Lost in Translation: A Quick Guide to French Cuisine Basics

Recently, I ate out at a very quaint local French Restaurant, and as close as it was to my physical home, I felt like I was in fact eating out somewhere in Paris. It wasn’t because of the decor, the ambiance or not even because of the food. Well, you may wonder why then? It was the menu itself that made me sweat that I left my passport in my drawer at home. When I looked over it, I discovered it was sprinkled with foreign culinary terms that I didn’t completely understand. I sat there fixated at the menu, anticipating footnotes at the bottom of the menu to dicipher the construct of each meal. Foie gras? Confit? Amuse-Bouche? How was I to choose?

Now I am well-traveled, and I certainly enjoy eating different cuisines; not only that, but I have seen these words before! So why am I stumbling? The problem is: I have just never disciplined myself to commit them to memory. Instead, I choose to stare at  them every time we encounter one another.

To give myself some credit though, after reading the descriptions (and consulting with our waiter)  I was able to piece together my choice. Yet, this experience reminded me it was time to come up with quick and handy culinary lingo guide with some of the more common terms we encounter in French cuisine. So here we go!

By the way, do you remember that funny term I mentioned earlier? You know the “amuse-bouche”? Well, it simple translates to a small bite of food, which is compliments of the chef. It’s given to hungry diners to amuse the mouth and to awaken the palate.

Here are more terms to enhance your French cuisine basics:

  • Du Jour- “of the day”. I.e. Soup du jour meaning soup of the day or Plats du jour meaning plate of the day.
  • Foie gras- is a food made out of the liver of a duck or a goose that has been specially fattened. It is a French delicacy and is prepared into either a mousse, parfait or pate. 
  • Steak Tartare- is a dish made from finely chopped raw beef topped with a raw egg, capers and onions and served with seasoning on the side. Prior to eating of course, you must mix the ingredients together and then you may eat it as is or with toasted bread.
  • Escargot- is an appetizer cooked of snails. Yes, snails. This dish is usually prepared in a garlic butter sauce. The snails are eaten with a small fork, which is necessary to use in order to pull the snails out of their shells.
  • Black Truffle- no, not a yummy chocolate treat but more like a black mushroom. It is commonly used to make a pungent black truffle oil but also used as a stuffing ingredient in ravioli.
  • Steak au poivre- steak coated with course cracked black pepper.
  • Duck confit- Duck legs cooked over low heat in rendered duck fat. Prior to cooking, the duck leg is coated with with a dry marinade made up of seasoning and herbs for up to 36 hours, which contributes to the ducks amazing flavor.
  • Boeuf Bourguignon- is a braise beef stew, slow cooked in red wine and beef broth that is flavored with garlic, bouquet garni (herb bundle), pearl onions and mushrooms. 
  • A la mode- with ice cream either on top or on the side
  • Creme brulee- a dessert made of rich custard and topped with a crunchy layer of caramel topping.

Of course there are many other French Culinary terms; however, these are the most popular one’s you’ll stumble upon when venturing out with your palate. Committ these to memory, and you’ll be able to order quick!

Bon Appetit!