You Are What You Eat. But Do You Know What You’re Eating? 

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

Every once in a while, we crave something tasty that’s non-native to us. More often than not, we get confused by the names and words in foreign languages on the menu, primarily when they are transliterated – written using the closest corresponding letters in the Latin alphabet that make no sense to us, whether in their meanings or pronunciation. Under the pressure of stares from a tableful of friends and the encouraging smile of the waiter, we pick in a hustle from a mouthful of words that we don’t understand, and thus begins our disastrous dinner experience–

Let’s save this confusion. Ordering ethnic dishes should be exciting and adventurous, minus the shock. Every culture has certain terms that appear often in menus, therefore we’ve created this cheat sheet for you:


Biryani बिरयानी in Hindi

Mutton biryani Chicken biryani Spicy Indian Malabar biryani Hyderabadi biryani, Dum Biriyani pulao clay pot Kerala India

Dish of mixed rice. Usually involved long-grained rice cooked with meat and various types of veggies. When in doubt, this is your all-in-one serving of carbs, spices and protein. 

Saag ساگ in Urdu

A bowl of Palak Paneer made of Paneer cheese dipped in mildly spiced Spinach gravy.Leaf/vegetable-based dish, usually cooked with spinach. Perfect for our vegetarian friends!

Naan नान in Hindi

Indian naan bread with garlic butter on wooden table

Naan is an oven-baked flat bread that usually has a pillowy shape and chewy texture. There is no such thing as “naan bread;” “Naan” is a stand-alone word that means “bread.”

Tandoori तंदूरी in Hindi

Chicken tandoori with coriander and spices

Meat and vegetables marinated in yogurt and tandoor spices and cooked in a high-temperature oven are usually referred to as a Tandoori dish. Tandoori is known for its distinctive bright orange-red colour.

Samosa समोसा in Hindi


Our favourite deep-fried appetizer, Samosa are pyramid shaped, wrapped with flour and stuffed with spiced potatoes, onion, peas, lentils, or ground meat. Just writing about this is making our mouths water!

Roti रोटी in Hindi

Jowar roti or jowar bhakri are healthy gluten free flatbreads made with sorghum millet flour.An unleavened round flatbread. It’s soft, chewy, and thinner than naan.


Une entrée

appetizerIn a French menu, this is your starter or appetizer, which is different from the English definition of the word. Don’t get confused!

Le plat principal

main course

Main course. This is what in English usually refers to as “entrée.”

Le cassoulet

Le cassoulet

Meat and bean casserole. A rich, slow-cooked stew originated in southern France. Wouldn’t you like a hot bowl of this in winter?

À la broche

À la brocheAnything cooked on a skewer is generally called À la broche. Cooked on an open flame, lightweight and easy, this is what you might want to grab a bite of for the party vibes.


From what’s grown in the fields to those raised in farms, this word refers to anything organic.



Mashed potato with cheese. Hot, creamy and easy-to-make, this might update your definition of comfort food.

La bouillabaisse

La bouillabaisse

Provence fish stew. If you are a Harry Potter fan, note that this dish is Hermione-approved.

La tarte flambée

La tarte flambée

For all our thin crust lovers, La tarte flambée is very light crusted pizza.




A crispy cookie made with bitter almonds. Crunch, crunch.



Salted, cured fish roe pouch, typically of the grey mullet or the bluefin tuna.


RisottoA creamy rice dish cooked with broth. Some describe it as a rice version of mac and cheese.



Ice cream, but denser and with less fat. Its texture has a velvety feel to it! Are we screaming for Ice cream yet?



A non-baked dessert. An authentic tiramisu contains soft, sweetened mascarpone cheese and coffee-soaked ladyfingers.


Teriyaki 照り焼き


This term in Japanese literally means “Glossy broil.” Foods grilled with a flavoured glaze of soy sauce and sake or mirin (sweet wine).

Maki 巻き

MakiThis is your typical Rolled sushi.

Nigiri 握り


A thin slice of fish layered on top of vinegary rice.

Takoyaki たこ焼き


A ball-shaped Japanese snack made of octopus in wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a specially moulded pan. Usually it’s topped with bonito flakes.

Nori 海苔


Seaweed. You can use it to wrap your rolled sushi or eat it as a snack.

Ramen 拉麺/ラーメン

RamenPulled noodles served in a broth and typically, flavoured with soy sauce and miso are referred to as Ramen. This dish is topped with pork, seaweed and soft-boiled eggs. Unless you are a pro, we’d recommend not wear your favourite clothes while eating this dish.


Char siu 叉烧

Char siu

Char siu, which literally translates to “fork grilled,” is a Cantonese-style barbecued pork dish that has been marinated in a mixture of spices, fermented tofu, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine and glazed with honey. 

Xiaolongbao 小笼包

XiaolongbaoTiny soupy buns stuffed with pork, soup, and sometimes crab meat. They are usually cooked in bamboo steaming baskets. Take it slow, be careful of the hot soup inside!

Bubble tea 奶茶/果茶

Bubble teaEvolved from milk tea, bubble tea now refers to a wide range of non-alcoholic “cocktail” drinks that involve tea as the main ingredient. Other ingredients famously included are milk, creamer, coffee, juice, brown sugar, diced fruit, syrup, and toppings such as tapioca balls and salted crema.

Hot pot 火锅

Hot pot

A hot pot dinner is more than simply a meal; it’s a whole vibe, complete with cold weather, simmering soup, cool beverages, and casual conversation. It is a dish whereby a heat source placed on the dining table keeps a pot of soup stock simmering, and various raw ingredients are served beside the pot for the diners to put into the hot stock.

Century Egg and Pork Congee 皮蛋瘦肉粥

Century Egg and Pork CongeeRice porridge is typically a breakfast cooked with rice, lean pork meat and preserved egg (duck eggs preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls).

Zhajiangmian 炸酱面

Zhajiangmian Noodles served with black bean paste stir-fried with ground meat. It is usually topped with sliced vegetables. 

Middle Eastern

Shawarma شاورما


As sophisticated as the name may suggest, this meal is simply a mixture of meat that has been well-seasoned and is meant to bring happiness to your soul. Here, meat is cut into thin slices, stacked in a cone-like shape, and roasted on a slowly-turning vertical rotisserie or spit. 

Shish kebab شيش كباب

Shish kebabSkewered roasted meat. “Shish” in Arabic means skewer and “kebab” means roasted meat.

Falafel فلافل

FalafelA deep-fried ball or patty-shaped fritter in Middle Eastern cuisine made from ground chickpeas, broad beans, or both.

Hummus حُمُّص


Mashed chickpea dip. A great source of fiber and protein; share this to your friends who are on a diet!

Lahmacun لحم بعجين


A flatbread topped with minced meat, minced vegetables, and herbs including onions, garlic, tomatoes, red peppers, and parsley, flavored with spices such as chili pepper and paprika, then baked. Consider it being an Arabic version of Meat Lover’s pizza.

Fattoush فتوش


A chopped salad with mixed greens and crispy pita chips, dressed in a zesty lime vinaigrette. Originated in Lebanon.

The joy of discovering new ethnic foods is enhanced by authentic food names, even though they might be intimidating and confusing. Names in the food’s native languages evolved within their own cultures and often leave hints of how they were historically made and originated, or the cultural purposes they served through their metaphorical meanings. The next time, when you walk into an ethnic restaurant, pay attention to the menu items, and you might be able to look at the world through a different lens.