Food & Drink

'Okonomiyaki' tops list of confusing menu terms

by Leanne Italie


A survey released Tuesday for the restaurant reservation site OpenTable showed that okonomiyaki, a type of savory Japanese pancake, is the No. 1 most befuddling menu term according to 2,035 diners, with 1 in 5 saying they won’t order something they don’t understand on a menu.

Many of the top 10 most confusing terms will likely be familiar to foodies. But for the rest of us, as chefs in America have expanded their horizons, terms such as gochujang, piri piri, yuzu (Japanese citrus) and bibimbap, may be baffling.

Nearly 1 in 3 diners in the Harris Poll conducted online for OpenTable indicated some menus are more confusing than they need to be. More than half surveyed felt ordering an unfamiliar item ruins their restaurant experience.

Okonomiyaki was a challenge for 69 percent of the diners ages 18 and over, about half of whom said they eat out at least once a month. But the survey of U.S. diners showed two-thirds aren’t embarrassed by their cluelessness; they are usually fine asking a server for guidance, says Caroline Potter, OpenTable’s chief dining officer.

The fact that some of the rubs, ingredients and completed dishes are a problem at all shows just how far many mainstream restaurants have come, she says. For instance, the 2014 edition of “The Foodspotting Field Guide,” featuring 75 dishes chosen by a gaggle of recreational foodies, posed this question: “Ever heard of Okonomiyaki?”

Now, “It’s much more prevalent on American menus,” Potter says. “It’s interesting that there still remains this confusion on the diner side, whereas chefs and restaurateurs have latched onto it.”

The menu issue doesn’t mean some components aren’t easily identifiable.

“While you may recognize, you know, carrots, you might not recognize when it says on a menu they’re rubbed with harissa,” Potter says, noting that harissa, a North African spice mixture of chili, cumin, garlic, coriander and olive oil, occupies the No. 11 spot on the list of confusing menu terms.

Chefs now roam the globe looking for inspiration or to expand their repertoires, and the farm-to-table movement also has chefs reconsidering heritage techniques that might not be widely known by name.

Diners are trying to catch up with the ambitions of chefs, says Potter.

“Chefs are reaching back, they’re reaching to all corners of the globe. When you talk to chefs, the way they’re spending their downtime, they’re saying ‘I’m going to Thailand for two weeks and I’m going to eat my way through street food and all these restaurants and come back with inspiration,’ ” Potter says.

Potter thinks yuzu, which 64 percent of those surveyed found confusing on menus, is a good example of an ingredient loved by chefs in the U.S.

“Restaurants are doing everything from serving yuzu miso brown butter on their lobster to yuzu marmalade or yuzu vinaigrette,” Potter says, admitting that when she first heard the term she was also baffled. “I was kind of, like, what is yuzu exactly?”

There is, of course, a segment of diners in search of familiarity and comfort in restaurant food, she says.

“We do know that diners want to see more descriptors on menus, and they also like to see pictures. That plays to our food photo culture. Instagram is filled with food pictures. That desire is a byproduct of how visual our food culture has become,” Potter says.

For more information about the most confusing menu terms in OpenTable’s survey, visit