Not many side dishes can claim to be staples the world over. Of those, few are as beloved as French fries.
Frites, chips, salchipapas—the list of names for fries is long, but regardless of the moniker, variations on fried pieces of potato can be found on restaurant menus on just about every continent. Summer is as good a time as any to learn a little more about the words related to deep-fried spuds.
The most common label for fried potatoes in the US is French fry, though it can also be used as a verb or verbal adjective, as in “French-fried onion rings.” It would appear that original inspiration is right there in the name—French—but it’s a little more convoluted than that.
French fry is an Americanism that dates back to 1925–30. The exact origin is murky, but one common story is that residents of a small Belgian town fried pieces of potatoes in the late 1600s after the river froze and they couldn’t catch any fish to fry. During World War I, American soldiers in the region came across the fries and called them French fries because the locals spoke French. This would of course make them Belgian fries rather than French fries, but in Belgium they’re called frieten (Dutch) or frites (French) and are served with mayonnaise.
One popular way to eat fries in Canada (as well as parts of the northern US) is to dress them up as poutine. The dish comes from the French-speaking province of Quebec, but the exact origin of the word poutine is unclear. It’s sometimes said to be slang for “mess” (though probably related to or influenced by the word pudding).
And a delicious mess it is—though it’s common to eat poutine with little forks rather than treat it as finger food. The hearty dish is made with fried pieces of potatoes that are topped with cheese curds (fresh, unaged cheese) and gravy or a tomato-based sauce.
In Kenya, masala chips draw influence from the Western-style fries as well as traditional spices from India. The chips part of the name comes from the British word for fries. Once the fries are made, they’re doused and cooked again with garam masala (or just masala), which is a mixture of ground spices like black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, and turmeric. These aren’t your crispy fries that you’re used to getting alongside a burger. Instead, these soft masala chips are best eaten with a fork like you would chili cheese fries that have an extra heavy serving of chili cheese.
🍟 French fries emoji
Sometimes spelling out French fries is just too much. That’s where the French fries emoji 🍟 comes in handy. It depicts fries in a carton, similar to how French fries are commonly served at fast food spots (in fact, the red and yellow packaging looks very similar to McDonald’s). Unicode, the company responsible for emojis, added the French fries emoji 🍟 with the Unicode 6.0 update in 2010. Different platforms have slight variations on the emoji. Apple has a smiling face on the carton, for example, whereas WhatsApp has a phone in a speech bubble on the carton and the fries slant to the right.
In the US, the word chips (at least when it comes to anything tater related) almost always refers to crunchy, thin, seasoned slices of potatoes. In the UK and Ireland, chips are fries. Their name isn’t the only difference, however. Chips are generally thicker than the thin cuts of potatoes that are served alongside fast food meals in North America. To the eyes of people in the US, these chips, which are typically served in fish and chips, look more like steak fries. Despite the differences, the name suits them. A chip can refer to a thin slice or small piece of food—chocolate chips, for example. Apply the same definition to small pieces of potatoes and there you have it.
The French aren’t keen on calling their fried potatoes French fries. Instead, they’re called pommes frites, or, more simply, frites. Potatoes in French are pommes de terre (or “apples of the earth”) and fried is frite. So just like Americans shorten French fries to fries, French speakers shorten pommes frites to frites. Frites also make an appearance on menus in the US to describe thicker-cut fries in the French or Belgian style. Sometimes these go by steak fries or steak frites—essentially larger cuts of fried potatoes that are similar to British chips. Regarding pronunciation: the S is silent in French, though it’s commonly said in American English to specify the plural.
Spain fries its potatoes in a different shape than the shoestrings, wedges, and rectangles that people in the US are used to. The classic form of fried potatoes in Spain is typically served in little cubes. It’s called patatas bravas, which means spicy potatoes. The tubers themselves aren’t spicy, but the tomato-based sauce with smoked paprika (no ketchup or mayonnaise here) adds the kick. It’s a standby among the many delicious tapas served across the country.
This Peruvian take on French fries adds sausage into the mix. Salchipapas is a portmanteau of the Spanish word for sausage (salchicha) and potatoes (papas). The sausage is cut just about as thin as the potatoes and then is tossed with the fries and served with a dipping sauce like a spicy aji sauce (aji means chili in Spanish).
As the home of the original French fry, it’s only fitting that a meal with fries at the center is considered one of Belgium’s national dishes. Moules frites are mussels (moules in French) that are served alongside fries (frites). Cream, parsley, and white wine give the mussels flavor, and the fries are the perfect addition to soak up the juice and provide some crunch to an otherwise crunchless dish.
Now that you’ve explored some of the various ways people make French fries around the world, test your knowledge with our quiz that’s about all things fried potatoes. Need to review the terms first? Click on our mouth-watering word list complete with digital flash cards and a spelling test.