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#ThatTranslatorCanCook week 28: French onion soup

This week I went savoury again and made French onion soup, or la vraie soupe à l'oignon (The true onion soup) – naturally the French don’t feel the need to clarify that this a French recipe.

When you think about it, it’s quite a basic dish. You start just with a bushel of humble onions. But it took the French to elevate boiled onions to an entirely new level. Bread, stock, melted cheese, and most importantly, butter, are added in generous quantities. And by the time you’re finished, it’s transformed. Rich, flavourful, and warming, yet relatively light.

It turns out there are quite a few variations on this seemingly simple dish. In terms of stock, some use chicken, some beef, some just water. Some include wine and cognac. Some pop the bread and cheese on top of the soup and under the grill at the end, others place the bread at the bottom of the soup bowls. I chose one which seemed to strike the perfect balance – neither too faffy and fancy, nor too bland and boring.


Yellow onions? I thought they were brown…

One recipe I saw called for oignons jaunes (yellow onions), which I was unfamiliar with. Red onion? Sure. Brown onion? Sure. I even came across big white onions the other day, described to me as ‘Spanish’ and ‘quite a strong flavour.’ But I wasn’t sure about yellow onions.

According to US site The Kitchn, yellow onions are all-purpose onions and are a bit sweet. They also clarify that ‘Spanish onions are a particular kind of yellow onion and we find them to be slightly sweeter and more delicate in flavor.’ White onions, in contrast, are described as sharper and more pungent.

Meanwhile, over on another US site, bon appétit, yellow onions (a.k.a. Spanish onions) are described as being stronger in flavour, with white onions ‘the most mild of the onion varieties’

Heading to the UK, BBC goodfood describes ‘yellow/brown onions’ as good all-purpose onions; Spanish onions as similar to yellow/brown, but bigger, sweeter, and milder; and white onions as medium to large with a strong flavour. This seems to align most closely with The Kitchn’s description.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, my trusty Larousse Gastronomique only serves to provide more confusion:

'Spanish (yellow) onions. Originally from Spain, the name is now applied to the largest, brown globe onions. In America the name is given to the large, red-skinned onions. They are mild, tender and sweet, suitable for eating raw or cooked’

So, do ‘yellow/Spanish’ onions in the US have red skin?!

Consider me befuddled.

At the end of the day though, this is somewhat of a moot point. My chosen source recipe didn’t specify onion variety, so neither did I. Had it specified yellow onions, I think I would have chosen to use brown onions in my translation, since they are by far the most widely available in the UK.

Also, it’s interesting that in the UK we appear to refer to the colour of the skin, rather than the colour of the flesh.

In fact, why do we call red onions and red cabbage, red? To my eyes, they’re blatantly purple. Then again, goldfish, known as poisson rouge (red fish) in French, are neither gold nor red, but orange if you ask me. Well, for a start, ‘Different languages and cultural groups also carve up the colour spectrum differently.’ And that’s without even considering individual differences. I regularly disagree with my partner about the colour of various things. Need I even mention the infamous blue-black/gold-white dress debate?

Faire revenir – ‘brown’? Or just ‘cook’?

Generally, I tend to translate faire revenir as ‘brown.’ But in this instance, I was to faire revenir the onions (in butter) for three minutes. For a start, I don’t think three minutes is long enough to brown onions unless on a particularly high heat, plus I also suspected we didn’t actually want the onions to brown for this recipe. Other recipes confirmed this, specifying to ‘cook without colouring.’ So, in the end I just used the rather generic ‘cook.’

As my fellow translators will no doubt agree, although a term may be translated one way in one instance, this doesn’t necessarily mean it should always be translated that way. That said, this does depend on the context, and there are certain areas of translation, such as legal, where consistent translation of terminology is essential.

More excellent cooking terminology

  • Consistant: in the context of food, this means substantial, filling, hearty, or thick

  • Parsemer: scatter, sprinkle, season, or pepper – both in literal and figurative senses (I admit, this one partly appeals because it makes me think of parmesan)

  • [Bols] allant au four: the word-for-word translation of this one is ‘[bowls] going into the oven’, but this is pretty cumbersome, and in English, we’re much more likely to see ‘ovenproof [bowls]’


Right. After all that spiel, let’s get down to the business of cooking. Since it’s a simple recipe, everything went pretty smoothly. As mentioned above, the recipe instructed to cook the onions for three minutes in the butter, before adding the flour, then shortly after, the stock. This seemed like a very short amount of time, and I was worried the onion wouldn’t break down and soften, so I cooked them for a little longer, without letting them brown. They were definitely soft and scrumptious in the end – so perhaps three minutes would have been fine.

Photo of French onion soup topped with crusty bread and melted cheese, freshly grilled

Next week

Hopefully another cheesy delight – we’ll see what happens.

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