Don’t Miss Great Foods Because of Bad Translations

A little background. I came to Vietnam with some trepidation. I don’t like hot climates, hot weather or most foods that they produce. I came to meet my special person though I had an open mind. In the early days, I made the mistake of saying I didn’t particularly like “Hot Pot” as Lãu is translated in English (and my spelling here is not 100% correct, as I can’t find the correct accent for the “a”.

Vietnamese Lẩu. This a fish version that both Trinh and I prefer

A very bad translation at that. I, of all people, should have known better.

Having spent the last 40 years in and out of Europe, if I venture into a place that even has a menu in English, I always ask for the native language, be it Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch or German. Why? Because generally, the translator is trying to put the food into a familiar concept, when no such comparison exists. Sometimes even the literal translation misses the mark widely.

One time in Wissembourg, an ancient French town along the French-German border, after a typically simple, but exquisite French dinner, the dessert offered was “frozen omelet”. We passed, but on walking out, we realized what they were offering was Baked Alaska, (whipped egg whites surrounding a block of ice cream that is browned in the oven) one of my favorite desserts.

The recent home of the fish before he made it to the pot.
The restaurant will grill the half the fish, with the other half going into the Lẩu

Fast forward 40 years later and my ill-informed comment about Hot Pot, had me missing a Vietnamese specialty for months until the confusion was cleared up. But why such confusion in the first place?

Because the Natives are trying to put it into a context we understand. The problem is that there are 500+ Chinese who also have a thing that’s called “Hot Pot” in English, which is totally different that the Vietnamese version. Even the Koreans have a version, which they call Shabu Shabu, which in my mind is better way to handle different foods that don’t translate well.  If I go to a Korean restaurant and see Shabu Shabu, I know exactly what I am getting. When I see “Hot Pot” the only thing I am sure of is that a pot is involved, and it will be hot.

Even the Google Translation of Lãu leaves a lot to be desired. Their definition, “a casserole of meat and vegetables, typically with a covering of sliced potato”.

The grilled portion of the fish

Who came up with that definition? A twenty something person who read about ancient life in the Midwest?