French Food Expressions: 32 Fabulous Idioms about French Cuisine

French Food Expressions: 32 Fabulous Idioms about French Cuisine

Everyone knows that French people take their food seriously. From Michelin star restaurants to Julia Child, french food is considered to be haute gastronomie.

So as you can imagine, there are quite a few funny French food expressions and idioms that have invaded the lexicon. As an anglophone, I was at first baffled by “occupying onions”. Now, after living here 10 years, I can tell you about a few “purées” as well 😉

I. Expressions about Entrées

salad illustration

1. Raconter des salades

Translation: Telling salads

Meaning: Telling tall tales or telling lies.

Do you know that politician who continually lies? “Il raconte des salades“, meaning “he is telling salads”.

2. Cracher dans la soupe

Translation: Spitting in the soup

Meaning: Throwing away something that is good. Being ungrateful.

Soup used to be one of the mainstays of dinner, especially when times were hard, so this was someone really being ungrateful. (No word on if this refers specifically to the classic French onion soup.)

The English equivalent would be “biting the hand that feeds you”.

basket of eggs illustration

3. Va te faire cuire un œuf

Translation: Go cook an egg

Meaning: Go away, stop bothering me.

Tu m’énerves! Va te faire cuire un œuf!” meaning “you are annoying me! Go away and cook an egg!”

II. Idioms about Vegetables

1. Rouge comme une tomate

Translation: Red like a tomato

Meaning: to be embarrassed

If you embarrass easily, you are well aware of this one. It is the same expression in English, turning red as a tomato.

☞ READ MORE: Provençale tomatoes: The recipe from the South of France

2. Être dans les choux

Translation: Is in the cabbage

Meaning: to be in a mess

Oh! C’est terrible, je suis dans les choux“, meaning “oh that’s terrible, I’m in trouble!” The English equivalent would be “up the creek without a paddle”.

3. Les carottes sont cuites

Translation: The carrots are cooked

Meaning: There is no more hope

Les carrots sont cuites, les Allemands arrivent” meaning “there is no more hope, the Germans have arrived”.

onions and garlic illustration

4. Occupe-toi de tes oignons!

Translation: Take care of your onions

Meaning: Stay out of my business

Ce ne sont pas tes oignons, mêle-toi de tes affaires!“, meaning “these are not your onions, meddle in your own affairs!”. The English equivalent would be “stay in your own lane”.

5. C’est la fin des haricots

Translation: It is the end of the beans.

Meaning: Everything is lost.

Haricots, specifically green beans, is the basic accompaniment to most French dishes since it is so cheap and easy to prepare. So it really is the end of the world if there are no more green beans!

6. Mettre du beurre dans les épinards

Translation: Put butter in the spinach

Meaning: Improve the situation

Another “basic” vegetable that gets a revamping here is the boring ol’ spinach. Add some butter to it, and voila, it suddenly tastes a lot better. Ot at least that is how the theory goes. “Je voulais juste mettre du beurre dans les épinards et faire assez d’argent pour voyager,” meaning “I just wanted to make the best of it, and make enough money to travel”.

7. Avoir un cœur d’artichaut

Translation: Have the heart of an artichoke

Meaning: Being soft-hearted, falling easily in love

This French expression may not make sense immediately, but in this case, the artichoke represents the heart. With a similar shape and with many layers that come off that you can eat. Not sure the artichoke is as enjoyable as falling in love, but anyway…

III. Expressions about Main Dishes

main dish illustration of chicken, salad and sauce

1. Oh purée!

Translation: Oh mashed food!

Meaning: Oh my goodness!

This doesn’t really have anything to do with mashed food, it is the French version of “oh my gosh”, without any swearing. “Il a fait quoi? Oh purée!” meaning “he did what? Omg!”

2. Être une quiche

Translation: Is a quiche

Meaning: is an idiot

Everyone loves quiche, but in French being called a quiche is not the nicest thing in the world. It means calling someone an idiot (which seems really mean name-calling for lovers of the recipe!)

3. Avoir le cul bordé de nouilles

Translation: Have an a$$ full of noodles

Meaning: to be very lucky

This expression is a bit on the R-rated side, but it actually means to be very lucky. The expression dates back to the 1950s from Marseille, which if you have been to the city, you know that it is the land of exaggeration. (And I say that as one with plenty of family in the area!)

It is an interesting quote because pasta doesn’t really feature in a lot of traditional French recipes. A reference to next-door Italy perhaps?

☞ READ MORE: ABC of French Cuisine (the Food Dictionary)

IV. Idioms about Condiments

ketchup & condiments watercolor illustration

1. La moutarde lui monte au nez

Translation: Mustard climbing up the nose

Meaning: to start to get angry

You know when you start to get angry, and the nerves in the nose start to twitch? Dijon mustard is a specialty from the town of Dijon in north-east France and is known for being particularly spicy. So just imagine how annoyed you would be if some dijon mustard went up your nose.

(French people are not that big fans of ketchup, but I suppose that would be rather annoying as well.)

2. Mettre son grain de sel

Translation: Put in his grain of salt

Meaning: to contribute his opinion

The English equivalent here would be “to contribute his two cents”.

3. Tourner au vinaigre

Translation: Turn the vinegar

Meaning: to head towards a confrontation

This French expression refers to when old vinegar turns acidy. In effect, when the conversation turns to vinegar, that means it is heading towards a fight.

illustration of pickles, chilies, and olives

4. Mettre du piment dans sa vie

Translation: Put a chili in your life

Meaning: Add some spice to your life

Mettre du piment dans son couple“, meaning to add some spice to your love life.

5. Casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un

Translation: Break a sugar(cube) on the back of someone

Meaning: to say something bad about someone behind their back

This one is not the most obvious one, because sugar is usually considered something nice. However in France in the 17th century, “se sucrer de quelqu’un”, meant “to treat someone badly” or to “take him for an idiot”.

So to break sugar on someone’s back was considered treating them badly by badmouthing them.

6. Être beurré

Translation: Become buttered

Meaning: to be drunk

Beurré” in this case, is a slang way of saying “bourré”, meaning drunk.

V. Expressions about Drinks

1. Mettre de l’eau dans son vin

Translation: Put water in one’s wine

Meaning: to become more moderate

Originally from the 15th century, this expression has to do with watering down one’s opinions and expectations. French people drink a lot of wine (especially during dinner), so as you can imagine, nobody wants to ruin good wine.

There are many more lovely French wine expressions you can read here.

2. Entre 2 eaux

Translation: Between two waters

Meaning: to refuse to pick between two positions

For those who don’t want to pick sides, they are said to be “entre 2 eaux“. It is also about staying the course, and not letting the tide pull you in any direction.

In certain cases, it can also refer to people who drink a lot.

VI. Expressions about Cheese

cheeses illustration

1. En faire tout un fromage

Translation: Making all a cheese out of it

Meaning: Making a big deal out of something that is not so important.

So if you like to make mountains out of molehills, basically “tu fait tout un fromage“. There are over 1600 cheeses in France, so you know that French people like cheese.

2. Triste comme un repas sans fromage

Translation: Sad as a dinner without cheese

Meaning: to be very sad

A typical French meal is complete without a small cheese plate, so you know this is serious to not have any cheese.

VII. Idioms about Bread

baguette illustration

1. Avoir du pain sur la planche

Translation: Have bread on a cutting board

Meaning: to have a lot of things to accomplish

Historically, French farmers used to bake bread in large quantities and conserve on a planche for the future. Eventually, that turned into having a lot of things to do, in order to prepare the bread.

The English equivalent would be “to have a lot of things on one’s plate”, or to “have one’s work cut out for them”.

2. Pour un morceau de pain

Translation: For a piece of bread

Meaning: for something small/inexpensive in return

Pendant que les pauvres se battaient pour attraper un morceau de pain, Marie-Antoinette mangait du gâteau.” While the poor were fighting for a piece of bread, Marie-Antoinette was eating cake.

3. Avoir du blé

Translation: To have wheat

Meaning: To have money

From a time when having wheat meant having food to it, this French food expression is all about having argent (money).

VIII. Expressions about Fruit

illustration of a plate of fruit (strawberries, grapes, and apple)

1. Couper la poire en deux

Translation: Cut the pear in two

Meaning: to cut something in half

Unlike the English equivalent of “cutting the baby in two”, which means that it is difficult to cut something in two, the French version of cutting pears means that it is being divided equally and fairly.

2. Ramener sa fraise

Translation: Bring the strawberry

Meaning: to act pretentious, to intervene in an unjustified manner.

The strawberry in this case refers to having a big head. This is a relatively new expression, originating from French argot (slang). (By the way, have you tried our strawberry mousse recipe?)

3. J’ai la pêche!

Translation: I have the fish!

Meaning: to be full of energy

It is not really clear where this expression comes from, but it is thought to come from the world of boxing where the expression “d’avoir la pêche” means to have a lot of strength.

bananas illustration

4. Avoir la banane

Translation: to have a banana

Meaning: to be pleased

You may have been able to guess, this French expression has to do with that big banana smile :p

IX. Expressions about Desserts

cafe gourmand illustration

1. Pleurer comme une madeleine

Translation: Cry like a madeline cake

Meaning: to cry a lot

Madeleine is a small French cake but in this case it used to refer to prostitutes who were called madeleines. (This is why Madeline is not a popular girl’s name in France.)

Why madeleines? It refers to the biblical Mary Magdalene, who as we all know was slandered as a prostitute. France claims a close connection to Mary Magdalene as it is presumed to be the place she died in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in the South of France.

2. Cerise sur le gâteau

Translation: Cherry on the cake

Meaning: The perfect thing to top off

A one that English speakers will be familiar with “the icing on the cake” or the “cherry on top” of that French dessert. The perfect way to end this list, n’est-ce pas?

A bientôt!

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