The Unexpected Origins of 20 Culinary Terms
From amuse-bouche to umami and beyond, the backstories behind some of the words and phrases we use when cooking and eating are fascinating. Here are a few of our favorites, adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.
1. Baker's Dozen
The phrase baker's dozen can be traced to England in the 13th century, appropriately enough. But why is a baker’s dozen 13?
In medieval England, bread was a basic staple of the populace, and in the 1260s, King Henry III enacted a law that controlled the size and cost of a loaf. One popular story to explain the baker’s dozen says that bakers would add an extra loaf to a lot of 12 in order to avoid the stiff penalties for selling underweight bread to customers. But scrupulous food historians point out that there’s little evidence for this explanation. Besides, buying 12 loaves of bread at a time would have been an awful lot for a medieval peasant. Instead, the phrase seems more likely to come from transactions with bread middlemen, known as “hucksters,” who would buy bread from bakeries and then roam the streets hawking their carb-heavy wares. Since the law controlled how much the baker charged a retailer and how much the retailer could charge the customer, there wasn’t a way for the retailer to make a profit, so a 13th loaf—sometimes called the in-bread or the vantage loaf—was thrown in as a freebie so the retailer could make some money. It made sense for bakers to incentivize street peddlers with this free loaf; they could move a lot more product through roaming retailers than if they had to sell all the bread themselves.
When Spaniards landed in the New World, they observed Indigenous people using raised, wooden frames to cook their meat and fish. The apparatuses could be placed directly on a heat source, the way Americans grill hamburgers and hot dogs today, or they could be propped near a fire and heated indirectly, similarly to how barbecue pitmasters slow-cook their meat. The word for these tools was barbacoa, according to a Spanish account recorded in 1526. This became barbecue in English, and at some point, a Q got thrown in the mix. Some sources suggest the Q comes to us from the French phrase barbe à queue, or “beard to tail,” a nod to a whole animal being cooked, but this explanation is probably more folklore than fact.
Umami means something like “deliciousness” in Japanese, but the true meaning of the word is hard to capture in English. In the early 20th century, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda boiled down umami to its pure essence—literally. He was enjoying a bowl of dashi, a savory broth made from kelp called kombu, when he realized there must be a fifth taste beyond salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Determined to get to the root of dashi’s indefinable flavor, he conducted some experiments. Chemically treating the seaweed used to make dashi caused small crystals to form on the outside of it. These crystals were concentrated glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid, and after some tinkering, when Ikeda added them to food or liquid he was hit with that same full, savory flavor he noticed in his soup. He dubbed this fifth taste umami, which has been described as a sort of meatiness, or earthiness. It’s responsible for the savory depth of flavor in a number of beloved items, from Bloody Marys to Parmesan cheese.
Umami isn’t the only hard-to-translate food term used in Japan. The word zatsumi is used to describe an undesirable flavor, usually in sake [PDF]. It doesn’t refer to any bad flavor in particular—the word even translates to “miscellaneous taste” in English. So next time you taste something funky in the leftovers that have been sitting in your fridge for weeks, just call it zatsumi and don’t think about it too hard.
4., 5., 6., and 7. Hoku-hoku, Shuwa-shuwa, Zuru-zuru, and Churu-churu
The Japanese language employs some evocative culinary onomatopoeia, too. Hoku-hoku, for example, describes the experience of biting into something hot, such as a sweet potato or winter squash, with a dense texture that fills your mouth with “a starchy steaminess.” Shuwa-shuwa is a descriptor for carbonated beverages, and zuru-zuru is the sound you make when you slurp ramen. That’s unless, of course, you want your slurping to be on the quieter side, in which case you would use the more discreet churu-churu.
8. Al Dente
Pasta that’s cooked al dente still has some bite to it—some resistance you wouldn’t get from a gummy overcooked noodle—hence the Italian phrase’s literal meaning, “to the tooth.” And by the way, throwing spaghetti at a wall to see if it’s done doesn’t actually work. Overcooked pasta and al dente pasta can both be sticky enough to adhere to surfaces, so the trick isn't useful for timing your tagliatelle. Do a taste test instead.
9. Pasta alla carbonara
The names of some Italian pasta dishes tell you more about the dishes’ origin stories than their ingredients. Pasta alla carbonara, for example, translates to something like pasta “in the manner of charcoal makers.” According to legend, workers first made the dish over campfires to fuel their long days. Consisting of eggs, cured pork, and pasta, carbonara makes sense as a low-maintenance, high-energy, working-class lunch. But there’s no way to confirm the validity of this explanation. The name carbonara could be a reference to the charcoal fire the dish was prepared over rather than the people who made it, or to the generous gratings of pepper placed on top, which might have looked like coal dust. Some believe that pasta carbonara originated with the carbonari, a 19th-century secret society of Italian revolutionaries.
The origins of other Italian culinary terms are easier to identify. Beef or fish that’s prepared carpaccio style—a.k.a. raw and thinly sliced—is named after Italian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio. He wasn’t the person who invented it, however. Venetian restaurateur Giuseppe Cipriani first served the dish to Countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo after she had been instructed by her doctor to abstain from eating cooked meat. Raw meat isn’t for everyone, but the sight of it inspired romantic feelings in Cipriani. Upon noticing the red color of the dish, he named it after Carpaccio, who used similar shades in his artwork.
This wasn’t the first time Cipriani took inspiration from Renaissance-era artists in coining a culinary term—according to legend, at least. He’s said to have once mixed together prosecco and peach into a cocktail whose colors he likened to the work of Giovanni Bellini.
12. À la king
À la is a phrase that appears a lot on French restaurant menus. It literally means “in the style of.” Food that’s served à la king comes in cream sauce with mushrooms and pepper. Despite its royal name, chicken à la king didn’t originate within the walls of a palace. It likely didn’t even originate in Europe. Most plausible origin stories attribute the name to an American with the last name King. According to one legend, the head chef of the Brighton Beach Hotel first served the dish to the hotel’s proprietor, E. Clark King II, in the early 1900s. He liked it so much that he requested seconds, and the dish appeared on the menu as chicken à la King the next day. Like many culinary legends, this may be more fun fiction than food fact.
According to an early 20th century account, the King in question was Philadelphia chef William King, who was asked to invent a recipe for an annoying customer. When the customer asked who invented the dish, the waiter responded “Bill King, he works in the kitchen” to which the customer responded “chicken à la King.”
13. À la nage
The phrase à la nage is French for “in the swim.” Chefs use it to describe food, usually seafood, that’s been simmered lightly in a flavorful broth.
14. À la boulangère
When meat, potatoes, and onions are baked together in an oven, they’re prepared à la boulangère. The name means “in the style of the baker” or perhaps “the baker’s wife.” Being on good terms with the local baker used to be the only way to make the dish. For most of French history, people in rural parts of the country didn’t have access to ovens at home. To make something à la boulangère, they had to take a dish of ingredients to their neighborhood bakery and pick it up when it was done cooking.
Amuse-bouche is fun to say, and if the food lives up to its name, it should be fun to eat. The French term for small, complimentary appetizers served at the beginning of a meal translates to “entertains the mouth,” though it remains unclear if the phrase comes from France or is just an English phrase using French words.
16. Hors d'oeuvre
Either way, they shouldn’t be confused with hors d'oeuvres, which aren’t necessarily complementary and can be shared between guests. The term hors d'oeuvre is French for “outside of work,” as in outside the work of the main meal, either figuratively or in terms of its literal, physical placement on the edge of the table, depending on the source you consult.
If you want to develop some impressive knife skills, learn to brunoise. The standard brunoise cut in France gives you vegetable cubes that are just one-eighth of an inch in size, while a fine brunoise produces pieces twice as small on each side. The name for this technique comes from Brunoy, a commune located 12 miles from the center of Paris. The chefs of Brunoy popularized the method for dicing veggies as finely as possible, and the name stuck.
Speaking of chopped vegetables, mirepoix is a mixture of sautéed carrots, onions, and celery used as the foundation for many French dishes. The name likely comes from the 18th century French aristocrat Duke Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix. It’s believed that the duke’s chef de cuisine named a flavor base after him, though what that base originally consisted of is unclear. Fortunately for future generations of chefs, he didn’t use Mirepoix’s full title when naming the recipe.
19. The Holy Trinity
The Holy Trinity is the mirepoix of Creole and Cajun cuisine. Instead of carrots, it uses green bell peppers, along with onions and celery, as the base for various recipes. It originated with the Acadians who emigrated to Louisiana in the 18th century. Carrots didn’t grow in the region’s swampy soil, but bell peppers flourished. With one simple ingredient swap, the Holy Trinity, and the flavor profile of a new cuisine, was born. The biblical name, meanwhile, is a reflection of Cajun country’s Catholic roots, though it may date back only to the late 1970s.
Tandoori chicken is named after the cylindrical, charcoal-fired clay oven it's cooked in. It’s also one of the oldest dishes on this list. In modern-day Pakistan, archaeologists unearthed 5000-year-old clay vessels similar to tandoors along with charred chicken bones. This may technically be the scraps of an early tandoori chicken dinner, but it would take thousands of years before the dish became what people know today. The details are somewhat disputed, but the most popular story goes that in the 1930s, a restaurant called Moti Mahal opened up in Peshawar, modern Pakistan. After the Partition of India, a new version of the restaurant opened up in India, bringing the dish to widespread popularity. In the early 1960s, first lady Jackie Kennedy was served tandoori chicken on a flight from Rome to New Delhi, and today you can order tandoori chicken in restaurants around the world. The success of the dish spurred many variations, including chicken tikka masala.