That Looks Delicious! Wait. What’s In it?

It’s hard to figure out what food labels really mean anymore.  With all of the complex ‘food ingredients’ on packaging, it can be difficult to know whether or not an item is made of pork or pork by-products or contains any alcohol just by reading what the label says.

Things get even more complicated when a dish is on  a menu- with or without ingredients listed-  if you aren’t even sure what some of the ethnic dishes are in the first place.

Based on my own experience with a variety of world cultures and foreign languages, trying everything from food in the the US, Mexico, Southern Europe and the UK, I’ve developed these tips to help you figure out what certain foods or dishes could be made of, especially those in foreign langauges.  The list includes international cuisine menu items and grocery store items so you’ll know what to watch out for whether you’re dining out or shopping to eat in.

Index: American | Asian | Fish & Seafood | French | Ice Cream | Italian | Japanese | Mediterranean | Mexican | Sushi |

Dining at American restaurants or buying American products:

  • Common terms used in America for alcohol: beer, brandy, champagne, gin, scotch, rum, sherry, tequila, whiskey, vodka, wine (burgundy, red, rose, white/blanc)
  • Common terms used in America for pork: bacon, bologna, Canadian bacon, ham, pepperoni

Dining at Asian restaurants or buying Asian products:

  • Shin mirin is a Japanese cooking wine that is often added to teriyaki sauce. Sake is another type of Japanese alcohol that may be added to sauces such as teriyaki. There are teriyaki sauces made without alcohol, so you’ll have to check labels and/or ask your waiter to find out for you.
  • Alcohol in soy sauces are commonly found in naturally brewed soy sauce. Soy sauces that contain acidified hydrolyzed soy protein generally do not contain alcohol. Check labels and call companies, if necessary, just to be sure.
  • Many fish sauces are also fermented and contain alcohol, but not all of them.
  • Chinese soy sauce is typically called jiangyou or chiyou.
  • Kecap is an Indonesian term for basically all fermented sauces, including fish sauces. The same term is also widely used in Malaysia to indicate a type of soy or fish sauce.
  • Korean soy sauces is called josean ganjang
  • Phillipine soy sauce is called toyo and fish sauces is often referred to as patis.
  • Vietnamese soy sauce is called xi-dau.
  • Common terms for Japanese alcoholic beverages are: Sake, Shin Mirin, Shochu
  • The word for pig in Japanese is buta.

Dining at Fish & Seafood restaurants or buying Fish & Seafood products

  • At many fine restaurants, seafood dishes are prepared in white wine or another type of wine.
  • In the southern U.S., fish and seafood is often breaded and deep fried in oil, although lard (pork fat) was a traditional frying fat in the South, it is most likely not used anymore. Always ask to be sure.
  • When fish is breaded and fried, not only should you ask about the type of oil, but you should also ask what else is fried in the same pan or basket (perhaps it was also used to fry a pork product). You may also want to ask if the batter is a beer batter, something else quite common in the American south and small, local restaurants in general.
  • Some people are really averse to catfish, although I know of no indication that it isn’t halal. Just for those who prefer to avoid it, note that it is a common fish cooked in the south and can be served up fried whole or in tacos or breaded in a sandwich. If you don’t eat catfish, be sure to ask the waitress to find out exactly what type of fish you’re being served in that ‘catch of the day’ special advertised.
  • Most fish side or dipping sauces tend to be mayonnaise-based (tartar sauce) or ketchup (tomato)-based, such as cocktail sauce. Be aware that some mustards contains wine (i.e. Dijon style). Be sure to check all labels on the packets or ask your server for a list of ingredients.
  • When a restaurant serves a fish filet or filete (Spanish), it is almost always going to be a fish with scales, like tilapia. However, if you don’t eat shellfish or fish without scales*, you may want to avoid the following types of seafood: abalone, clams, crab, cuttle fish, jellyfish, lobster, mussels, octopus, oyster, scallops, sea cucumber, sea urchin, squid, shrimp
  • For fish sauces, refer to the above paragraph on “Dining at Asian restaurants or buying Asian products”.

Dining at French restaurants or buying French products:

  • French restaurants, very similarly to Italian ones, often cook their meats and fish in wine.
  • French pastries often use wine or other types of alcohol such as vermouth or calvados (apple liquor), to flavor anything from ice creams and sorbets to mousse, creams and tarts. One note worthy of mention here is that “chocolate liquor” is not alcohol, it’s simply a combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
  • French words for meat are: Bifteck- beefsteak; Boeuf- beef ; Charcuterie- literally means “cooked meat” and could refer to any type of beef, lamb, pork, in general; Porc- pork
  • French words for alcohol are: Bière- beer; Calvados- apple brandy; Vin- wine

Dining out for Ice Cream or buying Ice Cream products:

In general, ice cream parlors in the U.S. don’t serve too many flavors with alcohol, but you should still be aware of the following:

  • Marshmallow (usually made with pork by-products) may be an uncommon ice cream ingredient or topping, but it may find its way into some flavors without you realizing it. Whenever you see white swirls in a flavor, be sure to ask what it is.
  • Bubble-gum flavored ice cream, often labeled as “Rainbow” may contain gum that has a pork-based product to make it chewable.
  • Rum may be the most common alcoholic addition to American ice creams and it’s often paired with cherries or cherry-flavored or vanilla ice cream. Be sure to ask about the ingredients of these types of flavors.

Dining at Italian restaurants or buying Italian products:

  • Marinara sauce generally means that the red sauce is cooked without meat, although  always ask just to be sure.
  • Be mindful of fish dishes. Although Italians are not known to mix fish with pork, many dishes are cooked in wine and because many sauces are made ahead of time, they may not be able to serve you without it.
  • Italian sausages are generally made with a pork-beef  or pork-veal mixture.
  • Be mindful of Italian vinegars. Some have wine added after the vinegar is made, which supplements alcohol to this condiment. For salad dressings, I prefer to ask for extra virgin olive oil, salt and lemon. A good restaurant will not only have them on hand, but will bring it to your table without much thought. Note that this does not mean that “wine vinegar” actually has wine in it; in fact, most do not contain wine.
  • Pastries are sometimes prepared using liquor such as brandy, rum and amaretto. Most common among them is amaretti, or amaretto-flavored cookies.
  • Be sure to ask about all of the components of your desserts before ordering. Sometimes even cherries served atop the traditional Spumoni ice cream may be soaked in rum or amaretto.
  • After-dinner drinks described as ‘palate cleansers’ or aperitifs may be flavored with nice ingredients like aniseed, lemon or almond, but they are often alcoholic drinks. Such drinks as limoncello (lemon-flavored Italian drink), are ones to avoid.
  • Sauces in pasta and rice are more often than not prepared using wine or vodka as part of the base, especially in seafood entrees. Don’t assume the alcohol to be part of the dish description in the menu; ask your waiter instead and if he/she seems unsure, ask to confirm with the chef who prepared the dish.
  • Italian words for alcoholic beverages are: Rum, Amaretto, Vodka, Limoncello, Vino (wine)
  • Italian words for different types of pork are: Mortadella, Prosciutto, Salami, Pancetta, lardo
  • “Pepperoni” in Italian does not mean the same kind of pepperoni on pizza so popular in the U.S. In Italian, it simply means “pepper”, as in the vegetable.

Dining at Mediterranean (Greek, Spanish, etc.) or buying Mediterranean products:

The Mediterranean is geographically a large area that includes the cuisines of southern Europe (France, Italy, Spain), as well as Greece, Turkey and the islands of Cyprus, Malta and Sicily. In these regions, just about every type of meat and fish are consumed—and so is alcohol, especially in cooking.

When a restaurant describes itself as one serving “Mediterranean cuisine”, chances are that you’ll find the food to be a combination of the countries and regions listed above. As a halal consumer, you may want to keep an eye out for the following things:

  • Baked goods are sometimes prepared using liquor such as brandy, rum and amaretto. Note that amaretti, or amaretto-flavored cookies, generally do not contain the alcohol amaretto, but may contain its extract (which is commonly derived from alcohol).
  • Be sure to ask about all of the components of your desserts before ordering. Sometimes even cherries served atop the traditional Italian Spumoni ice cream may be soaked in rum or amaretto.
  • After-dinner drinks described as ‘palate cleansers’ or aperitifs may be flavored with nice ingredients like aniseed, lemon or almond, but they are often alcohol drinks. Such drinks as limoncello (lemon-flavored Italian drink), ouzo (anise-flavored Greek drink) are fairly common in these types of restaurants.
  • Many Spanish appetizers, known as tapas, are often topped or wrapped in pork products such as jamón or chorizo
  • Sauces in pasta and rice are more often than not prepared using wine or vodka as part of the base, especially in seafood entrees. Don’t assume the alcohol to be part of the dish description in the menu; ask your waiter instead and if he/she seems unsure, ask to confirm with the chef who prepared the dish.
  • To summarize, be aware of the following alcoholic beverages:  Rum, Amaretto, not to be confused with Amarena cherries, Brandy, Vodka, Limoncello, Vino (wine), Ouzo
  • Types of pork to be aware of:   Jamón, Chorizo, Prosciutto, Salami, Pancetta, Cochinillo (baby suckling pig)

Dining at Mexican restaurants or buying Mexican products:

  • Manteca is the Spanish word for lard, or pork fat. Traditionally, many Mexican items such as frijoles (beans) are fried in manteca. Many Mexican restaurants in the U.S. are now using vegetable oil to cook their beans, eggs and other dishes. Just be sure to ask first by using the word “manteca” to see if it’s in any of  the dishes you plan to order.
  • Carnitas (derived from the word “carne”, or “meat”) is a Mexican dish of roasted, grilled or braised pork.
  • Spanish words for pork are: Puerco, Cerdo, and Chicharron. Manteca (lard), Jamón, Chorizo
  • Spanish words for alcohol are: cerveza (beer), margarita, vino (wine), Tequila

Dining out at Sushi restaurants or buying Sushi products:

If you don’t eat shellfish or fish without scales, you may want to avoid sushi with the following types of fish (Japanese words in italics): abalone (awabi), clams (hamaguri); baby neck clams (asari), crab (kani), cuttle fish (kou-ika),  jellyfish (kurage), (spiny) lobster  (ise-ebi), mussel (i-gai), octopus (tako), oyster (kaki), scallops (hotate gai), sea cucumber (namako), sea urchin (uni), squid (aori-ika), shrimp (odori)

If you are particular about eating eel, note that anything that starts with “una”, such as “unagi” or “unakiu” indicates this is an eel type of dish.

*(although I eat all types of fish, some people are of the understanding and belief that it is makrooh, or disliked)