In the IELTS speaking test, it is quite common for people to be asked about food, but today I would like to go beyond that and look at a much more specific topic: describe an unusual meal.
This article is going to approach the topic in 5 steps:
- Analyse the cue card
- Generate ideas
- Make notes
- Pick the right language
- Give a sample answer
You can skip ahead to the end of the article if you only want to read my sample answer. Otherwise, you can methodically go through the lesson for maximum benefit.
IELTS Cue Card: Describe an Unusual Meal
There are various possible cue cards that could relate to this topic, but the one I most frequently see tells the speaker to “describe an unusual meal you had.” This is what we will explore today but please remember that it could be slightly different. For example, it might say one of the following:
- Describe an unusual dinner you had
- Describe an interesting meal you had
Other quite common versions of this say:
- Describe an unforgettable meal you had
- Describe a memorable meal you had
Anyway, you can see the theme: you must talk about a meal. This is absolutely the most important thing and it is the first one that you should pay attention to. The other aspects will define how you deal with it.
Here is today’s cue card:
Describe an unusual meal you had
You should say:
– when it was
– where you had the meal
– what happened during the meal
and explain why it was unusual
How to Analyse an IELTS Speaking Cue Card
Remember that you should not just fixate upon one aspect of the card. In this case, it is important to understand that you cannot just talk about any cue card. It must be the cue card that you have been assigned.
If you are asked about an unusual meal, make sure that you describe one that is unusual. If it is unforgettable, you must explain why it is unforgettable.
Also, you can look to those suggested talking points for ideas about what you should say. You can try to cover each of these during the 2 minutes that you have to speak. This will help you talk for longer without forgetting what to say or becoming too nervous.
In this case, we should think about the word “unusual.” What does it mean, exactly? What is and isn’t unusual?
Well, “unusual” is subjective. What is weird to one person is normal to another. Also, it could be positive or negative. I have had some unusual foods in my life that were really delicious… and some that were pretty disgusting.
Also, notice that it says “unusual meal” and not “unusual food.” That means you should not talk about a snack.
Once you understand the cue card, you need to quickly think of ideas. For IELTS writing, you should generate ideas over a period of several minutes, choosing the best one to write about for your essay. However, in IELTS speaking you do not have the luxury of time.
Instead, you should pick an answer quickly and then use your 1 minute of preparation time to plan an answer in your mind.
For me, the problem is that my most unusual foods were all snacks, not meals! This would be a problem, so I would have two choices:
- Change and think of a meal
- Pretend the snack was a meal
Those both have major pros and cons but I would say that the best option is to change and think of something. Remember that you can always explain later why it was an unusual meal. Remember that it can be unusual in a good way or a bad.
Check out these two examples:
- I remember having a really unusual meal once when I was in China. The host cooked some really strange foods, including dog meat. I was so surprised and a little repulsed, if I’m honest.
- We had a wonderful meal last year that was quite unusual. All of my old friends got together for the first time in a decade, which was great. We had a beautiful dinner together and talked about our lives.
You can see that the first answer interprets “unusual” as “weird” but the second takes it as “different from normal.” These are both correct interpretations.
When you are given the IELTS speaking cue card, you then have just 1 minute to prepare your answer. By the time you have read the cue card and thought of some ideas, you probably do not have much time left, so don’t even think about writing full sentences.
Instead, you should write a few words or phrases to help you remember important words or ideas. Even two or three or four words can help. This will also reduce the stress that you feel because you will be confident in having some words in front of you.
For this, I would write something like:
- Insects – crickets
- 2 colleagues
- Crunchy and salty
So here I have made three short notes of two or three words each. It would just take me a few seconds to write this, so it does not eat up my valuable time. These notes don’t mean much to anyone except me but that is ok. They serve an important function: the first one gives an important word to use for the food, the second is a good vocabulary item for the people eating, and the third contains a description of the food.
Picking the Right Language
Let’s look again to the bullet points from the question:
- when it was
- where you had the meal
- what happened during the meal
These tell us some of the things that we should talk about during our 2-minute speech. The part about “when” probably doesn’t require much thought, but “where” and “what happened” might, as well as the last part about “why” it was so unusual.
When you are talking about food, it is important to use interesting vocabulary to describe tastes and textures. Don’t just say “it was delicious” or “I liked it.” I actually wrote a longer article about describing food, which you can read here and I have made this video of descriptive words for talking about food:
You should also be confident talking about the dinner situation. This may involve casual phrases about paying the bill or ordering food, but of course it depends on the precise cue card, your interpretation of it, and your answer. Here are some phrases you could use:
|foot the bill||(informal) to pay the bill (cheque/check)|
|vegan||a person who does not eat animal products/ also an adjective for products that are plant-based|
|play it safe||avoid unusual or different things|
|go Dutch||the opposite of one person footing the bill – this means to share the cost of a meal|
|stuffed||to have eaten too much (feeling full)|
|famished||a slightly old-fashioned word meaning “starving” or “very hungry.”|
|get stuck in||(informal) start eating|
Alright, here is my answer to the above cue card.
To be honest, “unusual” is a very subjective term because what is strange to one person is probably normal to another. Personally, I’ve been living in Asia for 13 years and I regularly eat things that most people would think are weird, such as jellyfish, chicken feet, and other parts of animals that are uncommon in the West. However, these things are perfectly normal to the people in the countries where I have lived.
About three years ago, I was at a restaurant in rural China with two colleagues. They were locals and so they introduced me to the local cuisine, which is not exactly the same as Chinese food in my country. This involved many things that people would considered “unusual,” such as fried insects. There were several types of insects but the ones that I liked best were the crickets. The method of cooking meant that they ended up crunchy and salty.
I have always been keen to try new things and so I was not afraid to sample the fried bugs, but I certainly didn’t think that they would taste good. I sort of assumed that they would be disgusting and mushy, so it was a pleasant surprise for me.
Although this meal would be quite normal for some people, it was unusual for me due to the interesting foods on offer.
Notes on the Sample Answer
This answer covered all of the instructions on the cue card and dealt fully with the topic. I feel confident that any examiner would be happy with it.
My language was also very much appropriate. I have described the food in pretty good terms and also the restaurant and the meal. I did not use much “difficult” vocabulary because this is ridiculous. There is no need for obscure, scientific words in a topic like this. It was enough that I mentioned the crunchiness and saltiness of the food rather than just saying, “It was good.”
Of course, any sample answer is worthless if you cannot say the answer aloud. This would get a band 9 if it were spoken by a native speaker but if you have many pronunciation problems and issues with stammering or stumbling over words, then it might not help you much.
After doing this cue card, you may be given other questions about food, meals, or unusual things. You might, for example, be asked:
Why do some foods appear unusual to some people but normal to others?
I would then answer:
People evolved over thousands of years in different climates, so they produced different cuisines. In my country, Scotland, we did not have many spices but in places like India they had a huge variety of spice. Because of this, these countries had totally different approaches to food. As a result, anyone who is a product of one country can travel to another and be surprised by the cuisine there.
Here are some more possible follow-up questions:
- Do you think having dinner at home is a good idea?
- Why do you think some people choose to be vegetarians?
- What do you think are the benefits of having dinner together?
- Is the food that people eat today different to the food that people used to eat in the past? If yes, in what ways has it changed?
- Do you think people are less willing to cook meals by themselves these days, compared to the past?
- More and more people are becoming overweight nowadays. What do you think might be the causes of this?
Remember that for these last questions you should try to give a little detail. Your answer should usually be structured like this:
- Give a straight answer
- Provide an example or further explanation
If you do that, you should be on course for a good result.