Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chao - Stir Frying the Chow

The cooking method we associate most with Chinese cooking is the stirfry, or chao 炒.

A proper stirfry is not a saute, although that's what you may get in bad restaurants. No, a great chao 炒 is created in a really hot, well-seasoned wok, with skill that almost brings the pan to life. The texture, the aroma, the flavor are all enhanced in an almost magical way. The Cantonese call it "wok hei", which means the "spirit of the pot". In Mandarin, hei translates to qi (or "chi" as yoga enthusiasts will often call it) which is the word for "source of energy" and "breath" as well as spirit.

Restaurant menus don't use chao 炒 in the name of all stirfry dishes. You'll see it now and then, especially Cantonese menus. The most common things you'll see with the character chao is with fried rice or chao fan, as below.
You'll also sometimes see it with a character will get to next time - mian 麵. (Just don't confuse chao mian 炒麵 with "chow mein".)

How to recognize. On the left we have the radical for fire 火 - our little dancing guy that we saw in BBQ or shao - on the right is the character for "a few". (The top is little, the bottom is just a slash radical.) The idea is that the heat of the fire is very quickly applied. I also think that the right side kinda looks like the motion of stirring some thing up. Swish swash!

The Pinyin spelling is chǎo, or chao3 (third tone).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fan - For Fans of Cooked Rice

There are two characters for rice. Mi 米 is the general word for rice as a grain or plant. It's also the radical in a lot of characters, as well as a modifier. We'll learn more about this when we learn about vegetables and other grains.

Fan 飯, however, means "cooked rice" and it's a really common Chinese menu word. You'll see it sometimes on Chinese-only menus, listing a kind of meat, and then Fan, indicating it's sliced meat served over white rice. Like this:

Which is...? You just saw the meat here in the previous post: Cha Shao 叉燒, or Fork roast. So...? That dish would be BBQ pork over rice.

Now, BBQ pork is something that many restaurants don't do for themselves. They buy it cooked by roasting specialists, who also do another famous roast meat. Or actually poultry. Look at the menu item below. The first character is Shao 燒 again, so it's a roast or BBQ. The middle character has the bird radical. It's Ya, which we saw a while ago.

Remember? The left side looks a little like the head an neck of a bird, looking straight at you, shouting "Aflac!" A DUCK! This is BBQ duck with rice!

How to recognize: The left side is the radical for eat, food or dish, which you will learn more about later. The right side doesn't help you much. It's the character for inside out, upside down or against, which makes no sense unless you realize that the word for these is "fan". It's a sound-like. The symbol basically means "the kind of fan you eat". Which doesn't make it easy to recognize until you realize that it's everywhere and it's a very common word.

Any Chinese restaurant that has any Chinese characters at all will have Fan 飯 all over the menu. I don't believe there is any Chinese restaurant in America that doesn't serve several varieties Chao Fan, which is what we'll get to next time. In the meantime, look for Fan on your local takeout menus....

The Pinyin spelling is mǐ or mi3 (third tone).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cha - Stick a BBQ Fork In It

Cha Shao 叉燒 may be more familiar to you as Char Siu, the famous bbq pork filling for Char Sui Bao 叉燒包, those lovely white steamed buns. What Cha Shao 叉燒 actually means is "Fork Roast". (You remember Shao, don't you?) The Chinese assume you know they're talking about pork, the same way they assume you know they mean pork when they mention meat.

This tasty staple of Chinese cooking is made by marinating sheets of pork and hanging it on a fork in a very hot oven. It's a variation on spit roasting, and if you think about it, the character for "fork" looks kind of like the stand for a spit you put over a fire. (And since the Chinese don't use forks as tableware, that's the most suitable symbol for it.)

Cha Shao 叉燒 gets used in a lot more dishes than just bao 包. You'll see it on just about every menu on things like BBQ Pork Fried Rice (Cha Shao Chao Fan 叉燒炒飯) and many other dishes. We'll move into rice territory next time, when we make way for a tasty duckling.

The Pinyin spelling is chā, or cha1 (first tone).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Mai - Sell Those Little Money Bags

I mentioned that Jiao, which means dumpling, looks like a little guy standing next to a vendor cart, selling something. Jiao zi 餃子 are one of the most popular kinds of dumplings, but there is another very popular dumpling called "cook sell", or Shao Mai 燒賣. Shao, as we explained recently, means roast or stew, although it's used in this case just as a generic "cook". The other character, the one pictured here, is Mai, and it means "sell."

These tasty little dumplings are common Chinese dim sum houses and Japanese restaurants. The Chinese make them of pork, or pork and shrimp, or beef, or even a vegetarian version of sticky rice. The filling is formed into a little ball, and the wrapper gathered around it, open-topped, so it looks like an overflowing bag of money. It's supposed to bring good fortune.

If you just see it listed as shao mai (or sui mai, or su mei) it will probably be filled with pork.
You'll see these in Japanese and Korean restaurants as shrimp shao mai.
And you have to guess what Niu Rou Shao Mai is (you've seen it, and we've reviewed it recently):
How to recognize -- Mai 賣, or sell, looks very squared off and fortified, almost like a bank, which may make you think of both "sell" and of moneybags. It also looks a little like a stack of steamers, and that's usually how they are brought to the table in a dim sum restaurant, in a stack of steamers. Take your pick.

(Next time, we finally get to the real roasting of Shao.)

The Pinyin spelling is mài, or mai4 (forth tone).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Shao - Roast, Burn and Stew

The character you just learned, hong, or red, shows up a lot with one other character. That is shao 燒, which means to roast or burn, or in this case it means stew. Red Cook or Hong Shao 紅燒, is a wonderful method for meats or root vegetables, where you braise in soy sauce, five-spice and often wine. Some cuisines might add a little sugar too. It is usually translated on the English menu as "soy sauce chicken" or "soy sauce pork". It is a popular way to treat fat-back and side pork, since you render out a lot of the fat, and replace it with other yummy flavors.

Shao 燒, however, mostly means roasting and barbecue, and we will learn about that real soon.

How to recognize: On the left is the radical, which is fire, and it looks like a dancing man. We're going to get real familiar with that radical. Here the dancing guy is standing next to a structure of racks, like an upright charcoal barbecue. He's a barbecue guy! He's standing there roasting and basting that meat.

Right now, though, he's not roasting. He's simmering up some chicken in red-cooking sauce. Here's what his sign for Red Cooked Chicken would say:

The Pinyin spelling is shāo or shao1 (first tone).

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hong You - The Red and The Oil

Red oil, or chili oil, or hot pepper oil, is a common condiment. It's generally sesame oil that has had hot peppers soaked in it until the oil becomes spicy. Because oil tends to cling to your mouth, red oil can give you a spicier experience than the peppers themselves.

The best way to clear your mouth of hot oil is not a cold drink, but rather a mouthful of plain rice. You need something to absorb the oil off your skin. A cold drink will make the oil congeal a little.

How to remember it? I haven't got a memory aide for this one. The left side means thread (we saw a squished version in the Chicken character), and the right means work. While we'll see lots of threads in future, that I-beam on the right is not so common so I mainly remember that. (I think there is one other word that is commonly used in restaurants, but I can't remember it right now.)

I mainly remember it by context. So, if you see that I-beam next to oil, you probably have red oil. Here is a variation on one of my favorite Sichuan appetizers. You know the second two characters from just a couple of days ago:
The Pinyin spelling is hóng or hong2 (second tone).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You - a saucy oil

You means oil or sauce. See the three dots of the water radical on the left. When you see this, it doesn't usually mean fried, although in a few cases it does. (Oil Stick 油條 is the name for the crullers you can order with your congee, for instance.) You'll see it most often in reference to various flavors of oils and sauces (like soy sauce or jiang you 醬油).

Since the word is pretty much the same word as "squid" which is pretty much the same as "excellent" in spoken Mandarin, you can see here how important the tones are in Chinese.

I mentioned earlier that the water radical has two variations (neither of which look much like the main character). Here is an example of you in a different font, with the other version of the water radical.

How to recognize You: it looks like a bottle, with the water radical hanging off the left side. (You know how oil has a way of dripping down the side of the bottle, right?)

The Pinyin spelling is yóu or you2 (second tone)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jiao Zi - My Little Dumpling

I consider this to be the most important word in cuisine. The simple Chinese dumpling. It has many varieties, and many names, but jiao is the basic one. You will usually see it with at least one other character: either shui 水 (water/boiled) or zi 子 (little thing) or both 水餃子. Jiao zi 餃子 is pronounced jowd-zuh (first syllable low, the ending high). When the dumplings are pan-fried, they have a completely different name guo tie 鍋貼, or pot-sticker.

How to recognize: The left side of the character is the radical shi 食, and it means "food" or "eat". (We'll learn it soon.) It also kind of looks like a little vendor's cart or hut. The right side looks like a little guy in a wide brimmed hat, and it means something like "buy" or "exchange". So think of the guy as a little food vendor, and he sells dumplings out of his little food cart on the left.

They are boiled dumplings, so the sign over his cart says this:

The Pinyin spelling is jiǎo zi, jiao3 zi (third tone, neutral tone)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Shui Niu Rou - A Review

Here's a dish you might find on a lot of menus. Sometimes it will have additional characters (and we'll get to them later), but often just these three.

And you've seen these three characters, at least if you've been reading from the beginning. Do you remember them?

Here are some hints from the "how to remember" sections of those posts. Shui 水 looks like a waterfall. Niu 牛 represents something associated with the American West, and looks like a telegraph pole (though it is NOT a telegraph pole). Rou 肉 looks kind of like rib cage.

This is a simple dish and when you know the translation, it sounds very plain and bland, but it is far from that. While it's often mild, it is always flavorful from the main ingredient, and usually seasoned with five-spice, although in a Sichuan restaurant it might be seasoned with chilis and be quite spicy.

So what is it? Boiled beef. (Water Cow Meat.) It's pot roast! A rich and flavorful beef brisket in seasoned gravy. Lovely lovely stuff.

Tomorrow you'll learn a new character again. Something commonly boiled or steamed. You won't want to miss that one.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Kou Shui Ji - Mouth-watering or eye-watering?

Here is a full dish you might see on a menu in a Sichuan restaurant. Kou Shui Ji 口水鷄 means "Mouth Watering Chicken" but is sometimes translated as anything from "Drooling Chicken" to "Chicken in Chili Sauce." It's a cold dish of tender poached chicken in a spicy Sichuan chili oil. It is sometimes served with noodles and/or peanuts, and it can be very hot.

Now, you should recognize two of these characters. Shui 水 we just learned yesterday. Ji 鷄, if you remember, has two variations, so the dish might appear as 口水雞.

The first character, though, is new to you. It looks like a square, but in Chinese calligraphy a square is how you draw a circle. It's kou 口 and it means "mouth." You won't see it a lot on menus, which is why I didn't give it it's very own post. You mght see it as a radical or portion of another character, though.

Kou is also something called a "measure word", which is a unit like "handful" or "batch." As far as I can tell, though, it is not used as a measure word in food, but rather refers to a unit of people, like "clan".

The Pinyin spelling is kǒu shuǐ jī, or kou3 shui3 ji1 (third, third, first tones)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Shui - Water Water Everywhere!

Shui means water, and boiled, among other things. It's such a basic thing, that we can now use some of the characters we've already learned to look at the whole names of some simple dishes.

As a radical, it indicates liquid, including oils and sauces. That radical is one that looks different than the base character. It may look like three dots splashing off to the left, as we saw yesterday with hai, or the lower dot could take on a little more structure and look like a bent stick. The difference depends on the font, and I'll try to mix it up in the next few days so you can see both versions in the illustrations. (For those who missed what a radical is, here's the post about radicals.)

How to remember: Shui splashes down like a waterfall, irregular and rushing. The character it most looks like is tree 木. Tree, however is very solid and symmetrical. (Fire 火 also looks a little like water, and so we'll get to that soon too, now that we're into cooking methods. I'll just point out that fire looks more ephemeral, less weighty.)

The Pinyin spelling is shuǐ or shui3 (third tone)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hai - By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

When a dish has mixed seafood, you won't necessarily see any characters with the familiar fish or bug radicals. Sometimes you'll just see hai 海, which means "sea", or hai xian 海鮮, which means seafood, or literally it means "sea fresh". (Remember fresh? There was a post about fresh....)

The other time you'll see it on menus is a very important place name: Shanghai 上海. The characters mean "Above Sea", which is where Shanghai is placed. Shanghai is used a lot to differentiate an American-style egg roll from a Shanghai-style spring roll. (We'll get to Shanghai 上海 again when we get to regional cuisines.)

How to remember Hai? Hmmmm. The boxy right side reminds me of a fishing net, maybe. But the thing that is most important is the three dots along the left side, because those three dots are going to take us into the next section.

Those three dots, which look like sea water splashing off the character, are the squished version of the radical for ... WATER! Water 水 is what this planet's life is based on. You can't boil or steam or make sauces without water, and you can't draw their characters either. We'll be starting in on water words tomorrow.

The Pinyin spelling is hǎi, hai3 (third tone).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Xian - Don't be Fresh!

Here's an irony for you. "Fishy" and "muttony" are words that are used in most cultures (including Chinese) to describe an icky off-flavor. And yet, look at the word for "Fresh", xian 鮮 and you will see the characters for Fish and Mutton! Maybe it's that those are two things that have to be fresh to taste good. I don't know. I just find it a hoot.

I remember this one because it's ironic. (I remember the fish. I remember the sheep. The fact that the two of them make "fresh" is just ... memorable.)

You mostly see it as a part of the phrase meaning "seafood", which is hai xian 海鮮, or "sea fresh". We'll wrap up our seafood section with that tomorrow.

The Pinyin spelling is xiān or xian1 (first tone).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

You - Attack of the Squid!

Squid is something that will show up on Chinese-only menus. Sometimes it's just you 魷 by itself and sometimes it's you yu 魷魚 - like "squid fish".

And just to make it more interesting, while you's radical is fish, the right side is also the word you 尤, same tone and everything. That character means "outstanding" or "special". This is one of those cases where it is hard to tell whether squid is considered to be an outstanding fish, or if they just use that character because they sound the same. (And the characters end up meaning "fish outstanding-sounding fish".)

Unless cooked perfectly, squid tends get rubbery, so westerners don't like to eat it. But I have this theory that if you see it on the Chinese-only menu, it's more likely to be cooked right. But I could be wrong. (The key to cooking squid, I hear, is that it should be cooked under two minutes, or over two hours. In the first case it doesn't have time to get tough. In the second it is stewed to tenderness.)

How to remember: well that right side looks kind of squiddy to me. The little legs hanging down and looping up and all.

The Pinyin spelling is yóu or you2 (second tone)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Yu - Something Fishy

You've learned about seafood with legs and shells, which tend to use the bug radical. Now we move on to those with fins or tentacles. Yu is just plain fish, but like meat and bird, it is both a radical and a character. It's often used to modify another character, for various kinds of fish and squids and things.

This one is tricky, though. While it certainly means fish, you will see it often on the regular menu on dishes that clearly don't have any fish in them, as Yu Xiang 魚香. The English translations usually say "garlic sauce" on them. What's going on? Does Yu also mean garlic? Nope. What those characters mean is "Fish Fragrant (Sauce)". It's a tasty sweet garlic sauce that goes really well with fish. Kinda like "steak sauce" tastes good on steak, but isn't made of steak.

How to recognize: to me it looks like a Chinese junk boat with the laddered sails, and an extra sail sticking up on top, and oars splashing down below. However, there are a few other characters that look kind of like that. It also looks kind of like a fish tail, with the finny part sticking down. (And sometimes it looks to me like the Darwin symbol people put on their cars -- you know the fish with legs?)

The Pinyin spelling is yú, or yu2 (second tone).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Long Xia - Lobstah

Riddle: what looks like a cross between a shrimp and a Chinese dragon? A Lobster!

And that's exactly what the Chinese call them, Dragon Shrimp, or long xia 龍蝦. That should be easy to remember. You can review the individual characters by going back to the main entries for Shrimp - Xia, and Dragon - Long.

If a restaurant offers these, you will see them in the big tanks, plotting their escape. The handwritten Chinese signs may mention various ways of cooking them, but will often just have the prices for large 大, medium 中 or small 小. (We'll get to the size characters later.) Up next, something fishy.

Pinyin spelling is lóng xiā, or long2 xia1 (second and first tone).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Long - Enter the Dragon

The dragon character is my favorite character. It's the first one I learned how to draw. You also see posters of Bruce Lee with this character in the background. Like Bruce Lee, it's a stand alone character. It doesn't act as a radical very often. (The simplified version 龙 shows up in other characters sometimes.)

It does appear on most menus in a few contexts, one is "Dragon and Phoenix" a dish of shrimp and chicken, which is pictured below. Note that the character for phoenix is the bird radical inside a little house. Both of these characters stand for "imperial" at times.

To remember it: all those horizontals and verticals make it a pretty recognizable character. It is also kind of fun to draw, so if you practice drawing it, first the left side and then the right, you will remember it.

Stay tuned to tomorrow's post for the most important use of "dragon" for a foodie. (Hint: did you know they grew dragons in Maine?)

The Pinyin spelling is lóng or long2 (second tone)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Xie -- As Crabby As I Wanna Be

Crab is one of those things that often pops up on the hand written "specials" menu, often only in Chinese. If you like crab, it's a character to watch for.

All of the parts in the character for crab are specific food related characters:

On the bottom you see "bug" 虫, which is a good name for custaceans, and that's the most important marker for remembering this character. But there's also a mess of characters above this radical.

On the left side is the radical for "horn" 角, which is an important character for crab lovers, since it is a part of the name for Crab Rangoon (which in Chinese is often called "Fried Crab Horns" 油蟹觡). We'll get to that one when we get to appetizers later on.

On the right are two characters. The top is knife 刀, and in the middle is a character you should know: cow or beef 牛.

Between beef and bug, you should be able to pick out crab when you need to. (Also the top kind of has the look of a couple of pokey crab claws.)

The Pinyin spelling is xiè or xie4 (fourth tone).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Xia - What a Shrimp!

Shrimp and prawns are all over any Chinese menu, so this is definitely one of the important basics.

How to remember it: The bug radical is on the left, but the most unique part of this character is the double loop at the top right. It's like two flags, or perhaps like two sections of a shrimp's body.

For the shrimp-loving Chinese-food afficianado, Xia 蝦 also highlights one more element of Chinese spoken language. Many of you, I'm sure have heard of Har Gow 蝦餃, which is one of the most famous kinds of dumplings served at dim sum houses. And some of you may notice that the first charater is "xia" but the words say "har." That's because Chinese is made up of more than one langauge.

Mandarin is the language of northern China and is what most people mean when they say "Chinese language". Mandarin itself has multiple dialects, but the dialect of Beijing, Putonghua, is considered the standard. (Except in Taiwan they call it Gouyo to separate themselves from Bejing.) All of the Pinyin spellings and pronunciations I give here are standard Mandarin.

The other major language is Cantonese, which is harder to learn because it has even more tones. Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong...and of Dim Sum.

The good news is, both languages use the same characters. Even Japanese uses a lot of the same characters. It's very convenient for those who wish to read a menu.

The Pinyin spelling is xiā, or xia1 (first tone).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Chong - Don't Let It Bug You

Chong means insect, bug, or worm, and you may be relieved to know that you won't see Chong by itself on many menus. Where it's important is that it is a radical for a lot of seafoods and a few other things, like egg 蛋, as I mentioned in the previous post. And that makes sense, because crabs and crawfish and lobsters and prawns and squids and clams are all kind of sea bugs. (I have a New Englander friend who has always called soft-shelled crabs "fried bugs.")

As a radical it usually appears on the bottom, although not always.

I recognize the bug radical because it's simple enough to remember, and because it looks kind of like a bug to me. The square can be eiher a round body or two bulging eyes, and it has twisty stick legs.

The Pinyin spelling is chóng, or chong2 (second tone).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dan - Egg-zactly

I mentioned that zi 子, though it can mean egg, is not the character used for egg in Chinese dishes. The character for egg is dan 蛋.

You'll see it on Egg Drop Soup 蛋花湯 (which actually means "Egg Flower Soup"), and on the package of egg noodles I just bought today: 雞蛋面. (Pop quiz -- you've seen two of those three characters. What kind of eggs were used to make the noodles, and which of those characters must mean "noodles"?)

A great way for English speakers to remember dan is to look at the upper right corner. The strokes form a capital E, for "egg". Unfortunately, you can't always see it when the character is small. So I am also going to point you to the bottom half, which is our next radical: Chong, which means insect (and that will lead us to seafood).

The Pinyin spelling is dàn or dan4 (fourth tone).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Zi - A Little One

Zi (pronounced kind of like "dze") means child, or seed, or the wee-hours of the morning. You'll see it all over the place on menus, and it just seems to be there as an affectionate diminutive. Like "-ino" in Italian, or "-ette" in French.

I find it the first thing I recognize for some items -- eggplant and some dumplings for instance -- but it often appears with poultry, which is why I have it here. If you see it next to chicken or duck (or quail) it doesn't mean "egg" nor is it a baby duck or chick. It may mean "young", or it may mean small pieces, or it may be just part of the dish name.

One famous Sichuan dish is La Zi Ji 辣子雞 (Sometimes called Chonqing Spicy Chicken). It's hard to tell what the zi refers to in that. It comes after the peppers, so does it refer to the peppers? (It comes after the word it modifies in other dishes.) If so, many versions of this dish involve big poblano-like peppers, so.... is it sarcastic, as in calling a big guy "Little John" or is it more cutesy? Like maybe it means the equivalent of "Hottie Chicken." We'll learn more about this dish when we get to spices and Sichuan in a couple of weeks.

The Pinyin spelling is zǐ, or zi3 (third tone).

Monday, February 2, 2009

Chun - A Quail of a Tale

The last of the common poultry I'm going to mention is quail. Not because it's common of itself (I've never actually come across it in a restaurant) but because the eggs are pretty common. More on eggs soon.

I'm also going to use quail to illustrate an interesting element of spoken Mandarin Chinese -- every word is one syllable. And that's limiting, even when you have four musical tones to add meaning. There are a whole lot of homonyms in Chinese. (Homonyms are words that sound exactly alike but mean very different things). If you go to Mandarin Tools and search their dictionary for "ji" (chicken), you will find 142 entries. Yikes!

Luckily for us, the written version is quite clear, because different meanings use different characters. So if you look at their 142 entries, you will see that only words with closely related meanings have the same character. But even though it's clear when you read it, it's not clear when you speak it, so the Chinese will often use two words together to clarify what they mean. (They also use a lot of puns and metaphors, because, after all, everything you say could refer to something else.)

This is why beef is "cow meat" 牛肉. And it's why with some poultry and most seafood, you will see a lot of repetition. So...

I've most often seen quail as the character at the head of this post: Chun 鶉. But you might see it as An Chun 鵪鶉 - and both characters mean "quail."

How to remember: Well, it's got the bird radical, and it isn't chicken or duck. Soon you will learn a character that will help you remember Chun at least. The left side of Chun is a character that means "enjoy" 享. The top is the same top as for "palace" and "capital city" - a lid over a box. But the bottom half is what might help you remember quail: it's zi 子 (pronounced "dzuh") and it's the word for "little thing". It's an important food word, and we'll get to that before we even get to eggs. It helps us remember quail because quail are little things.

The pinyin spellings for quail is ān or an1 (first tone), and chún or chun2 (second tone).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ya - Duck Season

Duck is a popular luxury dish, and most Chinese restauants will have at least one special dish, if not several. Peking Duck, Tea-smoked Duck, Crispy Duck. You name it, it's probably tasty.

The radical is the "bird" 鳥 symbol, on the right again. On the left, the part that means duck looks more like a lollipop than a duck. I remember it by picturing a head-and-neck close up of the Aflac Duck, looking straight at you screaming "AFLAC!"

The Pinyin spelling is yā, or ya1 (first tone).

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ji - A Tale of Two Chickens

Just as there are two symbols for bird, there are two for chicken 鷄 and 雞, and they both stand for the same word: ji. The difference doesn't hold much meaning -- it's just which radical they happen to use at a particular restaurant. You'll notice that the radical in this case is on the right.

The part on the left is the part that indicates it's a chicken and not some other bird. It's made up of three stacked characters. Claw 爪, thread 幺 and big 大. I'm thinking it means "big scratcher bird." But that doesn't make it so easy to recognize.

A friend thought the second version looks like chickens scratching around outside a hen house. And that, I think, is the best way to remember it. It's common enough that you can just make a point of identifying it on any menu, and you'll learn it. (Assignment: find a takeout menu with Chinese on it. Which version does that restaurant use?)

The Pinyin spelling is jī, ji1 (first tone).

Friday, January 30, 2009

Niao and Zhui - Two Birds in the Bush

There are two characters for "bird". Both are radicals for Chicken and various other poultry, so it's good to be able to recognize them. Just to confuse you, these radicals generally appear on the right rather than the left, as you will see in the next post about chicken.

Niao 鳥 just means "bird" and it is the most often used. It looks a little like fish 魚, which I'll get to later. It doesn't really look much like a bird to me, unless I see the top as a bird's head, and the bottom as a spread-out wing. (And that helps you separate it from fish, because the four dots underneath are enclosed by the wingtip.)

Zhui 隹, according to most dictionaries, means "short tailed bird" which is odd, because (for food birds at least) it only seems to be used for chicken -- and roosters have long tails. Whereas ducks, which never seem to use zhui, always have short tails. The best way to remember it is that it looks like a hen house.

The Pinyin spelling is niǎo, or niao3 (third tone), and zhuī, or zhui1 (first tone).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Du and Chang - the Guts of the Matter

My favorite Thai restauranteur, Lamai, refers to variety meats as "inside parts." They might also be called guts or organ meats. Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, though, it is important to know which dishes contain them.

Du 肚, aka tripe or stomach, is the most common variety meat you'll come across. It's a mainstay at a lot of dim sum houses.

Chang 腸, aka chitlins or intestine, are the second most common.

Fei 肺, aka lung, is not so common, but is sometimes used as a generic term for offal. (For instance, a famous Sichuan dish that usually features tripe is called "husband and wife lung slices" 夫妻肺片. Someday I'll tell you about that one.)

Gan 肝, aka liver. It's very similar to the character for tripe. I have never seen this in a dish yet, but I have a friend who loves liver, so we are watching for it.

In all cases you see a little ladder shape as the left half of the character. This is the radical for rou 肉, or meat. Sometimes you will see that radical on a word that doesn't refer to inside parts. (For instance, "cashew" is yao guo 腰果, which means "waist fruit". The name may refer to the shape of the nut, or it may refer to the fact that eating a lot of them will go straight to your waist.)

Still, if you don't want to eat inside parts, and you happen to see that radical on a character, be cautious.

As I mentioned in the radicals post, this radical doesn't look much like it's main form, rou 肉. It also looks an awful lot like the character for sun 日, especially sun's radical, as in sunset 旰. Sun doesn't get used in food characters much, but just in case, here's how you can quickly recognize the difference: Just remember that meat has feet (at least the animal did before it was meat), the sun doesn't. Look at the slight difference between liver and sunset: 肝 and 旰.

The pinyin spelling of these yummy or yucky dishes are: dǔ or du3 (third tone), cháng or chang2 (second tone), fèi or fei4 (fourth tone), and gān or gan1 (first tone).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Radical Thoughts

A pause for some theory.

The simple characters you are learning right now are also used a foundation for more complicated characters. The official term for a foundation character is "Radical." Don't ask me why.

One reason radicals are important is because the Chinese use them as a kind of capital letter. When you want to look up an unfamiliar character, you start with the radical. I'll talk more about that later. For right now I'll just confuse you enough with how to find the radical in a complex character. (Don't worry, I'll point out the radical in those characters that have them whenever I can.)

Radicals are usually on the left or on the top. But sometimes they are on the bottom or on the right. (Hey, English has it's confusing spelling rules too. Like how come "tough" and "though" don't rhyme?) However, when the radical is in a weird spot, you can still kind of tell, because it's usually the most common and familiar part of the character.

The worst thing about radicals, though, is that they can change shape from one use to another. Luckily these shape-changers also tend to be pretty commonly used, so you can learn them quickly.

For eaters, two of these shape-changers are meat and water. Next post, we're going to learn about what happens to the meat character rou 肉, when we learn about 肚 du, or "inside parts".

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chuan - Kabob!

Chuan means string together, or connect. It is one of the easiest food words of all, because it looks exactly like what it is: a kabob! You'll commonly see it in reference to Lamb Kabobs 羊肉串.

Chan 丳, which has two sticks, means skewer. I haven't seen it in any of my regular references, but I have noticed it seems to refer to teriyaki. In either case, when you see it, it's a good bet you've got some grilled meat on a stick.

The pinyin spelling is chuàn or chuan4. (It's fourth tone: don't get it mixed up with first tone chuān, which is the short name for Sichuan province - 四川. This is why I don't get into conversational Chinese. Hit the wrong note, and you can say something completely different than you meant!)

And the pinyin for skewer is chǎn, or chan3. Third tone.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Yan - Lamb-a Lamb-a Ding Dong

Lamb tends to be a Muslim Chinese dish. The character usually accompanies the meat symbol, rou, 羊肉.

How to remember it: At least this one has horns or ears at the top to help remember. And the extra line across makes it look like fluffy version of the cow character.

It's a "radical" - or founding character - for a lot of words that have nothing to do with sheep. (More about radicals later.) For instance the word Mei 美, which means "beautiful", is founded on it, and is also the word the Chinese use for "America." (The word "America" sounds kind of like mei guo 美國 to the Chinese, which means "beautiful country -- how's that for pumping the American ego?)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Niu - There's the Beef

Niu, which means cow, usually appears next to Rou, 牛肉, when you're talking about beef, but not always. Sometimes it will stand alone.

To me, it looks like a Free French cross with a leaf on it, which doesn't help me remember it. I suppose if you thought of it as a telegraph pole, it might remind you of the open range out west, where the longhorn cattle roam.

Or you could just memorize it.

These two characters, niu and rou are a good starting place for practice. Get yourself a Chinese menu and look for them, separately and together. You could also look for them in dishes on the all-Chinese specials board. You might see a couple of simple dishes -- boiled beef 水牛肉 or beef congee (thick rice soup) 牛肉粥, or beef noodle soup 牛肉湯麵. (Just beware: Sichuan boiled beef is usually very very spicy.)

The Pinyin spelling is niú or niu2. Second tone, for those who are interested in speaking it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

How to use this blog....

This blog will concentrate on individual Chinese characters, dishes and small subjects related to reading Chinese. It is not an ordered curriculum, though it should be interesting and understandable to anyone.

However, if you want an overview of learning to read Chinese for eating, you may want to visit Mei Wah, a website designed to give a good clear overview. There is a book, which you see in my sidebar, which is the the founding reference for Chinese menu reading, but it's kind of dense and difficult: The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters.

Rou - Meat of the Matter

When I was but a wee child I noticed that this character was on all of the pork dishes in my local Chinese restaurant menu. I was pretty proud that I had figured it out....

Except sometimes it was on beef dishes. Hmmm.

What it means is "meat", and when used all alone, it almost always means "pork." Other characters can modify it to mean beef 牛肉 or lamb 羊肉, (but I've never seen it used for fish or poultry).

It's easy to recognize. It looks kind of like a rib cage.

The pinyin spelling for it is ròu or rou4. (It's fourth tone, if you're into the conversational lingo.)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Food On The Other Table

Have you ever sat in a Chinese restaurant, looking over the menu of Lo Mein and General Tso's Chicken, and wished you knew what was in that big lovely bowl of something the Chinese people at the next table were eating? You timidly asked the waiter, and he said "you won't like that."

Have you ever wondered longingly about those signs in Chinese on the wall of your favorite place for dumplings? You kinda wish you had the guts to just point at something and say "I'd like THAT," but you are afraid you might get stirfried turtle intestines or something.

I felt that way long before I even had an authentic Chinese restaurant to try. The good stuff is just out of reach!

I have been teaching myself to read Chinese menus for the past two years. I don't speak Chinese, I don't know Chinese grammar. I just want to know what's on those menus. It's hard work. The guides that are already out there require a lot of study upfront before you can even get started. You have to know a little of the calligraphy, some language, and do a lot of reading on the cuisine and culture.

It has been worth it, though. I've had some really great food because of it. I figure I can save others a little time and effort by blogging my progress in learning Chinese for eating.