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.