Foodie dictionary

A Word About Food Related Words:

Did you ever see words used here or elsewhere that sounded simultaneously familiar yet slightly confusing? Me, too; which is why I compiled a list of frequently used food and lifestyle related words and expressions and came up with definitions that demystify instead of further confusing. So here’s my wiki-foodie-a and you can expect this list to grow and expand along with the site!

Please note that over the years I worked hard researching, collating or explaining these, so feel free to reference this guide, but if these descriptions inspire you enough to want to use some of them in your own blog or stories, kindly quote or link back to the source.

From agar agar to za’atar, here are some flavorful words worth knowing:

  • Agar agar: A gelatin substitute derived from algae.
  • Air Fryer: If you’re a gadget fiend, chances are good you’ve already heard of or used this one. Though they technically use convection technology, the shape and form makes air fryers different than traditional convection ovens. While I know that many people use these to heat or prepare frozen foods, I use my air fryer for crispy tofu dishes or lighter homemade vegetable fries.
  • Aquafaba: The liquid you usually drain from canned chickpeas but which is actually quite magical and can be used in place of egg whites…mmmm. meringues….
  • Artisanal: A much maligned adjective that has its origin in actual artisans and crafting; it’s most often used to describe a food or item that is usually higher quality and made in small batches instead of mass produced. While artisanal mayonnaise is an oft-cited punchline, it really elevates the condiment experience.
  • Batch Cooking: If you’ve ever made up a large amount of food on Sunday night and then parsed it out for the rest of the week or winter, you’re already well versed in batch cooking. In a nutshell, batch cooking means cooking up a larger amount of multiple portions of a few meals and then storing or freezing them for future use.
  • Buddha Bowl:  AKA glory bowls or hippie bowls are a one-stop meal in a bowl. You usually start with various greens, fresh or roasted veggies, legumes, a protein or two, a grain- brown rice or quinoa are popular options  and often nuts or seeds or dressings or tahini on top.
  • Bone Broth: Though it’s become incredibly popular in the past few years, bone broth is basically chicken or meat stock. It’s made by cooking animal bones – usually with a small amount of meat on them, and usually roasting them first- and water and vegetables for a long time to extract the most calcium and other nutrients.
  • Clean Eating: This one can be slightly confusing since people expect it to embody a specific diet or way of eating. It’s really more about paying attention to how that morsel on your plate ended up there and trying to ensure there were as few steps as possible in the process. So foods that are minimally processed, don’t have additives or preservatives, and aren’t enriched or refined.
  • Edamame: The humble soybean had a brand makeover a few years back when artfully salted pods started showing up as appetizers everywhere instead of just Asian restaurants.
  • EVOO: Extra virgin olive oil. A term coined by one Rachael Ray.
  • Farmer Cheese: A pressed Cottage Cheese variety that is sold in bricks. While widely available in and around NYC and the tri-borough area, less known or popular elsewhere. In my opinion at least, Friendship makes the only Farmer Cheese worth eating (though skip the unsalted variety unless required for medical reasons since it can be extremely bland).
  • Farm to Table: a social food movement in which the food served at restaurants or on your own table is acquired directly from the producer. So you might have a chef shopping at the local farmer’s market and then cooking up a dish to serve. Or she might have her own herb garden out back and garnish or enhance with fresh dill. Also known as Farm to Fork and Fish to Table,and can encompass wineries, ranches or breweries.
  • Flexitarian: The flexitarian diet is when someone who mostly thinks of themselves as a vegetarian sometimes indulges in meat or fish products as well. This can be for health reasons, or the desire to cut down on animal based products- but not entirely.
  • Fermented Foods: Fermentation is having a moment since eating foods loaded with good bacteria can help with digestion and immunity and potentially balance any potentially nasty ones in your gut. The most buzzworthy fermented foods of the moment include kefir, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh. Taking probiotics is also another  way of upping the good bugs in your gut.
  • Foodie: People who elevated the experience of seeking out the best in food and drink were calling themselves foodies long before Instagram was even a spark on the social media landscape. In fact, etymologist Barry Popik posted on his blog that the word’s popularity hearkened back to 1982 and was an attempt to be a less pretentious than gourmet. Incidentally, people can get really cranky if you call yourself a foodie unironically, so consider yourself warned!
  • Freeze dried: Most people first heard about freeze drying when they heard about astronaut ice cream. I love freeze dried fruit, especially raspberries and strawberries. The process is pretty much what it sounds like- first the food is frozen and then all moisture is sucked out of it and immediately turned to vapor. It can be a fiddly process to try at home, though; I’ve tried and failed.
  • Gelatin: You know that slide-y strawberry dessert you loved as a kid? Well, traditional gelatin is made from pretty gross stuff. Basically, the skin, bones and cartilage (and in some case the offal the meat industry discards including horns!) is boiled for a prolonged time until it becomes thickened and well, gelatinous. Kosher versions use fish derivatives. And in case you think you never eat the stuff- read the ingredient list on your favorite marshmallows or gummy bears. You might decide to start looking for the vegetarian alternatives.
  • Ghee: Though it looks exotic and is traditionally used in South Asian and Indian cooking, ghee is basically clarified butter. The process to make it is slightly different than other butters, so you might notice a slight nuttiness.
  • Ghost pepper: This extremely hot (though not the hottest) chili pepper AKA Bhut Jolokia, has been a media darling ever since so called pepperheads started eating them whole on Youtube. Don’t try that at home.
  • Harissa: Though harissa originated in Tunisian cooking, today you might find it in everything from pizza to sweet and sour soup. It’s a chili pepper paste and it’s hot.
  • Instant Pot: With legions of fans around the world, it’s been seen as nothing short of a culinary miracle. Basically, the Instant Pot is an easy to use (once you figure it out) electronic pressure cooker.
  • Kefir: Despite its hipster street cred, kefir actually first became popular in the Caucasus region – so more babushka wearers than Bluetooth beanies. It’s a tart fermented milk based drink that tastes like a cross between yogurt and buttermilk.
  • Keto/Ketogenic: This one is a little bit confusing, so I’ll have to ask you to rely on our mutual friend Google to explain it fully to you. In a nutshell though, it’s used to describe a diet that is high fat, balanced protein, and low to no carbs. It was originally developed to help kids with epilepsy. It’s become very popular in recent years since its said to be able to retrain the body to burn fat.
  • Kimchi: If you’ve ever had a friend with a Korean grandma, you’ve at least smelled the familiar pungent aroma of fermented veggies including cabbage and radishes.
  • Kneidlach: The Yiddish word for matzo balls. Yum!
  • Kokosh cake: From the Hungarian kakaós (cocoa, adjective) + cake. A yeast roll filled with a cocoa/sugar combo filling. Some also believe the description is from the Hungarian words for a cock’s comb kakas fésűje. (kakaos is also the name of a popular toddler’s hairstyle. go figure!)
  • Kombucha: Let me start off by saying that even if you think you’ve known about kombucha forever, my aunt Sheindel was making it first, and yes, we gently mocked her for it. Kombucha is a fermented tea drink usually made with black or green tea and with the slightest bit of effervescence. It’s definitely an acquired taste and was said to originate in China two thousand years ago.
  • Kosher: The easy description is that kosher encompasses the dietary restrictions adhered to by observant Jews and food is prepared in some way under rabbinical supervision, but there are so many gradations within the topic I could write an entire post about it and still not explain it fully. Here’s the short version- among other things kosher food does not mix meat and milk- ever. So no, having grown up kosher I’ve never tasted a cheeseburger or even been tempted. Like hallal, eating pork is forbidden, so no bacon either- though I have an entire category of friends I refer to as “Bacon Jews” since they adhere to the culture if not the restrictions. There’s also another category called pareve- see below for that one. Also avoided are shellfish, and certain groupings of fish or meat. Seriously. It’s complicated.
  • Kosher style: Not kosher, though inspired by the cuisine. So say matzoh ball soup made with non-kosher chicken is kosher style.
  • Lacto-Ovo:  Lacto ovo vegetarians are permitted to eat eggs and dairy products.
  • Legumes: Sometimes called pulses, legumes encompass not only beans, but also nuts, peas and lentils. Great article here.
  • Macros: Macros, or macronutrients, make up the caloric content of food and there are three of them- carbohydrates, fats and protein. How you combine them is entirely up to you.
  • Minimally processed: It’s nearly impossible to find food for purchase that’s completely unprocessed, so my goal is to buy food that’s as minimally processed as possible. The Department of Agriculture has an entire list of what does or does not constitute fair labeling in meat and poultry. In everything else, figure it’s been washed or pasteurized, canned, frozen, cooked or packaged.
  • Miso: Miso is made from fermented soybeans until a thick paste is formed. While it’s used most often or recognizably to make miso soup, it frequently turns up in sauces, soups or even as a basting ingredient. Some years back I remember reading that people in Japan catch the fewest colds, in part because they eat at least a cup of miso soup every single day. I have no idea if that’s true, but I tend to reach for miso soup before chicken soup when I’m sick!
  • Monk Fruit: A recent development in the sugar substitute world, Monk Fruit is lauded as the next great sweetener. As someone incredibly sensitive or allergic to sugar alcohols, processed sweeteners and artificial sweeteners I cannot urge you enough to exercise caution when using monk fruit or any processed sweeteners. I inadvertently used some a few months back and was incapacitated for almost two days.
  • Nightshades: A class of vegetables including eggplants, tomatoes, goji berries, okra and some peppers and white potatoes. While they include a host of nutrients, they can also be difficult for some people to process and cause allergic reactions.
  • Noms: Oh, internet. You come up with so many silly words to describe yummy things, but in this case the credit actually goes to Cookie Monster. Noms can either describe delicious food, food in general, or the nom nom nom sound we ostensibly make when eating.
  • Nutritional Yeast: AKA Nooch, is a deactivated yeast, so it won’t affect your system the way traditional baking yeast might. It also has a very specific flavor- some describe it as pungent or cheesy, which makes sense since it’s a frequently used ingredient in creating vegan cheese. You can shake in to nearly any savory recipe for a bit of taste that might otherwise come from a soup cube or MSG without any of the negative side effects or bad for you ingredients. Many versions are loaded with B vitamins and fun trivia fact- nooch can be “started” on the barks of trees. Definitely an acquired taste. I’m a big fan!
  • Nutritarian Diet: Yes, this is actually a thing. According to U.S. News health report, eating this way involves a diet that is “plant-based, nutrient-dense, disease-fighting superfoods, while limiting animal protein and processed choices – even olive oil.”
  • Paleo: Frequently referred to as “The Caveman’s Diet” the Paleo lifestyle eschews anything our earliest ancestors would not have eaten. So, yes to meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit; and a big no to dairy, grain products and processed food.
  • Pareve: You’ve probably heard the expression “neither fish nor fowl” but pareve is a little bit different. In kosher food, meat and dairy are separate, but there’s also a third category- pareve which can be eaten with either. Think neutral items like fruit or vegetables or bread or…tofu.
  • Pescetarian: A person who doesn’t eat meat, but is fine eating fish.
  • Pita: Long before the Earl of Sandwich laid claim to the whole meal in your hand between two slabs of bread thing, pitas were popular in the middle east. They’re round, flat, unleavened bread that can be filled with yummy things like salad, shwarma or falafel balls.
  • Plant Based: This way of eating is pretty much what it sounds like; a way of eating that includes only foods from plants, including vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits. Some are fine with a slight amount of animal based products (like dairy or eggs) some swear it off entirely.
  • Product Labeling: Everything from cosmetics to toiletries are labeled, but food labels seem more complicated than ever. As someone with allergies and sensitivities I read all food labels carefully not just for calorie content, but also for hidden ingredients like sugar alcohols which increasingly come in hard to understand names. Also be aware that just because a food item has sugar or honey as a first ingredient, that does not mean the manufacturers have not included additional sweeteners. I am vigilant about reading every product label, so shopping for me can take hours, and I’m endlessly surprised by the amount of junk in the vast majority of food labels.
  • Raw Food: The lifestyle where you eat only uncooked or unprocessed foods, so figure a lot of fruit, vegetables, seeds and beans. Bear in mind that some fish or meat are cured or for instance sushi grade, so some might include that in their plan. Raw food can be elaborately prepared, so don’t mistake raw, with just picked and consumed.
  • Rennet: If you know nothing about how cheese is produced and can become somewhat squeamish or easily icked out and don’t want to learn more, stop reading now. Rennet is an enzyme produced in the stomach of some mammals including cows. It causes cheese to curdle, which is why to make it overly simplified, traditional cheese is made with the insides of cows.  There’s vegan or vegetarian rennet though, so you can make cheese without going the full cow route.
  • Silan: A thick dark brown sweetener also called date honey, date syrup or date molasses, it’s an extremely sweet fruit syrup made from dates (it’s easy to make at home, but much easier to buy store bought). Silan is widely used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking and great in marinades or even baking. Since it can be much sweeter than honey or maple syrup, use less in recipes.
  • SCOBY: The SCOBY is the basis of the kombucha brewing process and an acronym for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. It looks like a great big gelatinous looking mass sometimes called a mushroom.
  • Scoville scale/Scovilles/SHUs: If you’ve ever wondered how the difference between a Carolina Reaper or a Ghost Pepper is determined, it’s based on the work of American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who in 1912  created something called the “Scoville organoleptic test” which measures the heat or spiciness of chili pepper and other spicy foods in Scoville Heat Units.
  • Seitan: Sometimes called wheat protein or wheat meat since it can look almost exactly like meat when rinsed and cooked. There’s a degree of controversy surrounding seitan, so be sure you understand your own nutritional needs before eating or preparing.
  • Small batch: The opposite of mass food production process, in small batches, either individuals or food artisans create limited quantities of food or goods. Methods are usually traditional or using recipes passed down through generations rather than using more easily available machinery or preservatives.
  • Stevia: Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute considered to be a natural sweetener since it’s extracted from the leaves of Stevia plant. It’s said to be 150 times sweeter than sugar. The thing is that while the basis of the sweetener is commendable, the processing is so extensive that it can become difficult for those with sugar alcohol or artificial sweetener sensitivities to process.
  • Sugar alcohols: According to the American Diabetes Association website, sugar alcohols are often “labeled as “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.”” The upside is that they provide fewer calories than sugar and have less of an effect on blood glucose (blood sugar) than other carbohydrates. According to ABA, examples of sugar alcohol are:
  • Erythritol
  • Glycerol (also known as glycerin or glycerine)
  • hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • isomalt
  • lactitol
  • maltitol
  • mannitol
  • sorbitol
  • xylitol

This is a huge issue for me because among my other food restrictions, I have sugar alcohol sensitivities that can cause excruciating and long-lasting pain and side effects. I suspect a lot of other people do as well, so while I constantly try to educate people to the issue, I think it’s important for food manufacturers and government agencies to be more transparent and vigilant about publicizing the potential risks. The site also says sugar alcohols “can have a laxative effect or other gastric symptoms in some people, especially in children.” For those of us with chronic and severe sugar alcohol sensitivities, it can feel almost like food poisoning including physical pain, weakness, dehydration and the need to be in bed for a few days.

  • Tempeh: This one is definitely an acquired taste and even after cooking and eating it for years, it can be hit or miss for me. Tempeh is a fermented a soy based food that originated in Indonesia and is usually formed into cakes and then sliced into cubes or oblong shapes.
  • Tofu: Sometimes referred to as soy curd, tofu is made with (wait for it) coagulating soy milk and forming the individual curds into more solid blocks. Homemade tofu is legendary in practically being nothing like the store bought versions. It’s considered the manna of vegetarian foods in that it can take on a multitude of tastes and textures. It originated in East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures and cuisines and comes in several textures including soft or firm.
  • Umami: I cannot tell you the delight I feel knowing that something called the Umami Information Center exists. According to the site, Umami was discovered just about a century ago in Japan “but umami is just now attracting global attention, primarily from chefs and others with a strong interest in food.” So what is Umami? “Umami is the fifth taste, joining sweet, sour, salty and bitter. These are unique tastes that cannot be created by mixing other tastes, and are known as the basic, or primary tastes.”
  • Vegan: Pronounced Vee- (hard G) Gan is a dietary plan that excludes any animal products so not only are meat, eggs and dairy off the menu, but mayonnaise produced with eggs is a no no as well. 
  • Vegetarian: A vegetarian usually doesn’t eat meat or its derivatives, but might eat things like cheese or eggs.
  • Whole Foods: Not the chain of high quality supermarkets now owned by one Jeff Bezos, but rather unprocessed or unrefined (or minimally processed or minimally refined) plant foods including whole grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes.
  • Za’atar: One of those words and spice mixtures you’ll find used frequently in Middle Eastern cooking or randomly slathered on pita bread. In biblical times it was said to refer to hyssop. These days though, it’s most often a combination of basil, thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and some other spices.
  • Zoodles: Zucchini noodles, or any vegetable variation made using a spiralizer or similar food prep tool.

Compiling this list was a labor of love since I spend so much time studying labels and ingredients and while this isn’t a definitive list, it will be updated regularly. I make no medical claims, but rather have gathered these from my own research or experiences.