Platter of Babel

Platter of Babel

In this Wall Street Journal article, the research suggests that languages go beyond the function of conveying thoughts; they actually shape thoughts based on how a sentence is structured.  For example, Spanish and Japanese speakers were less likely to remember who caused accidental events when compared to English speakers; in those languages, the sentence is shaped as ‘the vase broke itself’, whereas in English, we say, ‘John broke the vase’.

Translating this into the restaurant world, diners are continually seeking the most authentic dining experiences.  Sure, they get their information from the food glitterati and gastroblogs, but few can actually try raw octopus for breakfast in a Korean market.  They rely on restaurants within driving distance to get them as close as possible to the real experience.

Oenophiles have long contested that the $200 bottle of Burgundy is worth it because of terroir.  Terroir means soil and climate to someone looking for a translation, while the meaning to people who enjoy wines could fill books.  (Actually it does: ‘Adventures on the Wine Trail’ by Kermit Lynch is a novel that vividly defines terroir).

Understanding the nuances of a language can by extension teach chefs how its speakers approach the ritual of cooking that dish and how it should be enjoyed.  Embracing a culture through language instead of just finding literal translations could thus unlock a new way for us to complete that proverbial Tower of Babel.  It wouldn’t seem that difficult for a restaurant to do a 1-2 minute video clip with the chef speaking the language, showing the food, sharing the culture, in effect providing hundreds if not thousands of guests a better, more authentic experience.

English is my third language and I have a passion for real Chinese food.  I firmly believe language plays a role in how we enjoy our food.  Take, for instance, the Buddhist Feast Soup, which is a common English translation for the king of soups in Chinese cuisine.  The name is okay, but the story is that this soup was traditionally concocted using the finest and rarest of ingredients like abalone, shark fin, sea cucumber, thousand-year-old ginseng, etc.  The resulting broth was so aromatic that a famously devout monk actually jumped the fence and renounced his religion just to have a sip of the broth.  Knowing that legend, chefs would make sure their creation goes the extra mile in the aroma department.  Wouldn’t that make you want to try it, and then share with your friends the story behind the dish?

And as our articles on this website all seem to say, it comes down to something really simple: selling is always about teaching.  Teaching about your menu, concept, and the cuisines is simply a good sales tactic.  Language is a big part of it.

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