American vocabulary tips for eating out in the USA

EXPAT LIFE: Have you ever tried to explain what you want to eat in a restaurant, where the menu is in a strange language? Both my husband and I have, several times on our travels overseas. It can be pretty interesting. Fortunately, in the USA, they speak English, our native tongue. Well, at least a version of it…..

One of the more interesting things you do as an expat experiencing overseas culture, is to try the local food. A question I get asked a lot by folks back home is: “what’s the food like in New Jersey restaurants: is it the same as back home in Sydney?” Well yes, and no.

Some dishes and foods have the same name but are made quite differently, as you would expect. Then, there are some items on the menu that are just plain ‘unheard of’, if you are an expat with a limited cultural knowledge of the US (that used to be me). It is rather fun though, to go through a menu and try anything that sounds exotic, weird or interesting. Not quite so much fun for our kids but I certainly find it a hoot!

Before you start going wild with the menu though, a good knowledge of American food vocabulary comes in handy. Here are thirty terms you should know, so you don’t look like an ignorant Australian émigré when you eat out:

  1.  Arugula: Pronounced a-rooo-gu-la or ahh-roo-gala here, it’s what we call rocket in Australia. The pronunciation varieties of this word are worthy of a blog post, all by themselves.
  2. Biscuits: For you English culture-vultures out there, these are not something you dip in tea. Here they are more like scones except savoury, and may be dipped in gravy or eaten by themselves. They can be made mixed with cheese and sometimes have a similar look to muffins.


    I thought these were scones till I read the label. I’m going to try these next week for a laugh but won’t be dunking them in my tea though any time soon..Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  3. Buffalo Chicken (Buffalo wings): A ‘hot’ dish that usually consists of deep-fried, unbreaded chicken wings, covered in a hot, spicy cayenne pepper sauce. Can be stand-alone or a form of it is sometimes used in other dishes e.g. pizza.


    Buffalo chicken wings: a very popular dish around these parts. Always have a glass of water nearby after you try them. Not sure what the buffalo has to do with it yet…
    Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  4. Chili:Cooked beef and kidney beans in a spicy tomato sauce. We would call this chili-con-carne. There is a lot of variation in what is considered ‘chili.’


    What we call chilli-con-carne (and spell differently) is here just called chili (the meat part) with beans (they use kidney beans here). This can be relatively spicy food as well. Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  5. Chili dog: This is a type of hot dog that is served with either chili sauce or chili-con-carne on top.
  6. Cilantro: What we call coriander in Australia.
  7. Corn dog: A hot dog that is covered in corn batter and fried, often provided on a stick to eat.
  8. Cup of Joe: Simply  a cup of coffee
  9. Dumplings: Balls of dough that may be fried and eaten or used in a casserole.
  10. Eggs over-easy: This means fried eggs that are cooked on both sides.The ‘easy’ part refers to the eggs being runny. Fried eggs can be cooked ‘over-medium’ and ‘over-hard’ although I’ve never seen that on a menu.
  11. Eggs sunny side up:  Fried eggs that are cooked with the yolk on the top side. It is normal to have your eggs runny here I believe.
  12. Entrée: Ironically, in the US, these are actually main meals, whereas in Australia, these are what starters are called. It takes a while get over this confusion, I can tell you.
  13. Fudge: Usually chocolate-based and can be served hot and syrupy or solid like a very rich chocolate mud cake.
  14. Grits: Usually served as a side order or breakfast, this is ground corn kernels, cooked in milk or water that looks like a very fine white porridge. Corn is a commonly used ingredient in many different forms in US food.
  15. Grouper: This is the same sort of fish we call ‘groper’ back home. In NSW, it is illegal to spearfish these(at least some species) and you are limited to a two fish catch by fishing rod, due to them being endangered. Here the species that are offered in restaurants are obviously able to be caught for consumption. It may sound cheesy but I would find it hard to eat a groper, knowing how friendly many of them are around the Barrier Reef and having had my picture taken with one. It’s a bit like eating your pet.
  16. Hoagie: Another unpleasant sounding word, faintly reminiscent of a bodily function but one that simply means a sub (submarine sandwich).The name comes from some Italians working at a shipyard in Philadelphia, known as Hog Island. The sandwich they developed was called first ‘hoggie’, then ‘hoagie’. Also known as a torpedo or hero (sandwich) in New Jersey.


    A chicken parmigiana ‘hero’ sandwich from Florham Park New Jersey. Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  17. Marinara sauce: Does not usually include seafood as it does in Australia. Here it is just a tomato based pasta sauce that might be called ‘Neapolitan’ or ‘Napoli’ pasta sauce elsewhere. Marinara sauce is used widely in Italian-American cooking in New Jersey.
  18. Mayo: A shortened term for mayonnaise which here is generally blander than in Australia. However, many other mayo based dressings are available that can be utilized instead.
  19. Pomodora sauce: A similar pasta sauce to marinara but it is thicker, with the tomatoes being chunkier.
  20. Provolone:  A semi-hard or hard Italian cheese that is often smoked in flavour and made from cow’s milk. It is used on pizza, melts, Italian foods amongst others.
  21. Ranch dressing:  A creamy looking sauce made from mayo, buttermilk, garlic and other spices,  and is usually used with salads.


    Ranch dressing? I thought this sounded like a Texan food but very common in supermarkets and restaurants. It looks a little like tartare sauce. Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  22. Romano: A very hard, salty cheese that is made from sheep (Pecorino Romano) or cow’s milk and is often grated over dishes. It can also be served with crackers or used in the cooking of pasta sauces and soups.
  23. Shrimp: The same as prawns. You wouldn’t believe how many times I get asked about putting a shrimp on the barby (Thanks Paul Hogan!)
  24. Slider: A term that has some thoroughly horrible connotations elsewhere but here, is used to describe a type of mini hamburger. These are often quite greasy and served on a bun with pickles, onions and possibly with yellow cheese added. Due to their greasy nature, they just “slide” down when you eat them.


    An example of sliders from an Irish restaurant in New Jersey. Note the square shaped bun, which is characteristic of sliders. A well known fast-food chain here called White Castle specializes in these, which is featured in a popular 2004 film called “Harold & Kumar go to White Castle”. Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  25. Sloppy Joe: No, these are not those fleecy lined pullovers we had back home in Australia. Remarkably, the US meaning is nothing like ours but describes a dish of ground beef, onions, sweetened tomato sauce or ketchup served on a hamburger bun.  It looks like a runny mince between a hamburger roll.


    This is a sloppy joe- a crumbly mince dish served between a hamburger bun. My daughter quite likes this but it doesn’t look too appetizing to me….Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  26. Starter: Sometimes called appetizers, these are what Australians would call entrees.
  27. Soda: Soft drink
  28. Tex-Mex: A blended food genre that is roughly ‘Americanized’ Mexican food. For example, a typical dish might include enchiladas, covered in American yellow cheese, with raw onions and chili gravy. Tex-Mex cuisine is often different, depending on the state you are in.


    Tex mex is a popular term here that seems to be applied liberally to anything vaguely of Mexican origin including chili. Admittedly, chili does come from Mexican emigrants to the USA, something that has infiltrated the American palate substantially. Aren’t they glad they didn’t build a wall across the border? Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  29. Waffle Fries: A type of fried chip that is obtained by quarter-turning the potato over a grater and deep-frying.


    Waffle fries from a diner in New Jersey. Photo © Expat Aussie In NJ

  30. Walleye: A freshwater fish local to Northern USA and Canada.

 You may not be learning Swahili here in New Jersey but I guarantee, you will end up talking a new language after just a short time, without any help from Rosetta!


4 thoughts on “American vocabulary tips for eating out in the USA

  1. Wow, that’s a really comprehensive list! When we lived in the Middle East I often found myself interpreting between British and American friends and food was the most common source of confusion. I guess Australian English and British English have the same issues?

    • Thanks Judy! I think there are still some I haven’t captured but I think it’s a good basic list for a new person to use when they arrive here. There are just as many different Australian words for things compared to US vocab, as there are for British folk. Fortunately, as one of Britain’s prior colonies (ahem!), we have many words in common with them, so we have very little trouble understanding Brits. But even so, there are quite a few Australian colloquial words and eccentric phrases we use that many expats coming to Oz would struggle with, as well as our accent.

      You would have been perfect as the translator as you have been exposed to both English and US influences no doubt. Or perhaps the USA was influenced by Canada…

  2. Great list – well done you! great, accurate summary. As your antipodean opposite – I’m a New Yorker living in Australia – the marinara one gets me every time. I’m used to marinara being a ‘red sauce’ back in NY and when I mistakenly order it here in Queensland, and get seafood in my sauce, I just shake my head [at my own silliness for forgetting the difference].

    In the ‘hoagie’ category – FYI it is also called a ‘wedge’ in parts of NY and a ‘grinder’ in parts of New England.

    • Thanks so much Laura! Even though the list is quite long, I’m still discovering words I could have added. I hadn’t heard of grinder or wedge, so they can get added to my next list-thanks! Just goes to show it is a constant learning and unlearning process. I still also have to think when looking at marinara sauce. No matter how much I’ve seen it, seafood in tomato comes to mind immediately when I go to grab a bottle of pasta sauce off the supermarket shelf. Must be annoying though when you end up ordering it as well. You have a wonderful sense of humour which must stand you well as a multi-country expat and all these confusing experiences that naturally occur:)

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