The Perils of Pronouncing International Foods

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The other day, someone I work with brought in sfogliatelle, the Italian ricotta-filled pastry in a crust of flaky, leaf-like layers. This led to a discussion of the difference between the Italian pronunciation of the treat—something like "sfohl-ya-TEL-le"—and the way it's often pronounced by Italian-Americans on the East Coast (or at least the ones on "The Sopranos")—more like "shfoo-ya-DELL."

Food names like this present a dilemma: When something is commonly pronounced differently in this country than in its place of origin—arguably, mispronounced—do you go with the crowd or what is "correct"? Do the former and you risk sounding ignorant; go with the latter and you might be perceived as an arrogant, Alex Trebekian (or, if you prefer, Cliff Clavenish) know-it-all.

For instance, I frequently hear the Italian finger food bruschetta pronounced "broo-SHETT-a," although I am fairly certain, based on my admittedly limited knowledge of Italian pronunciation, that it should be somewhere between "broo-SKETT-a" and "broo-SKATE-a." Same with the Greek dish, gyros: Many people say it phonetically, like the first syllable of "gyrate" plus "rows." Others say "jee-rohs" or "hee-rohs." The standard Greek pronunciation is "yee-rohs." Of course, correct pronunciation is often a matter of debate (see this comment thread on a Village Voice blog, for instance), and some would argue that, if enough people use a pronunciation it becomes valid.

Personally, I like to err on the side of know-it-all, to the point that I am sometimes reluctant to order something I have difficulty pronouncing—like rooibos tea. Is it ROY-bows? Row-ee-BOWS? ROO-boss? (According to Wikipedia, it's "roy-bos.")

When traveling in other countries, though, there's no question—using as close to native pronunciation as you can manage is not only polite, it's a necessity, if you want to be served something similar to what you intended to order. Studying a little vocabulary comes in handy, too; my parents visited Germany once and didn't know that the word for chicken is Huhn, so they kept ordering Schinken, or ham.

Language wasn't the biggest problem on another trip, when my parents met me in Paris during my post-college work/travel year abroad. I had studied French for four years in high school, but I was always nervous about speaking the language. Still, I did my best to translate during our first meal, in a bistro near their hotel. Our waiter fit the stereotype—handlebar moustache, long white apron wrapped around a portly waist—and apparently so did we. He teased us, presenting the telltale bottle of water we ordered (rather than the customary wine) as "shahm-PAHN-ya." When my father tried to order a bowl of onion soup (which was, after all, on the menu), the waiter thundered in English, "It's not POSS-ible!" with a swift lateral swipe of his flat hand and no further explanation.

If that was the worst, or at least funniest, ordering experience in France, my best came near the end of our stay. For one of our last meals before I would be on my own and subsisting mostly on baguettes, my parents treated me to a fancy dinner in the kind of place where a waiter hovers discreetly nearby with a crumb comb at the ready. It was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had.

On the dessert menu, I spotted a word I recognized from French class: millefeuille. Meaning "a thousand leaves," this is a puff pastry similar to sfogliatelle (which also comes from the Italian word for leaf), and its a little tricky to pronounce; although you could probably be understood by saying, "Mee-fay," the proper pronunciation is more nuanced. When it came time to order dessert, though, I nailed it. I may have imagined it, but I thought the waiter even gave me a look of slightly surprised approval.

What food words do you find hardest to pronounce?

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