The Gastronomic Dictionary

English is California’s first language. Spanish is its second. Its third language is whatever gets used when people write the restaurant menus here.


Little known fact: it’s a Californian State Law that every menu must contain at least three items with made-up names.

Nduja. Labneh. Sando. Panzanella. Kohlrabi. Sorghum. Sumac. Guajillo. Gyzesa.

(Only one of these words is made up — answers on a postcard for which one).

I recently went to lunch and had to ask what a ‘sando’ was, only to be told by a slightly embarrassed waiter that it was a sandwich — I then witnessed the crestfallen look on my fellow diner’s face when what arrived was essentially a few bits of soggy bread.

I wonder how much space in my already limited memory has been taken up by this lexical expansion, as I’m forced to learn, one meal at a time, words with an everyday usability of less than zero.

If you can decrypt this, a job at the NSA awaits

Partly responsible for this is the fact that LA, global capital city and home of the motorway pile-up, is also the crucible of a genre of food known as ‘Car-Crash Fusion’, where different national foods are rammed together in ways that don’t always work. Hey, you know what would really improve that grilled cheese sandwich you wanted? Korean staple item Kimchee.

(In fairness, when this approach does work, it’s amazing).

To further muddy the waters of Transatlantic culinary discourse, America has decided to abandon a series of perfectly acceptable ingredient names and invent made-up ones instead (see: zucchini instead of courgette, eggplant instead of aubergine, etc).

This all means that I increasingly approach reading a menu and choosing food here as if I’m a Martian being introduced to earthling sustenance for the first time, only to discover when it arrives that what I’m being offered is a bog-average dish with some poncey verbal wrapping.

I console myself with the thought that this process is going to make the process of learning Arabic, Catalan and the many local dialects of Guineau-Bissau in later life considerably easier.

If nothing else, living here is going to turn me into a serious competitor at Scrabble — “Oh, Nduja? Au contraire, Nduja isn’t a made-up word, but a type of soft ham from the Spanish region popular in farm-to-table restaurants of the West Coast” etc etc.

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