Now that the first season of Top Chef México is complete, I’m sharing the research techniques I developed for dealing with the specialized vocabulary that came up during the show. Hopefully some of this will be helpful in a general sense, but if nothing else I hope it helps when you’re struggling with food and kitchen terminology.
I knew before I started that the vocabulary was going to present a challenge. What I didn’t expect was how much more difficult it would be when I wasn’t just hearing unfamiliar words, but also seeing unfamiliar foods and ingredients, all during the course of an unscripted show.
While some of the chefs and judges may have experience speaking in front of the camera, a lot of the time people are just…talking. They’re not thinking about projecting or enunciating, and sometimes they’re nervous. It is a competition, after all!
Still, there are always the closed captions for help, right? Well, those were spotty at best and the captioners seemed to have the same problems I was having…people were difficult to hear and understand.
The show itself also puts up a caption under the official photo of each dish, with the chef’s name and a description. That was something I was used to from the US seasons and I fully expected to be able to rely on that for the bulk of the recap. That’s what the show is all about, right? Who cooked what. Yet there were times even the official captions failed me. They didn’t match up to the dishes, or the person who wrote them couldn’t hear or didn’t understand.
So, what’s a recapper to do?
Wordreference is my favorite Spanish-English dictionary. It’s fairly comprehensive, it takes into account multiple meanings and phrases that include the word being searched for, and it gives autocomplete suggestions. It also has a forum with discussions of some of the words or phrases people haven’t been able to find in the dictionary. If I understood a word well enough that I could come close enough to the spelling, Wordreference was always the first place I tried.
In a pinch, Google Translate can also come in handy, but sometimes it’s annoyingly literal.
When both those options failed me, I resorted to a plain ‘ol Google search.
Google search itself, without even using the translate function, is actually a great resource for looking up unfamiliar words.
First off, the autocomplete suggestions are really useful when you aren’t sure how to spell something. Take it slow, letter by letter, and look through the suggestions. Using the word “verdolagas” as an example…if I misheard the first letter as a b and not a v:
When it comes to plants and animals, Google search results have a wealth of information. Not every search will bring up the same type of information, but sometimes you get lucky:
In this example, I got the translation for albahaca without even asking for it, plus a picture to help me figure out if that translation is even remotely correct. There’s also a Wikipedia article that lists the scientific name, ocimum basilicum, which is another thing I can search for to try to figure out what something is commonly called in English.
Other potential clues from the search results can include recipes or video tutorials. Sometimes getting a look at how something is used gave me a better idea of what it was.
When a regular Google search isn’t helpful, like this search for ajo:
if you look at the options under “Images for ajo” it would appear that Google Image Search has my back:
Sometimes it helped to add some contextual words like “comida” or the category of food…pescado, verdura…to the name, if I could tell what it was by looking at it.
Other miscellaneous advice
Regardless of the search engine, branch out from dictionary and encyclopedia sites. They’re lovely, but they don’t know everything! For example, I found a lot of useful information on the various cuts of beef on sites about butchering or articles on “Como escoger el mejor corte de res para la parilla” (how to choose the best cut of beef for the grill). The more context I had, the easier it was to figure out what search terms to use to find out what things were called in English.
Another good reason not to rely solely on Spanish-English dictionaries: sometimes the word I was looking for wasn’t a word in Spanish. Many cooking terms, especially when it comes to techniques, are in French, so attempting to search in a Spanish-English dictionary isn’t always going to work.
It’s also important to remember that not everything translates. Or rather, not every word in Spanish has a corresponding word in English. Think about words like cilantro, jalapeño, ceviche. It’s possible, when you can’t find a word in English, that there isn’t one.
Depending on your skill level, some of this might sound completely obvious, but I’m hoping that somewhere in this article there’s a least one tip that will come in handy the next time you’re stuck on a word.