Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was referring to the confusion caused by English in Great Britain and the United States. We extend this to ‘Twenty-one nations’ when it comes to Spanish food names, according to Aunt Ilana.
When writing about Dominican cooking to an international audience, such as yourselves – we know from the response that we have an impressive range of nationalities and international locations amongst our esteemed membership – we often come across food names that mean one thing in one place and are meaningless elsewhere because they are known by a totally different monicker. There are also several cases where the same name refers to a completely different thing, with all the confusion that creates.
My main experience is with Iberian Spanish and Dominican Spanish, but I have also visited a smattering of other Spanish-speaking countries. Often with amusing results. Watching my Dominican husband conversing with my mother, whose Spanish is staunchly Iberian with a hint of Venezuelan influence, can sometimes border on the surreal.
What Mum calls pimiento Pedro calls ají. This means pepper, which is also sometimes called chile, although this usually refers to the spicier varieties. What she calls sesamo, he calls ajonjolí.
Spaniards say zumo and Latin Americans say jugo for juice. Grapefruit is pomelo in Spain and toronja elsewhere, and oranges are sometimes called chinas in the DR, so the Dominican jugo de china would sound like gibberish to anyone not in the know. The most common way of saying potatoes in Spain is patatas except for in the southern region of Andalusia where they are called papas, as in Latin America. A famous and delicious Andalusian country recipe is Papas a lo pobre – onions, garlic, vegetables and potato slices fried in a generous amount of olive oil. Cabbage is col in Spain, not repollo, and prawns are gambas, not camarones. Cream is nata, not crema which is used to refer to texture rather than a particular item.
In Cuba, okra is not molondrón as it is called in the DR, but quimbombó – both names appear to have African roots. The Dominican moro (rice and beans) is congrí in Cuba and gallo pinto in Central America.
Further south in the Andean region we come across palta for for avocado. The standard Spanish word aguacate originates in Mexico and is derived from the Aztec ahucatl which actually means “testicle”, and suggests that the Aztecs may have had a rather vivid imagination, or at least strange-looking testicles. In the Andes we find camote, better known as boniato or batata (sweet potato) elsewhere.
That quintessential Latin American crop, corn, has many different names across the Spanish-speaking world: maíz – as in maize – being the most common. Sweet corn is maíz tierno or maíz dulce. In Mexico the cob is called elote, in South America choclo , except for Venezuela where it is called jojoto. Central Americans call it chilote.
Although most Spanish speakers stick to the Spanish spelling of the Italian “broccoli” – brócoli, some call it brécol. Cangrejo is the usual name for crab, but many Latin Americans, including Dominicans and Colombians also know it as jaiba. In the DR at least jaiba tends to mean fresh water crab and cangrejo refers to the marine variety.
Blame it on the Conquistadors!
The Dominican nispero (sapodilla) does not look very much like the Spanish yellow fruit of the same name, known in English as loquat, which is unknown in the DR. Perhaps the trees are similar as is the case with several fruits and vegetables, as well as many flowers and birds of the Americas: what happened was that when the Spaniards arrived in the New World they often would not think up new names for the things they came across, but would give them the name of the nearest thing they thought it resembled. That’s why amapola means poppy in Spain but is also used to refer to the poppy-red blossoms of a common Dominican tree (scientific name – Erythrina corallodendron – it grows in many parts of the world and is sometimes known in English as the flame tree or coral tree). It is a good comparison because when the amapola trees are in bloom, the effect is reminiscent of poppy fields in Spain. Going back to the nispero or loquat for one moment: in Gibraltar we call it – for some reason – fruta americana or American fruit.
A more edible example is cereza which in Spain is the word for cherry. What the Dominicans call cereza is not really a cherry: it is paler in colour and not as even in texture. Funnily enough I find it tastes a lot like artificial cherry flavouring, and I don’t mean this in a totally unpleasant way. In English it is called acerola cherry (Malpighia emarginata). What we know as “cherries” are called simply “cherries” (said with a Dominican accent) in the DR. It is not the only case in which a fruit is known by its English name: grapefruit is commonly called grei-frú as well as toronja.
There are other occasions when the well-intentioned visitor may wish to show off their knowledge of Spanish, only to find that the original English word is more common than the Spanish equivalent, which in some cases may mean something else entirely. Cream cheese (the sort you spread on a bagel) is not queso crema in the DR: it is simply known by its English name “cream cheese” although pronunciations and spellings may vary. One that sticks in my mind was a packet of cream cheese temptingly labelled “green cheese” in a Santo Domingo supermarket. The final ‘z’ sound in “cheese” is more often than not omitted. The real Dominican queso crema is a very typical cheese, which although white is not at all creamy in texture.
Sometimes meanings are even less obvious. Verdura means vegetable in Spain but is used to mean fresh coriander (UK) cilantro (US) in the DR. The word cilantro is also used but it means the stronger-tasting plant with broad leaves (sawtooth coriander or culantro), while the one that resembles flat-leafed parsley is called cilantrico as well as verdura. One of our readers, Pat from California, wrote that she remembered smelling it in a supermarket after years living in the DR, never having made the connection: “That’s IT… that’s verdura!” was her reaction. The Dominican word for vegetables is not verduras but vegetales.
Sometimes you can find yourself on dodgier ground. Barbara writes from the Cayman Islands that conch (queen conch – Strombus gigas) which in the DR and Haiti is known as lambí, in Honduras it’s a caracol. She found that lambí elicits raised eyebrows and a snicker in Honduras, but we are not sure exactly why. Barbara continues: “that little squash called christophine (tayota in DR, chayote in Central America and Mexico) also known as alligator pear or mirilton, we call ‘cho-cho’. While travelling in a Costa Rican taxi some years ago, we passed a field of ‘cho-cho’ being harvested. I said loudly to my husband: Look at all those ‘cho-cho’! And the Tican taxi driver screeched to a halt to look. Turns out a ‘cho-cho’ in that area of Costa Rica is the worst kind of prostitute”. Easily done.
Back in Gibraltar, some of the mangled Spanish words we use there have got me – and many of my fellow Gibraltarians – into hot water in other Spanish-speaking countries. Gibraltarians call butter manteca instead of the correct mantequilla (although in some parts of Latin America like Argentina this is also the case). I spent months reassuring fellow vegetarian backpackers that the food we were eating in Central America was completely free of meat products, until I realised that the manteca universally used in Central American kitchens was lard, not butter. I hope none of them are reading this. I never confessed my mistake, and apart from sharing this with you here, I plan to take this particular secret to the grave.
A food by any other name…
These are features of the Spanish speaking world, where different countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were settled at different points in history, with people from diverse parts of Spain and many other countries beyond, who put their particular stamps on the vocabularies of their new nations, often combining it with indigenous terms, all contributing to a rich diversity of language.
At DominicanCooking.com we find this sort of thing fascinating, and this week, to complement to our dynamic and ever-expanding glossary, we try to steer you through some of the pleasures and pitfalls caused by this linguistic mosaic. Whether you are an English speaker who has learned some Spanish, a Dominican Spanish speaker or a native of another part of the Spanish-speaking world, this is dedicated to you.
The Dominican arepa is a spicy baked pudding made with cornmeal and coconut. Apart from its basic ingredient, there is not much resemblance between it and its South American namesake, the fried savoury cornmeal patties that accompany almost every Venezuelan and Colombian meal.
The plot thickens when we start unraveling the different names for beans. Let me guide you through the following minefield, or should I say, bean-field. Habichuelas in the Dominican Republic are what we call red beans or kidney beans. In Spain, habichuelas are green beans. In the Dominican Republic, green beans are vainitas. In Spain, kidney beans and other similar beans like white beans are given the strange name judias. They are called frijoles in Mexico and Central America and caraotas in Venezuela. In other parts of the Spanish speaking world, the term alubias is also used to mean these sorts of beans. Habas in the DR are white beans or Faba beans. In Spain they are broad beans.
Bollo or bollito in Spain means a bread-roll, while in the Dominican Republic it refers to a croquette. In the DR if you want a bread roll, you say pancito or pan de agua.
Tortilla means omelette in Spain. In the rest of the Spanish-speaking world you have to specify tortilla de huevos or possibly tortilla española. In Mexico and Central America a tortilla is a flour or maize pancake. If you are in Spain you have to specify tortilla mexicana. There is, as some of you may know, also a Dominican variety of the Spanish omelette. In the Dominican Republic it is a different kind of omelette.
All over the English-speaking world, a cake is a cake. In the Spanish speaking world it can be a bizcocho (DR), torta (Venezuela), pastel or tarta (Spain), cake (Puerto Rico and Latinos in the US), or the hispanicised queque which is used by the English speaking communities that live on the Caribbean coast of Central America. In my native Gibraltar, where there is a comparable linguistic and cultural mix, we say quequi.
Another food name that could cause confusion is pasteles en hoja. In Spain they might think you mean the popular sweet pastry mil hojas (commonly known in English by its French name mil feuilles. Of course, pasteles en hoja are very similar to what are known as tamales in Central America and Mexico.
Peas are elegantly known by their French name petits pois in the DR, and sometimes they are called arbejas. In Spain they are guisantes, and in Mexico, chicharos.
If you are seeking plantains and you ask for a plátano in Spain, you get a banana. If you ask for a guineo, well, you’re likely to get a baffled look. The Venezuelan word for banana is the unusual cambur. The Dominican guineo is also used in some other parts of the Americas, such as Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Ecuador. Watermelon, usually called sandía, is patilla in Venezuela. Peach is durazno in some places and melocotón in others.
* Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea (former Spanish colony in West Africa) and Spain.
Special thanks to regular contributor Salome, and to Pat in California and Barbara in Grand Cayman for their observations, which I incorporated into this article.