A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing: Ten Common Food Misunderstandings

03/10/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Twenty-five years ago, in the U.S. of A., there was not a whole lotta knowledge about the foods of the world. Or even about the foods of the U.S.! But zoom forward, my food fighters in America, it has been an incredible quarter-century in food as so many more of us have become incredibly more conversant with world gastronomy.

The only problem is many of the conversants haven't gotten it right in all the conversations! Errors, understandably caused by recently obtained knowledge, are rife.

Here are the ten mistakes I hear our neo-foodies make over and over again:


photo by Stu_Spivack

To many, a Caesar Salad ain't right unless it has anchovies--either anchovies blended into the dressing, or, sometimes, whole anchovies right across the salad. But this concept itself ain't right--or, at least, is not an accurate take on the historical dish. As many know, Caesar Salad was invented by restaurateur Caesar Cardini, in Tijuana, Mexico, in the 1920s--in his attempt to satisfy the Hollywood crowd crossing the border to Tijuana (and also in his attempt to empty his refrigerator). However, there were NO anchovies in the original Caesar Salad! It is true that a little Worcestershire Sauce was in the original dressing, and that "anchovy extract" is a small element in Worcestershire Sauce. Many opine that it is from WS's list of ingredients that the modern association of Caesar and little fishies grew. But sauce from a bottle is a long way from an anchovy. So if you're an anchovy-disliker, and if you've felt some kind historical guilt about eschewing them in Caesar Salad, you're now on the right side of history! Eschew away!

photo by David Van Horn

When people tell me they don't like Indian food, and I ask them why, the response is practically universal: "I don't like curry!"

Many of these curry-haters are surprised to learn that "curry" is actually an English concept, invented by the English to make sense out of the incredibly varied cooking they were seeing across the sub-continent during their centuries-long occupation.

Through a series of linguistic misunderstandings, the English surmised that "curry" was the name for many of the things they tasted. Never mind that the word, or something like it, was used in various regions of India to refer to different things, either a cooking pan, or a meat dish, or a leaf, but was never used as a generic name for all the manifold stews of India!

The Indian chefs were using spices, sure, scores of them, tailoring the spices to each dish. But when the English wanted to send home a pile of Indian spices so Mum could make food like this at Christmastime, the English came up with a tin that contained a new-born mixture of the spices, which they dubbed, of course, "curry powder!"

Keeping curry powder on hand to make Indian food, instead of obtaining different spices for it--is something like having a jar in your cupboard called "Italian powder," which you would use in place of the basil, or oregano, or sage, or marjoram, or rosemary, that a real Italian cook would use.

Today, of course, many Indians have given in to the British concept. The Indians do sometimes name their dishes "curries," and there are Indian "curry powders" on the market. But these concepts are not natively Indian, and it is much more helpful to think of Indian stews as a confederate of bhunas, vindaloos, kormas, etc., rather than a bunch of "curries!"

photo by Jay Galvin

Mole, in America, is usually thought of as a savory Mexican sauce with chocolate in it. But most moles have no chocolate at all!

Mole is an old, old idea in Mexican cooking: a mortar-and-pestle combo of ingredients that functions as a sauce. But the catch is this: there are many kinds of mole scattered throughout Mexico. Usually, they are named for the region from which they come. It just so happens that the most well-known mole comes from the town of Puebla, and environs. This is called, naturally enough, Mole Poblano. But it also just so happens that one of the classic ingredients of that Mole Poblano is Mexican chocolate! Aha! Since Mole Poblano is the best-known mole on our side of the border, many Americanos who assume that all mole is the same also assume that that all-purpose mole of their imagination contains ground chocolate!

photo by Ralf Peter Reimann

I'll never forget my tiff with a moronic waiter at a trendy restaurant in L.A.--who knew as little about service as he did about food.

One of the evening's specials he announced to us had couscous on the plate, and--having just come back from Morocco--I was explaining to my dining companion that couscous is pasta, semolina flour rolled into tiny balls. I helped Moroccan women make it in their kitchens, starting with sacks of yellow semolina flour.

"You're wrong," Steve said to us. "Couscous is a grain." Which is something many Americans believe, but have the good sense to refrain from fighting about on a restaurant threshing floor.

"It's... it's... not," I said. "I was just there... making it!"

"All right. Let's see what the chef says, how 'bout that?" And off Steve went to the kitchen, in full dudgeon.

When he came back, he was a little calmer. Taking his time, Steve announced, slowly, with only a semi-forced smile: "Chef says the customer is always right." Bigger forced smile. We waited for the kicker, which instantly came, kinda sotto voce: "But it's a grain!" Accompanied by Steve's realest smile, the cad.

Well, I suppose that it is grain-based, no? It comes from flour, which comes from wheat, just like pasta. Wheat is a grain, no? But would you call linguine a grain? Or fettuccine? Or ravioli? No! They are just three of hundreds of typically made pasta shapes produced from wheat, like couscous. Does couscous have its own plant, like kamut, or barley? Do you harvest couscous from the couscous bush?

No you don't! You harvest wheat field, which you process into flour, and roll into little pasta balls called couscous! It's pasta! It's pasta, Steve!!! Just a Moroccan form of pasta!

Sorry. Hope Steve did better on tips at other tables...

photo by CamKnows

To be fair... ramen is HUGE today among hip foodies, and none of them make the Big Ramen Mistake.

However the Big Ramen Mistake is still being made everywhere. It is the latest variation of the old principle: bad product drives out good.

"Let's get some ramen," I'll say to someone who's not a believer. "Ramen???" comes back the answer in the form of a howl. "Ramen?" they say. "Ramen? The weird plastic noodles in the package that costs 33 cents at the supermarket? Why would you ever suggest ramen for dinner?"

Well, it is perfectly true that I've had my share in college-student life of the three-for-a-buck ramen packages, which tend to fill a starving college student right up, artificial-tasting broth and all. But little did I realize during all those two-minute dinner preps with this product, often called "Oodles of Noodles" but always carrying the name of the product as "ramen"--that college students were being indoctrinated against the beauty of real ramen!!!!

It wasn't until I went to Japan, years later, that I discovered real ramen is an obsession in Japan--and that real ramen is made with carefully prepared fresh noodles, that the stocks for bowls of ramen take 14 hours to prepare, that you could put the whole category on a respect level with the finest pasta in Italy.

And that the 33-cent bag is an industrial travesty, a rip-off of the ramen name, real ramen's evil twin. 33-cent Ramen is to real ramen as Chef Boyardee Ravioli in a can is to real ravioli, fresh-made.

If you don't believe, get to a place like Tokyo-based Ippudo in New York City, where the lines alone will tell you all you need to know. Then you'll know even more after slurping that big bowl of noodly wonder.

Me? I give it up all the time for big-league ramen...I LOVE it...but I still haven't given up my 33-cent habit. Why should I? This is this, and that is that. Sometimes I feel like having a fast-food burger, too. If if feel it, I eat it... never losing sight of the fact that some days hence I'll be having a real burger, such as the one at Minetta Tavern in Manhattan. But I know the fast-food burger for what it is, and I know the 33-cent ramen for what is is: convenient bites that have their moments, that are not evidence you can use to denounce the whole categories of burgers and ramen out there!

And... uhh... we'll talk about Chef Boyardee some other day, OK?...

photo by Sh4rp_i

In the growing field of gastronomic git-it-wrong, nothing makes my blood boil half as much as the misunderstandings (mostly northern) that surround our most holy American food practice: southern BBQ, America's greatest contribution to world cuisine.

Yeah, you could quibble, and say that what's called "BBQ" in the north is also BBQ... but it ain't. It's a mis-used word, that's all it is. Bless my Dad, but when I was growing up in NY, and he said "let's have a BBQ for dinner"... he meant "let's light some charcoal briquettes in the Weber, and throw on some hot dogs and hamburgers!!!"

This is actually grill food. Grilling. Real BBQ is the exact opposite: hunks of meat cooked slowly, with a low fire, which should come in indirect contact with the meat.

A hamburger directly on the hot grill might take 4 minutes to cook; a Texas BBQ brisket far away from the low fire in a smokin' pit might take 18 hours to cook!

THAT'S BBQ, brother!

photo by mroach


Americans usually visualize this Scandinavian specialty with a white sauce on top. I've been told that you may find that in Denmark but it's very unlikely in Sweden! Real Swedish meatballs have a brown sauce on top, and are usually served with lingonberry preserves on the side!

When I was growing up, the only pasta we ate in Brooklyn was dried pasta out of a spaghetti, linguine, macaroni, etc. Once the fateful '70s hit...and restaurants changed to ristoranti, with an accompanying zoom in prices...we were all told in America by the foodie elite that we'd been eating the junk pasta...that pasta fresca, made that day from flour and eggs, was the real Italian pasta, and the true "gourmet" pasta from Italy.

Bosh. Please go back to respecting your boxed pasta.

Yes, I will confess that I have had, in Italy, some gorgeous pasta fresca, which does rank among the great pastas of my life. But even in Italy it's not so easy to get it right. In America? Fuhgeddaboudit! Most of the time, either at a restaurant, or from a "gourmet" store, fresh pasta in America is gunky! Most knowledgeable Italophiles agree: it's much safer in America to go with the boxed product.

Eh, even in Italia the vast preponderance of pasta consumed by Italians is dried pasta out of a box. When it's good (which is usually), and when it's great (which is sometimes), it is one of the world's great gastronomic bargains!

photo by Robyn Lee

This is a small misunderstanding but it is held by almost everyone in America who peruses a Chinese take-out menu. Yes, there is great love across our land for these snowy shrimp, in a goopy white sauce, enriched by egg, flavored with pork, but the misunderstanding is that many believe there's lobster in there as well. The name says it, right? No. It doesn't say what many think it says. The Cantonese sometimes like to name sauces for the things they go WITH! "Lobster Sauce," in other words, is a sauce that would be delicious with lobster! Usually, we only get as far as shrimp.


Lastly, this traditional Tuscan salad took off in America twenty-five years ago, or so, when "Tuscan" food took off--along with anything that came off of a grill. So, many assumed that this classic Tuscan salad is a toss of lettuce, tomatoes, raw vegetables--with olive oil-slicked chunks of grilled bread. Not in Tuscany, it isn't! The classic panzanella--which, by the way, emphasizes cucumbers much more than our American versions do--is actually salad with soaked bread. That's right! Tuscan chefs tear the white parts out of good loaves, submerge the white parts in water, soak them for a few minutes, then squeeze the white bread dry. Into the salad bowl it goes! The texture is completely different from the one we know here--and very winningly Tuscan in its own authentic way!

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