They show up at the grocery store, in recipes, at food festivals and on restaurant menus — those pesky food terms that are a mouthful to pronounce.
Digging into a tasty dish of moussaka, charcuterie or vichyssoise is a lot more fun than trying to order them without butchering the pronunciation like that pig someone butchered to make the charcuterie.
Some folks are perfectly content to say those words however they want, or to simply point at the menu and say “I’ll take that.” Others like to learn the proper pronunciation because it makes them feel more confident and educated. It also helps to preserve the heritage of the culture from which the term originated.
After all, most difficult culinary words come from a language other than English and are riddled with pronunciation pitfalls such as silent (or nonsilent) vowels and noises that don’t naturally occur in English.
“Every language has its own phonetic inventory and that doesn’t always correspond to other languages,” said Jim Ogier, a professor of German and linguistics at Roanoke College.
On my blog, I recently shared a list of 10 commonly mispronounced food terms, including gnocchi, gyro, quinoa and pho. The list generated a bubbly conversation and reader suggestions of other tongue-twisting food words, such as chorizo and lychee.
Moses Nucamendi has heard some funny pronunciations at his restaurant, Alejandro’s Mexican Grill. Among them are the words “fajitas,” “tortilla,” and the name of the restaurant itself.
But Nucamendi doesn’t mind. He said he appreciates customers’ attempts, comparing it to when he first moved to America 23 years ago and was embarrassed to speak certain English words in public.
“I wouldn’t say anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t even attempt it.”
For those who are interested in learning new words, I have compiled a list of difficult culinary terms, along with their proper pronunciation and a brief definition.
When it comes to pronouncing difficult food terms, I think the most important rule to remember is what Ogier recently articulated during our conversation.
“There is a thin line between educated and pompous,” he said.
After all, is anyone really going to say they’re going to the Chinese boo-fay for lunch? I fervently hope not.
Proper food pronunciations
- Acai [ah-SI-ee] or [ah-SAH-ee] — This highly nutritious berry, native to tropical regions of Central and South America, recently gained popularity as a “superfood.”
- Amuse-bouche [ah-mewz-BOOSH] — A small appetizer often presented at the beginning of a meal.
- Anise [AN-ihss] — There is no “niece” sound in the pronunciation of this licorice-flavored plant, which also produces seeds that are used in cooking. Star anise comes from a different plant, but the second word is pronounced the same way.
- Bánh mì [BON-me] — A Vietnamese sandwich often made with pork on a baguette-style roll.
- Boudin [boo-DAHN] — A word used for sausages in different cultures, including Cajun, Creole, French and German.
- Bouillabaisse [BOOL-yuh-BAYZ] or [BOOL-yuh-BEHZ] — A French seafood stew.
- Bouillon [BOOL-yahn] — Can refer to any broth or to the cubes or granules made from dehydrated broth.
- Bruschetta [broo-SKEH-tah] — There’s no “brush” sound in the name of this Italian dish of grilled bread with toppings.
- Caramel [KEHR-ah-mehl] or [KAR-ah-mehl] — The “ah” sound is important. It is not [KAR-mehl].
- Ceviche [seh-VEE-chee], [seh-VEE-cheh] or [seh-VEESH] — There are lots of ways to pronounce this Latin American dish of raw fish marinated in citrus juices.
- Charcuterie [shahr-KOO-tuhr-ee] — The emphasis can also be placed on the last syllable when pronouncing this French word that refers to a variety of deli-style meats.
- Chipotle [chi-POHT-lay] — This word, which is the name of a chili pepper and a popular restaurant chain, is often mispronounced by people who transpose the ‘T’ and the ‘L’ sounds. It is not [chi-POLT-ay].
- Chorizo [chor-EE-zo] or [chor-EET-zo] — Mexican or Spanish sausage.
- Cognac [KON-yack] — A very fine brandy.
- Coq au vin [kohk-oh-VAHN] — A classic French dish of chicken and vegetables cooked in red wine.
- Creme fraiche [krehm FRESH] — Lightly fermented fresh cream.
- Crudite [kroo-dee-TAY] — A fancy word for raw vegetables often served with dip.
- Cumin [KYOO-min] or [KOO-min] — Lindsey’s favorite spice.
- Endive [EN-dive] or [AHN-deev] — A leafy green often used in salad.
- Escargot [ehs-kahr-GOH] — French for “snail.”
- Espresso [ehs-PRESS-oh] — There is no “ex” in “espresso.”
- Fajitas [fah-HEE-tahs] — The ‘J’ is silent.
- Filet or Fillet [fill-AY] — No need to say “fee.”
- Foie gras [FWAH-GRAH] — Whether you’re morally opposed to this fattened goose liver or not, this is how you say the word.
- Ghee [GEE] — This clarified butter used in Middle Eastern cuisine is not pronounced with a ‘J’ sound. It’s pronounced like “glee” without the “L.”
- Gnocchi [NYOH-kee] — Italian potato dumplings.
- Guacamole [gwah-kah-MOH-lee] or [gwah-kah-MOH-leh] — The “mole” does not sound like an underground varmint.
- Gyro [YEER-oh] — That’s the Greek pronunciation, but it’s also OK to say [JEER-oh]. Just don’t pronounce it like “hero” or put a “guy” in the first syllable.
- Habanero [ah-bah-NYEH-roh] — It’s also OK to pronounce the ‘H’ at the beginning when talking about this chili pepper.
- Haricot vert [ah-ree-koh VEHR] — French for “green bean.” Can’t pronounce it? Just say “green bean.”
- Horchata [hor-CHAH-tah] — Some say the ‘H’ should be silent. A delicious sweet drink in Spain or Mexico.
- Jicama [HEE-kah-mah] — A root vegetable with crisp white flesh.
- Kibbeh [KIH-beh] or [KIH-bee] — A Middle Eastern dish made with ground meat and bulghur (rhymes with “vulgar”) wheat, served raw or cooked.
- Lychee [LEE-chee] — A lightly sweet Chinese fruit.
- Macaroon/Macaron — If you’re talking about a chewy cookie made with almonds or coconut, it’s [mack-uh-ROON]. If you’re talking about the fancy French meringue sandwich cookie, it can also be pronounced [mack-uh-RON].
- Mascarpone [ma-skar-POH-nay] — A rich, soft Italian cheese often used in dessert recipes. People often leave off the “nay.”
- Mirepoix [meer-PWAH] — The French term for a mixture of onions, celery and carrot used as the base for many dishes.
- Mole [MOH-lay] — A savory dark Mexican sauce that often contains a little chocolate. Again, no burrowing varmints.
- Moussaka [MOO-sah-kah] — A Greek layered dish with eggplant and ground meat.
- Muffuletta [MOO-fa-la-tuh] — A New Orleans specialty, a sandwich with sliced meat and an olive relish. Some incorrectly pronounce the first syllable “muff.”
- Nicoise [nee-SWAHZ] — A type of French olive and a type of salad that contains olives, tuna, green beans and other goodies.
- Paella [pi-AY-yuh] or [pi-AYL-yuh] — A Spanish dish with rice and a variety of meats, such as sausage, chicken, ham, and seafood.
- Peking [PEE-king] or [PAY-king] — The old Western word for Beijing. In food, a Chinese duck dish or a sauce.
- Pho [fuh] — A Vietnamese noodle dish. Many pronounce this to rhyme with “go.” Yo, no, it’s not [foe].
- Prosciutto [proh-SHOO-toe] — Italian for “ham” and a type of ham.
- Quinoa [KEEN-wah] — The pronunciation of this grain’s name is a puzzler, but there is no “kwin” sound.
- Sake [SAH-kay] or [SAH-kee] — Either is fine for this Japanese rice wine.
- Salmon [SAM-uhn] — The ‘L’ is silent in the name of this fish.
- Sriracha [shee-RAH-cha] — A lot of Americans are familiar with this Thai hot sauce, but may not know it’s named after a town on the Gulf of Thailand.
- Tortilla [tohr-TEE-yah] — The L’s are silent, just as they are in the word quesadilla [kay-suh-DEE-yah].
- Turmeric [TER-muh-rihk] — A root used to make an orange-red powdered spice used primarily in East Indian cooking.
- Vichyssoise [vihsh-ee-SWAHZ] or [VEE-she-swahz] — A cold potato-and-leek soup.
- Worcestershire [WOOS-tuhr-shuhr] or [WOOS-tuhr-sheer] — A bottled condiment named after Worcester, England.
Source: “Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst