Bon appetit: how cooking can teach you about language!

Get ready to learn about the surprising global origins of some common cooking terms—and let your kitchen take you on a trip around the world!

We’ve talked recently about how cooking is a wonderful way to learn about geography—in fact, getting in the kitchen can give you a boost in many school subjects, including math, biology and history. So it’s maybe no surprise that cooking is also a fantastic way to learn about language, whether you’re looking to translate an old family recipe or you’re just interested in understanding the origins of cooking terms.

Many of the common cooking words we use in English are originally French, mostly as a result of the long influence French cooking has had on English tastes. When you sauté vegetables or braise meat—congratulations, you’re using French words to describe the light tossing motion of veggies over heat (“sauté” literally means jump!), or slow cooking with both wet and dry heat (“braiser” is the word for glowing coals). Other terms you’re probably familiar with that come from French include fillet, purée, and restaurant! (That’s right: restaurants were invented in France.)

Sometimes English speakers associate foods we’ve adopted with very specific dishes—but the literal translations of these familiar terms might surprise you! Bibimbap is Korean for “mixed rice.” Yaki is Japanese for “grill”, and “kielbasa” is actually just the Polish word for “sausage”.

In fact, loads of words we commonly use in cooking have travelled a long way to get to your kitchen. Ask your child to guess which languages these common ingredients come from:

-    Avocado (Spanish)
-    Bagel (Yiddish)
-    Lemon (Arabic)
-    Noodle (German)
-    Punch (Hindi) 
-    Spaghetti (Italian -- although the noodles originated in China!)
-    Yogurt (Turkish)
-    Zucchini (Italian)  

Some words we use in English, like the word “apple”, have roots that extend surprisingly far back in time—in fact, there’s evidence that pancakes may have Neolithic origins! If your family is up for more food linguistics, you can find a longer list of borrowed food words and their histories here.

Other common foods have their origin in people’s names. Have you ever diced onions, carrots and celery to make a base for a soup? The proper term for that is a mirepoix, named after the French Duke of Mirepoix. And sandwiches are famously named after The Earl Of Sandwich—legend has it he invented the finger food so that he wouldn’t have to interrupt a card game with a formal dinner.

Are you feeling hungry yet? Head over to our recipe section and find something delicious to make together—or, check out some of our other school-themed posts to help everyone learn in the kitchen. Let your kitchen take you on a journey around the world with an old (or new-to-you!) family recipe!

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