9 November 2011

A menu of taste

One of the fundamental elements that we tend to use to judge countries and cultures is the food. Everybody eats, and travellers use restaurants frequently, often requesting a menu in English or in their own language.

Then, as a cuisine is exported, the concepts often need to be translated into the language of the new host nation, and maybe again for foreign visitors.

Our first experience of a cuisine, our first brush with a cultural flavour, is often therefore through the translated printed word.

Unfortunately, travellers' tales are frequently peppered with references to menus that are poorly worded or simply incorrect. The instinctive judgement of the food and the culture starts unfavourably.

Menus are certainly a specialist genre when it comes to creative writing, and creativity in a foreign language can be difficult. It is therefore no real reflection on the food if a restaurateur, probably trained to prepare gastronomic delight, sometimes falls short on linguistic subtlety in a non-native tongue.

There are sufficient complexities when writing a menu in your own mother tongue. Just now, opening a cookery book at random, I find that an English-speaking celebrity chef has come up with "poached skate with Thai flavours and its broth". Even recognising the difference between a menu and a recipe, this wording seems a little clumsy.

Many English speakers would also, I suspect, need to call the waiter over for help in understanding "trout saltimbocca". This doesn't mean that it's wrong, but, depending on the restaurant and the waiter, it might mean that fewer people choose it.

A menu needs to be worded so that it succinctly and attractively describes the contents of the dishes, implies the flavour of the food (with cultural references where appropriate), and reflects the overall theme of the restaurant.

That requires advanced linguistic skills as well as culinary prowess.

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