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Spanish cuisine: Conquering the English Language Palate?



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Spanish Cuisine: Conquering the English-Language Palate?

It’s undeniable that Spanish cuisine ranks among the best in the world, with Spanish food exports booming and Spanish restaurants thriving across Spain’s borders thanks to the efforts of top chefs such as Ferran Adrià, José Andrés, Jesús Núñez and many others. Spurred on by promotional initiatives like Foods & Wines from Spain, Spanish chefs have launched more than 30 restaurants abroad in recent years, and Spanish franchises like Lizarrán have opened establishments in more than 15 countries. Through these culinary ambassadors, Made in Spain gastronomic products and concepts have begun to proliferate worldwide. But how is this culinary revolution affecting the English language?

Martha Gaustad
Nacida en el seno de una familia de gastrónomos californianos, Martha Gaustad se crio entre revistas Gourmet, libros y cacharros de cocina y el programa de cocina de Julia Child, la equivalente americana de nuestro Ferran Adrià. Aunque no supo prácticamente cocer un huevo hasta la edad adulta, su amor por el buen comer llegó pronto. Su primera estancia en España, en San Sebastián, donde tuvo la oportunidad de conocer personalmente a los precursores de la nueva cocina vasca, no hizo más que confirmar su lado más foodie o comidista. Como traductora autónoma ha tenido la gran suerte de combinar estas dos pasiones, que comparte con su vocación por la enseñanza en la Universidad de Córdoba, donde ejerce como profesora asociada en el grado de Traducción e Interpretación.

One of the characteristic features of English is its ‘openness of vocabulary,’ which involves the free admission of words (adopted or adapted) from other languages to name new objects or concepts, including those related to food. Although Newmark (1995: 97) states that “food terms are subject to the widest variety of translation procedures,” he acknowledges that foreign culinary terms (i.e., loan words or borrowings) can be found in a wide range of settings from menus, cookbooks, and food guides to tourist brochures, journalism, and websites. Indeed, many of the food terms that represent typical Spanish cuisine abroad have long been accepted in English, such as paella, chorizo, gazpacho, sherry (an anglicisation of jerez), or sangria. However, with Spanish foods and cuisine seeing a huge rise in popularity, the number of food terms entering the English language is growing at an amazingly fast pace. Many of these Spanish loan words have come into the English language through a variety of ways: by chefs of Spanish (or non-Spanish) origin who have opened up restaurants in English-speaking countries, through Spanish food exports, Spanish cookbooks translated into or written in English, cooking shows, specialty food shops, and even designations of origin. Terms such as romesco, Manchego cheese, piquillo peppers, Rioja or Albariño wine, Tempranillo grapes, Picual or Arbequina olives, jamón, ibérico and pimentón now pepper the English lexicon.

Nonetheless, the introduction of loan words can pose a challenge for the translator. Firstly, gastronomic terms are, for the most part, culture-specific, meaning that they express an abstract or concrete concept that may be unknown in the target language and hence lacks exact equivalents. In the case of Spanish cuisine, however, it may be just a matter of time before these concepts become commonplace as Jesús Núñez, Corporate Chef of Quimeria in New York, seems to suggest:  

I can create the best pollo al chilindrón, but Americans understand chicken differently because their references are fried chicken or buffalo wings. We must therefore try to bring our Spanish concepts closer to their own memories so that our creations somehow remind them of the flavours they are familiar with, like relating barbecue to smoked pimentón.

Moreover, even if the concept is known in the target culture, it may not be lexicalized, that is, the target language may have no word to express it (Baker, 1992: 21). In an article published in the Chicago Tribune entitled “The secret of secreto. Searching for a hard-to-pin-down pork cut,” the author states that “it had that vaguely foreign name that implied there was something I didn't know . . . secreto.” Surprised by the price, he asked his butcher what the cut was and was told that it comes from the bottom of the pig’s belly, near where the skirt steak would be on a cow. Perhaps that’s why the Jaleo restaurant operated by highly acclaimed Chef José Andrés in the United States describes this dish as “It’s a secret! Skirt steak from the legendary black-footed ibérico pigs of Spain.”

While the use of foreign food terms lends an air of exoticism or prestige, there are often slight or considerable differences between the source and target culture regarding a term’s expressive meaning, in other words, the speaker’s feeling or attitude towards the concept; or a term’s propositional meaning, which has to do with the relationship between a word and what it actually refers to (Baker, 1992: 13-14).

A good example of the difficulties involved in transferring a term’s expressive meaning is the concept of tapas. Although el tapeo (referred to as “small plate cuisine” or “small plate fare” by some in English) is a truly authentic Spanish custom that has now crossed Spain’s borders to become a popular way to have a quick bite to eat the world over, what the tradition actually involves continues to be largely unfamiliar to the target audience. As the Jaleo restaurant explains on its website: 

They’re not just small plates. They’re the best ingredients simply prepared, enjoyed with good friends and conversation. That is the style of eating the Spanish know as tapas, and the one Americans have been embracing at Jaleo since 1993.

In the introduction to his cookbook Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America entitled “how to use tapas,” (an unfortunate title in my opinion as one does not “use” tapas but eats them), José Andrés goes further to describe the manner in which these delicious tidbits are consumed: “More often than not, people in Spain eat their tapas standing at bars and chatting with friends,” again highlighting not only the gastronomic but the social aspect of this cultural phenomenon. Indeed, until José Andrés introduced the concept of tapas on the American gastronomic scene, the term was translated in a numerous ways with a variety of connotations adapted to the target culture: bar snack, starters, hors-d’oeuvres, the local version of fast food, or appetizers, none of which captured the true essence of this Spanish tradition, and may still remain an enigma to many non-Spaniards. 

The etymology of the term will almost certainly be lost on the target diner as well. As a tourist guide in Madrid explains to English-speaking visitors to the city:

there is little agreement about the origin of the word “tapa” (which actually means “cover”), but some experts hold that it once referred to the slices of cured ham or sausage that were usually placed on top of the glasses of wine in the taverns in the 19th century to keep out the flies.

It should be said that the anonymous author wrote the word “tapas” in various forms, using italics (as did José Andrés) or between quotation marks. But a loan word that has been fully introduced into a language takes a life of its own on an equal standing with its native partners and should therefore not be set off using these typographical conventions. Without a doubt, we can say that the term “tapas” has earned the honour of being written simply as tapas.1

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for the term would certainly seem to support my argument. Tapas appears a total of 486 times in the corpus, with the first entry dating from 1990 (COCA spans 1990-2015), thus indicating that the term is now recognised in American English. Slowly but surely, other Spanish food terms are also making their way into the English language. This is the case of jamón serrano, which appears 6 times in COCA in its full Spanish version from 1992-2007, at times accompanied by a literal translation (country ham) or by a short comparative definition (a prosciutto-like ham, also using an Italian borrowing). Interestingly, the term appears 44 times in the corpus as “Serrano ham” or “serrano ham,” the first two entries dating from 1991 and 1997, but which increase in frequency up to 2014, which is the last entry, thus indicating that the term has, to some extent, been adapted to the English language. And with a whooping three hits, neither does a search for patatas bravas come up entirely empty handed.

As regards propositional meaning, many foreign chefs have made their own interpretations of some of Spain’s most well-known classics. In an article by Spanish food critic Ana Vega, she states that non-Spanish celebrity chefs seem to think that “Spain is different and its cooking is whatever I want it to be.” Chorizo, for example, has now become a ubiquitous food item, taking on many new forms and uses that have little to do with the original: chorizo meatballs, chorizo pizza, and even chorizo jam bearing the label “A proper pig-out from East London. Oink! Olé! [sic].” She lambasts Gordon Ramsey for adding chili peppers to his paella in an episode of his Kitchen Nightmares show, mistaking Mexican ingredients for Spanish cuisine. As for Jamie Oliver, she says that his “odd ‘Made in Spain’ combinations make for a good laugh for any Spaniard watching his programme.” As Baker (1992: 26) argues, however, in translating (here in the broad sense) “it is neither possible or desirable to reproduce every aspect of meaning for every word” and by “meaning” I refer to both the expressive and propositional features of a term.

In the companion book to the prime-time television series Spain . . . On The Road Again. A Culinary Road Trip, Mario Batali uses countless borrowings to refer to the country’s regional cuisine, giving this travel diary/recipe book a clearly exotic flare: pintxos, empanadas, torrijas, migas, ajo blanco, or tejeringos all season up the reading. At other times, the author combines the loan word with its equivalent or a literal translation: boquerones (anchovies), pan con tomate (bread with tomato). Descriptions also accompany the names of dishes. In the recipe for salmorejo, he explains that it is “somewhere between a soup and a sauce, sort of a dip. Like a very thick gazpacho, it is served throughout Andalucía.” His Fideos with calamari recipe includes both a Spanish and an Italian borrowing, while pisto manchego is referred to as “a sort of pureed ratatouille,” making use of the French term.

The menus of Spanish restaurants abroad also shed some interesting insight into how the English language is changing (or is in the process of changing) thanks to Spanish cuisine. The Boquería restaurant in New York, the kitchen of which is led by Barcelona-born Marc Vidal, lists each and every one of its dishes in Spanish, followed by a short description in English often garnished with Spanish terms. Diners can eat anything from a tortilla española to pimientos de padrón and espinacas a la catalana. Patatas bravas are served with salsa brava and roasted garlic allioli, the dátiles con beicon with Valdeón blue cheese. The famous Toro restaurant in Boston follows a similar line, but even goes further preferring to use the Spanish rather than the English for food items that are traditionally American (hamburguesa con queso), already have a standard equivalent (almendras marcona/marcona almonds), or are easily translatable (ensalada, bocadillo, ostras, croquettas [sic]). Espárragos a la plancha are described as plancha seared asparagus, making a nice mix up of a typical Spanish cooking style that is difficult to capture in English.

To sum up, although a variety of techniques are used in translating Spanish gastronomic terms, as we have seen, one of the biggest challenges to this culinary revival is precisely to distinguish the individuality and unique ingredients of Spanish cuisine. And what better way to do so as translators than by highlighting the authentic and exotic flavours that characterise Spanish foods through the use of loan words, thus lending Spanish cuisine the prestige it deserves on a par with other international cuisines.  Although we cannot say for certain that Spanish foods have transformed the English-language palate as of yet, the examples I have provided would seem to indicate that they are on the way to doing so. Only time will tell.


Baker, Mona. In Other Words. Routledge: New York, NY, 1992.

Batali, Mario. Spain... A Culinary Road Trip. Harper Collins: New York, NY, 2008.

Cavendish, Steve. “The secret of secreto. Searching for a hard-to-pin-down pork cut.” Chicago Tribune, 9 October 2013.

González Lamas, Rosa María. “Out of Spain. Spanish Gastronomy in New York.” Foods and Wines from Spain.

Newmark, Peter. A Textbook of Translation. Prentice Hall International: Hertfordshire, 1995.

Vega, Ana. “How celebrity chefs destroy classic Spanish dishes.” El País, 18 March 2016.

Wong, Maggie. “Spanish cuisine: Best food in the world right now?CNN, 19 April 2013.

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1 Following this line, none of the Spanish culinary terms I refer to in this article are marked typographically, in contrast to the accepted conventions for borrowings.

Reproducción parcial o total de contenidos o ilustraciones sólo con autorización por escrito de la redacción y citando autor y fuente.