At some point in your culinary and gastronomic adventures, you’re sure to encounter a few terms that you may not yet be familiar with. To help you make the most of your dining experience, and so that you don’t have to feel awkward asking your server to explain terms for you, I’ve created a list of the most commonly used culinary terms that you will need to know when out and about. Some of these terms may even help when dining out abroad, depending upon where your travels take you. Culinary terms appear in alphabetical order and include which part of speech they are, where the term originated, and how to pronounce the word.
adj. = Adjective
n. = Noun
v. = Verb
Al La Carte
(adj., French | “Ah-luh-cart”)
Individual items that are ordered separately, with individual prices, rather than as a set meal, as you would find with an entrée and accompanying sides.
(adj., Italian | “Al-den-tay”)
Cooked to a point where the food, generally pasta, is soft, yet a bit firm, although not at all crunchy. Al dente pasta prepared properly will never be slimy, sticky, or mushy.
Amuse-bouche or Amuse-gueule
(n., French | “ah-mooz-boosh”)
Literally translated as “mouth amuser”, is a single, small item, generally consumed in only one or sometimes two bites, is an individual hors d’oeuvre, and is generally served as an appetizer selected by the chef rather than the diner, in order to showcase the chef’s style and available flavors, and to prepare the diner for the meal ahead.
(n., Japanese | “Ben-toe”)
Essentially, a lunch box meal, with multiple compartments, sometimes stacked layers, consisting of rice or noodles, fish, meat, vegetables, and/or pickled vegetables. Sometimes, these are served in restaurants in classic red and black lacquered trays, and sometimes this refers to meals sold in convenience stores or from bento shops that customers can buy and take to work or school as a convenient, generally healthy, ready-made meal.
Bento boxes can, in some instances, be considered an art form as some makers of bento take great pride in arranging the components in an artistic manner to make intricate, lifelike images or scenes.
(n., French | “Burr-rah blah-nk”)
Literally translated as “white butter”, this sauce of butter, onions, and vinegar is most commonly served with seafood dishes.
(n., Peruvian | “Suh-vee-shay”)
A dish of fresh, raw fish and vegetables that is cured and made safe to eat by the acidity of lemon or lime juice, accompanied by vegetables, fresh herbs, and spices.
(n., French | “Shiff-ohn-ahd”)
A cutting technique resulting in very long, thinly sliced or shredded strips of vegetables, used as a garnish for soups or other dishes.
(n., French | “Kahm-pote”)
Whole fruits or smaller pieces of fruit cooked in a sugary syrup, sometimes with spices, to make a syrup that is used to top things like desserts.
(n., French | “Koo-lee”)
A sauce made from fruit and vegetable purée used as a stock or as a garnish.
(n., Cantonese | “Dim-sum”)
Literally means “touch heart”, these small, yet impactful dishes are made with love in a microcosm of flavor. A small, bite-sized dumpling type dish, steamed in bamboo containers, sometimes stackable. These can include dumplings, bao, buns, noodles, even soup buns and more, they also vary by region, preference of the chef and diner, and by season.
(n., French | “ohn-pap-ee-yote”)
This term means “in foil”. Food wrapped in parchment paper or aluminum foil and cooked, usually served inside the cooking paper or foil as well. Also known as al cartoccio in Italian cooking.
(n., French | “on-tray”)
Likely the most commonly encountered culinary term on this list. This is the main course or main dish of a meal.
(adj., French | “Flahm-bay”)
Cooking or scorching using alcohol like rum, brandy, or cognac to either a hot pan creating a burst of flames, or when poured on top of something such as a dessert, which is lit ablaze and burns itself out quickly. This creates a subtle flavor of the alcohol used, without actually being alcoholic as all of the alcohol is burned off, and it is generally used for dramatic flare to entertain.
Herbs de Provence
(n., French | “erbs-de-pro-vahns”)
A blend of herbs and seasoning, usually consisting of thyme, basil, rosemary, tarragon, savory, marjoram, oregano, and bay leaf, sometimes dried lavender.
(n., French | “or-durv”)
A small single bite item served before or a meal or at a party on passed plates. Usually savory, rather than sweet.
(n., Latin | “in-few-shun”)
Flavors extracted from herbs, spices, or other flavoring agents via the process of suspending them in oil, alcohol, or another liquid for a long duration of time. Commonly used in mixology, and syrup making.
(agj., French | “joo-lee-en”)
Food cut into long, thin, strips, also known as matchstick cutting. This is typically done with vegetables like carrots, onions, potatoes, and other produce.
(n., Japanese | “kai-seh-kee”)
Traditional, multi-course, Japanese meal in which multiple small dishes are served on a tray in front of each guest. May consist of several to dozens of individual courses. Such meals served before a traditional tea ceremony are called “Kaiseki-ryori (懐石料理)”. Kaiseki dining is inspired by the imperial courts of Japan and the luxurious meals they would savor, and it is one of the most artistic meal forms in Japan. These meals generally reflect the season in which it is prepared and enjoyed.
(n., French | “Mez-clen”)
A salad mixture of young seasonal salad greens, like radicchio, endives, chervil, and arugula.
(n., French | “min-yun-ette”)
A condiment made of shallots, cracked pepper, and vinegar, usually served with raw oyster on the half shell.
(n., Japanese | “O-ma-ka-say”)
Literally translated as “I’ll leave it up to you”, this means you will let the chef decide what you will eat based on what they have an abundance of, what they enjoy cooking, their specialties, and what is seasonally available. Generally an option at sushi restaurants.
(n., French | “pat-tay”)
A spreadable mixture of fish or meat, along with herbs and spices, and soft vegetables. Commonly in the United States, pâtés consist of a fish or meat mixed with cream cheese and herbs, served with crackers, bread, or other things upon which to spread it.
(n., French | “Pre-fix”)
Literally means “fixed price, and refers to a meal of several courses (usually 3-10) with either a few selections in each category (e.g. “Entrée options include fish, or vegetarian dish”), or a predetermined course meal for a predetermined price.
(n., Swiss | “ruh-klet”)
A large wheel of cheese with a melted top, brought to the table, and freshly scraped onto food, bread, or a side plate.
(n., French | “Roo”)
A mixture of fat or butter mixed with flour to make a sauce or base.
(adj., French | “Sue-veed”)
Translated as “under vacuum”, is a cooking method where food is sealed in a an airtight plastic pouch or glass jar and cooked for a long time at a precisely controlled temperature.
(n., Spanish | “top-uhs”)
Appetizers, small plates, or snacks that originate from Spain. Tapas restaurants serve small dishes meant to be ordered in large quantities and shared amongst guests who are dining together.
(n., Mongolian | “tar-tar”)
Raw meat or fish, shaped into a disk or mound, generally served with seasoning and spices, sometimes a raw egg. The presentation, serving methods, and components of this dish vary drastically around the world. Sometimes, it’s simply raw meat or fish served in a small bowl topped with herbs.
(n., French | “vel-oo-tay”)
Literally means “velvety” in French, this is a heavy, rich, thick sauce made of fish or meat stock, thickened with cream and egg yolks. Generally served alongside poultry or seafood dishes, it can also become the base of other sauces and is extremely versatile.
(n., Japanese | “Ya-key-toe-ree”)
Grilled meat or fish served on a wooden, bamboo, or metal skewer, sometimes covered in sauce, garnishes, or eaten as is.
Above: Fish Yakitori from a street food vendor in Nikko, Japan
(v./n., French | “zest”)
Zest is created by zesting, scraping off small flakes or pieces of the outside of an unwaxed citrus fruit, usually oranges, lemons, or limes, and using those very fine pieces to flavor other foods.
I hope these culinary terms help you navigate your next meal out with more confidence. What other culinary terms should I add to this list? Let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, explore more of my culinary adventures in my Fine Dining vertical, here.
Follow me on Instagram @AnnieFairfax for more