cilantro /coriander

Being a curry-monster, I was distraught that there didn’t seem to be any fresh coriander for sale anywhere. I saw parsley and something called cilantro but no coriander. If anything was going to make me move back to England, I decided, it would be this. I stomped around supermarkets grumpily for ages before I realized that cilantro was what I needed.


Biscuits / cookies

Just when I was getting smug and beginning to think I’d got it sorted out, a fast food chicken place opened up near work. ‘I know you don’t eat meat’ said one of the lads one day as he was heading out there ‘but can I bring you some biscuits and gravy?’ Once again, bafflement. The English love biscuits – Chocolate Digestives, Hob Nobs, Jammie Dodgers, Chocolate Fingers … with gravy?

For the English, there’s nothing like a nice cup of tea (cups of tea are always ‘nice’), a biscuit and a nice sit down. But of course, it turned out that what I think of as a biscuit is actually a cookie and a biscuit in America is a sort of scone without the fruity bits, if you see what I mean…

Jam et al

Jam, jello, jelly

This one still confuses me so bear with me. What you see above, in England, is jam. Fruit preserve. Confiture. (Sometimes French is easier than American!) In America, it’s called jelly, which in England is that wobbly stuff kids have at parties, which in America is jello. Clear as mud.

Measurements & cooking utensils

  • A cup, to me, is a china receptacle from which to drink tea. They come in various sizes. So when I saw that a recipe required a ‘cup’ of flour, how big a cup?
  • I was baffled by ‘half a stick of butter’. That’s because I was buying an English brand of butter that doesn’t come in ‘sticks’. Ho hum.
  • Grill – broil – barbecue – all these confused me. Well, not barbecue, if I’m going to be honest. That’s cooking outdoors on a barbecue, or rather, a grill. Except a grill to me is where you grill things, the top part of your oven, otherwise known as a broiler in the USA. So far so good but if I want cheese on toast, I have to ask for grilled cheese which isn’t made on a grill at all it’s cooked in the broiler…
  • A frying pan by any other name is a skillet. A baking tray is a cookie sheet even though it’s used for many more things than cookies. And I work on the worktop and Americans work on the countertop
  • A tap has nothing to do with dancing. I don’t have kitchen taps these days, I have kitchen faucets.
    Oh and I ask for aluminium foil rather than aluminum. Kitchen paper is paper towel. Tea towels are dishcloths and I wash up rather than do the dishes with washing up liquid, rather than dishsoap
  • I’m accustomed to kitchen rubbish going into the bin rather than trash going into the garbage.

And this is just food!

I’ve only mentioned a small number of the food misunderstandings I’ve had here in the States. And remember too that I don’t eat meat or fish. If I had to add meaty, fishy terms to my food lexicon too I don’t know if I’d be able to cope. Clothes have different names (pants, suspenders … and what a jumper to you?), try buying or selling a car (the fact that the steering wheel is on the ‘wrong’ side is the least of your worries), buying furniture (a credenza?), repairing your home (stucco? Baseboards?) …. all this is just the tip of a linguistic iceberg. I still have a hard time being understood in America, after over twenty years.

When I visit England and say words like ‘gas station’, ‘mailman’ and ‘elevator’ I’m told I sound American.Will I ever get it right? I don’t seem to fit in properly in either countries, these days.

A conversation:

Many years ago in Florida I was phoning through an order for lunches at work. I had negotiated the whole thing rather well and there was only the cheese on toast (grilled cheese, rather) to order. Should be simple, I thought, grilled cheese with tomato. Easy.

Me: And grilled cheese with tomato, please.
Man in café: With what?
Me: Tomato.
MIC: What?
Me: Tomato.(No way am I saying ‘tomaydo’, I thought)
MIC: I’m not understanding you.
Me: Tomato. Round. Red. Has seeds in it. Commonly used in pizza toppings and with grilled cheese.
MIC: Oh, you mean tomaydo!
Me: I mean tomato.
MIC: Would you like pot-art-o salad with that?

Getting there….

In England, people say I sound American. I don’t but I use American words, I’ll admit that. After all, I have to – what I wrote above proves it.

But I’m beginning to think that they’re right – I’ve started to use American words to English people now…

Himself hasn’t been in the States for as long as I have so he isn’t quite as prone to Americanisms, which was proved the other day. We were sitting working and there was a loud vehicle noise outside. We both looked up and spoke at the same time:

He said “Bin men.”

I said “Garbage truck.”

So maybe I am getting the lingo at last!


This is THE best book on the subject about the differences between the English and American languages. I first bought this book many years ago and understandably, it’s still in print.

If you’re British and venturing into America, or vice versa you’re going to need this book – I only cover a fraction of the misunderstandings that can occur. If you’re American, I wouldn’t mention a fanny pack to an English person. Brits, watch out for mentioning (when you want a cigarette) that you could murder a fag. This book could keep you out of jail! (Or gaol!)

Check it out on Amazon.




Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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  1. Going to have to share! 😀 We watch some US cookery shows and at least now we know what coriander is in ‘American’. Any you’re right – living in France – sometimes French is easier (for food words anyway) but not always…! ;0)

    • You should hear the American pronunciation of ‘croissant’! Yes, sometimes French is definitely easier…. 🙂

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