The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Food Words Even Chefs Mispronounce

If You Can't Pronounce It, Don't Cook, Serve, or Order It

There are three shows left on Food Network about which I actually care a fig. I was watching one of them, “Beat Bobby Flay,” the other night and really got my Posties toasted by one of the chefs trying to best Bobby. I don't remember her name and I don't really care because I'll never eat anything she cooks anyway after she violated one of my cardinal rules. Some people have a rule that says “if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it.” Mine's a little different: “If you can't pronounce it, don't cook, serve, or order it.” 

The average person can be forgiven for not saying “croissant” with a perfect French accent when they order one. As long as you don't say “krus-ANT” you get points for trying. But that same latitude never applies to the people making the darn things. People who, theoretically at least, have studied the dishes they are preparing and who know all about them. Especially how to pronounce them! This loser – and she did lose to Bobby – set me climbing the walls and throwing things at the television with her pronunciation of her so-called “signature dish.” It was a croque monsieur, which she BUTCHERED as “crock muh-shur.” 


And after slaughtering the pronunciation, she proceeded to plop fried eggs on top, thereby turning the dish into a croque madame rather than a croque monsieur. I would scream “aaaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhh” again, but you get the idea. Way to inspire confidence, babe. Not only can you not pronounce your "signature" dish properly, you can't make it properly either.

The next night, I was watching some other foodie show – “Chopped,” I think – and cringed at the chef describing his “vinegar-ette.” It's "vihn-ah-GRET", you moron, not "vinegar-ette.” And more stuff went flying at the TV. AAAARRRR.......well, you know what comes next.

Honest to Pete, what are they teaching at culinary school these days? I guess it's because of the decades I spent onstage and behind a microphone, but, dammit, correct pronunciation is important. It doesn't matter how bright you might be otherwise, there is nothing that will make you sound stupider faster than mispronouncing words. Especially words you should know something about. Doctors and nurses speak fluent “medical-ese.” If you're a mechanic, you know how to pronounce every thingamajig and whatchamacallit, right? Shouldn't the same principle apply to being a cook? C'mon!

Now, I'm not going to get into mispronounced Italian food words here – not much, anyway. I've written reams on the subject elsewhere and besides, it just aggravates me too much. No, I'll stick with a few more common examples, words I've heard both cooks and eaters incorrectly employ.

Like the word “anise.” Okay, I get it that some of you may think the proper pronunciation treads too closely to the word for the ol' excretory orifice, but the word, nevertheless, is “AN-iss.” It is not pronounced like the female offspring of your sibling, “a niece.”

Some people call turmeric “the poor man's saffron” because it's very cheap and very, very yellow. Unfortunately, they also call it “TOOM-er-ick.” No. Pronounce the first “r”. “TER-mer-ick.” Even “TER-muh-rick” is okay. Phonetically, sounding a “u” as “oo” is perfectly good Italian. But unfortunately, “turmeric” is “curcuma” in Italian, so that doesn't wash either.

Ah, those fun-loving French! They don't really eat French fries, you know. Well, they sorta do, but they call them “pommes frites.” And if you call them “pohm-FREET” without pronouncing either final “s”, you won't be laughed at down some pointy Gallic nose.

And “bouillon?” Those little cubes of flavoring you use in soups and such? “Boo-YAWN” or “BOO-yawn.” Never “BULL-yun.”

This one will blow your mind. You know that mild Dutch cheese that everybody – especially my wife – likes so much? If you've been pronouncing “Gouda” as “GOO-dah” all these years, guess what? It's actually “HOW-dah.” How da ya like that?

Spanish/Mexican words get their share of horrible pronunciations. “JalapeƱo” is often screwed up to be “ha-lah-PEE-noh” or worse. The little accent over the “n” means something; it means the letter has an “ny” sound, so the word is properly “hah-lah-PEH-nyoh.” And I'm just assuming you know the “j” sounds like an “h” in Spanish, right? Please don't tell me you've ever said “jallapeeno.” 

And if you're among the sayers of “chee-POLE-tay” (chipotle) when you should be saying “chee-POHT-lay,” you know better.

I would like to tell you that pronouncing “guacamole” as “gwahk-ah-MOLE-ee” rather than “hwak-ah-MOH-lay” is okay, but then I'd have to tell you that rendering “bruschetta” as “broo-SHET-uh” instead of “broo-SKEHT-tah” is okay, too, and it most definitely is not.

I know I said I wasn't going to dwell on bad Italian, but I lied. There's no “zone” to get in when you're pronouncing “calzone,” “provolone,” or “mascarpone.” None of those words end in an “own” sound. They all end as “OH-nay.” And, for the love of whatever deity you love, there is no frickin' “r” before the “s” in “mascarpone.” It is emphatically NOT “MARS-kuh-pone.” It is “mahs-kar-POH-nay.” 

And while we're on the topic of extraneous consonants, please take the “x” out of “espresso.” No matter how fast you might want it, it will never be “expresso.”

Gnocchi, tagliatelle, agnolotti, and any other word that has a “gl” or a “gn” in it will confuse the hell out of most non-Italians. That's why the English-speaking world is constantly assailing our ears with “NOH-kee,” “tag-lee-uh-TEL-ee,” and “ag-nuh-LOT-ee.” When the goose bumps go down, I'll explain that “gn” in Italian sounds like the “ny” in the English word “canyon.” So it's “NYOHK-kee” and “ah-nyah-LOHT-tee.” When it comes to the “gli” combination, the “g” is for all intents silent and you just hit the “li”; “tah-lee-ah-TEHL-leh.”

Be advised, there is no second “r” in “sherbet.” Do you see one there? No. So it's “SHUR-bet,” not “SHUR-bert.”

There is, however, a second “a” in “caramel” and it's meant to be used. “KAR-ah-mel” or “KEHR-ah-mel” are both okay. “KAR-mull” is not. And not only is a growing legion of TV chefs trying to sound trendy by using the term “caramelize” for foods it is chemically impossible to caramelize, they are also saying it wrong. They should know better on both counts.

I'm surprised more Greeks haven't throttled people who order “JIE-rohs.” “Gyro” is pronounced “YEE-roh” or even “HEE-roh,” but not “JIE-roh” or, heaven forbid, “GUY-roh.” And not “JEER-oh” either.

I know “salmon” is confusing. I mean, the “l” is right there in the middle of the word. But you don't use it. Throw it away! Pretend it's not there! “SAM-uhn,” not “SAL-munh.” Unless your last name is “Rushdie.”

This one kills me every time. I could just stand back and sell tickets to a performance of people trying to say “Worcestershire.” It's really not that hard. There's a place in Massachusetts (and in England) called “Worcester.” And they pronounce it “Wooster.” And, unlike hobbits, English people do not live in shires – pronounced “shy-ers.” When tacked on at the end of something, they pronounce “shire” as “shur.” So take “Wooster” and combine it with “shur” and – ta-dah – you have “Wooster-shur.” See, wasn't that easy?

The Vietnamese noodle concoction “pho” is really popular in some areas. So it stands to reason that people who cook it, serve it, or eat it should be able to say it, no? It doesn't rhyme with “no.” It's not “foe.” Think of a vulgar four-letter word that starts with “f” and ends in “c-k.” The leave off the “c-k” and you've got the proper pronunciation of “pho.”

Speaking of Asian food, you know that hot sauce that's really hot nowadays? Sriracha? It's really not a noble substance, so it probably shouldn't be called “Sir Racha.” You know the little island nation that used to be Ceylon back when I was in school? Now it's Sri Lanka, and the first part is pronounced “shree.” Apply that principle to the hot sauce and you get “shree-RAH-cha.” Cool, huh?

Next time you order a sundae or a cocktail, ask for a “mah-rah-SKEEN-oh” (maraschino) cherry instead of a “mare-uh-SHEE-noh.” You might get funny looks, but you'll be pronouncing it properly.

I'll throw in “endive” as a trick question. If you say “EN-dive” you are correct – as long as you are talking about the leafy, curly version. If you are faced with the tightly packed, rather torpedo-looking veggie of Belgian origin, then it's an “on-DEEV.”

Oh, and as far as “croissant” goes, it's “kwah-SAHN.”

The problem with all this correctness, of course, is that correct people will think you are a pompous ass putting on airs. But, hey, I'll take the approbation of intelligent people over the opprobrium of intellectually insufficient ones any day. There's a reason they call things that are right “right” and things that are wrong “wrong” and as Anatole France once said, “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” That's my stock answer to those who proclaim, “Well, that's the way I was taught to say it,” or “Well, that's how we say it in America.” With apologies to your teachers and to Old Glory, it is still WRONG! And despite what some would have you believe, “common usage” doesn't make it right. To paraphrase Anatole, “if fifty million people say something wrong, it is still wrong.”

Knowledge is power and now you know. You can thank me later for empowering you. I'm easy to find; I'm the one standing on the soapbox labeled “proper pronunciation” putting on airs in my pompous ass costume.


  1. Nice article! thanks for this material has been a great help, I recommend this app has really been a great tool for my learning and pronunciation

  2. Great article but it is not pronounced shree-RAH-cha. The correct pronunciation is See-Rah-Cha. David Tran is the founder of Sriracha and states that it is pronounced See-Rah-Cha.

  3. Okay. Thanks for the input. I sort of stand corrected. The Sanskrit word "sri" is pronounced "shree" in cases like Sri Lanka or Sri Vidhya. And a minority of sources sound the "r" in "sriracha." But most agree with Anonymous and go with "see-ROTCH-ah," so I defer. The sauce is named after the eastern Thai city of Si Racha, so, in spite of the spelling, that pronunciation makes sense. "Sir-ROTCH-ah" is still wrong, even though a majority of the uninitiated pronounce it that way and insist they're right. (Sigh)