How To Read a French Menu

Whether you're traveling to Paris or you just want to dine in style with your date at a fancy French restaurant, knowing how to read a French menu would definitely be a great advantage. French food is quite different from the usual American cuisine. Not only does it make use of a variety of ingredients and flavorings, the general terminology for parts and courses of a meal are also named differently.

Here are a few pointers that you may use to acquaint yourself with what certain things on the menu mean.

A meal at a restaurant may contain many elements and courses. Unlike American cuisine which only has components like a soup, appetizer, main course and dessert, the French have a slightly more complex way of planning out a meal.

  • The un aperitif is an opening cocktail or non-alcoholic drink that is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the meal.
  • The un amuse-bouche is a bite-sized snack that is traditionally a gift from the kitchen. This can be a small biscuit, cut of meat or anything that can literally be consumed with one bite. This is the small portion that gives diners an idea of what is to come.
  • The une entrée is the starter or the appetizer. This can be a salad, a light seafood dish or a meat dish such as carpaccio.
  • The le plat principal literally translates to "the principal plate" and that is exactly what it is. This is the main course. Expect to have the hearty meat dishes under this category.
  • Certain meals would also have a cheese component, especially if wine is also being served. This would be under the le fromage category.
  • After all this, one will be offered something off the le dessert menu.
  • Diners will then be asked to sample either coffee (le café) or an after-dinner drink (un digestif)
  • The daily special would be labeled as the le plat du jour.

French cooking also has a lot of techniques that may be alien to the uninitiated. Here are the various terms used to describe how certain ingredients and dishes are prepared.

  • Affine means aged. This term would usually be used with wines and spirits.
  • A la vapeur means steamed. This describes the technique usually used to cook fish and other lean meats.
  • En gelee means that the dish is congealed in aspic or gelatin. This is a very French technique that doesn't have equivalents in other cuisine.

The types of tastes could also be used in the name of the dish. Here are the various French translations.

  • Sucre means sweet or sweetened in French.
  • Aigre means sour.
  • Amer means bitter.
  • Piquant means spicy while sale means salty or savory.

And then there's an issue of the actual food items you might wish to order. Here are the actual dishes that you can order.

  • Aioli is usually used as a sauce for pasta. It consists of fish and/or vegetables with garlic mayonnaise.
  • La bouillabaisse is a fish stew.
  • Le coq au vin is a dish that features chicken in a rich and tasty red wine sauce.
  • Foie Gras is a goose liver dish.
  • Escargot is a snail dish.

You don't necessarily have to be lost in translation. While waiters at French restaurants may seem high-strung, you can always ask them for help in choosing the right courses in English. But for that genuine French feel to eating out, then it would be a great idea to learn how to read a French menu like a natural.


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