Coming To Terms with Foreign Menus

World Food Spain guidebook is an idea whose time has come. It is part of a new Lonely Planet series dealing exclusively with culinary information. The purpose is to tell you, the reader and soon to be traveler, about food and drink in Spain, and provide you with some useful information about enjoying it. There are also an English-Spanish glossary, a Spanish culinary dictionary and a "cheat sheet" of phrases included as appendices.

The Problem With Foreign Menus

Travelers quickly find that understanding the menu in another language can be disconcerting, if not downright daunting.

Menu terms, simply put, are difficult to translate. All those semesters of high school and college Spanish do not prepare you for reading menus, or understanding the culinary nuances of the country. For example, you may understand that the dish is chicken, but knowing how it will be prepared makes a world of difference. The culinary adjectives surrounding pollo, Spanish for chicken, aren't in a typical pocket dictionary.

So, what's a traveler to do?

The Lonely Planet folks are hoping that you'll pick up their guide. Richard Sterling, the author, does a credible job explaining the Spaniards' convivial culture and love of great food and local wine that you find in all parts of the country. He explains some distinctions that you will notice in various regions of Spain. There is info on the various types of establishments you'll find for eating, drinking and clubbing, as well as a few tips on how some dishes should really be prepared.

Can you rely on this guide on your trip to Spain?

A visitor to Madrid and the parts of the country that speak Castillan Spanish will be the better for having used this book as a reference. In fact, for these areas of the country, it's a good reference. The terms are accurate and the pronunciation guide is adequate for non-Spanish speakers, as well as those who need a little help recalling verbs they learned years ago.

On the other hand, if you're visiting Barcelona, Spain's second-largest city, or parts of the northern Mediterranean coastal region, don't bother with it. Folks who live there speak Catalan. The book acknowledges this fact, but does little to help the visitor deal with a Catalan menu.

It's possible that you'll confront a menu in Catalan with this book in hand, and still not have a clue as to what is being offered. Even the basic translations for wine, garlic and lamb, to list a few, are missing.

Improving the concept

Although I think this book is an idea whose time has come, there are several things that would make a substantial improvement to its usability.

One, provide Catalan and Basque translations and culinary terms.

Two, combine the general information found in the first two hundred or so pages with Lonely Planet's basic guide to Spain. Much of it is already there and doesn't need to be repeated in another book. Expecting travelers to tote around two guide books is unrealistic.

Three, take the culinary dictionary and the useful phrases and make them a pocket part to the main guidebook. A reference that can be removed and fits in a jacket pocket or purse not only makes sense, but is practical. Berlitz already does this, in a book titled European Menu Reader. Unfortunately, the Berlitz guide doesn't deal with Catalan or Basque either.

All in all, I hope that the folks at Lonely Planet publish a second edition with some fine tuning. Done correctly, it could be a valuable guide for travelers to all of Spain.