Tackling comic and not-so-comic menu language barriers…
In most countries, where English is not the primary language, deciding on a meal venue can become a chore, or even an embarrassing experience. In good humour, my uncle recently narrated a tale of how he once sheepishly pecked at his eggplant dish in Israel, having mistaken it for an egg dish. I could relate to it very well…we have had our share of several such incidents too.
In Geneva, I remember us staring disappointedly at a pair of pint-sized bitter-black caffeine espresso shots…we had expected cups of vintage Indian style frothy goodness. That was probably our first wake-up call. Never take any word for granted while travelling…the word may not mind, but you may!
The coffee fiasco experience repeated itself in Madrid many years later, with a macabre twist. After ordering cold coffees and seeing cappuccinos on the counter, when we pointed out the server’s mistake, she deposited a glass filled with ice cubes in front of us. What is that? How does that even pass off as a possible solution to rectify the error? I discovered much later that the Spanish actually have a name for this strange concoction (Café con Hielo). You actually take a cup of coffee (black or white) and a glass filled with ice cubes, add the sugar in the hot coffee, let it melt, pour the cup over the glass of ice and drink it fast! Ooops! My bad.
Somewhere in Split, Croatia, I almost jumped out of my chair when I saw a whole fish for the first time (complete with rude, staring eyes, scaly fins and tail dangling from the plate). Till then, only neat fish fillets were acceptable to me. Well, there’s always a first time. You learn and you adapt. Food is a big part of one’s educative expedition. Thankfully, no exams, no scores and certainly no report card.
Like most Indian non-vegetarians, our palate is adjusted to accept largely chicken, mutton, lamb, some pork and limited seafood. It is certainly important for us to seek out a dining place that offer at least two dishes of these, if not more. And that’s why we end up scanning more than a dozen restaurants for each meal, whenever we vacation abroad. Now we know that veal is not seafood and steak is always beef, never chicken…but guesswork is not comic when you’re starving or exhausted from walking the streets.
Many trials and tribulations later, we have realised that authentic meals are rarely to be found in restaurants with translated menus…the more the number pages for each language, the farther you need to run from this tourist trap. If you see pictures of the dishes on the menu, don’t even bother to try reading. If you’re looking to savour true flavours, local dishes and typical ambience, pick a place hidden away in a quiet back alley, away from the thronging squares and the busy shopping streets. Go where the locals go, not the tourists. Not easy. But you want a fabulous meal, don’t you?
Here’s where basic knowledge of the local language comes in handy. While planning our third trip to France, I devoted half an hour a day (not too much, but good enough) to learning French on Duolingo app, which came in highly recommended by my nephew Sarthak. We even tracked our scores and in a playful sort of one-upmanship, to spur each other’s progress. My motive was not so much to prepare for tete-a-tete with handsome French guys, but to decipher foreign gibberish on cafe menus! It was empowering to be equipped with basic translations of common ingredients, different kinds of meat and seafood, even egg, vegetables and popular dishes. A strangely feeling of elevation accompanied me whenever I declared proudly, “Cafe Noire means black coffee” or “That’s French onion soup…see, Soupe A l’Oignon”.
I’m not going to lie. I don’t go to such lengths to equip myself linguistically before every trip. Not that its tough…usually, I’m just plain lazy. For those times, here’s a list of tips we use to side-step food disasters. It is in descending order of difficulty level.
- Before you go, scour the web for a list of local specialties and dishes. Depending on how experimental you are, sample as many as you can. If nothing else, just concentrate on the desserts…completely safe to bite into (no chance of tentacled sea-creatures floating in there)!
- While in the host country, use the internet to translate menus in your spare time. Strong recommendation: take pictures of restaurant menus for your primary data. Yeah, I know, hard work. It pays…specially if you’re too shy to ask another human. (Though, you won’t be breaking any law or tradition, if you do ask)
- Don’t hesitate to ask the maitre d’hotel for recommendations. You’re not local so there’s no need to pretend to be! And when he explains, for God’s sake, LISTEN, and ask for clarifications. You won’t have the opportunity to raise your hand in the class a second time. Trials are not sanctioned in restaurants anywhere across the world, not even in food courts.
- Stick with familiar dishes…can’t go wrong with staples like grilled fish or chicken, and pasta is always a fallback.
- When nothing else is an option, and you’re desperate for a decent meal, chant the foolproof magic mantra… “An English menu, please!” Always works. Like…well, magic.