Cook’s Thesaurus: Everything You Want to Know
by Roberta Roberti
November 15, 2003
It starts like this: You’re staying at a friend’s
or relative’s place in another town or state. You
decide to cook a fabulous dinner for them and head out
to the market.
In the produce section, you scan the offerings, and just
when you think you have found what you need, you look
at the sign and it is labeled something else. You stand
there, confused and feeling too foolish to ask the grocer
“What is this?” when it seems as plain as
day what it is.
What’s going on here? What is your English-language
cookbook referring to when it calls for courgettes? Why
was that arugula you found in the market while visiting
your grandma down South marked rocket?
The culinary world has many idiosyncrasies. But the answer
is quite simple. Foods go by different names from country
to country, region to region, even town to town. So, what
I call scallions, someone in California might
call green onions, and someone in Minnesota might
call spring onions. What I call hearts of
palm would most likely be called palmitos
in a Latin American market, and what is cassava
or yucca in a Latin American market might be
manioc or tapioca root in an Asian market.
The Cook’s Thesaurus [www.foodsubs.com]
comes to the rescue with an amazing collection of synonyms
and pronunciations for just about every type of food you
can think of.
The site is divided into categories, subcategories, and
so on. The main categories are Vegetables; Fruits; Dairy;
Flavorings; Liquids; Grains; Grain Products; Baked Goods;
Legumes & Nuts; Meats; Fish; Vegetarian; Baking Supplies;
Fats & Oils; Accompaniments; Equipment; and Miscellaneous.
Each item within these categories is accompanied by a
brief description or method of use. How many times have
you seen an ingredient at the market and thought, “What
is this used for?” The answer may very well be here.
Been wondering lately what kewra water is for?
Cook’s Thesaurus says that this “is an extract
that’s distilled from pandanus flowers and used
to flavor meats, drinks, and desserts in India and Southeast
Asia.” (Won’t you sleep easier now that you
Most items have photos as well. This is helpful when you
are trying out a new—possibly exotic—recipe
and are not sure what an ingredient looks like. I never
would have known what a rambuten, for example,
looks like until I saw a picture of it on Cook’s
Thesaurus (it is similar to litchis but with spines all
over it). Nor was I aware that turmeric root looks almost
exactly like ginger root. And I finally know what those
long bean-pod-like things in the Latin section of my supermarket
are—guajes! Knowing what an unfamiliar
item looks like is especially important because of the
first point I made in this article: Things go by different
names, depending on where you are.
The Vegetable category covers all types of vegetables,
including roots, tubers, stalks, leafy greens, and sea
vegetables (various forms of seaweed). Cross-referenced
here and in Fruit are the “fruit vegetables"—that
is, tomatoes, eggplants, squashes, cucumbers, peppers
and chiles, olives, avocados, and tomatillos.
Also under Fruit are exotic tropical fruits, which may
just introduce you to a whole new world of produce, from
ababai to zapote. It is appropriate,
even if you may not have thought of it, that preserves,
fruit butters, and candied fruit appear here as well.
For those looking for dairy alternatives, there are many
in Non-Dairy Milks & Creams in the Dairy category.
Cheeses are listed under seven subcategories (such as
Fresh and Semi-firm). Under Eggs, you will find lots of
egg substitutes for baking and binding. Different species
of eggs are also shown, such as quail and salted duck
eggs, with their uses and substitutes.
The Flavorings category is pleasingly diverse. It does
not just stick to spices and extracts. It runs the gamut,
from extracts and essences to sweeteners,
international condiments, vinegars (did you know
about coconut vinegar?), and alcoholic products.
The last two are cross-referenced under Liquids, along
with other obvious entries.
I am a grain lover, so I particularly like the Grain category,
where you can get information on not only different types
of grains but also their various incarnations (such as
wheat flakes and pressed barley). Rice (which I particularly
love) is a very diverse product, and here you might discover
a few rice types you have never seen before. Now, I am
a food writer and I cook and experiment a lot, so I have
seen (or at least heard of) a lot of different rices.
But even I made a new rice discovery here—pinipig,
or glutinous rice flakes, which according to Cook’s
Thesaurus, “Filipino cooks use…to make desserts
For those with wheat sensitivities, peek in on the Grain
Products category under Non-Wheat Flours and Nut Flours
& Meals for a host of wheat flour substitutes. While
I would not rely on Cook’s Thesaurus for a comprehensive
list of different Italian pasta shapes (as there are hundreds),
it makes a good dent in them, showing most of your commonly
found types and more. Impressively, it also shows different
kinds of pasta. For instance, people with wheat
allergies would be very pleased to find out that corn,
quinoa, Kamut, and spelt pastas can be found. On the other
hand, it does a great job of describing Asian noodles,
separating them by both grain type and ethnicity.
The Vegetarian section pulls together products from the
other categories that are inherently vegetarian (not including
fresh vegetables and fruit—those speak for themselves).
Particularly helpful to vegetarians is the Soy Products
Especially helpful in the Accompaniments category are
Olives and Mushrooms, since many types of both of these
look so similar. Both text and photos help identify them.
Also edifying are Candied Foods and Edible Flowers. Not
botanically inclined myself, I find the photos a useful
guide to distinguishing edible flowers.
The Equipment category is a little lacking in information
(you can get a better list from Web sites like Cooking.com,
The list is neatly divided into useful subcategories,
like Extracting & Straining Tools and Mashers, Graters,
Mixers & Grinders, but when you click on them, the
entries are paltry. It also has a few strange quirks,
such as the fact that in Measuring Tools it lists thermometers
(which, of course, measure temperatures), where one is
expecting to see measuring cups and spoons, scales, and
other such implements. Under Outdoor Cooking Equipment
you will find only one item—bamboo skewers! What
about barbecue grills, planks, or campfire equipment?
And there is only one item under Cleaning Tools—a
mushroom brush. Perhaps the Webmaster intends to continue
One category that is both unexpected and strangely thorough
is Miscellaneous. In here are such subcategories as Caviar
& Roe, Food Wrappers, and Thickeners.
When I clicked into Food Wrappers, I expected to see won
ton wrappers. Well, yes, there are won ton wrappers,
but they also show aluminum and plastic wrap, leaves—bamboo,
banana, fig, grape, lotus, maguey, papaya, and ti—not
to mention corn husks, sausage casings, and a variety
of ethnic “skins” (i.e., empananda wrappers,
egg roll wrappers, gyoza wrappers, etc.). And would you
ever think to use sago starch or water chestnut powder
as a thickener for your soup?
One of the most useful features of Cook’s Thesaurus
is the substitutions. I have often encountered recipes—particularly
for dishes native to other countries—that call for
ingredients that are difficult (if not impossible) to
find here in the U.S. While the Internet is a great resource
for anything you might need, the drawback is that you
have to wait for delivery, which means you must plan ahead.
But suppose you need something spur of the moment—what
do you do? Substitute, the mantra of harried cooks.
Cook’s Thesaurus lists substitutes that you may
never have known existed for many items. If you have a
recipe that calls for candlenuts (popular in Southeast
Asian dishes), Cook’s Thesaurus will tell you that
you can substitute hazelnuts (when was the last time you
saw a candlenut?). Have some sour cream on hand? Use it
as a substitute for smetana (an Eastern European
sour cream) or jocoque (“a Mexican product
that’s halfway between buttermilk and sour cream”).
Sometimes substituting means making your own version of
commonly found products. For example, to make buttermilk,
combine 2 cup of milk (or soymilk) plus 2 tablespoon of
lemon juice or vinegar, and allow to stand for 10 minutes;
or, combine 1 cup of milk plus 2 teaspoons cream
of tartar, and allow to stand for 10 minutes; or,
combine two parts plain yogurt plus one part milk or
plain, low-fat yogurt or sour cream or
molasses (in batters that also call for baking soda).
Each month the site features an ingredient of the month,
which appears on the home page (although it is not necessarily
updated every single month). At this writing, the ingredient
was chocolate. It explains its origins and gives information
on how to work with chocolate and store it. This feature
could stand to be expanded a bit, giving more information
than it does and incorporating more concrete instructions
on usage as well as a little history. But perhaps that
would truly be reaching beyond the scope of the site.
Cook’s Thesaurus has won numerous awards and honorable
mentions. Access Magazine, for example, named
it one of 2000’s Best Sites of the Year. It also
was mentioned in The Complete Idiot’s Guide
to Online Health and Fitness. It was honored by such
sites as Yahoo! and Food & Wine Online as a Site of
the Day, and it was positively reviewed in The New
York Times and The Washington Post. Click
on Awards at the bottom of the home page to read the excerpts.
Even if you don’t cook much, or are shy about trying
new foods, Cook’s Thesaurus is a fascinating site
to visit. You will walk away with an expanded knowledge
of foods from around the world. Wouldn’t it be great
to know your kombu from your wakame
and your epazote from your huauzontle?
Roberta Roberti is a Brooklyn-based food writer who
owns her own chef business and has written a soon-to-be-published
cookbook on vegetarian Italian food.