Wednesday, June 24, 2009

French to English Lexicon for Herbs and Spices, Part 1

"So much to read in food labels here", my father used to say when he lived in Montreal briefly. 

"Dad, just read the English part." 

"Oh," he'd say, and then shrug.  To him, there was no way to avoid the other language. 

As we sat down for breakfast one morning, he eyed the cereal box.  "Doesn't official bilingualism cost this country a lot of money?"

"I suppose so, dad, but it makes life more vibrant, don't you think?  Like wearing 2 hats or having 2 brains - the brain gets stretched when it has to grapple with another language day in and day out."

"I guess", he said.  I don't think he was ever convinced.

The upside about being an officially bilingual country is that we tend to repeat what we say:  once in English and again in herbs and spices 1 French.  That rule applies to everything:  building signs, road signs, food packaging, government documents, toy user manuals - and whatever you can think of.

For someone like me who makes it a point to collect recipes (I run a food blog on wordpress), bilingual food packaging is a big help.

Go to any supermarket in Canada and head for the spice racks.  On one side of the bag is the English name; then you flip the bag and you get the French name.  That's how I learned that romarin is rosemary and that origan is oregano.  When going through a recipe in French, I don't have to look at the dictionary and get the English equivalent, because I know it will be in the supermarket waiting for me.

Speaking of spices, I scooped up my spice box from the cupboard and laid them out so I can start a lexicon for you.  So starting with my spice collection at home, we have:



persil seché dried parsley
cardamome moulue ground cardamom
muscade nutmeg
clou de girofle cloves
poudre de cari curry powder
piment de cayenne cayenne pepper
thym thyme
cannelle moulue ground cinnamon
coriandre coriander
graine de pavot poppy seed
assaisonnement à volaille poultry seasoning
basilic basil

When buying fresh herbs, remove the strings or rubber bands as soon as you get home.  Spread them out and discard those that look limp, are yellowed or have black spots.  If there are roots, you'll want to trim them off.

One problem about buying fresh herbs like basil is you don't get to use all of them in one cooking session.  They can't be stored in the fridge indefinitely.  A kind lady told me - after she overheard me asking the supermarket manager about storing basil - to chop up the herbs and put portions in airtight plastic bags in the freezer.  That way you just take what you need for the next recipe.  They'll taste like you just plucked them out off the ground!

Another advice I read:  surround the herbs with olive oil or butter before storing them in the freezer.  I've never tried this method but the oil or butter will prevent the unpleasant taste.


We'll do more herbs and spices in my next blog. 
Trivia question:  what's a famous Japanese spice that in its fresh form will induce tears (like onions do when they're not refrigerated prior to chopping)?
Answer:  wasabi.  In German, it's called Japanischer kren; in French it's raifort du Japon and in Chinese it's called saan kwai.  If you want top quality wasabi, buy it in prepared and frozen paste form - sold by many Japanese specialty stores.

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