MED Magazine - Issue 16 - February 2004

Food and Cooking in American and British English
by Susan Stempleski

Anyone in Britain or the U.S. who tries to follow a recipe from the other side of the Atlantic will quickly realize that American and British English have many differences in food and cooking terminology. While some culinary terms are identical in both varieties of English, there are some differences that can cause havoc in the kitchen. For example, a British biscuit is an American cookie, and an American biscuit is a British scone. And things become even more confusing when it comes to meat. British rump steak or Scotch fillet is sirloin in the U.S., and British sirloin is called porterhouse by Americans. This article takes a look at some of the major differences in vocabulary and usage related to food and cooking in American and British English.

Fruit and vegetables

While most fruits and vegetables have the same names in American and British English, there are a few that differ. For example, the vegetable with a smooth, dark purple skin that is known as an aubergine in Britain is called an eggplant in the U.S. And those small, sweet berries with a dark blue skin that British speakers refer to as bilberries are called blueberries by Americans. Here are some other examples:

American British
beet/beets beetroot
chicory endive
endive chicory
fava bean broad bean
navy bean haricot bean
romaine lettuce cos lettuce
rutabaga swede
scallion/green onion spring onion
string bean runner bean
zucchini courgette


American and British English use the same words for basic, broad categories of meat: beef, pork and lamb. However, some American terms for specific meat dishes and cuts of meat might confuse a British shopper, and vice versa. For example, what the British call a joint (a large piece of meat, such as a leg of lamb or loin of pork, cooked in an oven and eaten with potatoes and other vegetables) is known as a roast in the U.S. Most Americans would be shocked to hear that the Sunday joint is a British family tradition. To Americans, a joint is not something that people roast, but something that they smoke: a marijuana cigarette. Here are some other potentially confusing examples:

American British
chop cutlet
corned beef salt beef
flank steak skirt steak
ground meat minced meat
liverwurst liver sausage
pig's foot pig's trotter
porterhouse sirloin
sausage sausage/banger
sirloin rump steak/Scotch fillet
tenderloin steak fillet steak
variety meats (liver, kidney, etc.) offal


Some varieties of seafood eaten in the U.K. and the U.S. are the same, but many are different. For example, the most popular shellfish in the U.S. — what Americans call shrimp — are called prawns in Britain, as in a prawn cocktail (quite naturally referred to as a shrimp cocktail in the U.S.). And whereas British shrimp are usually quite small, American shrimp come in a wide variety of sizes (from miniature through small, medium, large, extra large, jumbo, all the way up to colossal) and types, the most popular being the brown, pink, and white varieties from the Atlantic Ocean. Here are some other examples of differences in names for seafood:

American British
black cod coal fish/coley
canned tuna tinned tuna
crawfish crayfish
fish sticks fish fingers
lox smoked salmon
smoked herring kipper

Cooking terminology

Reading an American cookbook (called a cookery book in Britain), a British cook will quickly notice differences in the names for basic cooking equipment and terms for various cooking procedures. For example, when Americans want to bake a cake, they mix the dough in an electric blender (a liquidizer in Britain), and then set the dough in a cake pan (something called a cake tin in Britain) before placing it in the oven. And when yeast is added to American bread before it is baked, the dough rises (increases in size), whereas when yeast it added to British dough, it proves. Here are some other differences:

American British
to beat or whip to whip or whisk
to broil to grill
cheesecloth muslin
to clean fish to gut fish
pastry shell patty case
wax (or waxed) paper greaseproof paper

Types of restaurants

While both Americans and the British use the term restaurant to refer to a place where meals are prepared, sold and eaten, American English has some unique terms to describe places where you can buy meals that are quick, simple and cheap.

A diner serves large portions of simple dishes at low prices. Diners are often found along highways or on the outskirts of towns and are very popular with families for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Long-distance travelers often stop at them because they are likely to have good parking facilities. The nearest equivalent in British English is a café, and while Americans will sometimes use the term café to refer to a simple restaurant where you can get inexpensive meals and drinks, or an ordinary diner, nowadays the term is more and more frequently applied to French-style cafés serving different types of coffee drinks (espresso, cappuccino, and the like), alcoholic drinks, and small meals.

The term coffee shop refers to a small restaurant, often located in a hotel or airport, which serves non-alcoholic drinks and simple, inexpensive meals such as meat loaf (a mixture of small pieces of meat, bread, and eggs, baked in one piece) and potatoes.

A snack bar is an informal eating place where you usually have to stand at a counter in order to eat your food. The menu is usually limited to smaller food items such as sandwiches and pastries.

The somewhat old-fashioned term luncheonette is sometimes used to refer to small restaurant serving simple, light meals.

A truck stop is an area with a restaurant beside a major road where truck drivers (called lorry drivers in Britain) can stop and have an inexpensive meal, buy gas (petrol in British English), or have their vehicle repaired.

A deli (short for delicatessen) is a shop specializing in unusual foods that are cooked and ready to eat. An American deli often has tables where you can eat, and the type of food sold will depend on the shop's location. For example, many delis in New York City specialize in Jewish cooking and serve only kosher food (food prepared according to Jewish laws), while a Los Angeles deli might serve California rolls (a Japanese-style dish made of rice, avocado and crabmeat rolled in a piece of seaweed).

Ordering food in a restaurant

If you order breakfast in an American coffee shop or diner, the waiter may ask, 'How do you want your eggs?' Assuming that you want eggs, your answer can include any one of the usual possibilities also available in Britain: boiled, fried, poached or scrambled. However, if you choose to have your eggs fried, you can be even more specific by using one of the following terms:

sunny-side up fried on one side only, so that the yoke, or 'sunny' side, is on top
over well fried on both sides
over easy lightly fried on both sides

And here are some other shorthand terms that you are likely to hear in a coffee shop or diner:

BLT a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich
OJ orange juice
slaw coleslaw (salad made from raw cabbage and carrots mixed with mayonnaise)
fries French fries (thinly cut fried potatoes, like British chips)
sub a submarine (a sandwich made from a large French-style loaf of bread and a variety of fillings)

Warning! If you ask for chips or potato chips in an American restaurant, you will get what the British call crisps (small, thin pieces of potato that have been cooked in oil).

A final note

If you are leaving an American restaurant and you want to know how much money you owe for your meal, you should ask for the check, the American word for what is usually called a bill in British English. Americans reserve the word bill for written statements showing how much money you owe for goods other than food, and services such as water, electricity or telephone.

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