Speaking a food language

Have you ever heard of culinary grammar?

You know what grammar is with words – “it is the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence. It is also a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax.”

If we apply the same principles to food and our treatment of it, we get culinary grammar.

I don’t want to get into cultural appropriation here, but rather simply open our eyes to the concept that each culture has its preferences and traditions for how food is prepared, served, and eaten.

Did you know that if you ordered a samosa as an appetizer in India it could be compared to having a sandwich as an appetizer in Britain? Samosas are a street food in India, harkening back to their origins not there, but rather in the Middle East. They were a common snack for travelling merchants in Persia.

In Italy, having a pasta dish with meat or fish is combining two dinner courses into one. That North American classic, spaghetti and meatballs, is like a translation that was mixed up.

It has been adopted into a new food culture in the same way a new sort of slang is developed with words.

Food grammar speaks to the presentation of the meal and the setting as well. Whether we sit or stand to eat, use a knife and fork or chopsticks or our hands, or how we are expected to show gratitude for a meal… all these things are part of what is appropriate. And yet, adaptations are made once we blend people from different backgrounds.

  • Fortune cookies at Asian restaurants were made in part to satisfy a North American desire for dessert after the meal.
  • Mulligatawny soup was created in India for the British colonials who missed having soup.
  • Many Thai restaurants in western locales supply chopsticks for diners, despite the traditional Thai utensils being a knife and fork.

Culinary grammar can even go as deep as classifying what is considered as food, or at least culturally appropriate food. While rabbit is considered acceptable in France, it is less so in England. Insects are food in parts of Africa, but not so much in Europe.

Breakfast cereal with cold milk is ubiquitous for children in North America, Britain or Down Under; it is almost unheard of for children anywhere else.

Are you culinarily bilingual? It can be disastrous to try and change dishes from a cuisine if one is unfamiliar with the culture as a whole – just like it’s harder to enjoy a trip somewhere if you don’t speak the language. But if you do understand both cultures, then you may create new experiences that bridge the distance between two worlds and connect them in a new way.

I think this is what “fusion cuisine” could be, at its best. Just as language evolves with new words and expanded meanings, so can our tastes and palates evolve with new experiences shared across the table.

I will be posting some international recipes on my blog and Facebook page in the coming week, and I would love to hear from readers if anyone wants to share a favourite bit of food grammar they know.

Here’s to broadening our taste horizons.

More Happy Gourmand articles

About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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