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I've looked in the Real Academia Española dictionary and I can't find any information regarding why Spanish uses the preposition a for cooking styles, and I've noticed French and Italian do it too. I know that the languages use the word, but I don't understand how in a broad sense outside of cuisine.

  • fajitas a la parilla (Spanish)

  • mojo al ajo (Spanish)

As a side note, many other romance languages do the same:

  • escargots à la bourguignonne (French)

  • spaghetti alla carbonara (Italian)

In what sense is the a being used here?

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In Spanish, at least, you can see it in the definition for a (from the DRAE):

a2. (Del lat. ad)
21. prep. según. A fuero de Aragón. A lo que parece. A la moda.

Interestingly notice the last one there, a la moda. Generally with foods, you'll notice that that regional styles are always specified in the feminine. Because when you say callos a la madrileña, you're really saying callos a la moda madrileña, that is, callos preparados según la moda/forma/manera/cocina madrileña. Perhaps historically it wasn't moda, but another feminine word. It's probably mere happenstance that it wasn't "al estilo madrileño" resulting in masculine uses across the board.

Whether other ones like al vapor, al horno came out of this is a good question I don't have a quick answer to, as they could fall under a number of different definitions in the DRAE (7, 8, and 10 especially).

Another thought too is that while de is normally used to use nouns as adjectives, if you use them with things like food, de ends up meaning made out of or coming from, it'd have very different meanings:

  • mejillones al vapor - steamed mussels
  • mejillones de vapor - mussels made of steam

Or for a more differentiation

  • callos a la madrileña - delicious tripe stew made in the Madrid style
  • callos de Madrid - tripe that came from Madrid
  • callos madrileños - tripe whose provenance is that of Madrid
  • callos por la madrileña - tripe made by a woman from Madrid

So with de and other prepositions not working well, and según probably a bit too formal-ish sounding, ended up with just a.

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    In Portuguese, the equivalent is the locution á moda de, so I thing you are right. For instance, tripas á moda do Porto. – Gorpik Jun 27 '14 at 8:46
  • So, Tripas ao Porto, or Tripas à Porto or even Tripas ao/à portuense? None seem correct to me, but definitely Tripas à moda do Porto. It's interesting this phrase contraction hasn't happened in Portuguese. – Ryan Ward Jul 1 '14 at 14:43
  • Depends on the food. For example, there's cozido à portuguesa, coquinhos à algarvia, but migas à moda de beirã and gaspacho à moda portuguesa. – user0721090601 Jul 1 '14 at 16:07
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The word a in these examples is used to talk about a style or way to do/prepare some food.

But a is also used to express the way to do other things. For example:

correr a lo loco means a crazy way to run

vivir a lo grande means a good way to live

llover a cantaros is an expresion used when rains a lot

  • Which definition would this usage fall under in the RAE dictionary? – Ryan Ward Jun 13 '14 at 16:42
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"A" means here either "cooked using", "cooked with" or "cooked a specific way":

  • a la parilla -> cooked using a grill

  • al ajo -> cooked with garlic

  • à la bourguignonne -> cooked the burgundian way

  • alla carbonara -> cooked the charcoal-burners way

This usage is not specific to the cuisine domain.

It can mean either "with" or "a la manera de", "a la moda de".

Here is an excerpt of the A entry in the RAE dictionnary matching both of these meanings:

  • 15. prep. con. Quien a hierro mata, a hierro muere.

  • 21. prep. según. A fuero de Aragón. A lo que parece. A la moda.

  • I know it's not specific to the cuisine domain, that's why I'm asking what's the broad sense of the word used in this way? – Ryan Ward Jun 13 '14 at 16:39
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It means a way of doing something. As a style. Imagine that you have a friend, Charles, he once made something very crazy, so now in your friends language you say something like:

  1. I going to do that in Charles style. [Or some prase with that meaning]

You have various translations but the one that we want is this:

  1. Lo voy a hacer a la Charles.
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    Sometimes "a la" as in "a la Charles" is a galicism (a form borrowed from French). Is more correct and more frequent "a lo Charles" to mean "in the style of Charles". Eg [wrong:] "máquina a vapor"; [correct:] "máquina de vapor"; both meaning "a steam engine" – Paco Jun 15 '14 at 9:02

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